Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Big Think 22 February 2008Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity.
Tags: African American, Black heritage month, civil rights, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, racial justice
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 2008Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
Tags: generational sociology, mass culture, post-fordism
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.
Happy May Day 1 May 2007Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Democratic Theory.
In the 21st century, the fight for justice in a capitalist labor market continues for the vast majority of the world’s people.
The Pullman Strike
The Haymarket Riots
Illegal Immigration & Social Security 31 March 2007Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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 2007Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Capitalism & Economy.
You know you’re a nerdy social scientist when this brings you to tears:
The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.
[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.]
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.
Catching Up 20 October 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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.