Jon Meacham, at Time,
with a brief overview of the American Dream.
He warns that it "may be slipping away."
Relatedly, here's a bit of Barbara Jordan at the 1992 Democratic National Convention
--she thought the American Dream was "gasping for breath," but not dead:There appears to be a general apprehension about the future which undermines our confidence in ourselves and each other. The American idea that tomorrow will be better than today has become de-stabilized by a stubborn, sluggish economy. Jobs lost have become permanent unemployment rather than cyclical employment. Public policy makers are held in low regard. Mistrust abounds.
Michael J. Mooney, in D Magazine
, on Texas bowler Bill Fong
: He remembered how much he’d enjoyed bowling. He didn’t miss the up-all-night-gambling lifestyle, but the game itself, shutting out the world and making himself robotic—those things he missed. He joined a few leagues and bowled in tournaments all over North Texas, but no alley felt to him quite like the Super Bowl in Plano. There’s something about the friendly faces, the way a great strike sounded there. It felt right.
I've joked before that Australia seems like the Texas of the Commonwealth (and Scotland the Texas of the United Kingdom, etc), so I was tickled to run into this in Texas: A World in Itself, a 1942 account of the state by George Sessions Perry:
Full disclosure: I, like George Sessions Perry, have never actually been to Australia, but I have met some Australians, attended a lecture about Australia's immigration policy, and read The True History of the Kelly Gang
, which is excellent, by the way, so I don't see why I should hesitate before offering sweeping conclusions about the psychographics of an entire country. Most Australians would probably do the same.
Last week, at the Republican Party of Texas's annual convention, one of my goals was to try to figure out how the party's base would explain the not-necessarily-obvious connection between fiscal and social conservatism. That is, from one perspective, the coalition is just a matter of political opportunism. If your primary concern is the deficit, for example, you might not care that much about gay marriage; if you're ardently pro-life, you may vote on abortion rather than taxes. And to be sure, I think this is part of the story; you can certainly find a lot of Republicans who are more concerned with one set of issues rather than the other, and I talked to some of those types in Fort Worth (including some libertarian-type tea party members). However, a lot of Americans describe themselves as conservative on both economic and social issues--31%, according to a recent Gallup poll
--so I wanted to ask them whether that's more than just coincidence. I wrote up some of the conclusions at Democracy in America
. There's something else to add here. I've been going through a lot of poll numbers lately for both Texas and the nation as a whole, trying to figure out to what extent Texas is really an outlier on social issues. What I've found is that this "about a third" figure is remarkably consistent, both in Texas and around the country, on a variety of issues.
With regard to gay marriage, for example, it's pretty clear that a substantial majority of Americans supports legal recognition for same-sex couples, and about a third are against it, although the size of the majority in favour depends on whether you're asking strictly about marriage or including civil unions as an option. Last month, for example, a NY Times/CBS Poll
found 38% of respondents supporting gay marriage, 24% supporting civil unions, and 33% against both. In Texas, according to a February 2012 survey from the Texas Politics Project
, the split was 31% supporting marriage, 29% supporting civil unions, and 33% against both. The most confusing poll results are on abortion--it again depends on how the question is framed--but in both Texas
and the United States
as a whole, you have a minority that is strongly pro-choice, a smaller minority against abortion in every case, and a lot of people in the middle who are apparently uncomfortable with abortion but think it's okay in certain circumstances. (Oddly, on that question, Texas actually looks a little more liberal than the country as a whole, but this might be a quirk of the way the respective questions were worded). As far as the 'war on contraception, this year Public Policy Polling found that 37% of Americans were opposed
to the idea that the government should require employers to cover contraception as part of their health insurance offerings. (Similarly, 38% of Texans supported Rick Perry's decision
to defund Planned Parenthood.)
On the more general question of church-state separation, a national survey from the First Amendment Center found 67% of Americans agreeing
that the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state. Relatedly, a 2010 survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found 68% know that the Constitution establishes the separation of church and state
. (In 2010, the Texas Freedom Network found that 68% of likely Texan voters
agreed that separation of church and state is a foundational Constitutional principle.)
On balance, it seems pretty clear that in both Texas and the United States, social conservatives (or religious conservatives, if you prefer) are the minority. That's why they don't usually win on the issues: abortion is legal, contraception is widely available, and gay marriage is progressing through the states. They are, however, a sizeable minority--and more to the point, an organized and voluble one. Their strength is in their devotion rather than their numbers.
Sea lions grieve; shelties get anxious. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, in the New York Times, argue that we should pay more attention to illness and emotion among animals
: A friendly cocker spaniel in Texas once sent her owners’ lives into a tailspin when she turned her attention to toad licking. As described in an NPR story, the spaniel, Lady, had been the perfect pet, until one day she got a taste of the hallucinogenic toxin on the skin of a cane toad. Soon she was obsessed with the back door, always begging to get out. She’d beeline to the pond in the backyard and sniff out the toads. Once she found them, she mouthed them so vigorously she sucked the pigment right out of their skin. According to her owners, after these amphibian benders Lady would be “disoriented and withdrawn, soporific and glassy-eyed.”
Just use your anterior cingulate. Christopher Bergen at Scientific American
: Brassen and her colleagues found that for healthy older participants, the area of the brain which is usually active during the experience of regret, the ventral striatum, was much less active during rounds of the game where they missed out on a lot of money, suggesting that the healthily aging brains were not processing regret in the same way the young and depressed older brains were. Also, when they looked at the emotion controlling center of the brain, the anterior cingulate, the researchers found that this area was much more active in the healthy older participants than the other two groups. Interestingly, Brassen and her colleagues found that the bigger the missed opportunity, the greater the activity in this area for healthy older participants, which suggests that their brains were actively mitigating their experience of regret.(H/T: The Hairpin)
James Henson, at Texas Monthly
, with a review of Gail Collins' new book about Texas:All of this adds up to a solid summary of the liberal critique of the Texas model. What Collins fails to do is get to the bottom of why things have turned out this way. She lays most of the blame on the state’s political culture, describing Texas as a place that is skeptical of government and dedicated to individual autonomy, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But though she’s attentive to the importance of Latinos in the state’s past and future, she never fully appreciates the class and ethnic divisions that have long defined political power here. This leads her to overgeneralize about what “Texans” think. The occasional interviewees on the left side of the spectrum are presented as lonely voices of reason in a state full of self-defeating nuts.
I'm a fan of Collins, and her take gets some things right, but I broadly agree with Henson's critique. My Texas book (which won't be out until next year) goes into some depth about how the state got to be the way that it is, which I think is critical for understanding what Texas is like today. If you look at the history of the state, it's clear that most of Texas's outlying traits were established before the state even joined the union. That doesn't mean those traits are all fantastic, or that things never change, but Texas is much more comprehensible than outsiders sometimes think. I also have fewer qualms about Texas than Collins does. It's not perfect, of course, but a lot of what Texas does works for Texas, even if it might not work elsewhere. And I think she slightly exaggerates Texas's capacity to mess with America. Yes, of course, it's a big, influential, state, but if Texas is leading the way on policy issues, it's because other states are following its lead, as it is, of course, their right to do. But
in any case, more on all of that later. In the interim, you can read an excerpt of the book at Slate
Jeffrey R Young, at the Chronicle of Higher Education
, on the unlikely conversation
between the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) and David F. Skrbina, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Michigan. The two have been corresponding for nearly a decade, and Skrbina discusses the former's writings in his class on the philosophy of technology: At one point an older student in the back with gray hair and a denim shirt suggests that it's wrong to be having this discussion. "Is it even morally or ethically right," he asks, "to be studying the works of a societal criminal—in this case a social terrorist?" Skrbina is quick to respond: "So the question is, Can the ideas stand on their own merit regardless of who said them? It could be Kaczynski, it could be Mother Teresa, it could be Mr. Anonymous—the ideas are what they are, and the arguments are what they are. So I think from a rational standpoint we should say we can treat the ideas in abstraction from the circumstances in which they appear."I don't think that is the relevant ethical question.
Every time one of these guys pops up--the Kaczynskis and the Jared Lee Loughners and the Anders Breiviks--there's a tendency to try to figure out why someone would lash out so viciously against innocent people, meaning that people suddenly pay a lot of attention to their manifestos and YouTube videos and so on. Or if not a lot of attention, more than we otherwise would. The relevant ethical question is along the lines of, do we thereby create a perverse incentive for people to act out this way? As for Skrbina's question, though, the answer seems to be 'no'. That's why the Unabomber was sending mail bombs. He wanted to compel people's attention
, and apparently the normal, nonviolent ways of doing so weren't working. In a sense, he used technology to advance his public profile--ironic, given that his manifesto (which I haven't read) apparently calls for people to abandon technology. If he doesn't believe his own argument, why should any of us check it out?
A few thoughts on Scott Walker's victory in the recall election in Wisconsin:1. That wasn't particularly ambiguous
I don't live in Wisconsin and I'm not an expert on the state or its politics. That role naturally falls to the people of Wisconsin, who make collective decisions via regular elections, in addition to the occasional recall. Walker made it through the recall with a 53%-46% majority
. There were obviously a lot of people in the state who wanted him out, and went to a lot of trouble to gather enough signatures to force the vote. They were outnumbered by the people who wanted Walker to stay.
And yet the reaction to this vote, on the left, has been an awful lot of denial
. Voter suppression was the bugbear as the polls were open, and last night--once it was clear that the margin of victory was big enough to be convincing--it's all about "dark money"
, collective derangement, asking for a recount, etc etc.
For a party that supposedly represents the people, Democrats seem to have very little confidence in them. Results that deviate from their preferences are somehow seen as illegitimate. This is not a new thing, but it is weird and off-putting. (To be fair, Republicans do this too, but at least they don't so often big themselves as the objectively more enlightened and intelligent party.)
There's an old saying: when you realize you were wrong, it's like treasure in your hands. This could be one of those moments for progressives. They sought out this fight (as it was their right to do). They gave the recall their best shot (and from what I can tell, there was no shortage of interest in this election). And, ultimately, they lost. The voters didn't make a mistake; they made a decision. Maybe at some point they'll make a different decision. That's how this works.
You know, I don't even care about public-sector unions. I guess they have their pros and cons. But I do have a problem with groupthink, sanctimony, and martyr complexes, and last night the left was showing signs of all three. 2. About those crossover voters...
Among the results from the exit polls
is that some 18% of the people who voted for Walker said they would vote for Obama if the presidential election was held today. Some have suggested this is a quirk of the exit polls, which are not particularly reliable; Alec MacGuinness, writing at The New Republic before the results came in
, predicted that there would be a swathe of swing voters who were less driven by ideology than by their assessment of the status quo. If you think things in Wisconsin are generally fine, that is, and you feel generally okay about the country's direction, you might vote for Walker and Obama.
I don't find the crossover voting surprising and would suggest, alternatively, that these are simply voters from the fiscally conservative/socially moderate cohort. When it comes to a presidential election, where everything from gay marriage to monetary policy is on the table, it can be hard to predict which issues such voters will prioritize. But the Wisconsin recall was all about fiscal issues. 3. This is not a vote against the workers.
Most workers are not unionized. The national unionization rate is about twelve percent. "The unions", particularly the public-sector unions, are not the same thing as "the workers." Moreover, there's an argument that powerful public-sector unions actually hurt workers, viz, the workers who aren't part of the unions, and that collective bargaining reform has advantages
. See Joel Kotkin, for example, who points to bloated, unsustainable public-sector pensions as one data point in favour of the proposition that America "seems to have turned on its young."
So anyone who's saying that this is an attack on labor, or on workers, really ought to clarify that. 4. Organized labor needs to check itself before it--oh wait.
It would be untrue to say that Americans, or Wisconsinites, have turned against unions altogether. A pre-election poll from Marquette University found that 55%, favoured limiting collective bargaining rights for most public employees--a majority, but not a consensus. It's more correct to say that people have reservations about the current state of play. In the same survey, 75% of respondents said that public sector employees should pay more for their benefits.
The suspicion of collective bargaining, that is, is less pronounced than the frustration with the bargains that have been made. That's generous of the Wisconsin voters, because it suggests that some swathe of them trust the unions to be on better behavior in the future. Incidentally, even unions are judiciously skeptical of unions; according to the exit polls linked above, more than a third of voters from union households (where at least one member is unionized) nonetheless voted for Walker.