Saturday, May 10, 2008

Winkled Center

I am delighted to report that from now on I will be the Van Winkle Professor of Sociology. I promised the dean I would not become deadwood.

My mother pronounced it a Ripping development.

My beloved little sister, by contrast wrote: *snort* you said "winkle."

The dictionary says a winkle is any one of various marine spiral gastropods, especially, in the United States, either of two species of Fulgar (F. canaliculata and F. carica).

"To winkle out" is to get the truth out of someone without waterboarding (more or less). claims he is the Cutest Dog in the Universe!

The most famous Van Winkle is a fictional character.

The most famous real Van Winkle is, alas, Vanilla Ice.

We have only begun to explore the comic possibilities of this title.
Suggestions welcome.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Cohabitation as Broken Window

James Q. Wilson is most famous for his "broken windows" theory of crime. He argues that communities should aggressively combat small quality-of-life crimes, such as broken windows and graffiti, to prevent larger ones. The theory is that if a neighborhood is visibly neglected, the criminals move in. The nest is unprotected, and the larger predators figure they can get away with anything. When a community lets the small disorders of broken windows multiply without resistance, the big disorders -- robbery, rape, murder - grow, too.

In my family life class we ended with another fine James Q. Wilson book, The Marriage Problem. He argues that the breakdown of marriage is at the root of the rest of our social disorders. One of the most widespread ways of undermining marriage is cohabitation. Many people cohabit before marriage, and some cohabit instead of marriage. Most college graduates -- always the most strategic group in adult social trends -- cohabit before marriage. They think it is a rational way to test the relationship before the big commitment.

Research over the past decade, though, has shown that cohabitation is not a good test drive for marriage. On the contrary, couples who cohabit before marriage have a higher divorce rate than couples who do not live together first. College graduates, being a smart and better informed group, have begun to change their habits as this research gets diffused more widely.

Putting these two ideas together yields an interesting insight: cohabitation is like broken windows in the neighborhood of relationships. A community that tolerates cohabitation indicates that its social neighborhood is unprotected. Marriage becomes just another personal choice, not the bedrock of social order. When a community lets the small disorders of cohabitation multiply without resistance, the big disorders -- divorce, illegitimacy, domestic violence - grow, too.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Losing Status Makes Our Brains Anxious

Caroline Zink and her team at the National Institutes of Mental Health have produced a nifty study of which brain regions get active when our place in a status hierarchy is threatened.

The subjects were given a simple test (note when a circle changes color in a particular way). They then did the task against competitors. When the subjects' position against the competitors did not change, they focused on doing the task better to move up. When the subjects' position did change, sometimes falling below the competitors' positions, the subjects' emotional centers fired up, too. Fear of losing position seemed to generate anxiety, even in as trivial a hierarchy as this one.

What is more, the competitors were actually imaginary, and their rank relative to the subject was manipulated by the researchers.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals (Religious Reason)

Arthur C. Brooks has been guest blogging on the Freakonomics blog about his new book, Gross National Happiness. The main point of the series is that conservatives are happier than liberals. Thus far, he has broken this down by religion. Religious people are more likely to be conservative, and religious people are much more likely to be happy. Half of religious conservatives are very happy, vs. less than a quarter of secular liberals. The other two cells of the table fall in between.

He has hinted that marriage is another big factor in conservatives' greater happiness. More on that hereafter.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Orwellian Decision in the Spahr Case Further Erodes Trust in the Church

Rev. Jane Spahr, self-styled lesbian evangelist, has been trying to get convicted by the church for marry same-sex couples for a decade. She even went to Canada to perform a gay wedding. But her cases kept getting thrown out on technicalities. It's tough to be a martyr and prophet when the judges keep dodging judgment.

It seemed, though, that she finally got her test case. She married a couple of women in California, and then for good measure married another couple of women. Her presbytery began a disciplinary case. The presbytery permanent judicial commission said she could do whatever her conscience called her to do. The case was appealed to the synod permanent judicial commission. The synod said that the presbytery PJC was wrong, Spahr had clearly violated church law and her vows to uphold church law. The synod PJC mildly rebuked her.

The inevitable appeal sent the case to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the high court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In the meantime, Spahr retired -- this was to be her last hurrah.

The GAPJC issued its decision this week. It is a marvel of doublespeak. The PJC ruled that since the church's constitution defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, no matter how many weddings Spahr performed for same-sex couples, and no matter how many times she called them marriages, they could not, by definition, actually be marriages under church law. Therefore, Spahr committed no violation.

Suppose you brought your baby to your pastor to be baptized. Before the church and all the world, your pastor splashed your infant with water from the font and pronounced "I baptize thee in the name of Moloch, Baal, and Asherah." The dumbfounded church brings disciplinary charges against the minister. Then, in the end, the GAPJC rules that your pastor committed no error in baptizing your baby, because baptism as defined in church law is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Case tidily closed? No.

It is this kind of doublespeak and disingenuous handling of the church's standards that has gutted church law and undermined trust and confidence in the church's leaders among ordinary Presbyterians. I would guess that this disheartening decision will push ten more alienated congregations to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)


There is a nifty new pop-soc term: Young And Wealthy, but Normal. YAWNS are Gen X and older Millennial men and women who work hard, are doing very well, and want to give back now. So they live simply, are charitable and green, and are basically decent people.

The term comes from the London Sunday Telegraph -- historically the conservative paper there -- noticing the trend among Britons. There is plenty of evidence of the phenomenon throughout the world's rich, including many in this country.

The Associated Press article, by Evelyn Nieves, cites Stanford sociologist David Grusky's view that an anti-materialist movement often follows a materialist one. One can see the Reagan era "I got mines" provoking a reaction today of "I give back."

I see the YAWN phenomenon as the private sector counterpart of the interesting Millenial finding I reported a few weeks ago that the most desirable employers for the high school class of 2006 were Google, Disney, the State Department, the FBI, and the CIA. To aging Boomers, these were the Enemy of their youth. To Millenials, though, they are agencies of building up the world.

YAWNS and future earnest Staties are both hopeful signs about the young generation of adults.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The "End of History" as a Means, Not an End

We have been considering Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man in our theory class. Students get that Fukuyama, and Hegel before him, do not mean that we could ever come to the end of the succession of events. But they do think that the long search of human History for the best way to organize society can come to an end. Fukuyama even believes that it has.

Fukuyama's argument is that capitalism and liberal democracy are the best way to organize the political economy of society. We have tried all the other options, and found the one that works best, compared to the practical alternatives. Societies that have achieved stable capitalist democracies can seek their fulfillment in post-historical existence. Societies that have not achieved stable democratic capitalism are still mired in history. Where they should try to get, though, is now clear.

What struck me about this argument is like something I noticed about Marx. For all Marx' opposition to bourgeois liberalism, his tantalizing view of the end and aim of life is really the same as theirs: individuals can do what they choose to do. Marx does not have a higher conception of what realizing our species-being would mean.

In the same way, Fukuyama, another kind of Hegelian, identifies democracy and capitalism as the best ways of organizing society without having any vision of what the aim or end of human existence is beyond the End of History. Democracy and capitalism are both technologies for sorting our competing individual desires. Neither leads to the good life as such, only a life with less conflict and fewer transaction costs. To be sure, capitalism promises greater wealth for society, and if democracy reduces bloodshed that is a very great improvement over the alternatives.

Still, the End of History would not give any clue about the telos or meaning of human existence. Hegel could answer that question, at least in an abstract way. The Westminster catechism famously answers the question, What is the chief end of man? with To praise God and enjoy Him forever.

The End of History is, in the end, vacuous about the Ends of History.