Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Re-Republicanization in Arizona: McCain Fights Back Against the Tea Party

Senator John McCain is making a concerted effort to oust Tea Party operatives from the local precinct apparatus of the Arizona Republican Party, and replace them with Republicans.  This is good news for those who wish to see the two parties return to working together in order to govern.

McCain was censured by his own party by the anti-government activists who had taken over Republican precinct offices, and he faced a serious challenge in the Republican primary when he ran for re-election.  The senator was determined not to have that happen if (when) he seeks re-election in two years.

One particularly promising aspect of the re-Republicanization campaign: McCain has mobilized the Vietnamese-American community in Arizona, who are threatened by the anti-immigrant Tea Party.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Good News: Charles Koch and George Soros Working Together For Criminal Justice Reform

Koch and Soros working together on anything is likely to be good news.  Working together on such an important issue is particularly heart-warming.

The [Wichita] Eagle reports that Koch has unofficially teamed up with progressive mega-donor George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union to address prison reform. Koch has also earned praise from outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who told The Marshall Project that Koch's donation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which funds training for attorneys who represent those in need, was a positive force. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Normalizing Relations With Cuba is a Great Step Forward

The news that at long last the United States will normalize relations with Cuba is one I have hoped for all my life.  I believe that if we had engaged Cuba from the outset, pushed for the same kind of trade relations that we had with many other dictatorships, and kept fussing at them about human rights that we also do, we could have created an opening for more freedom, and maybe even democracy, decades ago.

I hope the Congress follows suit and drops the foolish embargo.

I think the combination of Cuban-Americans, Coca-Cola, and the internet will do more for Cuban freedom that all the Cold War freeze-out could ever have accomplished.

Thank you, President Obama. And a hat tip to the Pope and the Canadians for helping.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

No State Tax Incentives for the Ark Park - A Sensible Middle Position

The Answers in Genesis ministry, parent of the Creation Museum, had proposed a few years ago to create an Ark Park theme park, based on Noah's Ark, in central Kentucky.

Gov. Beshear supported the proposal as a good tourism draw for the state.  He caught some flack from the left for that position.  I think he was entirely in the right.

Now, though, the state Tourism Commission has withdrawn the offer of $18 million in tax incentives from the Ark Park.  They say that the sponsors have changed their position.  Originally, Answers in Genesis said they would not have a religious test for hiring at the park.  Recently, though, they have made clear that they would have a religion test for hiring.

The state's position is clear: tax incentives can't be used to advance a particular religion, nor discriminate on the basis of religion.

Answers in Genesis claims that their religious freedom will be violated if they can't both have a religious test in hiring and get state tax incentives.

I believe the state is, once again, correct in its judgment.

I also had my doubts that the Ark Park could ever succeed, but that is beside the principled point here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Happiness is a Warm Congregation

The new Relationships in America study has a nifty table on the relation of happiness to regular involvement in a religious community.

The core finding:  "frequency of attendance at religious services has a stronger effect on overall happiness than either belonging to an organized religion or self-reported personal religiosity."

The magnitude of the effect is also pretty impressive:  nearly half of those who regularly attend religious services say they are very happy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Softball vs Golf - A Metaphor for Liberal Happiness vs. Conservative Happiness

A thoughtful student in my "Introduction to Sociology" class was wrestling with Arthur Brooks' report, in Gross National Happiness, that conservatives are generally happier than liberals as individuals, in light of our class' question of what makes for a happy society

This student, herself inclined to be an apolitical conservative, drew from several aspects of what we had been studying to consider, and reconsider, her own experience.

Conservatives look at society and see a collection of individuals, so they believe that personal action is the right focus of attention.  Liberals look at society as more of a collective, so the community requires change in order for real progress to happen.  ... Conservatives could feel happier than liberals in this sense because success is based on an individual's own actions instead of basing it on the actions of everyone else.  It is easier to feel then that you have successfully made changes that are important to you.  An example I thought of when I was reading this was about golf.  I used to play softball, a team sport, then I started playing golf in high school.  I found a greater sense of satisfaction when playing golf because all of my success was based on how hard I was willing to work to achieve my goals.  In softball, I often felt let down and less happy because my team did not practice as much as I did, so we would often lose.  These losses left me feeling down because I was working hard, but by being on the team, I was relying on them for our success.  It was nice with golf because I was reliant on myself.
However, she notes, there are costs to a society that builds no more than individual successes.
I find problems with this as well because it is necessary to work together to achieve goals, and it brings up the Myth of the Individual from the middle of the term.  It showed that we needed a network of people to help support us, or we could face becoming isolated and radicalized in our ideas.  From personal experiences, successes with a group are much more profound ... as compared to personal victories because of the shared emotional experience.  It will be interesting to see how this plays into overall happiness.  I would think shared experiences like collective effervescences would help increase happiness overall because it helps to form bonds with others.  
Her last point, that happier societies come not just from happy individuals, but have bonds across larger groups from shared emotional experiences, is well borne out by sociology.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Happiness Grows With Wisdom

Jonathan Rauch has a fine article in the Atlantic on the U-shaped curve of happiness.

Not for everyone, and not in every society, but strong enough to be a helpful pattern, we see life satisfaction bottoming out in the late 40s for many people.  And then it gets better.

There is much in here, including a whole section on brain development.

I found this to be the most helpful idea:

“This finding,” [Princeton researcher Hannes] Schwandt writes, “supports the hypothesis that the age U-shape in life satisfaction is driven by unmet aspirations that are painfully felt during midlife but beneficially abandoned and felt with less regret during old age.”
The curve below was compiled by economist Carol Graham and colleagues, looking at averages in many different countries.  The X-axis measures life satisfaction on a ten-point scale; the Y measures age.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Politics of Male First Names

Verdant Labs has a fascinating blog post on political trends in first names.

One big finding: "Of male names that are at least fairly common, the most Democratic are Jonah and Malik, and the most Republican are Delbert and Duane."

I think I know what is going on here.

The Democratic end is tipped by distinctively black or Jewish names. In addition to Jonah and Malik, we find Ethan, Willie, Saul, Emmanuel, Isaiah, Tyrone, Omar, Irving, and Israel.

On the Republican side, we find country white names. In addition to Delbert and Duane, there are Rex, Dallas, Brent, Troy, Lyle, Darrell, Billy, Ricky, and Randy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Distribution of Generosity

Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, has been reporting the results of a large Science of Generosity project.  Sociology is particularly useful for giving us a sense of proportion of how phenomena are distributed in a large population.

Americans as a whole are generous people.  We give away huge amounts of money for good causes.

However, nearly half of Americans - 45% - give nothing.

The high standard of tithing (giving at least 10%) is met by only 3%.

Poorer people give away a higher proportion of their income than richer people do.

Looked at another way, 57% of all the charitable dollars in America are contributed by the 5% of Americans who are most generous.

And I should note that the main point of The Paradox of Generosity, by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, is that people who give more away lead happier and healthier lives.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Tea Party Congress is the Least Productive, Ever.

The Tea Party Congress, the one now ending, is officially the least productive Congress ever.

That is what they said they would do if elected - prevent government.

I take them at their word that that is what they will keep doing.

The Republicans are at a crossroads.  They control the legislative branch of government. They will have to decide whether to stick with the Tea Party and prevent government, or cut the Tea Party loose and govern.

This will be a very tough choice.  So far the Republican leadership has talked tough about governing, but they haven't actually taken any concrete steps to break with their dangerous coalition partner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

World War One Was the Worst War Ever

All wars are bad.  Some are worse than others.  I am imagining a scale based on the foolishness of the causes of a war multiplied by the number of casualties.

On that scale, I believe World War One was the worst war ever.

And that is before we factor in the way the victors made a peace so bad that it produced another, even larger war.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Today's Great Thing: The Silver Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall

And an East German is the head of state of the united Germany.

We may hope for such a happy reunion in Korea soon.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Christian Social Science - How Do I Get at What Students Really Want to Know?

I am giving a talk next week at Hendrix College on "Being a Christian and a Social Scientist".  At the moment it ends this way:

Christianity also makes for a better social science than materialism can, precisely because people do act for reasons.  People act for reasons, they believe they act for reasons, and they believe their existence is meaningful because their reasoned action leads to meaningful ends. I can’t prove that people are right in these beliefs.  But I can prove that most people do have these beliefs (even people who profess materialism).  And I assert that the universal fact that people act as if they act for a meaningful reason is evidence that they are right.  Not proof, but strong evidence.

I think this is true, but doesn't really get to the core of what undergraduates are likely to be concerned about.

I would welcome suggestions for how to bridge this gap.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Fear of Anything as a Vote-Shaping Strategy

Of all the enemies of the happy society, fear is the greatest.  Fear is the acid of trust.

The strategy of Karl Rove and his disciples had been to make their party base fearful, and forget about trying to win over the center.

In recent years they have added strategies to make it harder for everyone to vote, which hurt their opponents more than it did their supporters.

In this last cycle, I believe they gave up on trying to instill fear of things that corporate interests usually oppose, namely taxes and regulations, or that social conservatives oppose, such as abortion and gay marriage.  This cycle they seemed to promote any fear at all as a way of ginning up the base. This worked against compromise and normal politics, and toward a black-and-white view of the world which their candidates would address with force.

This explains, I think, why there has been such political interest in Ebola and ISIS as things to be afraid of in this country.  Notice that the promoters of these fears are not focused on the dangers of Ebola to West Africans, or of ISIS to decent people in the Middle East - where those fears are well grounded.  Instead, they have promoted fear, even hysteria, about the minuscule dangers that either threat poses to Americans at home.  The aim is simply fear, and anything scary will do.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Obama Administration is Very Good.

President Obama is a very good president, with a commendable record of achievement. The Affordable Care Act is a huge step forward for our nation, both in justice for all and in reducing the costs of medical care. The "war on coal" is being waged by the natural gas companies, not the federal government. The financial firms that wrecked the economy before he took office are under better regulation. The wars launched by his predecessors have been ended or reduced. The auto industry was saved. And, as you can see below, the economy is vastly improved. If he had a Congress that was not committed to obstructing all government, he could do even more good.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Resist the Fear Machine. It Only Serves Our Enemies.

This was the story that Brent Bozell ran:

"A Florida hardware store was ordered to remove American flags honoring the owners family serving in the military. In response, residents displayed more than 500 American flags throughout the town. God Bless America!"

That's it - the whole story, with no links to where you could find out what happened.

In fact, the store was NOT ordered to remove the flags. They were asked to move them from the public right of way, where no flags are permitted, on to the store's property, where they were free to fly any flag they wanted.

People like Brent Bozell, who made up the scary headline, make a living from tricking Americans into fearing other Americans. Isn't that exactly what America's enemies want? Resist the Fear Machine.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Passive-Aggressive Atheism.

Claiming to raise your children with no religion "so they can make up their own minds" is just a passive-aggressive way to teach atheism.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Position Paper on Presbyterian Same-Sex Policy Takes a Centrist Line

Barry Ensign-George and Charles Wiley, officials of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have issued a new paper, "Our Challenging Way: Faithfulness, Sex, Ordination, and Marriage."

They defend the middle line that the denomination has taken on both gay ordination and same-sex marriage.  The church recognizes both pro and con positions, and leaves it up to the conscience of local authorities to determine whether they - ministers, elders, sessions, presbyteries - will participate in authorizing same-sex actions by the church.

I have written often that this middle way is in keeping with the Presbyterian middle polity.  Indeed, I have discussed this with the authors in the past.

I would only add to their paper that our polity allows presbyteries to differ from one another without threatening the unity of the denomination, not just a conscience clause allowing individual officers of the church to differ.

In particular, I commend their gentle criticism of the my-way-or-the-highway ruling on women's ordination in the 1970s 'Kenyon case'.

(I still do think that the Authoritative Interpretation of the church constitution that the General Assembly adopted this summer, in which the words "between a man and a woman" were interpreted to mean "not only between a man and a woman" is incoherent and foolish, but that is water over the dam.)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Centrist Position on the Gender Binary

What the left needs to accept is that, for most people, there is a close connection between sex and gender.  For them, the gender binary of masculine and feminine works well.

What the right needs to accept is that the gender binary does not work well for some people. In those cases, we all should be understanding and, where possible, accommodating.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Ethics of an Industry is Driven by the Most Ruthless Competitor

This insight is the fruit of a visit to the Eastern Kentucky coal fields, but could come from many other industries.

I am drawn to this idea because students tend to see ethics as simply the morals of individuals, multiplied by the number of individuals.  It is very hard for them to see social structures at first.  Thus, when we study how some particular firm is exploitative, they attribute this to the bad morals of the owners of that firm.  Students imagine that if they were in charge, they would never act so badly because they are good people.

Yet in any competitive industry - which is to say, any industry in capitalism - if exploitation will increase profits, then some firm will become more exploitative.  And if that gives them a competitive advantage over other firms, the other firms will incline to become that exploitative, too, or lose business.  Normally, I think, it is not the biggest or highest status firms that begin a round of exploitation, and the managers in that firm think themselves more honorable than their more ruthless competitors.  Until, that is, the higher-status firm starts losing profits.  Then, no matter how high-minded they started out, they are likely to follow the more ruthless firms downward.  And thus, the ethics of the industry as a whole are driven by the most ruthless competitor.

Which is why regulation is good for industries, and is most beneficial to those owners and managers who do want to be moral, who do not want to exploit their workers.

We were told a chilling story by a retired coal miner, who had worked in both unionized (that is, more regulated) and non-unionized mines.  He said that when women won the right to work in the mines in the 1970s, the owners were required to put portable toilets in the mines.  In the unionized mines, these were a practical improvement for all workers.  In the non-unionized mines, our guide told us, the workers were told that the toilets were there for the inspectors to see - any miner who actually used one would get fired.  To eke out the tiniest bit of extra profit by not letting miners take a toilet break, and not paying the cost of cleaning portable toilets, the more ruthless firms would add that much exploitation - until and unless the inspectors caught on. 

Ethics comes from the structure of social relations as much as it does from the morals of individuals.

Monday, September 15, 2014

'Who Benefits?' Now is the Result of 'Who Governs?' and 'Who Wins?' Before

Teachers know that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I have come to see that I need to spend the first month of my "Introduction to Sociology" course on how power works and why the political economy of any society is fundamental to understanding everything else.  This is a hard lesson for students to learn - their tendency to see everything from their perspective as individuals and consumers means it takes work to envision that the structures of power that shape everyone's reality are not simply given, but are the result of the conflict of social forces.

This morning we started on William Domhoff's Who Rules America? I like using Domhoff because his fundamental questions are very practical, very graspable by students. He says that what we really want to know is 'who has the power?' but we can't measure that directly.  So we ask of any social situation 'Who benefits?', 'Who Governs?', and 'Who Wins?'.  These questions each get closer to power, but also get harder to measure.

This was the thing I learned as I was teaching Domhoff's questions this time: the answer to 'Who benefits?' now is the result of 'Who governs?' and 'Who wins?' before.  The distribution of wealth now is the direct result of who won the previous conflict of power in an earlier struggle.  There is no neutral starting point, which got distorted by power.  And there is no 'free market' solution that does not reflect ongoing struggles of 'who governs'.

This was helpful to me. I will see if it was as helpful to students.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is There an Essential Affinity Between A Typological Reading of the Biblical Story and a Providential View of History?

I am reading a nifty manuscript on civil religion.  The author emphasizes that one of the great traditions of American civil religion - Martin Luther King's, for example - reads the Bible narrative as provides types of the themes that we also see in our national narrative.  This is not the same as seeing the Bible as providing literal prophetic markers of current events, as 'End Times' readings do.  Rather, the belief that history has an arc, which we see signs of in the biblical story and in our own, connected-but-different story, is a deep and fruitful way of seeing history as meaningful.

I have also long believed that life has a providential form, which is a way of seeing historical events as a meaningful narrative.

It has only struck me now, though, that these two kinds of readings - a typological reading of the Bible and a providential reading of history - are intimately connected. My intuition is that they are really just different ways of doing the same thing.

But I can 't quite flesh out the argument to prove that intuition.  Any help from you smart readers to make the argument or set me straight?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

It Is Always True That 'Reality Is More Complex Than Your Social Theory'. And That Argument Is Never Helpful.

I have loved social theory since I started reading it in high school because it reveals something of the underlying structure of reality - the reasons behind the human world that we see on the surface.

And when talking about social theory, I often run across someone who dismisses the whole project because "reality is more complex than that."


But the same is true of a map.  A map simplifies, but shows the relations of the main elements.  A map that showed everything in its true proportions, in a 1"=1" scale, would be more accurate than any simpler map.

But it would be useless.

The alternative to social theory is not a completely complex picture of society.  The alternative to the simplifications of social theory is to argue that reality has no underlying structure at all.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Does Every Discipline Have a Worldview-Changing Idea?

The college is up for re-accreditation.  In addition to showing that we are doing the usual things well, we are also supposed to come up with a big idea of something new to try - a Quality Enhancement Plan. We have decided that this big idea should be to improve critical thinking, and/or creative thinking - somehow.  I am on the committee charged with coming up with a good idea of how, exactly, to do this, so I have been pondering the problem.

One of the hardest things to teach in sociology is to get students to move from thinking about society in terms of individuals, to thinking about society in terms of groups.  I start many classes with Marx in part to plant this seed. The actors in Marx' account of society are not individual workers and individual owners, but whole classes of workers and owners.  Similarly, when we talk about the patterns of gender relations, it is hard to keep students from immediately translating that into how a man and a woman interact - usually meaning the student him- or herself. Likewise, seeing social structures is a qualitatively different idea than seeing how one person habitually acts in relation to another.  We expend a great deal of creativity in trying to get students to think critically about social structures and social groups.

In other words, it is a persistent problem in teaching sociology to transform a student's perspective from the individual imagination to the sociological imagination.  Once you get it, you see the world differently.  The sociological imagination is a vital tool in critical thinking about society.

So here is the beginning of an idea: suppose every discipline has a fundamental shift in thinking that it is trying to teach - a new lens for seeing the world that it is trying to fit students with.  If so, then the college as a whole might fruitfully work together on the shared or meta-issues in teaching these disparate worldview-changing ideas.  We would be working creatively and critically as a faculty, and helping students to see the world creatively and critically with these new lenses of several kinds.  That would be a Quality Enhancement Plan worthy of a liberal arts college.

So the question is, does every discipline have a core idea that is hard to get students to see, but once achieved, fundamentally changes the way they think?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Gallup Poll of Unattractive Women

In reading Gallup Poll data on happiness I came across this eyebrow-raiser from 1943:

So far as you personally are concerned, do you think the chances are that the next ten years of your life will be exciting ones, just average, or rather dull?  (Asked of a national cross-section of women from twenty to thirty-five years old.)

National total:

Exciting 43.3%
Average 43.6%
Dull 9.3%

Single women (20 - 24 years):

Exciting 53.8%
Average 35.0%
Dull 6.5%

Unattractive women:

Exciting 26.1%
Average 44.9%
Dull 21.7%

No, I do not know how they determined the sample for that last question.  My guess is that this was the interviewer's judgment.

I take this as further evidence for the 'feminine mystique,' which Betty Friedan would locate specifically in this time period.

I also think that the 1940s were a cultural revolution ago.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Quick Thought on Calvinist Energy

Many at the time of the Reformation thought the doctrine of predestination would lead to quietism.  It was surprising that it led to the opposite.  Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, shows why.

Calvinist activity in the world was not aimed at happiness.  But it produced happiness, because meaningful work is essential to happiness.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is There a Theological Doctrine Against Exaggerating Dangers?

I am reading William Bouwsma's excellent portrait of John Calvin.  Bouwsma emphasizes that Calvin was a rhetorician, not a cool scholar.  He was a pastor, trying to persuade his listeners to change their lives.  Calvin also read the Bible as rhetoric of the same kind.

One of the main tools of persuasive rhetoric is to exaggerate the dangers that the audience faces if they continue their present lives.

In my work on happiness, I have concluded that the main solvent of the happy society is fear.  Fear mongers are a great danger to a happy society, because they undermine trust, and obscure how much the good actions of most people make the world better.

Which leads me to look for a religious limit to fear-mongering.  There is, of course, the general commandment against lying.  But I can't think of a specific religious doctrine or practice the guards against overstating the dangers of this world.

Overstating dangers is bad for the credibility and legitimacy of religious organizations, as we can see from the short life-span of doomsday cults. As a practical matter, most religious institutions that last more than a couple of generations do learn to tone down the end-times rhetoric, and start to build for the indefinite future.

Still, I can't think of a religious justification that I have run across for telling the strict truth about dangers and fears. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Does the Contrast of Baking and Fermenting Mean? (A Half-Thought on Reading Michael Pollan's Cooked)

For our annual Centre sociology alumni study group we are reading Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

In this very interesting study of the basic elements of food and culture, Pollan treats four elemental ways of transforming natural goods into human food under the heading of the four classical elements.  Under 'fire' he discusses roasting over a fire, under 'water', braising in a pot, under 'air', baking bread, and under 'earth', fermenting in many forms.

Pollan's account brings out the ways in which roasting is very masculine and braising very feminine.  This spectrum is not central to Pollan's analysis, but he notes this contrast as many others before have, notably the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

This has made me wonder if baking and fermenting form another pair of contrasts, perhaps cross-cutting the first.  Pollan does not directly contrast the two.  He does, though, note the association of fermentation with death - that we pause putrefaction long enough to eat the tangy middle phase.  Which suggests, then, that perhaps baking is the staff and symbol of life.  This certainly works in Christian mythology. 

Still, I have a nagging sense that there is a more down-to-earth pair that the making of 'air' and 'earth' foods is like.

Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Americans are Moving Less - This is More Good Than Bad

Moving to a new home is down among Americans over the past generation.

Business Insider, from which this chart is taken, thinks this is a bad thing.  High mobility is good for the housing industry, which is a big component of our gross domestic product.

My first thought on seeing this chart, though, is that stability is good for community.  People who stay are more likely to get to know their neighbors, have commitments to their community, and to benefit themselves from reducing the inevitable stress of moving.

Moreover, people who know they are staying are free to make big investments in their community, knowing that they themselves will reap some of the benefits. 

When Mrs. G and I decided that we were never moving again, we were free to (expensively) renovate our house for the long term.  This is good for the local housing industry.  And this investment is not just in our own home.  It made sense for us to invest in trees, and to help organize the neighbors for a mass tree planting in our neighborhood.

Both stability and mobility have economic benefits, for different sectors of the economy.  But stability has clear benefits for communities, and transience has large costs.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Is Generalized Trust a Fruit of Privilege?

I am working on how some people come to have a sense that people in general can be trusted. 

Some argue that we learn particularized trust from experience with specific people in specific institutions.  Generalized trusters then generalize from that experience.  This is Robert Putnam's position in Bowling Alone.

Others argue that we learn generalized trust at home as part of our morals, prior to and independent of our experiences in particular institutions.  This is Eric Uslaner's position in The Moral Foundations of Trust.

I incline to Uslaner's position. I would modify it by saying that generalized trust does depend on how trustworthy we find our family to be.  More exactly, I think most people find it hard to trust if they feel betrayed by adults when they are young, especially by the adults in their own families.

Uslaner found that people from intact, mainline religious families were more likely to be generalized trusters.

We know from other evidence that people from intact, mainline religious families are also more likely to enjoy most of the privileges of our society, made all the more powerful because they do not realize that they are privileged. 

SO, is generalized trust a fruit of that privilege?

My best thought at this moment is that privilege insulates you from many of the betrayals that would undermine a sense that people in general can be trusted.  Privilege does not produce trust, nor guarantee it.  But privilege reduces the circumstances in a young life that would undermine generalized trust.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Calvinists Fear the World Less

This is a follow-on to yesterday's post, "The More You Know, The Less You Fear."

Calvinists famously insists that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Therefore, it is reasonable to fear the consequences that God would, in all justice, give each of us.  The harder edges of the Calvinist family grow eloquent in describing how awful that just consequence might be (though one doesn't hear many hellfire sermons from Presbyterian pulpits anymore).

A lesser known consequence, though, of fearing God's justice is that it puts into proportion the world's problems and dangers.  The whole story of Creation has a happy ending.  The universe lasts a long time.  We have much work to do, to be sure.  But the possible bad things we could do have limits, and the promised help that Providence will give does not.

Fearing things truly worth fearing can make us calmer, more deliberate, and more reasonable about the lesser fears that beset us if we only see the little picture.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The More You Know, The Less You Fear

This is an aphorism that I think I made up today.

It is a derived from a longer one that also came to me today:  the better your sociology, the more you trust strangers. This is because you have a better idea of which categories of people are dangerous.

I have been studying social trust, which I think is the crucial glue of the happy society.  Fear is the enemy of the happy society.

More educated people are generally less fearful.  I think this is because they have a more realistic sense of how likely any of the dangers they can imagine really are.  They are also more likely to research potential dangers, rather than rely on gut instinct or fears promoted by others.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Corporations Are Not People; Nor Are They Churches

The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that corporations can have religious beliefs which are protected from civil requirements, just as churches are. 

In this case, Hobby Lobby can refuse to comply with the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided insurance include contraception coverage.

This follows earlier decisions by this Court that corporations are 'people' and entitled to rights like actual people.

I think this reflects a degeneration in our civil religion.  We are elevating the 'free market' and the profits made in it to a central place in the collective sacred. 

I think this is an error of fact - markets only work if they are protected and regulated by the state, and those who make profits from regulated markets owe much to society as a whole for that protection and regulation. 

I also think this is an error of faith - markets are a useful decision-making tool for democratic societies.  Corporations are one of the useful tools we have developed to take advantage of this decision-making mechanism.

Corporations are not sacred entities.  Corporations are not even people-like.  They serve us; we should not serve them.

'Corporate sanctity' will, in retrospect, seem like one of the great heresies of this new gilded age.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Does Civilization Begin With Cooking, or Marriage?

For our annual alumni study group this summer we are reading Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  He offers the theory, advanced by many, that culture begins with cooking - specifically, with roasting meat.

I have long taught in my "Family Life" class that turning men into husbands and fathers is the first great act of civilization.

Just on first glance, I think my 'first act' comes first.

I also think that seeing cooking meat as the first act of culture is a more masculine view, while seeing marriage as coming first is a more feminine view.

This is a three-quarters-formed thought, but worth pursuing.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Calvin on God's image in men and women.

I am working my way through Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion with an eye to what he says about happiness.

In Book One, chapter 15, Calvin addresses what it means to say that man is made in God's image.  He helpfully notes that when Paul says that man, and not woman, is the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7) “it is evident, from the context, that it merely refers to the civil order.” 

I find this distinction helpful for three reasons.  
First, for making clear that all people share in God's image equally.  
Second, that Calvin has a model for interpreting Scripture in context.  
Third, that Calvin distinguishes between the order of creation as such and the civil order. 

Elsewhere (and throughout) Calvin argues that the civil order is shaped by the Fall, but retains the image of the good order of creation.  I think it reasonable to believe that as we form and reform the civil order, we can move some ways from the unequal relation of the sexes in the civil order that Calvin knew, to a more equal order that is closer to the creation ideal.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Best Thing I Saw at GA: 1001 New Worshiping Communities

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian Church (USA) set itself the task two years ago of creating 1001 new worshiping communities.

At this General Assembly we have heard about the 248 new worshiping communities which have been created so far.  Some are traditional churches, most are new kinds of worshiping groups. Half are predominantly 'racial ethnic', presbyspeak for not all white. 

Some of these communities will last, some will be ephemeral.  All, though, are a great step forward. The 1001 new worshiping communities are about the best sign of vitality I have seen in our slimming denomination.

Friday, June 20, 2014

PC(USA) Over-Reaches on Drones

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The General Assembly voted to oppose drones in combat and surveillance, at home and abroad.  As a commissioner who was a military chaplain said in opposition that drones were the wave of the future - he went so far as to say that in ten years we will not see planes with pilots in combat.

A member of the committee that considered this overture told me that the more modest overture on drones was greatly expanded by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  The ACSWP (A C Swap, in Presby-speak) is, in my estimation, the most activist of all the Presbyterian agencies.  In past assemblies that I have followed, they tend to advise pushing the church to the left every time.  Their advice in committee is often more assertive than that of other Presbyterian agencies.

I think the drone vote is one of those that will make the PC(USA) look foolishly naive and offering advice out of its depth.

Presbyterians Dodge a Bullet on Fossil Fuel Divestment

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

An overture came to the GA to divest from 'fossil fuel' companies now. It seems to me this is a bad idea.

The PC(USA) is blessed with a well-developed Mission Responsibility Through Investment process, which is designed to thoughtfully engage with companies when they do bad things. One of the really good things that MRTI does for the church is to really research what, exactly, are the bad things, and have a dialogue with the company about separating the bad from the good.  As a last resort, the MRTI recommends that the church divest from intransigent companies.

The overture proposed to prematurely divest from fossil fuel companies now.  The committee was closely divided, but in the end voted to refer the issue to MRTI.  A minority report was moved to make the church's stock-holding bodies divest within five years.  The Young Adult Advisory Delegates were for it.  The elders, however, voted it down, 70% to 30%.

The GA then considered the committee's main motion, to refer the issue to the MRTI.  This passed, 81% to 19%.

The proposers of the 'divest now' side flatly claimed that "we only have six years" to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon waste.  I believe global warming is real, and that human action has contributed, but I am skeptical of the claim that if we don't act right now we are doomed.

The other error the 'divest now' side made, especially among the YAADs, is the belief that divesting our miniscule holdings in energy companies will somehow help end global warming - rather than just sell those energy company stocks to someone else, who will likely not push the companies to develop alternative fuels.

Anne Zaki is a Great Preacher

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Yesterday the worship in the middle of the Assembly featured a sermon by Anne Zaki, of the Evangelical Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo.  She preached an excellent sermon on Jairus and the woman who touched Christ's garment.

She has a long association with Calvin Theological Seminary in the U.S.  Here is a brief interview with her.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Conservatives Pronounce the Death Knell of the Presbyterian Church, Again

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian Coalition, an organization of conservative groups, issued a press release immediately after the General Assembly voted to allow same-sex marriage in the church.  They write

Today the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took two illegitimate actions that may prove in future years to be the death knell to the church as we have known it.
It is no surprise that the remaining conservatives in the church consider this the last straw.  Opposition to normalizing homosexual practice has become a defining issue for PC(USA) conservatives.  Thousands have left the denomination in recent years, especially since the church accepted gay ordination a few years ago. 

No doubt, we will see another wave of departures following these decisions.

Still, it is worth remembering that conservatives have pronounced the death knell of the Presbyterian Church in every generation since the denomination was created.

And in the next generation, the new conservative on some new issue will pronounce the death knell, again.

Reformed, and ever reforming.

The Sex War is Over in the PC (USA)

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Presbyterian General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people, traditionally a man and a woman." The motion passed, 71% to 29%. It will now go to the presbyteries for ratification.

This is strong evidence that the conservatives have mostly given up and moved elsewhere.

An Irenic Gesture on Same-Sex Marriage

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

As the Assembly considers a very consequential measure to change the definition of marriage to "marriage involves a unique commitment of two people," a famous liberal, John Wilkinson, proposed an amendment to add the phrase "traditionally between a man and a woman."

A noted conservative thanked Wilkinson for the amendment.

The motion passed 85% to 15%.

Bad Committee Work on the Authoritative Interpretation

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

One of the most contentious issues before the General Assembly is over whether Presbyterian ministers can perform same-sex marriages.  The committee charged with answering the various overtures on this matter is faced with clear language in the church's constitution which says marriage is a union of 'a man and a woman'.

One of the proposals approved by the committee is to change the constitution to define marriage as between 'two persons'.  This makes sense as a way to solve the problem.

My quarrel is with the other approach, which is to issue an "Authoritative Interpretation" of what the constitution means.  Changing the constitution requires the joint action of the General Assembly and a majority of presbyteries. An Authoritative Interpretation, on the other hand, can be issued by the GA itself, and holds until undone by another GA.

The committee received overtures to issue an Authoritative Interpretation declaring that ministers can, indeed, perform same-sex marriages.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which advises every committee on each overture that comes before it, gave this clear advice:

Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004, W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are “a woman and a man.” Because these statements are clear and unambiguous, they can not be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.
In other words, you can't issue an Authoritative Interpretation that when the constitution limits marriage to 'a man and a woman', that does not mean that marriage is limited to a man and a woman.

In what I hope is my one and only speech in the plenary, I asked the committee how they answered this clear word from the ACC.  

The moderator of the committee answered that they didn't.

A member of the committee told me that someone in the committee debate said that the constitution was just describing traditional marriage, not defining marriage in, you know, a constitutional way.

Regardless of what you think about the substance of the issue of same-sex marriage, declaring that 'black is white' is just bad committee work.

Linda Valentine Overwhelmingly Re-Elected

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Linda Valentine, the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, was re-elected to a third term by an overwhelming voice vote.

She has a big job - she is essentially the chief executive of the denomination's 'doing things' arm.

In the past, the election of the Executive Director has been very contentious - in the '90s an Exec was unseated by a floor nominee, even though the sitting Exec was the official nominee.

Linda Valentine's easy re-election is a good sign of renewed trust in the central agencies of the church. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Belhar Passes - and Why I Voted No

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Belhar Confession is a great confession.  It is a landmark in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a Book of Confessions, the first part of the constitution of the church.  There has been a movement for the past decade to add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. The previous General Assembly passed the overture, and sent it to the presbyteries for adoption.  A majority of presbyteries voted to adopt the confession - but not quite the super-majority which is required to amend the Book of Confessions.

This General Assembly, the proponents of Belhar tried again.  They had strong leadership, made a glossy presentation to the Assembly on the first day, and this evening proposed, once again, to add Belhar to the Book.

The commissioners voted,  86% to 14%, to adopt the Confession.  It will now go to the presbyteries again, seeking that super-majority.

I was among the 14%. 

I did not vote against Belhar because it is a bad confession.  It is, as I have said, a great confession.  Its message against racism is timely and apt for the PC(USA).

My objection is to the entire project of the Book of Confessions. I have written against the theory of the B of C several times before.

From the founding of the Presbyterian Church on this continent the church had one confession, the Westminster Confession and its attendant documents. This Confession was not a static 17th century British document, but a living part of the constitution, as living as the parts of the constitution regulating order and worship.  The denomination periodically amended the Westminster Confession, as needed.

In the 1960s, to conclude a merger of two Presbyterian denominations, a new confession - the Confession of 1967 - was commissioned.  Rather than replacing Westminster with this new confession, though, the seminary professors who wrote it also advanced the theory that confessions were not living documents, but documents of their time and place.  Thus they sold the church on the peculiar idea that for the theological foundation of the constitution, the church should have many confessions, all listed together.

The effect was to make the confessions optional.  Officers of the church were left to take whatever 'guidance' they chose from the confessions.  The action in the church shifted to the Book of Order, which became the only truly living part of the church's constitution.

Because I object to the whole idea of a book of confessions, I voted against adding the Belhar Confession to our Book.

I know this is a minority position, which is not likely ever to be victorious.  But I thought, in consistent conscience, I should vote and tell you why.

Voting for Child Care

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Surprisingly, there is not child care at the GA, or even a good nursing room.

A commissioner made a Commissioner's Resolution to make sure we had it in future was defeated in committee.  The commissioner, a pastor, spoke to the issue, saying he and his pastor wife come to GA with their kids as a family vacation.

This seems like common sense to me. Cheap, too.

By a close margin, we voted to refer it to the Committee on the General Assembly, rather than just requiring it. 

Frankly, I think a bunch of commissioners (and even more YAADs) did not understand that a 'yes' vote meant referral, not the opposite.

The First Real Vote

I am blogging this week from the Presbyterian General Assembly.
The first real vote: to ask ministers to pay per capita.

I expect that the great majority of ministers do pay per capita (about $40 per year) and much more.

I thought asking them in this way was tacky.

The motion failed by about 10%.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Church Works Better When We Trust Our Committees

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

It is true of any organization, really.  I note it now because I have been to General Assemblies in the past in which a recommendation from an official church body was taken as a good reason to vote against the proposal by a significant minority.

So far in our Polity Committee, we have considered the advice of our official advisors to be sound.  When we consider an overture, we have the written response of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution before us, as well as a representative of the committee in the room to reply to the official 'overture advocates'.  On some matters, other advisory bodies also weigh in.

Yesterday we considered a proposal to let presbyteries, rather than congregations, ordain elders.  This was a well-intentioned overture to help newly forming immigrant communities have officially recognized leaders before they had organized as full congregations.  However, this idea strikes at a basic norm of Presbyterian polity that the elders arise from the congregation and are chosen by it. 

A change so basic brought out advisory opinions from a broad range of denominational muckety-mucks - in addition to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, we heard from the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Committee on Theological Education, the Office of the General Assembly, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (the main action arm of the denomination) - all advising against.

The Polity Committee heard from representatives of most of these bodies, as well as reading their recommendations.  We appreciated the conflict of goods that this overture represented.  In the end, though, we respected our disparate new Establishment.  We trusted our committees.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Voting Down More Polarization

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Polity Committee, on which I am serving, was asked to respond to an overture from a conservative presbytery to allow churches to switch to a more ideologically congenial presbytery.  This would increase the polarization in the denomination.

The committee voted down the proposal, 50 to 6.

This issue will come up again in the plenary in a few days, but I am predicting a similar outcome.

Presbyterians Get the Right Advice

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

The Commissioners to the General Assembly get advice before each vote from an array of Advisory Delegates.  The bulk of them are Young Adult Advisory Delegates; in addition, there are smaller groups of theological students, and ecumenical visitors from other denominations.

If it were up to me, I would abolish all of these official advisors.  For my money, only the Executive (or General) Presbyters of each presbytery, and maybe the Stated Clerks of each presbytery, should get an advisory vote. They are the best informed group in the whole denomination.

To my surprise, a motion came from the floor at the plenary yesterday to ask for advisory votes from the presbytery executives.  This rule would apply only to this Assembly, and would be in addition to the other established advisory votes. 

The commissioners (like me) voted by raising red cards.  I thought the division was pretty close.  The Moderator, eyeballing the array (and from a much better position to see the whole than I had), declared that the motion passed.  I think this is an excellent outcome.

And then twenty minutes later, another commissioner asked if this vote was even legal (it was), and then asked for division.  Since the electronic voting system is still wonky, and since these advisory votes will not matter until the next plenary on Wednesday night, the Moderator put off the counted vote until then.

Still, an unexpected step forward, from my way of thinking.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Church Gets Ready for the Next Marriage Crisis

This week I am blogging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

One of the big issues before all mainline churches, including the PC (USA), is whether our ministers can choose to perform same-sex weddings in those states in which same-sex marriage is legal.

To further the hope of informed discussion, the church got our Theology and Worship staff to prepare a study document on Christian marriage in general, not just the same-sex kind.  This document was duly studied in the church, including in a Sunday School class that I taught.  Today, prior to the official opening of the General Assembly, I went to a discussion session with the staffers who prepared that study document. 

Which gave me a thought about the next marriage crisis in the church:  whether the church should be promoting marriage in general, in the face of the decline of marriage as an institution among the less-educated classes. The PC(USA) has not faced this issue as a crisis because, in general, Presbyterians do get married, and do so before they have children, and are more likely to stay married.  But there are those in society who say that marriage is outdated or simply unrealistic for young people, even if they have kids.  I expect that within a decade this will be a hot issue in the Presbyterian Church.

Which is why I think the time is ripe to start writing the study documents about why the Reformed tradition has always promoted marriage.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cantor's Defeat Shows that the Republican Alliance with the Tea Party is Not Worth it for Republicans

If the Republican Party ever hopes to return as part of the governing coalition of the United States, they will have to cut ties with the Tea Party.  The alliance has hurt them more than it has helped them.

The latest evidence is the surprising primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a Tea Party challenger, David Brat.  The issue: the very conservative Cantor was not conservative enough. The evidence: that he might possibly consider immigration reform.

In the short run, it would certainly be costly to the Republicans to wrest their party back from the cuckoos in the nest.  It would likely cost them their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, in the medium run, when they no longer had to worry about being primaried, Republicans could start cooperating with the Democrats again in running the country.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Why Young Liberals become Old Conservatives

Young liberals become old conservatives by clinging to the progressive ideas of their youth, which becomes the status quo that the young of the next generation attack.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Reflexivity of Concerted Cultivation: Or, Why Middle-Class Parents Build Junkyards for Their Kids to Play In

I have written several times about Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods, which compares the child-rearing styles of middle class vs. working class and poor parents.  Middle-class parents schedule and direct their children's many activities, creating a 'concert' of adults helping each of their children develop his or her talents.  Working-class and poor parents, by contrast, make sure their kids are physically cared for, then turn them loose to develop by 'natural growth'.

Tristan Bridges has an interesting blogpost on the new trend of 'adventure parks' for kids - fenced, lightly supervised yards full of junk that kids can play with in ways they choose.  This kind of park is not new - the famous documentary series "Seven Up" takes the group of seven year olds from different classes to an 'adventure park' in 1964.

Adventure parks are an attempt by middle-class, concerted cultivation parents to expand their children's talents by also having some of the creativity advantages of natural growth. Bridges happily terms this 'structured unstructured play' designed to create that seeming oxymoron, the concerted cultivation of natural growth.

I want to add one further step to this argument.  When my Centre College students read Unequal Childhoods, they recognize their own upbringing.  As they, and many thousands of other young people who have studied the pros and cons of concerted cultivation, reflect on their upbringing, they mostly appreciate the great advantages they have enjoyed.  But they see some disadvantages to being over-scheduled, not left to develop their imagination enough.  This information then feeds back into how they want to raise their own children. Thus, the sociological study of childhood creates a market for reflexive concerted cultivation, which is improved by incorporating the just criticism of Concerted Cultivation 1.0.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Meaning is an Individualist Problem

Bradley Wright has a nifty post on how "Meaning is, truly, a first-world problem." In general, people in rich countries have more stuff, but are less certain that their lives are meaningful.

My "Macrosociological Theory" class finished with Charles Taylor's excellent Modern Social Imaginaries.  One of Taylor's more surprising points about modernity is that is has created a new form of social malaise.  Modern people can feel alienated, or anomic, or can even develop a nihilism (I added that last one) that pre-modern people would have found hard to understand.  Taylor's argument is that by disembedding people from their organic social settings and re-embedding them in rationalized institutions, modernity thereby created 'individuals'. 

And having become individuals, it is now possible to attempt to judge our lives as meaningful in isolation from social connections and social purposes.  But what makes most people think their lives and efforts are meaningful comes from the very work they must do to take care of the people they are connected to.

Meaning is, truly, an individualist problem.  Not solely, but in a distinctive way.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hurrah for the Republican Establishment

Yesterday I wished Sen. McConnell well in his primary fight against a Tea Party challenger.  McConnell won easily. 

Indeed, it was a big day for the Republican Establishment:

Mr. McConnell’s victory came on a day when five other states — Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Oregon — held primaries. And in many of those high-profile contests, it was establishment Republicans coming out on top over Tea Party challengers, as in the McConnell-Bevin race.

I have maintained from their first appearance in reaction to Pres. Obama's election that the Tea Party, like other know-nothing movements before them, would last through three election cycles, then fade. 2012 was their third cycle.  Yesterday, in Kentucky and several other states, the Republican Establishment turned back the invaders.

I am hopeful that these victories will encourage career politicians, such as Sen. McConnell, to feel confident that they can get back to governing without fear of successful attack on their right flank from an anti-government movement.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I hope Mitch McConnell Wins Today

This is not a sentiment I have ever expressed before, and am not likely to again.

Today, though, my senior senator, the core the of Republican establishment, the purest politician in the U.S. Senate, is facing a challenge in the Republican primary from a prevent-government Tea Party candidate.

I hope all the establishment Republicans fend off the Tea Party this primary season, and win their civil war.

Then, perhaps, the two pro-government parties can get back to the business of compromise and trade-offs that is the actual business of governing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hindu Nationalist Success in India Can Ultimately Strengthen a Democratic, Secular State

I am hopeful about the election of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, by a landslide in India.
Some worry that the Modi government will be anti-Muslim.  This a legitimate concern.

Nonetheless, I believe that democratically elected power is good for religious parties, in the medium run.  It makes them moderate their more extreme 'us vs. them' positions.  I had the same hopes for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and lament that they were overthrown in a military coup before they could begin to feel the real effects of democracy.

I also think the Congress Party has been harmed by becoming a family dynasty, and that it has gotten away with deep and wide corruption for decades.  It is time for the Gandhis to retire from politics, and for a chastened new generation of Congress leaders to rise up and make Congress a truly competitive, and more honest, democratic party.  I would particularly like to see Congress make 'India for all' their central theme, which will moderate the majority-tyranny impulses within the BJP.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Do Professors Even Want to Help Students Develop a 'Meaningful Philosophy of Life'?

David Brooks has a decent column on this year's UCLA study of college freshmen. He notes this change from the first time that study was done:

In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important.

My first thought was that today's faculty are much less likely to believe that they are supposed to help students develop a meaningful philosophy of life than were the '60s faculty.  True, there are particular egalitarian and environmental values which are often presumed by many faculty members. But it has been my experience that most professor balk at the idea of articulating a meaningful philosophy of life for themselves, much less seeing their job as helping students do the same.

I can't speak for the the faculty norms of the '60s. I do infer from the fact that the question seemed intelligible when the survey was created that it seemed like a sensible idea at the time.

Brooks cautiously concludes from the above facts that "I’m not sure if students really are ... less interested in having meaning in their lives, but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way."

I think it likely that a big part of this change is that college faculty are less likely today to see "helping students find a meaningful philosophy of life" as their job, or even within their competence.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The 'Princeton White Privilege Guy' Shouldn't Be Silenced, But He Doesn't Understand What White Privilege Means

Tal Fortgang wrote "Checking My White Privilege" for the campus conservative publication the Princeton Tory. 

I am not familiar with the expression 'check your privilege' with which he frames the piece.  He says it is used to silence him as a white male from contributing his opinions in general.  He does not provide any specifics, so it is hard to know the context in which the phrase is actually used.  The closest he comes to an account of how it is used is not, he allows, meant to silence him.  Rather, he says, the charge "teeters between" urging him to examine the roots of his opinion to see if they are framed by privilege, and to suggest that he apologize for having those privileges.

If that is what 'check your privilege' means, then examining the roots of his opinions seems like a reasonable call to critical thinking.  If they do, in fact, mean that he should apologize for his privileges, that would seem to go over the line.  But he does not say they do, so it is hard to know what his actual complaint boils down to.

The bulk of the essay, though, is not really about checking his white or male privilege at all.  It is an account of hard and heroic things done in his family. He checked his family's story of surviving persecution and working hard, and concluded that he does not have any privilege, but only a legacy of good values.

Which means that in his essay on 'white male privilege' he never actually addresses white male privilege.  He is right that his whiteness and maleness is not the whole story of his life.  But neither does he say anyone else said it was.  He does not acknowledge, though, that there have been untold small advantages of whiteness and maleness in his path thus far, which, indeed, is some of the story of his life.

In fact, in this short essay, he does not show any understanding of what his unnamed interlocutors are talking about when they urge him to 'check his privilege'.  That work is still undone.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Are Zombies a Racial Formation?

In my "Macrosociological Theory" class we are reading Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States. They argue that races are constructed when physical differences can be made to coincide with differences in group interest.  In particular, when one group can economically and/or politically subordinate another, they are likely to try to justify that domination on the basis of supposed or slight physical differences.

I have been puzzled by the resurgence of interest in zombies.  I think the main reason is that dramas have run out of groups that can be villains without nuance or redeeming features.  Zombies work well as villains because they are sub-rational, endlessly malevolent, and, conveniently already dead.  Permanently kill-worthy.

So I have been thinking about how well the enterprise of elaborating on the idea of zombies fits Omi and Winant's vision of a 'racial project'.  On the one hand, the physical difference between zombies and humans has been readily adapted to justify treating the whole group as worthy of domination - corralling, caging, experimenting on, even killing.  On the other hand, the zombie stories I know of do not show humans trying to get work out of zombies.

Perhaps that is the next screenplay.

I would say that the construction of zombies is mostly an example of what Omi and Winant mean by a 'racial formation' - but not entirely.

Maybe robots fill the bill better?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Malaria Deaths in Africa Down by More Than Half in a Decade

One big reason:  half the households have anti-malaria bed nets, and about a third of the population sleep under them each night.

This is great news, one of the best in all of public health today.