Saturday, April 03, 2010

Manners Militia

Signe Wilkinson, one of my favorite cartoonists, expresses my sentiments exactly.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Universal Education in India

A great piece of gruntled news is that India has passed a law offering free education for all children. 70 million children who effectively had not schooling will now be educated. Millions of Dalit (untouchable) children, who India previously did not even pretend to educate, will be included.

India is so enormous that it already has almost as many college graduates as the United States has people. Nonetheless, the bottom of the Indian educational system - that is, those left out of the "system" altogether - were very very badly off indeed.

The main thrust of this law has been to educate all of the poor. One side effect will be that girls of all classes will more reliably be educated.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Threat Fighting Without Fear Mongering

Yesterday I wrote about how promoting fear undermines the social order more than terrorists do. This brought several questions about how society should appropriately deal with actual threats.

Fear is a life-saver in response to immediate threats. However, when we have a minute to respond with more reason and less adrenaline, we are better off putting our fears back in a proportionate, subordinate place.

It is rational to fear a bear when it is right in your face. It is not helpful to have that level of fear every time you go outside. If you live in bear country you rationally lock up your garbage. You don't do anyone any good by promoting a feeling of fear about a possible bear attack all the time.

Yes, there are small groups plotting attacks designed to kill and maim Americans. They use terrorism to terrify. If we respond by being terrified all the time, the terrorists, by definition, win. If we fight them with as calm, rational, and efficient a method as we can muster, we win. Our military is tracking down a real Muslim militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan without trying to terrify the U.S. population. The FBI is tracking down a real Christian militia in Michigan without trying to terrify the U.S. population. That is the right way to fight threats without promoting fear.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fear-mongers Undermine Society More Than Terrorists Do

David Brooks has a fine column on how happiness has far more to do with good personal relations than it does with wealth, power, or success. For the community-level (as opposed to individual-level) correlates of happiness, he gives this useful summary:

If you want to find a good place to live, just ask people if they trust their neighbors. Levels of social trust vary enormously, but countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime (regardless of whether actual crime rates are increasing or decreasing).

The opposite of trust is fear. The acid that destroys social happiness is fear. People who promote fear destroy society more effectively than do the people who commit frightful acts. The terrorist terrifies us once - and then we can pull together. The fear monger terrifies us all the time, undermining the very social asset that best helps us build a strong and happy society.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Meaning of "Wife" is Changing, Yet Stays the Same at Heart

Lisa Belkin, who writes the Motherlode blog, has a short piece in the New York Times Magazine about the changing meaning of "wife."

She notes that her mother, a divorced feminist who switched from teaching to lawyering, rejects being a wife. Belkin is a highly invested wife and mother, trying not to be too much of a helicopter parent. She thinks that the next generation of women won't know what to do with the wife role because it will be too indefinite, have too many possible meanings. She thinks the crucial change is that the men who young women marry are taking on more of the house roles, especially the parenting roles, that wives and mothers used to do almost exclusively.

I think Belkin is right that the key to changing the wife role comes from husbands taking on more of the kid-raising. Belkin also notes, though does not emphasize as a cause, that wives bring home almost half the family income among young marrieds, and a fifth of young wives make more than their husbands. I believe this latter fact is the other half of the equation of re-jiggering husband and wife roles.

On the other hand, biology will continue to make women into mothers in powerful ways. That will be the starting point for the great majority of married couples' role negotiations. I believe that the Millennial generation will differ most from the '70s feminism of their grandmothers in seeing that the crucial part of marriage is not primarily about the identity of husband and wife as individuals, but as a partnership to raise children.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trying to Understand the American Civil Religion While Living It

Yale sociologist Philip Gorski offers a fine overview of the several traditions of American civil religion. The kind he likes, civic republicanism, is a middle ground between religious nationalism (think Sarah Palin) and secular liberalism (think Ayn Rand). In this ground-clearing essay, "Civil Religion Today," Gorski helpfully lays out the competing traditions, which was his main task. He also concludes that any kind of realistic story of American civil religion has to include the fact that hope does sometimes win.

I agree with all of this, and plan to build on it in my American religion course. I think the deep underlying idea of any study of American religion is the struggle of competing civil religions. This is a hard idea for students to get, though, so we work our way through all of the particular denominational traditions first.

What I am wrestling with now is how the tradition of civic republicanism can help me understand the particular narrative of American civil religion that I was raised in and embrace. My story sees America as a city on a hill, the nation with the soul of a church, an errand in the wilderness. The Revolution was a world-historical step forward in creating a democratic nation, which rests, as Tocqueville, said, on continuously reproducing a virtuous citizenry. The Civil War was the necessary re-making struggle of the nation to overcome our core contradiction between democracy and caste. This struggle was not fulfilled until the Civil Rights Movement. Our vocation in the world now is to be the last best hope of democracy without becoming an empire.

This narrative is a deep and real American tradition. What I am trying to suss out is whether the tradition of civic republicanism, apart from its specific American form, offers guidance and limits to how we can live out this narrative without being corrupted by the unprecedented world power that America now has.