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Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Big Think 22 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity.
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Big Think is doing a series on African American heritage this month, and I just spent the morning listening to every segment by Princeton Professor Harris-Lacewell. One of the most important contemporary thinkers about race and gender, Prof. Harris-Lacewell offers summaries of her work on African American attitudes and perceptions and culture. I can’t recommend both her work and these Big Think interviewlets highly enough.   My favorite was her explanation of “what’s really going on” behind our attitudes about racial inequality today.

Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.

Social Privilege 4 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences.
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[Update: My friend Molly corrected the provenance of this meme in the comments section below:]

This is a difficult concept for students to think about, and I alternate between dreading the topic and loving the topic, depending on the class I’m in. Because people are anchored in their own lives, it is difficult for them to see their social power relative to the system as a whole. Here’s a brief “study” being done by some students at Illinois State. I’m highly dubious of the reliability of the data they’ll collect by looking at blog memes (computer literate, bloggers who would answer this particular meme are quite a self-selected and, I would guess, privileged group…so what meaningful conclusions could you draw from these data?). Regardless, it’s an interesting set of questions and issue to think about and follow the standard sociological research about what gives individuals in American society privilege relative to others. From Wry Catcher:

“What Privileges Do You Have?” is being used for a research exercise by students Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you choose to participate, please include this statement so that when they run search engines later, they will be able to locate your entry.

Instructions: bold any statements that are true for you.

Father went to college

Father finished college

Mother went to college

Mother finished college

Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers—yes, by high school; but as Wry pointed out, this is a highly problematic question for a gen-pop survey, let alone a sociologist (i.e., me) who has an overly complex notion of class to begin with.

Had more than 50 books in your childhood home

Had more than 500 books in your childhood home—honestly I don’t know, but I don’t think so

Were read children’s books by a parent

Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18—piano

Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18—I did have flute lessons, but they were through the public school and free, so I’m not counting them

The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively — In general, yes, although American anti-intellectualism runs strong and so there’s a bizarre simultaneous respest and rejection of the academic in the media

Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18

Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs

Went to a private high school

Went to summer camp—I camped with the BSA, but I don’t think that’s what this question is asking

Had a private tutor before you turned 18

Family vacations involved staying at hotels – never that I can remember, other than maybe when moving across the country

Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 — plenty of homemade stuff and I wore most pants and shoes until they were hole-y and threadbare

Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

There was original art in your house when you were a child – My aunt does oil painting and it has meaning within the family, but it was free and worth nothing on the art market, so I’m going to say No.

You and your family lived in a single family house

Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home

You had your own room as a child—well, I was an only child until age 13, so this is a bit misleading as a question unless you get full demographics on me

You had a phone in your room before you turned 18

Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

Had your own TV in your room in High School

Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16

Went on a cruise with your family

Went on more than one cruise with your family

Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up

You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family – I was until I was a teenager and my dad was unemployed…then I became hyper aware of such things; and we were always living on the cusp (although middle class) and so my mother was always quite vocal about the costs of things and our money in the home.

Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?

Happy May Day 1 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Democratic Theory.
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In the 21st century, the fight for justice in a capitalist labor market continues for the vast majority of the world’s people.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

The Pullman Strike

The Pullman Strike

Haymarket Riot

The Haymarket Riots

Eugene Debs

Eugene Debs

Mother Jones

Mother Jones

Illegal Immigration & Social Security 31 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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My mother forwarded an email to me today about how illegal immigrants may be granted social security benefits in the near future. It really pushed some of my buttons (this anti-immigrant hysteria is getting irritating in the extreme), so I wrote a detailed response and committed the internet faux-pas of replying to all. Here’s the original email my mother sent:

RE:  Soc. Sec. benefits:

Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked all his life and paid into SS.  Dad  has  passed away and now Mom can barely make ends meet.  While the possible  “illegal” alien in front of her at the grocery store buys the name brands, Mom goes for the generic brands, and day old breads.  She doesn’t have  out of state calling on her phone, because she can’t afford it and shops at the thrift shops and dollar stores.  She considers having a pizza delivered once a week “eating out”.  She grew up during the depression,  watched her husband go overseas to fight in WW II a year after their marriage,  and then they went on to raise,  feed and clothe 5 children, struggling to pay tuition for parochial schools.

The Senate voted this week to allow “illegal” aliens access to Social Security benefits. (Benefits they themselves don’t contribute to, but use nonetheless.)  I’m sorry, but how can the Senate justify this slap in the face to born and bred, or naturalized citizens.  It is already impossible to live on  Social
Security alone.  If they give benefits to “illegal” aliens who have never contributed, where does that leave us that have paid into Social Security all our working lives?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Attached is an opportunity to sign a petition that requires citizenship  for eligibility to receive Social services.  If you do not wish to sign the petition yourself, please forward on to anyone you think might be interested.

And here’s my response:

That email was so full of factual mistakes I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll just give you the two big ones:

1) the vast majority of illegal workers in American work in SWEAT SHOPS and AGRICULTURAL STOOP LABOR, usually making (if they’re lucky) minimum wage and living in third world standards. They are not living high on the hog while grandma buys generic mac-n-cheese and can’t make long-distance phone calls. The rest of them are in non-skilled labor, such as washing dishes or pulling up weeds or raising middle class people’s children or cleaning their homes. Most of them send a large portion of their pay home to support their families in their sending countries. They live multiple individuals and sometimes families to every housing unit because they cannot afford anything else. They also on average WORK more hours a week than the average american. These are well documented and extensively studied phenomena, so such alarmist, nativist nonsense does nothing to help the real social problems caused by illegal immigration, but simply stirs up hate and fear. [It also may interest you to note that Latinos in the U.S. are the LEAST LIKELY to apply for welfare benefits, even when they qualify. WHITE PEOPLE are the MOST LIKELY to receive welfare when they qualify.]

2) If undocumented laborers are not employed in domestic labor (i.e., childcare and housecleaning for middle class people), they are actually receiving a wage and THEY PAY FICA TAXES. Contrary to the alarmism of the email, illegal migrant workers PAY social security BUT DON’T COLLECT the BENEFITS.

Let me end by saying that I’m firmly in favor of LEGAL immigration and *not* ILLEGAL immigration. However, the issue is a complex one, requiring FACTS, research and cool heads instead of punditry and alarmism. Americans today are feeling economically insecure (with good reason) and feeling the pressures of globalization, and instead of looking to the economic and trade policies of their government, they are blaming the migrants who are ALSO victims of those same global processes. For example, United States’ economic policies have decimated the economy of Mexico, destroying local markets (especially agricultural) and displacing millions of peasants in central and southern Mexico. (For example, our *subsidized* corn is allowed under NAFTA, but Mexico is NOT allowed to subsidize its corn production.) Displaced, unemployed peasants have migrated north over the past 15 years seeking jobs to feed their families. Meanwhile, U.S. industry loves and supports illegal immigration because it is cheap labor. In the low end of the U.S. labor market (i.e., unskilled jobs), the flood of workers has had two effects. First, it has dampened wages, but only on the low end of the market (that is, it doesn’t effect middle class wages at all).  Second, it has created new job markets: for the middle class, it has changed their lifestyles, allowing them for the first time to have access to cheap child care and housekeepers, luxuries that used to only be available to wealthy people.  Finally, “illegal” labor adds billions of dollars to the economy, through productive labor and through consumerism and yes, through TAXES; losing that would be a major blow to the U.S. economy and to the budget of governments around the U.S.

SOLVING the illegal immigration problem is not a matter of grabbing your lawn chair and your shot gun and going and sitting on the border with your fellow scared white retirees; NOR will punishing people who are doing their best to feed their children by denying them the benefits they have earned with their hard work do anything to help the problem.

Instead, it requires 1) fixing NAFTA, which has done nothing more than enrich a few hundred American and Canadian businessmen (with no consumer benefit in the U.S. or Canada, and with devastating effects in Mexico), so that Mexico can expand its economy and raise the standard of living of the 50% of its population who live in poverty; 2) being a good neighbor by helping the Mexican government fight corruption, gang wars (which have flourished as the Mexican economy has foundered) and establish a more open, more democratic society (historically, our policy has been to keep mexico unstable so they remain weak); and 3) addressing the business culture of U.S. firms who reap enormous economic benefits through illegal immigration and addressing the lifestyle culture of the middle class who are growing accustomed to having a vast pool of underclass brown people from Mexico to do their shit labor for them for substandard wages.

[I’ve focused only on Mexico here—although many asian countries and guatemala and nicaragua are also major sources of illegal immigration—mainly because Mexicans receive the brunt of nativist hysteria at the moment.]

Take home message: Illegal immigration emerges out of nexus of multinational economic and social relations and problems. It is not about individual evil immigrant actors coming “here” to “take your mother’s social security.” Please.

Standup Economist 1 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Capitalism & Economy.
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You know you’re a nerdy social scientist when this brings you to tears:

The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.
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[This post has been getting a lot of traffic this week, so I’ve bumped it back to the top of the blog for people looking for it.]

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

A young Mexican-American couple live on the ground floor of my building with their baby boy, in a studio apartment. Neither speak English well enough to have a conversation with, although I try to be friendly and helpful when I can (last week I helped them move a couch out of their apartment, which was lots of fun accompanied by the broad grins and hand gestures of people working together who do not share a language). But ultimately, how much does it help this struggling couple for me to be friendly to them, to “respect” their differences as immigrants from Mexico? When I go into my apartment, they are still poor and struggling, whether I was ethnocentric or kind. What is the real disparity between me and them? What is the real inequality? And how exactly do we deal with it? Is multiculturalism enough?

When I started teaching a required undergraduate course on inequality in the United States, I came up against some kinds of resistance I hadn’t expected, not in my students, but in myself. I’d been educated in race and ethnic relationships, in cultural diversity and multiculturalism even as an undergraduate. In fact, these are pretty much the dominant culture of America today. But I kept feeling like something was missing or had gone terribly awry in the way we do multiculturalism. I have spoken at length about this here on my blog already, so I won’t go into details again.

Briefly, I find the multicultural obsession with difference to lead to some odd results: We tend to think of ethnic identities as being cohesive, consistent things that are easily identifiable and knowable; and we tend to create out of that notions of authenticity, that is, that there is such a thing as a real latino or a real black person. I object to this on two levels. First, it’s not empirically true. Ethnicities are social constructs that are inherently fluid and contradictory and change over time and from person to person. They are observable effects of social interaction, but they aren’t material or genetic or even heritable in any easy way. In short, there can be no ‘authentic’ qualities or aspects of an ethnicity, empirically; so to treat ethnicities as if they were real in that way is to enter into a world of make believe. Second, as a cultural sociologist, I’m inclined to want to describe who people actually live, what they actually do, and what they actually believe. Real people mix and match cultures (at least they do in pluralist societies) and move freely around and among them, and end up fully hybrid peoples. At the same time, they tend to, in our current way of doing multiculturalism, see themselves as being or having an ethnicity. Indeed, it’s more than a question of perception: it’s a deeply felt and experienced thing, down in the bones. Tell an individual who thinks of himself as “irish” that empirically, he lives like every other American middle class person, and you’ll have an empassioned battle on your hands.

Surely, in a democracy people must have the right to create the kinds of identities they want to; and in an immigrant nation, our culture is always-already hybrid and blended, and new generations of immigrants will have new relations to the cultures of their parents’ sending nations. Surely, in a democracy, we must tolerate those kinds of differences.

One of the fundamental tenets of multiculturalism is the inherent equality among cultures, that is, that no culture is better or worse than another. This kind of equality seems like a no brainer to me, ethically, in terms of creating a democratic society where people of multiple cultural origins and blended cultural configurations can blend and work together and participate in the society. Benn Michaels sees the problem (and I agree) here: that if all cultures are equal in value, then none should be privileged over the other.

For me, the logical conclusion of a multicultural ethical structure is that there is then nothing wrong with people abandoning their culture or creating new cultures to fit their experiences or of blending, mixing and matching as they see fit. But problems arise when the diversity becomes an end in itself; or to say it another way, if maintaining the diversity becomes the purpose of the democracy, then you may have a problem. First, you have to decide what counts as the ‘culture’ you are trying to protect, and then you have to have rules about which people, practices, objects, and beliefs count. And then you end up drawing lines around cultures, which empirically cannot work. Human beings’ cultural interactions are far more complex than that. And so your left with the question of what the relationship to a democracy should be to the culturally plural lives of its citizens.

So I agree with Benn Michaels that seeing diversity as an end in itself creates major problems for the democracy, but I would criticize him for giving such short shrift to the ethical purposes of multiculturalism in the first place, which is as a mechanism for teaching tolerance. Where he and I agree, however, is that tolerance and respect do not mean the same thing in a democracy, and shouldn’t. Indeed, all cultures aren’t equal, and there are cultural beliefs and practices that are repugnant in a democracy working toward freedom and equality.

But Benn Michaels goes further than I have in my critiques of multiculturalism. Whereas I have seen the empirical contradictions of multiculturalism and the problematics within a democratic pluralism, Benn Michaels sees the effects of multiculturalism systematically as being the cultural mechanism whereby we let ourselves off the hook for the suffering around us.

In a nutshell, Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism has done two problematic things: 1) it has located and reduced all social problems to questions of respect, so that 2) we think all that is necessary to fix social problems is to learn to respect people who are different from us. The problem here is that the real suffering in American culture today arises out of economic inequality, out of that great hiss and byword of American culture, class, not in our racial and ethnic difference. (I would say that Benn Michaels needed to more carefully connect the racism of the past with his argument, because race and class have been so intricately linked in American history and because there still are inequalities based on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.).

In America, he argues, we pretend like there are no real differences between being rich and being poor; we excuse ourselves from seeing the real differences by thinking of them as cultural differences that we must respect. In one of the most mordant passages in the book, Benn Michaels asks how exactly it helps a poor person to respect their culture, as if poverty were just another among many equal cultures. Says he, “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” In reality, our focus and obsession with diversity and difference has benefited the right wing (we no longer talk about economic inequality) and the left (who are off the hook for fixing it). In other words, multiculturalism in its effect serves to allow the right wing to ignore real inequality and suffering by covering themselves with their ‘inclusiveness’ or their ‘respect for diversity.’ (Think of all the companies who have diversity programs, for example.) And it serves to salve the conscience of a nation living with 45 million poor people, the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world (not to mention poverty, access to health care, homelessness, etc.).

Finally, Benn Michaels makes a vitally necessary plea to resist the urge to think of religions as analagous to ethnicities. He argues that religions are beliefs, not cultures, and that religions by their very nature are making truth claims. Truth claims by their very nature, in a democratic society, are to be debated and vetted publicly. So Benn Michaels argues not that we should exclude or preclude religious discourse from public dialogue, but rather that it must be stricken from our notions of ‘respect’ and that it must be engaged as any other faulty truth claim in debate in the public sphere.

If it’s not obvious by now, Benn Michaels was preaching to the choir in me as a reader. But with his wry humor and good logic, he got me over my objections (mainly, I wanted a lot more substantive evidence for his positions, but that’s just me being a sociologist) to go along with his general thesis, which frankly, is so obvious I don’t know why i hadn’t seen it before, especially someone like me who is still a subconscious marxist. I will probably adopt this book next semester in my inequalities class and see how my very diverse bunch of Bay Area students will react to his arguments.

Marxism as Religion 31 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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The September 21st New York Review of Books carried an essay about Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in which Judt discusses at length the philosophers thoughts on Marxism. Kolakowski likens marxism to a religion or a faith statement in its social effect, and as I rode the commuter train this morning, I had one of those Eureka moments. I have never been able to make sense of the contradictions within marxism, and between the best of Marx’s ideas and the horrific outcomes of marxism in practice. I had never fully bought the apologists’ efforts to rescue Marx from his followers and practitioners, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend why. Kolakowski’s idea that marxism is (or I would say functions like) a religion suddenly brought it all into focus.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to more in depth look at Marx’s social thought, especially his critiques of capitalism, and I even took a course where we examined Das Kapital in depth. For sociologists, Marx is one of the founders of social scientific thought, most notably in his insistence on the centrality of social relations to ideas (ideologies) and to material outcomes, his views of social systems as complex interactions, and his belief that such systems could be understood “scientifically” (that is, through systematic observation and analysis). Surely, Marx’s social science method wasn’t well developed (we owe that mostly to Durkheim and Weber), but his ideas proved central to the growing idea in European (and eventually American) universities that human societies could be understood scientifically and planned.

Marx as social theorist is pretty narrowly read today by most sociologists who don’t specialize in Marxist criticism, focusing mostly on his analysis of capitalism as a social system. In cultural studies, 20th century dialogues with Marx’s ghost is practically a rite of passage. The obvious critiques of Marx have been made over and over, particularly his historical materialism, which so often devolves into a kind of gross determinism in Marx’s writings as to make you want to throw the whole thing out. But starting with his writings on the 18th Brummaire and culminating in Kapital, Marx had shifted to a depth of analysis of how capitalism functions to mix ideologies and social relations together (his notion of the fetishism of the commodity is fucking brilliant, and more salient today than he could have imagined). That contradiction between the irritating determinism and the powerful insights has plagued my relationship with Marx for years.

As a sociologist who sometimes studies religious cultures, I instantly felt the resonance of thinking of marxism as a religion. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of religion knows that all religious systems are morally conflicted and internally inconsistent in their morals. The same religious system can produce massive violence and suffering in one context, and on another occasion be the source of humanity’s shining moments of compassion and healing. This contradiction makes religious cultures (that is, their symbolic contents) difficult to deal with empirically, because their effects in the social world are mixed and contradictory. Further, most world religions as they have survived today rely on texts and often on founders. Again, these founders are often the source of contradictory ideas: Jesus taught both “love they neighbor” and that his religion would tear apart families and bring violence (“the sword”); Mohamed taught both that the diversity of humans was divine, and that Arabs were god’s only people; the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods. Of course I’m being overly simplistic here to illustrate a point, that religious systems are ethically and ideologically mixed and that the mixture can be traced back to its founders.

The apologists for Marx often try to say that his followers didn’t understand his ideas; or they argue that communism wasn’t real marxism; or they insist that communism was corrupted by a handful of corrupt men. But Kolakowski sees in Marx’s determinism, specifically his view of the Proletariat as the “true people,” the ideas of inevitability and of moral certitude necessary to create the slaughters and oppressions in 20th century communist societies. Surely, Marx was in favor of a kind of radical freedom familiar to any good libertarian, but he also held ideas that, in Kolakkowski’s words, were nearly eschatological. That is, he saw history (in a modified Hegelian framework) in a way familiar to most Christians: as moving toward a glorious, if bloody, end, and the end was Good and would bring everlasting peace and happiness, despite being preceded by violence. These ideas are indeed contained in Marx, along with his biting and incisive critique of the inequalities and suffering produced by the social relations of capital.

And so to see marxism accurately, even to be able to gleen from it what is useful to me in 2006 while rejecting what is damaging or merely wrong, I can see marxism as a religion with millions of followers who, like religious originators and their followers elsewhere, truly believed what they practiced, and had in many ways left reason at least partway behind. Marxism had become, perhaps even for Marx himself, a kind of credo, an end-in-itself, an ultimate, unquestionable Good. The assumptions within Marx’s early works can and did plausibly lead to the repressions of the Soviet state; and his critiques can and did likewise lead to the social-democracies of western Europe. I think it might be interesting to actually study ‘marxists’ and see if empirically their interactions do indeed follow religious models. To be fair, I’d also love to study some market fundamentalists, a somewhat smaller and yet infinitely more powerful crew, to see if The Market doesn’t likewise function as a faith.

Catching Up 20 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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Wow, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop, so much has happened, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up. So here’s a roundup of the things that have interested, fascinated, horrified and angered me over the past few weeks (in no particular order, other than how they popped into my head):

1) The Foley Affair: The man is a creep, not a pedophile. The Republicans have no shame, playing on pedophiliphobia (to coin a word) and homophobia for their own spin needs. It appears they have failed, however. I have no sympathy for closeted public officials who use their power and self-hatred to oppress gay people.

2) Outing Closeted Republican Politicians and Staffers: As many elsewhere have noted, there is nothing wrong with the outing of public officials. The only reason you could think outing was wrong is if you accept the premise that being gay is shameful or wrong in some way, which it is not. Although I’m more sympathetic to private individuals, elected officials have no excuses or expectations of privacy on this matter.

3) Legalizing Torture and Creating a “Unitary Executive”: Where were the riots? Where were the protests? My students didn’t know this had happened and didn’t care. Why are Americans asleep on this issue? This is exactly what the anti-Federalists were afraid of back in 1789: An Executive would become a King. Meanwhile, we have become what we used to hate.

4) 650,000 Dead Iraqis: Although I think there may be some problems with the methods of this count, the point isn’t missed: Iraqis are suffering immensely under our efforts to “save” them. We must look at the consequences of our actions as a nation, and rethink them immediately. The solution we tried didn’t work (duh). Time for a new one.

5) Military Coup in Thailand: You cannot defend democracy from a corrupt Prime Minister by overturning the democracy.

6) Nuclear Bomb in North Korea and Bush’s Dissembling Remarks: Why did we attack Iraq? Why was one of the first actions of the Bush administration’s foreign policy machine, early in 2001, to cut off talks and withdraw an agreement with North Korea?

7) Reading, The Working Poor: Shipler’s book, a couple years old now, does an amazing job of painting the complex matrix of circumstances, personal choices, and social institutions that work to keep people on the bottom of our society on the bottom of our society. Without waxing overly sociological, he uses the research and brilliantly conveys the lived experience, the oppressive conditions, the physical and psychological effects of poverty. And he concludes by excoriating the right-wing view of government and it’s effect on tens of millions of people’s ability just to live in the United States.

8 ) Reading, The Trouble with Difference: I’ve been personally struggling with the effects of some kinds of multicultural theory and practice lately, as it seems to me that our focus on “cultural diversity” as an end-in-itself has actually led us to ignore real inequalities around us. Michael Benn Walter’s little book makes this argument eloquently (although sometimes lacking in what my sociologist brain requires: evidence) and powerfully. I’ll do a whole post on this book later this weekend.

9) The Economics of Working in Higher Education, or I Need a Raise: I realized yesterday that because of the funding of my University and the contract for faculty, I would be at this pay scale for 5 more years, with probably no cost-of-living increases (joke) and no merit increases (eliminated from our contract) and only a minimal raise when I get tenure (6%, I believe). That means I’ll be living like a graduate student for the rest of my life. In material terms, I’m starting to question if my 8 year ordeal to get a PhD and secure a tenure track position was really worth it.

10) England’s Total Misunderstanding of the Principle of Free Speech, or How Wrong-Headed Versions of Multiculturalism Will Fuck Us If We’re Not Smarter than the Brits: First, they throw an anti-gay bigot in jail for distributing anti-gay pamphlets; then they throw out a gay police association’s advertisement out because it was “mean to christians”. How could people in the land of John Stuart Mill have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the freedom of speech?

11) Michigan Rejects Intelligent Design: Hooray!

12) Teaching the Evolution of Mind to Freshman Science Majors, or How Can Freshmen in University in California Be So Clueless about Human Evolution?: A guest lecture this week went very well, as I tried to explain in 50 minutes the naturalistic theory of cultural evolution. What I wasn’t prepared for was a group of science majors who had no clue about the basics of evolutionary theory and how scared they were as I talked about “human ancestors” in trees and starting to walk upright and growing big brains. Surreal experience of the inadequate K-12 science education.

13) Nobel Peace Prize for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh: I have always been sharply critical of capitalism in general, because of the social, human costs of an unfettered market. But in my old age, I’ve moderated a bit, to start thinking about how capitalism might be controled and used (I’m adamantly opposed to Market Fundamentalism and Laissez-Faire) to create the wealth necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering. The market is powerful, but not all-mighty. And so I was fascinated by this idea of “microcredit”, giving loans to small entrepreneurs in Bangladesh instead of large donations to often-corrupt governments in the developming world. Building a successful middle-class is a key part of democratization, because you have to have a social base of people who feel they have a stake in the society before they can have a participatory democracy.

14) Why I Have a Crush on Olbermann: Listening to him eloquently and bluntly thrash George W., & co., just makes me horney, baby.

15) Anti-gay Violence: Man Lured to His Death in New York: There seems to be a sudden spurt of anti-gay violence around the country these past few months, and it’s starting to piss me off.

16) The New Virginia Ballot Proposition that Would Ban All Legal Rights for Same-sex Couples: You not only have to outlaw same-sex marriage, but you also have to prevent all same-sex couples from having any legal arrangements or contracts with each other at all? What the fuck is wrong with America?

17) A Series of Rapes in the Castro: The anti-gay violence comes home, as a series of three brutal attacks on gay men in the Castro followed by sexual assault. The press and police keep talking about how baffled they are by a group of straight men raping men. That is just ignorance. Men have been raping each other for thousands of years, because it’s about power and humiliation. This is not a new kind of hate crime against gay men; it’s just that we now live in a society where we can actually talk about it in public. And in England they punish the gay policemen for saying that anti-gay Christians are legitimizing anti-gay violence?

18) Dissension in the Ranks of the ACLU and a Turning Point for What Has Been the Most Important Civil Rights Watchdog Group in American History: The dissenters are right to criticize the current board of the ACLU and to demand the open dialogue and disagreement that has been the hallmark of the organization until recently.

19) Mirror Neurons Are Cool: Don’t have much to say here, as I’m just learning about them. But they are fuckin’ cool.

20) Will Stephen Pinker and George Lakoff Please Stop Pissing All Over Each Other? Yeah, Lakoff is kinda a hack; but Pinker makes claims way beyond what’s warranted by his evidence. I’m just irritated at what seems to have devolved into a pissing match, instead of a constructive argument. This reminds me of some of the more irritating exchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould re: punctuated equilibrium.

21) Rethinking Sam Harris’s Book and Richard Dawkins’ Rationality Meets Salon’s Effort at Being “Provocative”—Dear God, I’m Tired of Religion: At first, I thought Harris’s book was overly simplistic, but as I’ve digested his argument over the past year, I’ve come to agree. Religious moderates must take responsibility for their part in making fundamentalism acceptable. And Dawkins’ interview in salon about his new book made me want to slap the interviewer.