Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow…

This country is about as residentially segregated now as it has always been:

And the explanation for this deplorable state of affairs is developed in this long, but indispensable piece by Pro Publica that shows that residential desegregation was failure by design since the Nixon administration and pretty much every administration that has succeeded it. It is a long read but well worth it.

“A few months after Congress passed a landmark law directing the federal government to dismantle segregation in the nation’s housing, President Nixon’s housing chief began plotting a stealth campaign.

The plan, George Romney wrote in a confidential memo to aides, was to use his power as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to remake America’s housing patterns, which he described as a “high-income white noose” around the black inner city.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed months earlier in the tumultuous aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, directed the government to “affirmatively further” fair housing. Romney believed those words gave him the authority to pressure predominantly white communities to build more affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices.

Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.

He dubbed his initiative “Open Communities” and did not clear it with the White House. As word spread that HUD was turning down grants, Nixon’s supporters in the South and in white Northern suburbs took their complaints directly to the president.

Nixon intervened immediately.

“Stop this one,” Nixon scrawled in a note on a memo written by John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy chief.

In a 1972 “eyes only” memo to Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, another aide, Nixon explained his position. “I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong that forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong,” he wrote.

The president understood the consequences: “I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools.”

Romney, the former governor of Michigan and father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, held his ground. Notations and memos in his private papers show that he viewed the blighted black ghettos as a root cause of the inner-city riots of the 1960s. “Equal opportunity for all Americans in education and housing is essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart,” he wrote in talking points he drew up for a meeting with the president.

Romney’s stance made him a pariah within the administration. Nixon shut down the program, refused to meet with his housing secretary and finally drove him from the Cabinet.

Over the next four decades, a ProPublica investigation shows, a succession of presidents — Democrat and Republican alike — followed Nixon’s lead, declining to use the leverage of HUD’s billions to fight segregation.

Their reluctance to enforce a law passed by both houses of Congress and repeatedly upheld by the courts reflects a larger political reality. Again and again, attempts to create integrated neighborhoods have foundered in the face of vehement opposition from homeowners.

“The lack of political courage around these issues is stunning,” said Elizabeth Julian, a former senior HUD official. “The failures of fair housing are not just by HUD but by the country.”

Nixon’s vision for America largely came to pass and the costs have been steep. More than 20 years of research has implicated residential segregation in virtually every aspect of racial inequality, from higher unemployment rates for African Americans, to poorer health care, to elevated infant mortality rates and, most of all, to inferior schools.”

This is a must-read.

The Last Remaining Target of The Legitimation Crisis

One cannot criticize the military. That is the rule. The military is always perfect, composed only of heroes. Failures are always and ever political errors from ignorant civilians in government. Any criticism is seen as unpatriotic. This ideology is used as a baseball bat to cover political decisions implemented through military means.

In this context, it was interesting to read these two pieces over the weekend. The first one is a rather long read, but worth the time, by Thomas Ricks examining the structural and organizational factors at the root of systemic failures:

“Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory. A few high-profile successes, such as those of General David Petraeus in Iraq, may temporarily mask this systemic problem, but they do not solve it.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military. The Bush administration has been roundly (and fairly) criticized for its delusive approach to the war in Iraq and its neglect of the war in Afghanistan. Yet the serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice. No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution. These are dangerous developments. Unaddressed, they could lead to further failures in future wars.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And if this reminds you of failing corporate leaders leaving their companies close to bankruptcy with nice golden parachutes, you are correct. It is roughly the same dynamic at work here. The higher the level, the lower the accountability.

The second unusual piece comes from the Independent and this is usually the kind of pieces we read about the rank-and-file, not the brass:

“The accusations leveled against three Army generals over the past six months are as varied as they are striking, the highest-profile of a growing number of allegations of wrongdoing by senior military officials.

A one-star general was flown home from Afghanistan this spring to face criminal charges, including sexual assault. A four-star general formerly in charge of the increasingly vital Africa command was accused of financial mismanagement, accepting inappropriate gifts and assigning staff personal tasks.

And a three-star general who oversees the U.S. Missile Defense Agency was described in an inspector general report as an abrasive and verbally abusive boss.

The investigations have become an embarrassment for the Army, raising questions about how thoroughly the military has screened senior leaders before putting them in crucial assignments.

The Defense Department’s inspector general reviewed 38 cases of alleged wrongdoing by senior officials in 2011, and substantiated the accusations in nearly 40 percent of the them, up from 21 percent in 2007. The total caseload this year is on track to exceed last year’s.

“It’s always concerning when senior leaders have issues, because we have very specific faith in senior leaders,” Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said in a recent interview. Odierno said all such cases are taken seriously, but argued that “we can’t allow a few to detract from the honorable service of many.”

The investigation into Gen. William E. Ward, the former chief of Africa Command, is being closely watched at the Pentagon, where rank-and-file officers wonder aloud whether senior leaders will be reticent to punish one of their own.”

This is interesting because, so far, the military had escaped the legitimation crisis that has hit pretty much every other institution from the polity, to the economy, to religion and family and, of course, the media. One of the consequences of the legitimation crisis is the questioning of privilege and calls to greater accountability. It remains to be seen whether these two articles are part of a larger trend. But it speaks volume to the power of the military, as social institution, that it is the last one to be called into question.

And While We’re On The Subject of Race…

Fabio Rojas has this visual to share comparing voting intents for Obama between 2008 and 2012:

Rojas argues that Obama could well lose the popular vote but it would be mostly because of the South, concluding:

“You’ll hear all kinds of post-hoc explanations of the election outcome in November. But they’re probably wrong unless they start with the fact that the South really, really, really hates Obama more than the rest of the country for some inexplicable reason.”

That is a bit snide, though, no? Yes, this would fit the rise in prejudiced thinking that I was blogging about this morning but I still have questions though that this visual does not answer.

1. Yes, obviously, the change between 2008 and 2012 is clear. However, was 2008 unusual and could 2012 not be a return to “normal” for the South? After all, Democratic presidential candidates have had issues with southern votes ever since the late 60s. In that case, it would not be so much that the South really, really, really, dislikes Obama in 2012 but that they disliked the Democratic candidate less than usual in 2008.

2. Is it fair to jump to the conclusion that Rojas jumps to right away? Might any other factor be involved beyond race?

3. How to explain the not-as-dramatic but still significant drop in the East? (Which goes back to my possible “the South was unusual in 2008″ above)

4. From what voter demographic comes the drop? Is it all white? If the 2008 turnout for African Americans was higher than usual, is there some African Americans drop in voting intention? In which case, it might be less a case of hate than disillusion.

Personally, I like my #1 best. I remember, a few years back, witnessing a lot of discussion from the Democratic side of the spectrum arguing in favor of whistling past Dixie precisely because the South seemed like an impossible nut to crack, but the 2008 election was unusual. Having the graph limited to 2 date points does not clarify that.

The Social Construction of Race

On the one hand, there is this:

“There’s never been good reason to believe that human beings are naturally racist. After all, in the environment of human evolution–which didn’t feature, for example, jet travel to other continents–there would have been virtually no encounters between groups that had different skin colors or other conspicuous physical differences. So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races.

Nonetheless, people who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats.

Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had–which wasn’t much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn’t tell you whether the reaction is innate–it has even less power now. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”

There’s a reason the previous sentence says “suggest” and not “prove.” As the authors note, it’s conceivable that “the increasing amygdala response to race [with age] may be driven by intrinsic factors of the child, such as puberty, rather than exposure to cultural messages.” For that matter, the correlation between peer group diversity and dampened amygdala response doesn’t mean the former causes the latter; it could work the other way around: maybe people with a mild response to racial difference wind up with more diverse peers.

But all of this is almost beside the point anyway, because there have always been plenty of reasons to believe that the amygdala response doesn’t reflect an instinctive aversion to the racial “other.” For example: The amygdala’s response to African-American faces had been observed not just in European-American adults but in African-American adults–who aren’t, in this case, the “other.” Apparently whatever cultural information was inculcating a particular response to blacks in whites was having a similar effect in blacks.”

And on the other hand, I am currently reading Laurent Dubois‘s excellent (so far!) Haiti: The Aftershocks of History and it contains this:

“In newly independent Haiti, these protected whites became Haitian citizens, and several of them even ended up serving in high-ranking military positions under the new regime. Officially, they also stopped being white: in his 1805 constitution, Dessalines decreed that all Haitians would “henceforth only be known generically as blacks.” In so doing, he made blackness not so much an issue of color as of allegiance to the project of freedom and independence. The same constitution, however, made it clear that while some approved whites could become part of Haitian society, new ones would face severe restrictions: “No white man, regardless of nationality, may set foot in this territory as a master or landowner, nor will he ever be able to acquire any property.” In a country where most of the population had once been the literal property of whites, this stipulation—maintained almost without exception until the U.S. occupation of the country in the early twentieth century—was meant as a shield against the return of the past.” (42)

There is nothing essential about race, folks. The essentialization of race comes as a product of culture, society and power.

We Can Now Officially Bury The Stupid “Post-Racial” Meme (Along with The !@#$ Post-Truth Meme)

So, this:

“Racial prejudice in America is more widespread now than when President Barack Obama became the country’s first black president in a historic 2008 vote, a new survey has shown.

In a poll of racial attitudes by the Associated Press news agency, researchers found that more Americans have attitudes that are both implicit and explicitly racist than when the same survey was conducted four years ago.

The news comes as Obama is deadlocked in a tight race for re-election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney and surveys have shown strong support for Obama among minorities while white voters favour Romney.

In all, 51% of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48% four years ago, the study showed.

When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56%, up from 49% during the last presidential election.

(…)

A majority of Americans expressed anti-Hispanic sentiments, too.

In an AP survey done in 2011, 52% of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes. That figure had risen to 57% in the implicit test in 2012.”

We know that bad economies tend to increase racial prejudice against minorities from the dominant group (see: Greece, Golden Dawn) but in the case of the US, that is not the whole story. When looking for further explanations, this is what the article had to say:

“Though race has not been played an especially high profile in the election campaign so far America, like many societies, still struggles with racism.

During his four years in office Obama has repeatedly had to contend with untrue rumours that he is a Muslim or was not born in America – a phenomenon of fear of “the other” that some link to his being a black American.”

Wow. And that’s it. Who spread these rumors? Apparently, the Guardian has no idea and did not investigate. It was not just “untrue rumours”, it has been a non-stop barrage of racist bile carefully organized and structured, and cheer-led by right-wing media, steadily, for the past four years. And this torrent of racism has completely been part of the election campaign. It takes a solid amount of denial (maybe thought to be moderate, “objective” writing) to ignore all that.

From the creation of the Tea party, which was never a grassroot enterprise, to the Glenn Beck rallies, to the first posters of Obama as witch doctor (with bone across the nose) to Obama as The Joker, to death panel, to feature films, the right-wing, left moribund after the 2008 election, found its second life by tapping directly and explicitly into racist rhetoric, hiding behind the ironic justification that having a black president meant racism was no longer an issue in the US.

The story that needs to be told is that, not the “neutral” report of statistics showing an increase in racist views. Racism never went away, it just go bolder, better funded and promoted (the Tea Party is a Koch Brothers production, promoted by Fox News).

But the figures in the study should not let us forget the never-disappearing damage done by institutional racism, more invisible but just as devastating:

“Authorities in east Mississippi run a “school-to-prison pipeline” that locks up students for infractions like flatulence or wearing the wrong color socks, a policy that mainly affects black and disabled children, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday in a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson says officials in the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County have policies that allow students to be arrested and shipped 80 miles to a juvenile detention center without probable cause or legal representation.

(…)

The school district has about 6,000 students, with 86 percent being black and 12 percent being white. From 2006 to the first semester of the 2009-2010 school year, all the students referred to law enforcement or expelled were black and 96 percent of those suspended were black, the lawsuit said.”

Racism in the US is a deep, entrenched and multi-layered phenomenon. The increase in individual racism has social roots, be they historical and institutional racism, or as manufactured and funded phenomenon that benefit certain powerful segment of the population.

Also see my comrade-in-cranky-sociology Todd Krohn on this.

Global Sociology Blogroll Update – Venezuelan Edition

I know it has been a while but I am always on the lookout for new socblogs, especially from outside Western countries, so, I am especially happy that a Venezuelan socblogger found me via Twitter (click on the image to go to the blog):

It is not updated very often but it is rather eclectic and has some focus on Venezuelan society. So, update your RSS feeds and follow the socblogger, Lissette González on Twitter.

Eco-Fiction Rising

The inspiration for this post came from my just having finished Tobias Buckell‘s Arctic Rising. I have been a fan of Buckell’s work ever since I read Crystal Rain. Arctic Rising is part mystery / thriller, part what Yannick Rumpala has called eco-fiction (as opposed to strict science-fiction, like Crystal Rain), borrowing the term from Christian Chelebourg’s Mythologies De La Fin Du Monde. Eco-fiction refers to these stories that refer to a future where environmental collapse has dramatically altered societies, leading to dystopian social formations.

Arctic Rising takes the reader not to a distant future, as his previous novels had, but to a close future where it would still be possible to reverse environmental degradation, but enough damage has already occurred to create ecological damage and transformations (such as warming all the way to the Arctic as well as land loss South due to rising sea levels).

So, new lines of conflicts have opened as new trafficking routes became available (such as the Northwest Passage). New balances of power are being negotiated between declining powers and rising ones (the “Arctic Tigers”). And there are also corporate powers involved as well, in particular, the Gaia Corporation whose name will be familiar to Buckell’s regular readers. And there is also a mystery man from Anegada… there has to be one or it wouldn’t be a Buckell novel!

The Gaia corporation – which resembles a lot a fictional version of Google (I couldn’t help thinking that the name of the founders, gender aside, Ivan Cohen and Paige Greer sounded a lot like Sergey Brin and Larry Paige) with an environmental twist. In the context of generalized legitimation crisis and inability of governments to collaborate to stop the ecological predicted catastrophe, corporate actors decide to flex their muscles, but they are not exactly the good guys.

The atmosphere of the whole novel is that of impending doom as people try to figure out what to do in an increasingly anomic context. That is the backdrop. The main character is Anika Duncan, a Nigerian, bi-sexual, UN pilot (how cool is all this?) whose job is to patrol the new routes opened by the melting of the Arctic to monitor for smuggling. One day, she detects something fishy on a ship, decides to investigate only to have her plane blown out of the sky and her partner killed. She is later herself victim of assassination attempts. All this tells her she has bumped into something big (a super weapon in the form of high-tech terraforming little balls initially designed to stop the warming, it turns out) and soon, she’s on the run trying to figure things out.

The story was a bit too much shoot-‘em up action and there are some convenient plot points (the Anegadan spy always comes up with the right resources at the right time thanks to mystery contacts that just happen to always be available and always come through at the right time with the right stuff). I really disliked the “torturing the torturer” stuff (especially the “I’m so ashamed of what I have done to other that I need to be tortured to expiate my sins” stuff, I really did not like that, it was both convenient – it allowed the “good guys” to engage in brutal violence with immediate moral exoneration – and contrived).

That being said, I really liked the main character, Anika. How often does one get a black woman, with a fluid and non-problematic sexuality, with intelligence and skills as lead? Close to never. I also really liked the whole social / global / environmental background to the story. I wish there had been more of that. But then, I always wish for more context. Part of the issue for me was that, on balance, it was a bit too much on the thriller side, and not enough on other aspects, such as life in the world-risk society. But again, that is my bias.

Actually, Arctic Rising feels like the original point for all the other novels that Buckell has written (kinda like when Brin wrote Startide Rising before Sundiver). I wonder if his plan is to progressively plug the gaps between these two and finally giving us the full story in-between. I certainly hope so.

So, Buckell’s book takes the readers to the turning point, where things still could change but won’t because of political inability to act collectively and globally. This is the time before manure really hits the fans, destroys societies, leading to radical social transformations of the dystopian type which seems to be the theme du jour. But the dystopian genre, very present in the young adult literature, usually picks up at a much later time: all the bad stuff has happened. Society as we knew it has disintegrated into chaos and conflict. Some new power rose to reestablish order, but did so in a not-too-pretty fashion: enter The Hunger Games.

By now, the whole background story is well-known. After The Dark Days (initiated by weapons of mass destruction and environmental degradation), the Capitol rose to claim control over Panem, creating its own world-system, with a strict division of labor between 12 districts (D13 having been destroyed, or so denizens of the other districts are told) who produce everything needed for the Capitol denizens to be a well-kept leisure class.

And every year, each districts has to send two teenagers (boy and girl) to fight to the death in the Arena both as entertainment for the Capitol and clear reminder to the districts that they’d better not mess with the Capitol again or try to rise up in rebellion.

See my comparative analysis of the Hunger Games v. Battle Royale (also a product of anomie and social disintegration where generations turn on each other and adults take it out on teenagers perceived as responsible for the persistent chaos).

In HG, one can detect a theme that one finds in other dystopian, young adult, ecofiction: the rise of the youthful hero, incarnating a rejuvenation of humankind, symbolically, politically, and environmentally. The youthful hero (boy or girl) is always “different”, not politically aware (often thrown somehow against its will into the politics of his/her world), but questioning of the system at the micro level, and somewhat on the deviant side. This is true for Katniss Everdeen in HG, what with her hunting skills that could get her killed. But this is a theme pursued also in Divergent.

Now, as I mentioned in my review, I never made it past the first book of the as-of-yet incomplete trilogy and Roth does not provide much context for the structure of society  but it seems clear that something environmentally catastrophic has happened. And the current social structure, then, is an attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by avoid them. Hence the different castes, based on which human trait is identified as the one most detrimental to humankind and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

In Divergent, the rise of the youthful hero, always marked for her difference, is clear. The author takes great pains to make her readers understand that Beatrice is special, not fitting in, out of sync with her caste, etc. but bound to have a great destiny.

The theme of the eco-fiction combined with the rise of the youthful here is also what drives Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. In my review, I wrote the following:

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

In many ways, the rise of the youthful / rejuvenated hero as legitimate ruler on the ashes of a decaying world ruled by illegitimate tyrants is  a theme out of the medieval mythology (all the way back to Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable). Take this scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur where, having drunk from the Holy Grail, Arthur, the legitimate king, is back in the saddle and nature recovers as he rides into battle:

I had issues with the war hero theme of the book and the fact that military exploits seemed a bit repetitive to me. But Yannick Rumpala had some stronger issues with the book. His blog is in French so, I’ll just summarize his thoughts: the book never really explains how total resource depletion of fossil fuels would lead to such a dramatic technological regression. Basically, it’s back to horse and buggies, and old-fashioned trains (like in the old Westerns). Electricity seemed to have completely disappeared from collective conscience of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. Rumpala asks how it is possible to so completely forget all accumulated knowledge so quickly, even in the context of the dominance of religious fundamentalists. It seemed the past just disappeared, leaving no traces whatsoever, ruins of any kind. Where are all the abandoned cars, planes, etc.? Was nothing recycled?

And then, there was Ship Breaker. As I wrote before, the setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

But as Rumpala asks on his blog, does the post-oil age doom us to dystopian futures? Is there no collective, ecological imaginary where everything does not collapse miserably? For Rumpala, there is a literary, imaginary space to be occupied that would envision a more positive, non-dystopian future where sustainability would have won the day. Why does it matter? Rumpala argues that the science-fiction or eco-fiction of today can shape the technological imaginary of tomorrow and related concrete technological developments. After all, the dystopian terrain has been pretty well covered by now.

I would argue, though, that a less-dystopian future is not necessarily a matter of technology, but of political legitimacy as well. In these dystopian futures, the issues are not predominantly technological (technology still exists but is restricted in HG and Divergent). They are social and related to concentration of power in few illegitimate hands. And I also think that there is still territory to cover on the dystopian side especially as the reality of climate change and peak oil sets in, where world risk society meets legitimation crisis and economic stagnation for the masses.

And I also think there is a lot to investigate on the Planet of Slums theme, as was done in Metatropolis, in the urban-fiction genre.

Book Review – The Functional Art

Life is funny sometimes. A few weeks back, I was mulling over the concept of MOOCs and how much they can potentially suck but also how much they represent a lot of what we, teachers, like: free, state of the art education, if done right. Then I started thinking that I should really take one to see what it’s like from a student’s point of view.

I rejected the idea of taking a sociology course, because, really, I’d be bored. And then, someone posted on my Tweeter timeline something about this new MOOC on data visualization taught by Alberto Cairo (don’t try to get in, folks, it’s already closed and it has not even started yet). I thought the theme sounded interesting and I might actually learn something while exploring the MOOC format, a win-win situation. In addition, those of you who follow the blog know that I like visuals (after all, I am known among my colleagues and friends for my doodles at work and in class). So, infographics it would be.

I decided to start early on the readings with the first two chapters of The Functional Art – An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization (Amazon), the book by Alberto Cairo. Well, I did not stop at the first two chapters. I read the whole thing because the book is so enjoyable and informative. I would recommend it to anyone in any sector, academia, non-profit, teaching, etc. How does not need some visual data skills, either as infographic designers or as competent users?

The book itself is really a highly readable, crystal clear, and unbelievably informative introduction to infographics and data visualization. It is full of great examples from the author’s work but also of other graphic designers. It is structured in two main sections. The first section is the introduction per se, where Cairo gives the “tricks of the trade” and offers the basic principles of graphic design in data presentations. It also includes chapters on designing graphics based on the way the human brain functions (the fact that the human brain processes certain shapes, shades and patterns better than others) based on the latest cognition research.

The second main section is a series of profiles of the Big Names of the graphic design world through interviews with the author and selected work from them. If you get the book in paper format, you’ll get a CD with additional goodies on it, such as short lessons with the authors. If, like me, you’re hip and cool, and you read the book on Kindle, you can download the lectures and play them with your basic media player. That is a nice addition to the book.

[Note: I read the book on Kindle on my Thinkpad Android tablet (10.1″) and I wish the format allowed for zooming in and out of the graphics used as examples there, but then, you can’t do that with a paper copy either, except by getting the book close to your nose. Other than that, the graphics were really nice and readable on the tablet.]

A central thesis of the book is as follows:

“The fact that an information graphic is designed to help us complete certain intellectual tasks is what distinguishes it from fine art. Rather than serving as a means for the artist to express her inner world and feelings, an infographic or visualization strives for objectivity, precision, and functionality, as well as beauty. In short: The function constrains the form.”(Loc. 590)

This turns into the practical injunction that infographics should present (the variables under examination), compare (the different units of analysis according to the variables at hand), organize (information in a logical fashion), and correlate (present relationships between the different variables and units). The related idea is that one should select a tool based on the data at disposal, the story to tell, and the audience to tell it to, visualized using knowledge of the way the brain processes information (visual and other). The more the design gets the audience to “play” with the data and explore the dimensions of the visualized phenomena, the better.

In other words, data visualization involves making a series of decision that Cairo summarizes through his own tension wheel, delineating a series of polar axes that include different dimensions of designs (abstraction / figuration, functionality / decoration, density / lightness, multi-dimensionality / uni-dimensionality, originality / familiarity, novelty / redundancy). All this is under the general idea that graphics should not be meant to simplify information but to clarify it and make it more understandable. Of course, the book itself follows that logic by providing a lot of examples of successful and not-so-successful graphics and explaining in details what works and what does not.

After having finished the book, you will never look at an infographic the same way again. You won’t be able to help yourself and do your little analysis of it and look for the properties explored in the book. Heck, I was doing that for class just today as I was looking through my series of infographics on global stratification, I kept wondering which ones told “the story” best for my audience of undergraduates, within a rough lecture format. I was also thinking of all the possibilities of assignments that would involve students exploring some interactive infographics and find their ways through them.

I also ended the book deeply regretting that these skills are not taught in the traditional sociology curriculum. After all, data is our daily bread. We create, generate, process, analyze, publish and share data all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acquired the skills to present them in a functional but also attractive way. I know peer-reviewed journals may not be the proper place to get fancy with infographics but blogs (*ahem*) and other web 2.0 platforms certainly are. And I think this would go a long way towards making the whole public sociology endeavor more attractive and palatable to audiences outside of academia. After all, most of us got through classes of statistics, learning high-level skills that many of us will never use and that would be unintelligible to non-academic audiences. Infographics would help spread the idea of sociology as science while letting people explore what sociologists really do and the kind of insights they can provide on society.

[Note: That being said, I also think there should be more sociology in traditional journalism curriculum because I think they should know more content so as not to rely on the “some say A but others say B” format without being able to distinguish and state which is correct. It would be nice if, on major social issues, journalists had more substance and context in hand, and resources to use if necessary when writing on given topics. Social scientific research skills would be nice too.]

But hey, maybe Alberto Cairo could create lessons / workshops / MOOCs on graphic designs and data visualization for social scientists!

Anyway, read the book, read the blog. You won’t regret it.

I Blame The Feminazis

For this:

As the article notes,

“In a reversal of traditional gender roles, young women now surpass young men in the importance they place on having a high-paying career or profession, according to survey findings from the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds (66%) of young women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59% of young men. In 1997, 56% of young women and 58% of young men felt the same way.

The past 15 years have also seen an increase in the share of middle-aged and older women who say being successful in a high-paying career or profession is “one of the most important things” or “very important” in their lives. Today about the same share of women (42%) and men (43%) ages 35 to 64 say this. In 1997, more middle-aged and older men than women felt this way (41% vs. 26%).

But fear not, my family values friend!

“Though women are increasingly focused on college and career, the share who place marriage and parenthood high on the list of priorities is undiminished. For both men and women, being a good parent and having a successful marriage remain much more important than career success.”

Oh, thank FSM for that… well…

Not gender reversal here though:

“The share of women ages 18 to 34 who say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives has risen nine percentage points since 1997, from 28% to 37%.

On the other hand, the share of young men ages 18 to 34 who say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things has dropped from 35% in 1997 to 29% now. Today a significantly smaller share of young men (29%) than young women (37%) list marriage as one of their highest priorities; this represents a change from 1997, when men and women were statistically equal on this measure.”

I’m sure we can blame that last one on feminists one way or another. It would go something like this: feminists have made marriage so unattractive to men (what with the demands for equality and sharing) that men are less interested in it. There, all done.

At the same time, there is this:

“The increased value placed on marriage and family does not necessarily reflect the broader societal trends in these areas. Young adults today are marrying at lower rates and later ages than ever before—only a third (33%) of 18- to 34-year-old women are now married, compared with nearly three quarters (73%) of women this age in 1960.9 The median age for first marriage is now 27 for women, up from 20 in 1960.10And the median age for first-time mothers is now 24, up from 22 in 1960. So while marriage and family still remain among women’s top priorities, many are delaying these milestones when compared with earlier generations.”

In other words, people are more realistic and pragmatic about these things and more likely to individualize these decisions in the context of their own circumstances with regards to education, job prospects, etc.

“Generally, the public is supportive of more active roles for women in the workplace. A September 2011 Pew Research poll found that 73% of Americans feel that the trend toward more women in the workforce has been a change for the better in our society.15 Furthermore, an October 2010 Pew Research poll found that a majority (62%) of the general public feels that a marriage where the husband and wife share the responsibilities of work and children is more satisfying than a more traditional marriage with a male breadwinner. However, the public remains conflicted about the impact these changes have had on young children. When asked whether the trend toward more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing or a bad thing for society, only 21% of Americans said it is a good thing. Some 37% said this is a bad thing for society, and roughly the same share (38%) said it hasn’t made a difference.”

It’s The Inequalities, Stupid – A Never-Ending Story

This is the one new thing: ever since the economy crashed and burned and the Occupy movements, at least, there has been talk about social inequalities in the past three years or so. Otherwise, look at the media of the past thirty, and inequalities was a non-existent topic: the poor were poor because of their own individual shortcomings or the culture of poverty, or government dependency, etc. So, sociologists were the lonely crowd of Cassandras warning that no, really, inequalities were growing and this is bad for society as a whole. But being a dominated academic profession, they suffered the fate of Cassandra: they were not listened to or not downright ignored and dismissed as a bunch of lefty whiners.

So, at least, that is less the case. At the same time, the evidence on the growth of inequalities and the deleterious impact of that growth on society as a whole is pretty much an open and shut case since the publication of the Spirit Level. Why then is it surprising to see articles that seem to discover this new thing that is widening stratification and its impact?

Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percentof the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third.

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded.”

Well, yeah, but this is an interesting shift for the IMF:

“For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality in the world head on.

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

For developing economies, the channels through which inequality might drag down growth seem clear. Inequality might foster political instability and lead to violence and economic destruction, for instance, a theme that fits for Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria.

For the United States, such channels are now the subject of intense research interest, with economists examining whether and how the gap between the rich and the poor fueled the recession and what it might mean.”

How did this increase inequalities happen? By redistribution… to the top:

The rise in inequalities is not new then but it has finally become an acceptable topic of discussion although not as much as one would hope considering its importance ans we know why: because it questions the system that created these income and wealth gaps that even the IMF says we should pay attention to.

Chrystia Freeland’s quick take on class warfare as ideological construct and rhetorical device to shut down discussion on inequalities.

Freeland from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

And a longer discussion between Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi on Moyers’s program on the same topic (take the time to listen to and watch the whole thing, it is worth it):

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So what is to be done? Mark Thoma suggests empowerment of the working class as a partial path through employment:

“Why doesn’t the unemployment problem get more attention? Why have other worries such as inflation and debt reduction dominated the conversation instead? As I noted at the end of my last column, the increased concentration of political power at the top of the income distribution provides much of the explanation.

Consider the Federal Reserve. Again and again we hear Federal Reserve officials say that an outbreak of inflation could undermine the Fed’s hard-earned credibility and threaten its independence from Congress. But why is the Fed only worried about inflation? Why aren’t officials at the Fed just as worried about Congress reducing the Fed’s independence because of high and persistent unemployment?

Similar questions can be asked about fiscal policy. Why is most of the discussion in Congress focused on the national debt rather than the unemployed? Is it because the wealthy fear that they will be the ones asked to pay for monetary and fiscal policies that mostly benefit others, and since they have the most political power their interests – keeping inflation low, cutting spending, and lowering tax burdens – dominate policy discussions? There was, of course, a stimulus program at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it was much too small and relied far more on tax cuts than most people realize. The need to shape the package in a way that satisfied the politically powerful, especially the interests that have captured the Republican Party, made it far less effective than it might have been. In the end, it had no chance of fully meeting the challenge posed by such a severe recession, and when it became clear that additional help was needed, those same interests stood in the way of doing more.

(…)

The imbalance in political power, obstructionism from Republicans designed to improve their election chances, and attempts by Republicans to implement a small government ideology are a large part of the explanation for why the unemployed aren’t getting the help they deserve. But Democrats aren’t completely off the hook either. Centrist Democrats beholden to big money interests are definitely a problem, and Democrats in general have utterly failed to bring enough attention to the unemployment problem. Would these things happen if workers had more political power?”

It boils down to class.

And more recently, Tim Noah makes a related case, arguing for stronger labor unions:

“The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.

Although income inequality is growing in comparable nations around the world, it is more extreme and growing more rapidly here. A big reason is that labor unions, which have faced rough times everywhere with the rise of globalization, have declined much more in the United States.

Private-sector union density peaked in the early 1950s at almost 40 percent. Today it’s down to 7 percent, which is about where it was when Franklin Roosevelt entered office. It’s as if the New Deal, which made possible the rise of America’s labor movement, never happened.

Revitalizing labor is not a popular cause nowadays, even among liberals, but there’s little point in even discussing how to solve the inequality problem if you won’t consider ways the government could help rebuild — really, stop suppressing — unions. If you graph a line charting the decline in union membership and then superimpose another line charting the decline in middle-class income share, the lines will be nearly identical. That is not a coincidence.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen and for now, we are stuck in the vicious cycle of weak growth and inequalities deplored by Joseph Stiglitz.

But ultimately, it’s the inequalities, stupid.

The Convulsions of Multi-Institutional Legitimation Crisis

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that the legitimation crisis is a pet peeve of mine. As we know since Weber, that the power of the nation-state relies on the monopoly of force (hard power) but also bureaucratic institutions sustained by ideologies that generate legitimacy for the system and the state. I would argue that of part of this triad is over-developed (the hard power part, extended by extensive surveillance systems) while the rest of the system faces a major legitimation crisis not just in the US but throughout the Western world. This post is about the constrictions and reactions to this crisis.

I think that is what the latest data on US religiosity show (more than just secularization):

“For the first time ever, the US no longer has a majority of Protestants as the number of people with no religious affiliation rises, a study has found.

The Pew report found only 48% of adults identified themselves as Protestants, down from 53% five years ago.

The long-expected decline was pinned to a rise in those claiming no religion – about 20% of Americans, the study said.

There are no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time this year.

Nor are there any Protestant Supreme Court justices.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said the number of people with no religious affiliation was up five percentage points from 15% in the last five years.

The category includes atheists, as well as people who believe in God or who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”.

The study concluded most of the respondents were not seeking new ties within another religious institution.

One third of adults under the age of 30, but just 9% of those older than 65 claimed to have no religious identity.”

And these guys seem pretty set in their non-institutional view:

And they are younger:

The legitimation crisis in the economic and financial sphere is rather obvious. It ties into a crisis of legitimation in the political system not only through the popular cynicism towards political systems throughout Europe and the rise of extremism such as the Greek neo-nazi Golden Dawn. But we can see this as well from political actors themselves, from the systematic lying, an phenomenon understated by the phrase “post-truth politics” (an absurdity if there ever were one as truth remains truth and we are not beyond it. To not tell the truth does not project one into a post- state but into good old-fashioned lying), to efforts to limit voting and democratic accountability over the polity.

The massive corporate funding of politics from financiers combined with extensive and increased surveillance as well as repression of anti-systemic movements tell a story of a system where the power elite thinks it can only maintain its hegemony more bluntly, through hard power (municipal police states at home, never-ending resource wars abroad). The much-denounced 1% probably understand what is happening but, as Atrios repeatedly has told us, either through evil or incompetence, can only imagine policies that maintain their power and wealth but, by making things worse, only precipitate the crisis further.

Take this example:

“The world’s richest woman has equated Australia’s minimum wage to “class warfare,” following her controversial article last week where she called poor workers coddled, lazy drunks. Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, who inherited her $30 billion fortune and mining empire, pointed to workers who make less than $2 as a model for economic competitiveness in mining.”

Which, of course, would totally solve the demand crisis. Le sigh.

That kind of attitude also fosters the repeated waves of austerity throughout Europe, followed by policy-makers shaking their heads at the fact that contractionary policy is indeed contractionary, followed by exhortations of more austerity, followed by calling the anti-riot police when riots predictably follow.

This is more broadly what Chrystia Freeland’s column is about:

“The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.”

Then, of course, Freeland makes the mistake of taking that old racist hack, Charles Murray, seriously, which is an unforgivable mistake.

But this:

“America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.”

Which leads to this where the wealthy have to find other strategies to protect their privileges, by any means necessary, which is rooted in a crisis of legitimation of the educational institution as well as a precipitating factor of it:

“Nayeem had cased the room beforehand. His iPhone had spotty service inside Stuyvesant, and he wanted to be sure he’d have a signal. He tested the device in the second seat of the first row—he’d assumed he would be seated alphabetically—and it worked. He tried out the second seat counting from the other side of the room just to be safe—also good. Then he examined the sight lines to both seats from the teacher’s desk—what could the proctor see and not see?—and checked out the seats where he thought some of his friends would be sitting. One was right in front of the teacher. He made a note of that. That kid was out.

Nayeem had cheated on tests before. By his junior year, he and his friends had become fairly well-known procurers of copies of exams handed down from ­students who had taken a class a year or two earlier. But since that wasn’t possible with a Regents Exam, the phone was his method of choice. He’d cheated that way before, too. In his three years at Stuy­vesant, in fact, he’d become somewhat skilled at surreptitiously texting during a test, ­developing a knack for taking out his phone and glancing down at it for just a millisecond without being noticed.

Regents Exams are typically administered for three hours. After two hours, students who are done are allowed to leave. Nayeem is a good physics student. He worked his way through the test quickly, as he knew he would, finishing in an hour and a half. (He’d later learn he received a 97.) His plan had been to use the next half-hour or so to type the multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school. In return, he expected help from others on future tests. He was the point person on this exam; others would play that role for subjects they excelled in. He and his friends had been helping one another this way for some time.

That day, however, there was a glitch. The proctor was someone Nayeem knew, Hugh Francis, an English teacher, and he was not just sitting at the desk but walking around the room. Francis even caught the girl next to Nayeem using her phone in the first few minutes of the test. While cell phones technically aren’t allowed in city schools, that rule was widely ignored at Stuyvesant.”

So cheating has become a logical response to an elite seeking to protect its privilege in test-based system that makes cheating easier and more tempting because more available.

Another important point here is that cheating is relatively guilt-free for students because they have adopted, following the lead from the media, probably their parents, education “experts” and the overall narrative about education, an instrumental view of education: secondary education gets you into an elite college, which will get you on Wall Street or other elite places. The point of education is the solidification of capital (cultural, economic and social) in the hands of the “1%”, not education per se. This instrumental conception trickles down but in the form of education = job training, or, to use the phrase now in vogue “workforce development” and this is justified by the idea that if education is so costly, then, there must be a visible, tangible return on investment. In that context, one can feel justify to minimize one’s investment (either through minimal investment in individual classes or through cheating).

As for the wealthy, as anyone who has read Richistan knows, there is a cutthroat competition at the very top of the social ladder so that already academically successful students are pushed hard, hence the cheating, because of the fear of falling, even if still within the top 10%.

One could also invoke Robert Merton’s strain theory and see the extensive elite student cheating as a combination of innovation and rebellion, since there is no intent to change the system, just game it and mildly swipe back at it for being treated like a cog in the mighty standardized testing machine. In an individualized society, cheating as collaboration seems like rebellion:

“Some students rationalize cheating as a victimless crime—even an act of ­generosity. Sam ­Eshagoff, one of the students involved in the Long Island SAT scandal, justified taking the test at least twenty times, and charging others up to $2,500 per test to take the exam for them, by casting himself as a sort of savior. “A kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who, no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test,” Eshagoff told 60 Minutes. “By giving him an ­amazing score, I totally give him … a new lease on life.””

What is also obvious is the students’ cynicism towards the test culture, and its enforcers, school officials. So, at one end of the system, policy-makers reduce education and learning to expensive test-taking, deligitimazing the institutions and deprofessionalizing its practitioners (teachers) in the context of administrative bloat. At the other end of the system, students understand the lack of intrinsic value of test scores except as gateway to the maintenance of privilege and therefore gaming the system becomes more legitimate than the system itself.

This cynicism and understanding of what the institution actually does is also present in this piece on the increase in Adderall prescription as academic booster:

“Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.

(…)

He added, “We might not know the long-term effects, but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now. I am the doctor for the patient, not for society.””

I would argue that a society where the main institutions face a legitimation crisis is in trouble indeed.

In this context, individualized success (I’m getting mine, screw the rest of you) by any means necessary, combined with cynicism is not unexpected but is problematic. At the same time, the privileged will use their tools, as power elite, to consolidate and preserve their privilege, while, lower on the social ladder, the recipients of increase structural violence struggle to create social movements, or follow the media-led narrowing of the mind by whipping up fears of all sorts, but mostly fears of the other: the dark-skinned, the immigrants, the poor or any convenient scapegoat.

It is, I think, the context for the whole Reddit mess that got exposed with the outing of some vile individual over there. On this, you must go read this piece, by Zeynep Tufekci, especially the idea of norm-shifting:

“Indeed, “norm-shifting” function of the Internet is one of the reasons it has proven to be such a threat to authoritarian regimes.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in interviews and casual conversations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in Middle East and other authoritarian states. It’s not that the Internet allowed people to necessarily decide what they privately thought—many already thought Ben Ali was corrupt and that Mubarak should go—but there were strong norms, backed by repression, which is another assertion of power, against articulating these views. Everyone held these views privately and did not know whether they were a minority or not (a situation political scientists call “preference falsification.”) That said, those unhappy with the status-quo were in fact majority and young people (the “Facebook generation”) helped expose that by shifting norms about publicly acceptable speech about the regime. They openly pointed out lies, exposed torture, criticized cronyism, and called for change. Over time, it became more and more acceptable to make this assertion in public and this fundamentally transformed public sphere laid the ground for social change.  Letting these creep forums exist on powerful Internet hubs also contributes to norm-shifting in a way that I don’t think anyone can argue is desirable or has anything to do with promoting free speech as a value. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to assert that victimization of children and intimidation of women is not strongly, strongly frowned up.”

I would argue that this case and the defenders of the individual in question also reflect a reactive defense of the questioning of privilege and its calling to account. Privilege, by definition, never has to defend itself, is never called to account, is taken for granted, and is often never exposed as such. In the Reddit case, the hubs were used as a corner where privilege would not be questioned. It is, in that context, not entirely surprising that individual in question was, de facto, an unpaid employee of Reddit.

What does this all amount to? A multi-institutional legitimation crisis where a lot of people find themselves brutally and violently assigned to the precariat, but also a situation where the privileged can see how easily, in this anomic context, their privilege could be questioned and react violently to it (whether it is lashing out on Twitter, or putting out political ads and funding elections or any other privilege consolidating strategy).

Of course, one such strategy can also consist in the highly expensive exercise of throwing oneself from some record-breaking heights. These kinds of David Blaine-style performances are only available to the nicely-funded, members of the leisure class.

On this, here is Marcus Brigstocke on David Blaine:

Detection, Degradation and Dissimulation

Detection:

“The Malaysian government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, underscoring a rise in religious conservatism in the country.

So far, the Teachers Foundation of Malaysia has organised 10 seminars across the country. Attendance at the last event on Wednesday reached 1,500 people, a spokesman for the organisation said.

“It is a multi-religious and multicultural [event], after all, all religions are basically against that type of behaviour,” said the official.

The federal government said in March that it is working to curb the “problem” of homosexuality, especially among Muslims who make up over 60% of Malaysia’s population of 29 million people.

According to a handout issued at a recent seminar, signs of homosexuality in boys may include preferences for tight, light-coloured clothes and large handbags, local media reported.

For girls, the details were less clear. Girls with lesbian tendencies have no affection for men and like to hang out and sleep in the company of women, the reports said.

(…)

Official intolerance of gay people has been on the rise. Last year, despite widespread criticism, the east coast state of Terengganu set up a camp for “effeminate” boys to show them how to become men.

The latest seminar for the teachers and parents was run by deputy education minister Puad Zarkashi, his office confirmed.

Zarkashi wasn’t immediately available for comment but national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying that being able to identify the signs will help contain the spread of the unhealthy lifestyle among the young, especially students.

“Youths are easily influenced by websites and blogs relating to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] groups,” he was quoted as saying.

“This can also spread among their friends. We are worried that this happens during schooling time.”

Degradation:

“Gigi Chao is in the awkward position of being the most famous lesbian in Asia, if not the world, now that her billionaire father has offered a bounty of £40m to the man who persuades her to marry him.

It was an undeniably eye-catching response on the part of Mr Chao to the news that back in April, Ms Chao, 33, and her female partner, Sean Eav, 45, had received a church blessing on their relationship. Offers of marriage from would-be suitors have flooded in.”

[SocProf; no !@#$]

Oh, but this is ok, apparently:

“Mr Chao, a 76-year-old playboy property developer, told The South China Morning Post that he was being flooded with replies from hopeful men, half of them from overseas.

Ms Chao, the eldest of three children, seems relaxed about her father’s record with women. “We laugh about it,” she says. “He’s really happy that he’s slept with 10,000 women. I mean, he definitely sees it as a good thing.””

Dissimulation:

“Family is king in Afghanistan – a mini-mafia structure that rules over life and death, providing protection for those who comply with its rules and punishing those who dare to stray from the rules. To be gay and Afghan means to live life in perpetual fear of discovery and betrayal, a paranoid existence spent in continuous terror of forced outing.

In addition to such soul-crushing anxieties, there’s the tyranny of a conformist society with a stubborn image of the ideal manhood to which every male is expected to aspire. This ideal is represented by the figure of the strong and powerful patriarch.

To get married and have children is not enough to live up to this ideal. A man has to be tough and masculine, rich and powerful. More importantly, he has to father many sons and raise them as obedient foot-soldiers under his command. That’s the kind of man who is envied in Afghan society. (The warlords, with their big bellies and long beards are all but a contemporary reincarnation of this traditional model of brutish, militant masculinity).

Needless to say, far from aspiring to this ideal, gay Afghan men dread the prospect of wedding, dodging the barrage of questions and postponing marriage as long as possible.

(…)

It’s a conformism where married life is forced upon everyone, young boys and girls, homosexual men and lesbian women as well as those who simply have no interest in sexuality or in leading a typical Afghan family life.

Many Afghans don’t flee because of politics, they flee their society and escape their culture, Hamid writes in his memoirs after meeting teenage runaway boys who fled Afghanistan to avoid marriage.

Hamid finally settled in Canada where he wrote his pioneering memoirs. It was there in Canada that he met online the man he would have become had he not fled Afghanistan. This other man, also gay, had succumbed to society, marrying and fathering four children.”