Friday, August 31, 2007

The Perfect Storm

Consecration in Kenya widens a religious rift - The Boston Globe: "NAIROBI - Delivering a blistering rebuke to the Episcopal Church for its support of gay and lesbian rights, spiritual leaders representing tens of millions of Anglican Christians from around the world gathered here yesterday to consecrate two conservative American priests as bishops despite the opposition of the US church."

Why did this happen?

(1) The decline in religious belief and participation amongst affluent, educated individuals is global and was inevitable--not because religious belief is intellectually untenable but because the bulk of religious believers were never religious in the first place. They looked to religion to satisfy fundamentally secular needs, for pseudo-science, pseudo-technology and self-help programs and to the Church as an all-purpose community center, a charitable institution providing social services and opportunities for volunteer work and, in some cases, as a base for political empowerment. Specialized secular institutions meet these needs more effectively for affluent, educated individuals.

(2) Theologians lost their nerve and gutted theology. Unduly impressed by their worst enemies, Freud, Marx, Feuerbach and other Continental literati, they attempted to reconstruct Christianity as psychology, cultural critique and politics. They would retain the symbols and the groundlings would of course keep talking about "God" but they knew that God-talk was really about something quite different, metaphysics having been thoroughly discredited.

(3) Clergy, worried about the declining prestige of religion (and their profession) and about declining religious participation (see (1)), secularized the Church. Second-guessing the market they tried to promote the Church as a purveyor of secular goods, represented themselves as political activists or members of the "helping professions," and adopted ChurchSpeak, an idiom compounded of psychobabble, pop Marxism and 1960s youth culture rhetoric that quickly became dated.

(4) In the Episcopal Church in particular, a hierarchal scheme inherited from a time when the clergy were the educated gentlemen of their parishes, leading and enlightening a semi-literate peasantry, remained intact. Clergy regarded themselves as enlightened liberal intellectuals in an especially favorable position to work for moral improvement, social change and political progress by inculcating the correct views on the role of women, care of the environment, sexual ethics and such which an increasingly self-selected conservative clientele found distasteful.

(5) Ambitious clerics in the Global South got in a position to exert political power within the Anglican Communion. They were sick of colonialism, sick of being a mission field, and only too happy to operate missions in the US.

Here was the Perfect Storm. By the early 21st century after 30 years of changes pushed by clergy on laypeople, who were either indifferent or positively hostile, there was something in the Episcopal Church for almost everyone not to like. The theologically orthodox deplored the Church's theological minimalism (see (2)); social conservatives hated its "political correctness" (see (4)); out-of-favor conservative clergy were angry about being professionally marginalized; silly asses like me couldn't stand the new Prayer Book and the liturgical style that went along with it; no one liked ChurchSpeak and everyone was irritated by the arrogance of liberal clergy promoting their agendas, absolutely convinced that they could get whatever they wanted by manipulating and "using psychology" on us ignorant, manipulatable laypeople and beating up clergy who wouldn't get on board.

Then there was the Wedge Issue: the ordination of openly-gay Bishop Robinson. This was supposed to be the grand, revolutionary gesture that would push the agenda through. Arrogance and stupidity: the rest is history.

But what would I have done if I could have run the Episcopal Church for the past 30 years, given that secularization is unstoppable and that a BIG decline in membership was inevitable for any denomination that catered for a disproportionately affluent, educated clientele? Mainly, I'd have done nothing--just stuck to my guns, maintained phoney-Gothic churches filled with dim religious light and Elizabethan liturgy. "We cater for a particular clientele and a particular taste--for Anglophiles and snobs, aesthetes, gay guys who like to dress up, agnostic mystics, wannabe Catholics who can't buy the dogmatism or authority, wannabe Orthodox who don't have the ethnic credentials, and English majors who like the Metaphysical Poets and T. S. Eliot. If you don't like it go somewhere else. There's nothing wrong with somewhere else or, for that matter, no where else. This is just what we do." Anglophiles, snobs, aesthetes, agnostic mystics and pretentious jackasses need love too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Vons: Just Bitchin

I went to the supermarket with my daughter who, in spite of the fact that the fridge and cupboards were stocked to overflowing insisted that there was "no food in the house." Ok, I'll take a break from the paper I'm writing and do some more shopping. Being in a bad mood however, I was outraged by my shopping experience.

Our down-market branch of Vons is decent. Others maintain a source of hand-wipes outside so that we can disinfect the handles of shopping carts before using them. This is sickening and I can't imagine why supermarkets do it. What is in their heads? What is in shoppers' heads if this is what they want? We spend our lives opening and closing doors that other people have, god forbid, touched, using public pens and pencils, grasping public handrails--people aren't poison. What on earth can be in people's heads to make them finicky about holding onto the handles of shopping carts that haven't been disinfected?

Once in the store we're confronted by air conditioning cranked down to 55 degrees. Why do they do that? My son speculates that it gives shoppers the idea that the fruit is fresh. Why on earth? Isn't there some more efficient system for keeping fruit fresh--keeping it behind plastic strips or in refrigerators? Why does the store spend this money, use this energy, to keep the place uncomfortably cold for customers? I don't mind the cold, but the waste infuriates me.

Poking around in the dairy counter, an employee asks me helpfully whether I'm finding everything ok. I am. Please ask if you need anything, he continues. Fine, I say, to get him off my back. This is a supermarket. There are signs up. I can find what I want and if I can't I'll ask. Why do these people pester me? I like my privacy in public and do not want any interaction. Why do they do this? I just want to get my stuff and get out--I don't want these people hassling me.

At the check-out, unless I'm pro-active and quick off the mark, the bagger will double-bag everything and pack no more than 2 or 3 items in each double-bag. This drives me up the wall! I say, "Pack it tight, and don't double-bag." This usually involves a fairly lengthy negotiation, and baggers look at me like I'm some kind of a nut. I usually have to explain: "Please don't double-bag and stuff as much as you can into each bag." Even then then don't take me seriously. They pack 4 items instead of 3 into each bag and then ask whether I'd like help to my car. What kind of help are they thinking of and why on earth would I want it? The stuff is in a shopping cart that I wheel out; I dump it in my trunk. What on earth can they do for me? If I were too old or feeble to wheel out the cart and dump the stuff in my trunk I'd be too feeble to get to the supermarket in the first place. What are they playing at?

I asked a friend about this over lunch yesterday. He claimed that people like this treatment because it "makes them feel rich and pampered." Can this possibly be true? This is Vons, Chula Vista--this is grocery shopping not some weird luxury spa but part of the business of life we have to deal with. My aim is to get through with the cheapest possible stuff, in the least possible time, without a hassle. I seriously doubt that people want this treatment--it smacks of an a priori program contrived in corporate HQ. In any case, if they have to interact, why don't they make stuffing single-bags tight the default and then ask shoppers if they'd like double-bags or like their stuff packed light?

Why do they do this--adding that little extra bit of hassle and misery to my day and doing their part to degrade the environment? I did my little bit this time, bought organic eggs which guaranteed that the chickens were "free-roaming" rather than merely "cage-free" for three times the price. I couldn't care less about what I eat but I care about chickens. I'm not a saint of ecology and don't aspire to being one. I'm not going to buy burlap sacks to pack my groceries because my priories are convenience and economy. But I do not see why supermarkets have to engage in all these wasteful practices that don't make shopping faster, more efficient or cheaper and just impose unnecessary interaction and hassles on shoppers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pecca Fortitir

Blogtalk: Bush, Iraq and Vietnam - The Caucus - Politics - New York Times Blog

Today President Bush used an appearance in front of a group of veterans to argue against the early removal of American forces from Iraq, drawing historical parallels to the end of the Vietnam war.

It was inevitable: unable to avoid comparisons with Vietnam, Bush is forced to embrace them. This is desperation: can he conjure up enough support from Americans who don't remember Vietnam or who believe that we would have done better to keep on fighting? Not.

I remember when I first heard about Vietnam. I was 14, at Beaverbrook Music Camp. Without TV or newspapers, preoccupied with 8 hours of orchestra, string ensemble or band, and chorus rehearsals a day we didn't know what the heck was going on. One day we heard that a war had started and, having grown up during the Cold War, when local post offices stocked brochures with instructions for building fallout shelters and schools ran regular air raid drills, we were convinced that we'd all die. The Russians would nuke us, we'd nuke the Russians and that would be it.

By the time I got home, I realized that we wouldn't die right away. Then there was 10 years of misery, following the body count on the evening news every day, watching the country come apart, marching in the streets, being trashed as traitors until eventually everyone came around and the war effort collapsed. There was the child burnt with napalm running naked and the helicopters grabbing people off the rooftop--it was over. Very few people who remember Vietnam believe that we should have stayed--and there are lots of us who remember.

We should certainly remember the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam as it was 40 years ago, and the differences. The Vietnamese as I remember were interested in national liberation, throwing off the yoke of a colonial regime and its neo-colonial successors. I seem to remember this area being called "French Indo-China." Iraq, I recall, was an independent country for decades, under the thumb of a tin-pot dictator who kept a lid on waring tribes and clans and, as warlord-in-chief, promoted the interests of his own clan and more broadly the Sunni minority, at the expense of other tribes while keeping a lid on tribal conflict.

It shouldn't have been that hard to predict what would happen once the lid was off. Of course these primitive tribal people would form militias under local warlords and gang leaders in rural areas and urban slums, engage in ethnic cleansing, turn the country (if it was ever a country) into a Hobbesian free-for-all, and make life intolerable for educated professionals, the cosmopolitan middle-class, and anyone who didn't fit neatly into the tribal system. We bombed this country into the stone age so that it's now inhospitable for any but stone age people--the peasantry and urban underclass who are happy with sharia, with warlords and tribal leaders, and with a world where women breed and men fight.

We should certainly learn from Vietnam and start getting out people who will be vulnerable--the American collaborators especially, but also all the educated professionals, all the middle class and all who don't fit into the tribal system, and airlift them to the US. We've got plenty of space, and could in any case use more doctors, nurses and engineers and can probably absorb more educated people even if they don't have valuable skills. Let the peasants and proletarians, the warlords, gang leaders and their militias, duke it out until they achieve an arrangement that suits them--and manage to kill off a sufficient number of young lower-class males to make the country decent and safe. Maybe a decade or three after that citizens of this tribal society decide they want to re-join the civilized world. Maybe a few of the exiles or their children will decide to go back--though I doubt it: why should they?

We broke it--we should fix it. But what a fix! This is the oldest civilization in the West, and possibly in the world: the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris and Euphrates. This is our ur-history--before Greece, and even before Egypt: Mesopotemia, the land in the land between the rivers. This is our root--the root beyond the root, which is Greece, and the most ancient civilization to which we can trace our history. Following the news after the invasion--the museums looted, the most ancient artifacts lost--who wasn't moved? How could we do such a thing?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tough-Minded Liberals

Full disclosure: I spent 7 years trying, with all my heart and soul and strength, to get ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church before our local bishop had the decency to tell me that it wouldn't be worth my while to keep trying--and that I would simply be wasting the time of the Commission on Ministry if I tried again. They were right to turn me down, given what I discovered they were looking for in clergy, but I do wish they'd played it straight and given me a better idea how things worked before I compromised my career and neglected my family to become "involved in the church" in order to build my ordination vita.

When I first inquired about ordination I was told that they key was to be "involved" so I diligently participated in activities, joined organizations and got on committees. I liked choir, but detested everything else. The worst was the Daughters of the King. Once a month we met to tweek the Daughter's Prayer List, adding members of the parish who were sick or had other "needs" and striking those whose problems had been solved, or whom the Daughters concluded had been prayed for enough. In addition to these meetings the Daughters maintained a Prayer Chain so that when a Daughter got word of a Need she could pass it to other members of the local chapter for immediate attention. I had the Prayer Chain structure posted over my desk so that when the Daughter before me on the chain called to tell me of a new prayer request I could call the next Daughter to pass it on. It was I who usually broke the chain--shilly-shallying and praying that the next Daughter would have her answering machine on until, by an alternative route, the prayer request passed through the chain and came back to me again.

I thought these women were sickening. They had the best of intentions and, from the moral point of view were better people than me, but I found their interest in the minutia of other peoples lives, particularly their interest in other people's various miseries, incomprehensible and their compassion and smarm disgusting. They weren't merely gossips and they certainly weren't malicious--they were really interested in people's affairs, really cared and really wanted to help which is surely good from the moral point of view--but from the aesthetic point of view, in my very gut, I was nauseated. And that is what, rightly, disqualified me from ordination. The diocese had other reasons for not wanting me, illegitimate ones, but this was the correct reason for zapping me.

From the aesthetic point of view I like hard, cold, tough, aggressive, intense and angular. I've always wanted to live in a Mondrian world. That's why I got into Ayn Rand in my teens. Always operating according to Kant's maxim, "The Spirit of Thoroughness is not yet dead in Germany," I diligently read everything she wrote--from her essays in The Virtue of Selfishness and For the New Intellectual to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I liked the idea of striving and fighting, exerting energy and achieving. Most of all, I liked the idea of hard, cold rationality--and Rand represented herself as the Knight of Reason in a world populated by Atillas and Witch Doctors, dumb thugs and smarmy-wimpy Daughters of the King.

By the time I was 16, as a high school senior writing my term paper on her opus, I was skeptical but it was only after spending 5 months as a clerk-typist at Intercity Trans. Co., Inc. that I repudiated the whole program. I saw that in the adult world of work most people just didn't have the opportunity to strive, fight, exert energy and achieve. Work I discovered was simply drudgery--filling time and coping with boredom. Striving and exerting energy didn't pay off and there was no way to excel. So I was converted--and have kept the Faith. Lots of people get into Ayn Rand at the time of their lives that I did and get out when I did.

But it still seems to me that lots of liberals just don't understand that aesthetic preference for hard, tough, aggressive and angular or the gut level disgust most of us feel for the Daughters of the King program. They don't understand the appeal of get-toughism, or why Americans like the idea of capital punishment, three-strikes laws or programs that purport to "get tough on crime." They don't understand why street gangs are appealing to ghetto youths. They don't understand why we like guns. They don't understand why people, particularly those who aren't engaged in combat, like the idea of war. When I was a kid I regularly watched a TV series called "Combat." I was never clear what the combat was about: was it WWII, Korea, Vietnam or something else? I don't think there was an answer: the program showed soldiers with greenery stuck in the net on their helmets, crawling through swamps with their weapons, intent on capturing territory. That was good enough for me: I liked it.

Lots of my fellow liberals don't seem to get it so they ask the wrong questions. Why do ghetto youths join street gangs? What's the matter with Kansas?: why do working class Americans vote against their economic interests? Why do Muslim youths support al-Qaida? They assume we're all, by nature, Daughters of the King. The answer is that violence, rage and the taste for toughness are the default: we are, after all, carnivores and our nature as a species is to like toughness, beat people up if we can, and to kill. War and violence are natural. What takes explanation is why, in civilized societies, there is a large population of people who could, if they chose, join street gangs, do violence, beat people up and engage in warfare--but don't. The answer is opportunity costs. If you believe, with good reason, that you'll do better by suppressing the natural tendency to do violence you won' t do it.

Readling lots of liberal stuff, I'm amazed at how denatured many liberals are--how they fail to understand the natural tendency for violence and the aesthetic appeal of toughness, how they just don't get the fact that we're carnivorous, that rage is our natural condition, and how they utterly fail to understand the contempt and disgust most us feel for the Daughters of the King, for smarm, whining, softness, weakness, and what passes as "compassion." Because of this "tough-minded liberal" strikes most Americans as an oxymoron. Until liberals--or "progressives" as we now style ourselves--can break that link between liberalism and this sickening smarm sensibility we will lose. Until we can re-brand liberalism as macho we haven't got a chance. There's nothing virtuous about machismo: it's simply what most people, male and female, like. Until we accept what we are as human beings, until we accept that anger, hatred and violence are at the core of the human condition, albeit something we need to overcome, and that for all our self-deceptive and hypocritical maneuvers we're in our guts disgusted by old-lady smarm and "compassion" we will never win hearts and minds.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Downside of Diversity

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

What does this mean? How is diversity measured for this study? I've read earlier discussions of the results and as far as I can gather the idea is that the larger populations of "diverse" individuals--black, Hispanic or Asian--the higher the level of "diversity." So Fresno, where there are just two significant ethnic groups--white and Hispanic--get would get a higher diversity rating than Springfield, with the pork-faced Irish cop and irritatingly avuncular black doctor, Apu at the Qwiky-Mart and Krusty the Jewish Clown, because there are lots of Hispanics in Fresno but only one Apu in Springfield. Diversity by this criterion measures the number of blacks, Hispanic or Asians in a place--not the number of different groups represented.

If so that's important because the serious question is one of what people are responding to when they "hunker down." Is it a consequence of some deep, biologically based aversion to people who look different, who are visibly not biological kin, or does it come from some more generic tendency to classify people as our people and Others where racial characteristics just happen to be a marker? Being an optimist, I'd bet on the latter, and that's why the criterion for measuring diversity is crucial. Where there are lots of people identified with an ethnic group, ethnicity is socially salient--people take it as a predictor of beliefs, preferences and behavior, as a marker of "culture"--and of class. Where there's just Apu, ethnicity isn't a big deal--more on the lines of personal eccentricity. When I was growing up being "Italian"--even unto the third and fourth generation--was a big deal in New Jersey (where everyone was very hunkered down!). Being Italian means nothing in San Diego--at most something along the lines of: "gee-whiz, ends in a vowel but not Spanish? I think one of my great-grandfathers was Hungarian--how interesting."

I suppose it's different for "visible minorities" but I still think it's "culture," and partly but not entirely class, that people pick up on. We're prejudiced and need to be honest about why in order to make some headway in fixing it. Why am I prejudiced? Partly because I take ethnicity as a class marker. I don't like lower class people and I am afraid in particular of young lower class males because they're statistically more likely to do violence than members of other demographic groups. If significantly more members of one identifiable group are lower class than members of another ethnic group we proceed accordingly. That's why, for all the anti-Muslim backlash in the US, Americans do not harbor any deep prejudice against Arabs or South Asians in the way that Europeans do: Europeans see an underclass--we see engineers. But that's not the whole of it. I think the real source of our discomfort is that we see lower-class "ethnics" living publicly in a way that we don't--not only guys hanging out on street corners harassing women but whole families sitting outside on beach chairs, socializing and transacting business in public, and little shops where people hang around and talk--in foreign languages we don't understand. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. The Greeks lived this way--built public stoa where people could stand around socializing and doing business. But it isn't our way, and makes us uncomfortable. We like to be private in public and don't want to live in this kind of neighborhood.

We also don't want dirty, messy little stores in our neighborhoods. That's also a matter of taste. Here is a remarkable story about how one grocery chain boosted sales by accommodating local tastes:

Kishore Biyani, a self-made businessman whose company, Pantaloon Retail Ltd., is India's largest retailer, recently spent $50,000 to improve his Mumbai store. The wide aisles and neatly-stocked shelves modeled after Western supermarkets just weren't doing the trick. Now thanks to Biyani's remodeling, the store is messier, noisier and cramped—a more familiar environment for customers accustomed to fighting their way through chaotic street markets. Narrow, winding aisles were added to create traffic jams and force people to stop and look at the products. Wheat, rice, and lentils are sold in large buckets so that consumers can feel and smell them to ensure their quality. Biyani even discourages his staff from straightening up after shoppers, believing that his customers are less likely to check out a product if it is in neat stacks. He even throws imperfect produce into the mix.

This is exactly what most Americans are afraid of. We don't want stores like this and we don't want this kind of arrangement spilling out onto our streets and into our neighborhoods.

Even where gross differences in behavior aren't an issue, we of course prefer to be with people like us--people who share our interests, know the same people to gossip about, like talking about the same subjects and operate according to the same conversational protocols. Talking to people unlike us takes work and the effort rarely pays off: most aren't interested in playing the games we like. At academic conferences I'm fairly sociable because I know anyone I talk to will be safe: they'll be easy to talk to, I won't have to work at figuring out the protocols, and the likelihood is that anyone there will be interested in talking about the topics that interest me in a way that I enjoy. Dealing with the general public I'm nervous: I don't know where they're coming from. I'll have to figure out the conversational rules on the fly, work at making conversation about topics that don't interest me and be careful to avoid being offensive. Living in NYC we really hunkered down: the odds were that anyone who made contact was either a crazy, a beggar, someone who didn't speak intelligible English or someone who was just so different culturally that conversation would be exhausting and unrewarding. Apart from conversation, we were hunkered down because we just didn't know how people were likely to behave, what they wanted, what they were up to. Hunkering is a habit and becomes a reflex, a cramp, so that even when dealing with "safe" people we were still hunkered.

I suspect that most people feel this way, but are embarrassed to admit it (I know I am). It's embarrassing to be shy, and there's a strong cultural imperative to like diversity: we're supposed to enjoy contact with people different from ourselves in the way that we're supposed to be curious and interested in a wide range of facts and factoids. If we're not, that's taken to show that we're dull of soul. What? You're not interested in the history of the Byzantine Empire, Goedel's Proof or the 10 most emailed articles from today's NYTimes? What a bore you are! Not interested in kidding with waitresses, striking up conversations with other shoppers at the supermarket or visiting exotic foreign places and getting acquainted with the locals? You're a bore, a snob and a bigot. Most of us though don't like dealing with people very different from ourselves and I don't see why we should. We like parties because, if the host/ess is doing their job, there's a tacit guarantee that the guests are people we'll find comfortable and interesting--people like us.

What I wonder though is whether the hunkering down reflex is a response to the perception or prediction of cultural/class difference or some hard-wired response to people who simply look different, whose appearance signals that they aren't close blood relatives. I'm optimistic that it's culture, group affiliation and ideology, not race. For one thing, lots of the major "ethnic" conflicts in times have been fratricidal: Sunnis and Shi'ites, Indians and Pakistanis, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians. That doesn't prove the point: it shows at most that genetic kinship is not sufficient for peaceful co-existence--not that it isn't necessary. I just hope it isn't necessary. And given that hope, the thesis of my book stands: we should do every damn thing we can to promote assimilation. The truth is that immigration does not benefit us: it's the immigrants that benefit. But I still believe we should open the borders, or something close to that, and let in as many people as possible in--not for our sake, but for theirs. We're sitting on vast wealth, have lots of space, and hogging all this good stuff stinks. And I still believe that, ceteris paribus, most immigrants would prefer to assimilate--the problem is that it's difficult and the natives aren't welcoming.

If we're seriously interested in assimilating immigrants and counteracting prejudice though it's important to explain to people how they need to behave. It isn't primarily a matter of learning civics lessons or history, commitment to fundamental "values," or flag-waving. No one cares that much about "values." It's simply a matter of trivial, superficial behavior. We're ashamed that we care about these trivialities and, if we're politically correct, we pretend to regard neighborhoods where people hang out, do business and socialize in the streets, as "vibrant." But we really don't like it. We know there's nothing wrong with it so we feel bad about telling people they shouldn't do it--but if they do it we penalize them. But we want things clean, cold and tidy. Why can't we be honest about the whole thing and say, "Nothing wrong with this but it isn't our way--if you want to fit in and make it in the US don't crowd people, don't live publicly or interfere with people in public and don't make a lot of noise; don't run these dirty little stores in our neighborhoods or turn our streets into a casbah. Of course you have a right to behave this way--it's a free country: we just don't like it." However we have to keep our side of the bargain: we provide English language and citizenship classes; we enforce anti-discrimination regulations and support affirmative action programs; we do what we can to incorporate them into social and professional networks.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Preference and Choice

Women Who Earn More (1 Letter) - New York Times

[T]he road to high pay is a toll road. On average, men more frequently pay 25 tolls: they work more hazardous jobs (accounting for 94 percent of workplace deaths), work outdoors (garbage collectors), on commission, relocate overseas, travel overnight and on weekends (90 percent of the most-frequent fliers are men), work graveyard shifts and weekends, specialize in engineering and technology where demand outpaces supply, and so on. The good news is that a woman making these trade-offs can outearn a man.

The bad news is that women don't get the opportunity to make those trade-offs. If you're a woman, just try getting one of those well-paid dirty, dangerous, outdoor guy jobs. If you're a woman you know very well that you don't have a shot and will just be embarrassed if you try. I once called about a night job running a floor sweeper in a factory. The guy who answered the phone asked whether the job was for myself. When I said it was he excused himself to talk to his supervisor. After a muffled conversation he got back to me and told me that there actually wasn't any job available after all--there had been some confusion. Women can't get these jobs and know it.

This is bounded rationality at work. Finite human beings, with finite time at their disposal, cannot consider every alternative and calculate costs, benefits and risks for each. They approach the decision problem, before making any calculations, with the assumption that lots of options are simply out of reach and make their choices from amongst a relatively narrow range of options that they recognize as feasible. They don't even think of those that aren't. It isn't a matter of calculating that the costs of working outdoors or getting dirty outweigh the benefits of higher pay: women don't even consider guy jobs because they assume, correctly, that they don't have a real chance of getting them and so don't apply.

As for commissioned sales jobs, this was one of the bones of contention in the class action suit against Sears years ago. Women couldn't get commissioned sales positions for big ticket items. Woman after women testified that she would prefer to get one of those jobs if she could, that she'd applied repeatedly and had been turned down. But all these women were trumped by a "feminist psychologist" called by Sears as an expert witness who testified that women didn't want to work on commission because they were risk averse. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose. Now as the Walmart case works its way through the courts we hear the same rhetoric: woman after woman testifies that she applied for fulltime or for promotion, expressed willingness to work nights and weekends, to travel or relocate, but were turned down over and over again--sometimes being told that they ought to be home for their children.

I don't doubt that 90 percent of the most frequent fliers are men. How many women get a chance to do jobs where you get to take frequent business trips? How many women are offered the chance to travel? When I worked in publishing, all of our college travelers were men: women were simply not hired for that job. Now most publishers' reps who visit me are women who seem to like the job fine. But back then the view, articulated by our editor-in-chief was women wouldn't want the job because it involved traveling and was "lonely"--women wanted to sit together in the office and gab. In fact women didn't apply for college traveler jobs then because they knew they couldn't get them, not because of a taste for gabbing around the water cooler. When it became feasible for women to get those jobs they applied and got them.

The rhetoric of choice and trade-offs that figures in these discussions assumes a highly idealized picture of decision-making that largely ignores budget constraints. We imagine homo economicus sitting at a vast switchboard with a few hundred nodes, plugging a current tester into each to display the costs, benefits and risks of each option and making trade-offs according to her preferences. Reasonable people don't operate that way. We don't plug the tester into options that we know aren't feasible for us. And we assess feasibility by looking at what people like us do--people of the same sex, race, or class, people we know, people in our circumstances. We assume, correctly, that our lives are likely to go the way theirs do and make our choices accordingly. We know, realistically, that the scope of choice is very limited: we don't make our lives--life happens to us, and the life that happens to us is likely to be the life that happens to people like us. The best we can do is make minor adjustments--if we're lucky.

The NYTimes occasionally features stories of highly privileged women who choose the mommy track--undergraduates at elite colleges who say they want to take 10 or 15 years off to be stay at home moms, corporate execs, partners in prestigeous law firms and the like, who quit to be upscale housewives. For them this is an authentic choice, an expression of their preferences. They're among a small group of highly privileged people who, unlike most of us, have a wide range of real options and significant control over the kinds of jobs they get and the kind of lives they live. When the privileged see the rest of us making choices they assume these choices reveal preferences. If I choose to apply for a cashier job rather than a job driving a two truck, they assume, it's because I prefer a clean, safe, indoor job--it's a choice, after all: no one is stopping me from applying for the tow truck job. They don't get it.

They don't understand that when we make occupational choices we aren't looking only, or primarily, at our preferences but at what we judge to be feasible and taking the least worst option. Some time ago I bailed my car out of the city tow lot. There was a crudely lettered sign on cardboard in the window advertising for tow-truck drivers--no experience necessary. I waited for over an hour on a line of furious motorists that snaked out the door before I finally got to the cashier's window. That cashier's job looked perfectly awful: trapped in a confined space behind bullet-proof glass, doing boring work, extracting payment from enraged customers who'd had their cars impounded and who had waited in the sun for an hour getting angrier by the minute--cursing, threatening lawsuits and murder. Did she prefer that job to driving a tow truck? Were the hooks and chains too heavy for her to lift? Was she willingly making a trade-off--putting up with the physical constraint, close supervision, boredom, public contact and abuse for clean, indoor work?

Give me a break. Every woman alive knows that she could never get the tow-truck job, that if she responded to that cardboard sign she'd be told the job was filled or asked to fill out an application and wait for a call that would never come. Who is foolish enough to go through the hassle and embarrassment of applying for a job at which they don't have a shot? It would be good news if women had the real option of making trade-offs. Most don't. We'd be happy to pay the tolls, but we don't have the opportunity.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Middle Class Values

[T]he Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save

Critics fault the author for holding that the origin of this change is genetic. It doesn't seem likely that significant genetic change is possible in the relatively short period of time from the high middle ages to the industrial revolution. Moreover, the relatively small genetic differences in the population that could have occurred over roughly 500 years wouldn't make such a big behavioral difference. Where he does seem to get it right is in the surprising idea that downward social mobility resulted in these wide-spread changes in England--where the upper classes were more fertile, drifted downward socio-economically but took their "middle-class values" with them--thrift, literacy, and future-orientation, and that this wasn't a matter of intelligence (hunter-gatherers and farmers need to be smart) but the tendency to invest in literacy, save money, avoid violence and sacrifice now for future security and gain.

The implications one may draw, not suggested in the article, are intriguing. There's good news (at least on my non-genetic reading) and bad news.

The bad news is that upward social mobility by the same reasoning is potentially destructive--at least if it comes about largely by way of dumb luck. Lower class people taking their "values" with them when they become socially dominant shop until they drop without thinking about the future, go heavily into debt and screw up the economy. Welcome to Southern California. Just checking in a minute ago the Dow was down 387 points which, according to an article I just read, is fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And that is a consequence of trailer trash who stumbled into wealth buying the biggest possible trailers they couldn't afford--4000 square foot MacMansions via "creative financing."

The only place where the thesis doesn't fit is on the work issue. Americans are working ever longer hours, and willingness to work long hours is one of the pieces, along with thrift and literacy, that does good. However the question then becomes one of how productive these long hours are, not for individual workers so much as in terms of what it is that's being produced. In the US the answer is relatively little since the elite and semi-elite workers who put in the longest hours are engaged largely in finance and services rather than production--shifting around money, creating bubbles and semi-scams like the sub-prime mortgage market. So I think the thesis holds: you have the culture-makers, with little interest in security, going into debt and producing nothing, even though they're drudging in office park carrels 12 hours a day. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat: white trash values have become dominant and drag us along. Try "depriving" California kids of the crap all their friends have.

The good news is that "middle-class values" can be taught, not only to kids, but to adults who, if they can be persuaded to try out the program, get sold on it. Normal human beings can be thrifty, prudent and hardworking, literate and non-violent; they can be reflective, make long-term plans, invest in their futures and their children's. It's not all that hard. Conservative Protestant churches and the military do a very good teaching job.

It's not that easy though because the culture and people's circumstances make this commitment difficult. I read sometime back, for bedtime reading, Life in an English Village, describing how thing were in a village somewhere in East Anglia from time immemorial to the early 20th century. When feudalism was in full swing there were 1000 policies and customs that stymied the peasantry, penalized thrift, promoted the Pay Day Loan ethos, and made social mobility virtually impossible. When a peasant died, his family owed their best beast, the herriot, to the Lord of the Manor and the mortuary, the second best beast, to the Church; they also had to kick in when their children were married. Peasants were expected to spend the bulk of their time working to eat and eating to work and, in their leisure time, Sundays and Saints' Days, to burn up any surplus frolicking and drinking themselves silly. According to the author, the custom of the manor in most places required the coolies to kick in for periodic communal celebrations, which he calls "scot-ales." He describes one case in which a family refused to participate in the jolly festivities: their jolly peasant peers poured beer down their chimney and trashed their house. This is all very cute if you like the idea of beer-fests on saint's days and morris dancing on the green but it locks in a pretty miserable life: don't bother improving your stock because the Lord and the Church will take your first and second best beasts, and leave your widow and children impoverished; don't try to save money because your peers will just humiliate you for your efforts.

Forget about us 'uns for a moment and think about the underclass, the modern representatives of this medieval peasantry. Don't try to be thrifty because the Lord of the Manor will appropriate your savings. In one particularly appalling story I read, before "the end of welfare as we know it," a welfare mom scrimped and saved to build a "college fund" for her daughter and the state, discovering it, appropriated it. Peasants aren't supposed to have savings accounts. Don't get married--the Lord of the Manor will exact a fee. Don't try to opt out of the culture of improvidence and violence or your peers will pour beer down your chimney--trash your house and beat you up. We don't expect, or want, you to join the middle class: we just want to contain and control you.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Teaching the Text

Today I'm working on my Analytic Philosophy course for Spring 2008. I always prepare well in advance and tweek over weeks or months. But this time I'm starting very early because I've decided not to use a text book. I'm be assembling articles and linking them to the class website.

I feel a little guilty about this--even though what I'm doing is legal--because it undermines the textbook publishing business which provides publication opportunities for faculty. Publishing a textbook anthology is one of the best ways, for junior faculty especially, to get vita entries--while swatting up on the literature in a field. But still, this is the tail wagging the dog: the purpose of publication isn't to pack academics' vitae. Tailoring research programs and restricting information in the interests of getting publications or grants to pad vitae or selling books, is lousy. It perpetuates a system that needs to change.

Why am I setting up the course this way? I suppose because I'm sick of teaching to the text. Before I could count on students to have good internet access I spent lots of time and effort looking for the least worst anthology. Apart from logic, I never use non-anthology texts: the basic unit of philosophy is the journal article, and besides if I used a textbook I wouldn't know what to say. If the textbook is good, if it reconstructs all the arguments and objections so what is there for me to do besides paraphrase? If it's lousy, I don't want it.

With anthologies however I've never really wanted to use more than a third of the articles at most and always wanted to use at least as many that weren't in the book. We all have notions about what a field is like and how a given course should be taught, what the essential articles are, what problems we find most interesting and what articles excite us: no collection of readings is ever entirely suitable. So in the old days I'd put articles on library reserve, xerox articles or create course packs--a miserable business--and more recently, link readings to my class websites. Now I'm just going to link everything: why not?

It's been a kick putting together this course because I'm absolutely free to do it right. It made me realize how constrained I was in the past, feeling that I had to do a sufficient number of articles from the text to justify students' buying it, using articles that I didn't think were the best ones on the topic because they were in the text, always compromising, slogging through articles that didn't really interest me, organizing my course to fit the book. I makes me wonder how high school teachers, required to work through curricula mandated by their school districts and teach to standardized tests manage. As far as I can see, given the students they send me, they don't--because their knowledge is wasted and because they don't have the autonomy to teach properly.

Nowadays there's a move to get us to assimilate downward to that model instead of freeing high school teachers to do what we do. The view is that we're overpaid, underworked bums who waste time and money taking long vacations, dreaming and propagandizing students with politically correct bs. Well, I've written 5 papers this summer, four of which are currently out at journals, and (a different) four of which are going into a book. And I've spend a good deal of time preparing my courses and websites for fall and spring 2008. That's what I do on my summer vacation: I read articles, I prepare courses, I write and I participate in a reading group to critique my colleagues' research. That's what we all do. I wanted to be an academic because my goal was to have a job where there was no line between working and not working, where I could in effect live over the store and work all the time, and that is what I do.

The general public doesn't see it that way. They want faculty to punch the clock, teach to the text, and do drudge in order to avoid wasting the tax payers money, as they see it. That's a waste of talent, effort, knowledge and the expensive education we get--and the financial sacrifice we make for this autonomy, to do research and teach. Mercifully I teach at a private college and I'm not under pressure to punch the clock, teach to the text or teach to the test. I can put everything I've got into my teaching, as well as my research, and do it right.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Let them eat...lettuce

Why I pick lettuce for the Black Panthers | Salon Life

Thursday's my harvest day for the Black Panthers. I begin in West Oakland, Calif., at an urban garden run by the not-for-profit City Slicker Farms. The beds are chock-full of roaming squash plants, beets and collard greens. I'm here for the lettuce. I might choose the red frilly Outredgeous, or the chartreuse black-seeded Simpson, or the Bronze Arrow; whichever looks the largest and healthiest, I pick five heads. Then I bike back to my own backyard plot 20 blocks away, in a run-down area of Oakland called Ghost Town, where I pick basil, marjoram, mint, wild arugula and edible flowers (nasturtiums and borage) to add to the mix. I want the Panthers to enjoy a gourmet salad, you see.

Welcome to 1969.

Here is a rich, white chickie doing her little random kindness and senseless acts of beauty for a street gang with a PR department. Why do chickies do this sort of thing?

I suppose the cute little charities are part of the training: girls specialize in niceness and charm, give whimsical inexpensive presents wrapped in newsprint, chit-chat at parties to entertain their guests and draw out those who are shy or socially inept, provide the ornament and filigree, the cute little extras. It's not hard to see why women are trained to do this job: without power or expertise, and without a lot of money in their control, women can't accomplish anything of significant value so they're trained to do these the labor-intensive, time-intensive creative niceties that don't take much money, power, or expertise. Men will pay for it.

The fascination with big, bad, underclass dudes is harder to understand.

When most people think of the Panthers, they think of black men wearing leather jackets and carrying guns, or the famous photo of founder Huey Newton sitting in a wicker throne with a spear in one hand, a shotgun in the other. What have been forgotten are the free medical clinics, the bus service for visiting prisons, the breakfast programs for kids and the thousands of bags of food handed out to needy folks.

Like Hezbollah, or any of the other gangs of lower-class thugs in the Third World who've astutely rebranded themselves as political revolutionaries, the Black Panthers were astute enough to make a show of little charities to win over silly lefty chicks and maintain control over their turf. Turf control by criminal gangs is an old story--from the Mafia to Mungiki: in failed states and slums the cops have written off as no-go areas, where random violence is rife, organized crime protects the populace from disorganized crime and dispenses patronage. Unlike the US government, war lords understand the importance of exercising soft power.

It's more mysterious why rich chickies hook up (socially or sexually) with these lower-class thugs. I suppose it's largely for the novelty of it, an expression of individuality or rebellion. Brought up in literate, liberal, egalitarian households under the auspices of ambitious parents who expect them to be corporate lawyers, girls take up with inarticulate, lower-class males who trash them and beat them up. Back in 1969 both girls and boys were keen on emulating the lower-classes. Boys went on the road, did odd jobs, and played redneck. Girls played Lady Madonna, waitressing for them, cooking for them, birthing their babies and getting trashed. The bolder girls took up with real lower-class males, picked up big, bad dudes who were only too happy to add them to their stables for additional prestige. Most boys and girls got bored living in shit after a few years and got back on track, though some achieved authentic, permanent downward mobility.

Women who weren't white or rich or privileged always knew better. There was one remarkable comedy monologue on In Living Color years ago in which a black woman got it down perfectly. It went something like this: "I'm a liberated Black Women, and when mah man he come home from his other gal he beat the crap out of me and dat is FREE-DOM!"

I suppose chickies who bike to the slums with their garden produce are harmless (I wonder if the author wears cute striped socks and floppy hats when she delivers her gourmet salads). Still, there's something obscene about this flakey chickie, in the spirit of high self-congratuation, doing business with brutal, misogynistic thugs and dispensing fancy veg to poor kids who live in dangerous neighborhoods, go to crappy schools and, realistically, have little chance of getting out. I'd love to beat her face in.

I'm not even sure exactly why. I suppose that even though I detest the lower classes and their garbage culture, that brutal world where women breed and men fight, I empathize. "You can shove that lettuce up your ass, bitch. Get on your cute bicycle and peddle home--you don't belong here. If you want to do me a real favor, get me the hell out of this shit!"