Sunday, December 22, 2013

Individualist culture at root of income gap attitudes

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 22 December 2013

TERRE HAUTE — Why don’t Americans think that growing income inequality (as well as the growing gaping disparity in wealth) is a very big problem for us? The United States is certainly exceptional when it comes to the actual levels of income inequality and public concern for it. Across the other advanced economies, as the ratio of the top 20 percent income to the bottom 20 percent income increases, public concern about income inequality grows as well. (We are number one in having the greatest inequality as measured this way among the advanced economies).

It is not because Americans are unaware of growing inequality. Polls consistently show that Americans believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and that the rich are doing better while the rest of us, especially the middle class, are struggling. Nevertheless, it’s not viewed as a very big problem.

Pope Francis is popular in the U.S., attributed to, in part, his personal actions regarding the poor and his pronouncements about growing income and wealth inequality. Of course, liberals like him better than do conservatives; a solid majority of U.S. Catholics like him. President Obama is making speeches about the growing economic inequality in the U.S. (Personally, I’d like to see him volunteer one day a month at Habitat for Humanity instead of golfing with Wall Street types.) It seems disjointed to me that on the one hand, these kinds of messages ring true with Americans but, on the other, they don’t see our growing inequality as a very serious problem.


Some conservatives suggest that relative inequality is not what Americans care about, rather it is “absolute well-being.” In short, the argument goes that our poor are rich compared to the poor from other countries. However, one can argue that the poor in other advanced economies are better off than our poor, why don’t other advanced countries, with considerably less inequality than we experience in the U.S., see inequality as a very big problem? Why don’t those other countries focus on absolute well-being, too? What evidence is there that our poor are knowledgeable about the poor in other countries? Despite the obvious weaknesses with this explanation, it points in the right direction. It’s about “me,” not “us.”

The American ideology of individualism contrasts sharply with the more “collectivist” orientations of the rest of the globe. In short, an individualist culture extols the interests of the individual over the larger group, while a collectivist culture extols the group over the individual.

Protestant European countries are more individualist oriented while Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are more collectivist. The American belief system has evolved to a point where there is considerable hostility to collectivist approaches, even to the point where some Americans object to how insurance works.

The historically strong and growing individualist cultural orientation of Americans, I think, goes a long way in explaining why Americans don’t see the growing economic inequality in the United States as a big problem, because we look out for ourselves and really don’t care (much) about others, even those in similar economic situations as ourselves.

This growing hostility to collective approaches is shown in a variety of things. Labor unions, which unquestionably have done more for working people than any other organization, are now viewed, even by a third of union families, as doing more harm than good. That all across the U.S., municipalities have scaled back virtually all public services, even first responders, who used to be untouchable when it came to any kind of cutbacks.

The “crisis” with education demonstrates this all too well, as our once vaunted public education system is being privatized from kindergarten all the way through graduate school with individuals racking up major debt because education is viewed less a public good than as a private good. Even the declining significance of religion in the U.S. fits with the growing imbalance of individualism over collectivism since one thing all religions hold true is this: There is something larger than me that I am a part.

Pope Francis, being a Latin American, comes from a society with a more collectivist orientation than what Americans are accustomed. Indeed, among Americans, Catholics tend toward a more collectivist orientation than do American Protestants. To some conservative Americans, who extoll individualism more so than liberal Americans, no wonder Pope Francis sounds “foreign” or “Marxist.”

Help the poor? The individualist responds, “No, let them help themselves. ‘We’ will provide a privately run prison cell for those who won’t.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cultural tendencies are what unite and divide us

For the last 10 days a story has been circulating on the Internet adapted from the original source in Tufts Magazine. The article is by Tufts alum, Colin Woodard, an award-winning journalist. The article is an essay based on Mr. Woodard’s new book, “America’s Nations.” The premise of the book is not new, that the USA is not one nation but many, but in a scholarly fashion, somewhat rare for journalists, he critiques those previous works and offers his own where he argues that the USA is 11 nations bound, in tension, together.

Mr. Woodard set out, in part, to explain the remarkably high level of violence in the U.S. by looking at the historical peoples and the cultures the Europeans (and in one case indigenous people) brought with them to the North American continent.

This essay is not really about Mr. Woodard’s insightful and what appears to be fine synthesis and excellent example of interdisciplinary scholarship. Instead, it is about the reactions of people to his claims, in short, that America is a diverse place, with a diverse history, and these historical and continuing cultural differences explain some things about our society.

What follows is not anything systematic or likely replicable as good science or scholarship, rather, it is just me, reading reprints and synopses of this story and reading the comments section. I am usually more interested in people’s reactions to things than the things people are responding to; I admit it, I am a sociologist.

In general, I see two kinds of responses to the idea that the U.S. is 11 different nations based on the historical cultures that the original European settlers brought with them (and apparently in the case of Scot-Irish folks, some ecological adaptations because of a long history of herding.) The first type of response is pretty much an uncritical acceptance of what is presented. These folks seemed to be of a more liberal stripe and many of them residing in the more (in today’s understanding of these terms) “liberal” nations. The other was just as uncritical a rejection of the ideas presented with weak refutations of the ideas presented, even when those refutations were anticipated and addressed by the author. These commenters seemed more conservative and resided in the more conservative nations.

To boil these two response types down, liberals held to an over-socialized view of humans while conservatives rejected almost the very notion of culture or society.

The pressure for the individual to yield or take on the wider group’s perspective is strong, but not absolute. However, in the extreme, those individuals who hold to a sense of reality or a sense of self that varies too much with the wider group’s, today, are defined as mentally ill. So, why does the individual tend to adopt the perspective of the wider group?

Interaction with others is rewarding and the more intense and exclusive one’s interaction with a group is, the more likely the individual will adopt the perspective of the group. The Internet, for instance, permits both a widening of one’s possible interactions but also a narrowing, to seek out only others who see and think the way “I” do.

The more ”I” see others believe something is true, the more likely “I” will, too. Hence, our near obsession with polls.

The greater the status or power of people who believe something, the more “right” it seems, hence our constant framing of things in terms of original intent of the country’s founders and references to various cultural authorities.

We also tend to think that the people we talk to are a good cross section of “everyone.” So, the more our friends, relatives and acquaintances agree, the more likely we are to think “everyone” believes “this,” hence “this” is right, when all we are doing is essentially looking in the mirror or listening to an echo chamber.

My interpretation of Woodard’s essay is that we can pretty much culturally divide ourselves with how we answer this question: How do you view “human nature?” Are humans inherently good and “perfectible” or are they inherently “bad,” prone to violence and we must be eternally vigilant lest our neighbor take advantage of us. It’s not whether humanity is or is not like this, it’s what we believe because we act on those beliefs.

We will find the evidence to prove our cultural beliefs. We will form policies and institutions that reflect these basic assumptions, hence, forming culturally separate “nations.”

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Does there have to be a purpose in walking

TERRE HAUTE — I think my youngest daughter is trying to kill me. She convinced me to join her in the Indy Monumental half marathon. She is running it, I am walking it. When she suggested this to me, I thought “13 and a half miles, piece of cake.” I’ve always walked a lot, enjoy it, though I never walked in any kind of a competitive event.

I began to think my daughter had it in for me when she sent me a 12-week training regimen. “I have to train for this thing?” I said to myself. “So, it’s not just a bright, clear, cool, November Saturday spent strolling the Indy downtown, but a three-month commitment to achievement!” Achievement is something I’m used to, but physical stuff is not my thing. Who is this person who claims to be my kid?

I do wonder where she gets it. She comes from a long line of champion couch potatoes whose idea of physical activity is scrolling the mouse across a pad or punching the advance key on the remote. While I admit to enjoying walking in rain, sleet, snow or sun, it’s not so much the physical activity as the alone time it provides, the chance to get away from the electronic world (yes, I know all about iPods, but I prefer bird song to Lady Gaga). Since I’ve started this “death” walk, people ask me what kind of walker I am? I’m not sure how to answer this, “upright,” “lumbering,” “straight ahead?”. I tell them “Zen.” I walk to think about stuff, everything except how fast I am walking, my pace, my breathing, all the things that are seemingly necessary to walk the Indy Monumental.

This morning, I walked 4.25 miles at a “brisk” pace in under an hour. Each mile I got faster and faster, but find that I can’t let my mind wander and enjoy the call of the yellow-billed cuckoo that I heard because it takes so much concentration to keep up the “brisk” pace. Forget talking to anyone on the “trail,” that would break my training and slow me down; other lumbering humans are just bodies to pass like I’m a human NASCAR. By the way, people don’t appreciate it at all when I draft them.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy physical activity. For about a decade I’ve been paddling a kayak. For more than a decade I have been doing tai chi. If I still lived on Collett Park, I’d walk to work at ISU. Five years ago I learned to scuba dive. I am going to learn how to sail. I enjoy physical activity but not for the physicality, but for the activity. I like the feeling of being on the river, not driving by it. I like diving and snorkeling a coral reef for the incredible natural beauty of it. I like walking because it gets me outside, in the light, and away from email, the laptop and the “important” stuff. I drafted this essay in my head on my last mile of my “brisk” training walk. Didn’t seem to slow me down, I think I hit a groove or something.

Still, I wonder if my daughter is trying to kill me. Heck, in addition to the walking, I am even supposed to be “cross training,” whatever that is. I’m cross enough, I don’t think I need much training in that.

Then I recall all the things that I have shared with my kids that I enjoy: paddling, snorkeling, birding, camping, even just taking a walk. Given the bugs, the sunburns and the blisters, I could see where my kids might think I was trying to “kill them” on some of these shared outings. Perhaps that is what my daughter, who seems to really enjoy running and running rather hard and for long distances, is trying to share with me, things she really likes to do. She is also becoming a skilled baker, “… Hey Andrea, how about a couple loaves of that wonderful bread you make, I’ll need it after my flesh has melted away after training and completing the walking version of the Indy Monumental.”

Let me check my training schedule. Ahh, tomorrow is a “rest” day. I can go walk just for walking and not for a reason. That’s more like it. Maybe I’ll hear a red eyed reo singing.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Civil society is strained, but not Broken

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (3/31/2013)

Last month I participated in a United Campus Ministries series on “Bridging the Political Divide.”  As is often my “style” in such a presentation, I initially disagree with the premise of the question or statement put to me.  Yes, it seems to be that we are as divided about things as ever, but are we at a historic “wide” in the divide?  We aren’t to the place where states are seceding from the union and Washington is sending in troops to preserve the union.  Neither are we taking to the streets to protest a war and national guardsmen firing on college student protesters.  Nor are we seeing political assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and cities burning as part of racial protests.  Was Washington working any better then than it is now?

I think the nature of politics is division.  Perhaps the division can be too wide or too personal, which seems to be part of the problem in Washington.  I believe that our society can survive the drama (or lack of drama) in Washington.  I worry about real social division, which is a precursor to social conflict, in our society that is associated with a loss of trust and confidence in our social institutions. 

The “gender gap” seems pronounced in politics.  Males and females were almost mirror images of each other in their respective support for Obama or Romney.  Fifty two percent of men supported Romney while 55 percent of women supported Obama.  Age made a huge difference in the last election, with the older the voter the more likely they would support Romney.  Only 37 percent of 18-29 year olds supported Romney while only 44 percent of those 65+ supported Obama.  Race was starkly divided, with 59 percent of whites supporting Romney while no other race/ethnic group showed more than 39 percent support for Romney.  Only 6 percent of African American voters supported Romney.  These kinds of divisions concern me more than divisions over policy questions.

 Is the explanation for this divide (and space prohibits me fleshing out the social divide further) actually a result of the divide or its underlying cause?  Scholars are not sure.  The conventional theory goes that civil society (civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests)  needs to be rebuilt, because it is frayed, and rebuilding civil society will improve our political functioning because this is where people “connect” with each other, build trust and shared fate.  Or, perhaps the political divisions are eroding civil society.  At this point, I think, they are both undermining each other.

Religion is a major facet of civil society and Americans’ participation in religion is declining.  As Americans become more secular, they rely less on religion to solve problems and they turn more and more to the market and to the state.  There is decline in participation in service and fraternal organizations, recreational groups, political and civic groups, job-related organizations, church-related groups, and all other groups and organizations.  It is in civil society that we discover that our fate is shared and that our self-interest is connected to others.  From that we develop common identity and a sense of the common or public good.  Any decline in civil society, for some scholars, means a threat to our democracy.

Individualistic attitudes are on the rise and research shows those with more collectivist attitudes are more socially responsible.

And since the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans have been losing confidence in all American institutions, from the military to religion to business. 

With confidence in government at an all time low, the lowest proportion of Americans in history living in family situations, and Americans withdrawing from civil society, only the market is left and the market only responds to the ability to pay; with growing income inequality, that does not bode well for our future. Yet, there remains hope.  Despite these trends, one statistic seems to hold up over time without any noticeable change and that is in social trust.  While half of Americans say you can’t be too careful with people, that number has not increased in decades.  While it is somewhat disconcerting that half of Americans show distrust of their fellow citizen, that the numbers of the distrusting have not grown, despite the declines in confidence in American political and social institutions, I think, is a hopeful sign.  It is something that we could build on to rebuild or transform civil society.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

‘Blame the victim’ ideology emerges in gun debate

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/24/2013

TERRE HAUTE — Last week while fueling my car, I noticed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read: “It’s My Choice — Not Obama’s”, then above that are two check boxes, one for “Armed” the other for “Victim.” The bumper sticker suggests that our choice is to be armed or to be a victim. A big red check mark was in the box for “Armed.”

I was struck by such an idea and wondered who the owner of the truck was. Eventually he came out of the store and filled his tank. He was late 20s to mid 30s, short cropped hair, perhaps a police officer or firefighter, but nothing else on his truck gave away any more about him. He wasn’t wearing a gun that I could tell, though with that bumper sticker, I concluded he was “packing” something somewhere.

I admit that I also wondered if someone drove by and took a shot at him, how he would respond. Did he look at me as a possible threat, or maybe his victim since I was unarmed?

With such a line of thinking, “be armed or be a victim”, then what to make of Chris Kyle’s tragic murder? Based on the bumper sticker logic, Chris Kyle is one of the least likely of victims. Or perhaps he is not a victim at all, since he was armed, if we apply the bumper sticker logic to the situation.

The bumper sticker logic also taps into a particularly nasty undercurrent of American ideology; that bad things only happen to those who deserve it, or blaming the victim. For a country that so on the surface champions the underdog, the fact is we detest losers and victims. We blame them. We blame rape victims for being raped, the poor for being poor (even as corporations disinvest in their communities), and the sick for being sick. To even ask for help is to show weakness and poor character. DIY is the true American ideology. We create a safe haven for the powerful to victimize others by creating a sense that victims “choose” to be victims (by not arming themselves, or wearing the wrong clothing, or being in the wrong place). Those out for a pleasant evening at the movies are victims only if they aren’t armed to shoot a would-be mass murderer.

Do knives count? How about clubs? What about a black belt in karate?

I chose to be a victim in high school. One night, while driving my car with a couple of my buddies, on the way to a place we probably shouldn’t have, I passed a car and one of my buddies must have done something to make the driver very angry because at the next stop light, he got out of his car and walked to my window. I thought he wanted matches or something. Instead he dragged me out of my car and beat me up leaving me crumpled on the street and my buddies slack jawed.

I vowed never again. Never again would I be the victim, so I acquired a policeman’s night stick, an older one, hickory with a leather strap and learned how to use it. I kept it in my car, next to my seat. I felt safe.

A few months later, again, at night, up to no good no doubt, a twerpy guy I’d known since first grade began to hassle me. He dared to even touch my car. I thought, “I’ll just step outside with my club and he’ll run away.” Short version is he quickly took that club away from me and the only person it was ever used on was me. Victim again! My fault. Blame me. Maybe I needed a gun.

I’ve written before that the fears of those who don’t feel safe and secure without a gun should be taken seriously. It speaks, I think, to a serious fraying in the social fabric of U.S. society. Perhaps it’s related to the same thing that has coarsened our society, eroded our civil society, and of people not knowing their neighbors. It’s hard to trust others when we don’t know our neighbors, when we don’t engage in our communities, and feel isolated and vulnerable. There are too many Americans like that for it just to be an individual phenomenon; it’s rooted in the culture of the U.S.

Bumper stickers I’d like to see: “If only Jesus had had a gun.” And “WWJD with a gun.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

Many factors change the view of marriage

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 27 January 2013

Does the spreading greater acceptance of same sex marriage suggest that marriage as an institution is “obsolete?”  It sounds contradictory to suggest such a thing.  Similar patterns, though, have been found in other areas where a majority group historically denied privileges it enjoys to a minority group.  For instance, as women made inroads into formerly male dominated occupations, research showed that men abandoned the same occupations that they once resisted women’s entry.  Similarly, whites abandon neighborhoods which then become integrated with minority residents.  In short, what sometimes looks like progress for minority groups may be a result of the majority group devaluing and abandoning what was previously vigorously defended and denied to the minority group.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same sex marriage.  Another 11 states have domestic partnership or civil union laws.  The rest (except New Mexico) have passed bans on same sex marriage.  There are initiatives in four more states to legalize either same sex marriage or civil unions and none currently to ban it.  The trend is undeniable.

The movement to find legal and institutional support for same sex marriage could be understood  to  validate the contemporary relevance of marriage in the US; however, research on marriage trends and attitudes (among presumably mostly heterosexual respondents) suggests something different.  In December 2011, Pew Charitable Trusts released a study, “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low.” 

In 1960 72 percent of adult Americans were married; in 2010 only 51 percent were.   The report claims, if current trends continue, in a few years, less than half of American adults will be married.  America is not alone in these trends.  They are also found in other mature, post-industrial, advanced economies.  As American style individualism, especially consumer individualism spreads internationally, an institution perhaps increasingly viewed as at odds with individualism, might increasingly become irrelevant and to survive may have to change both legally and normatively.

In 1960, average age at first marriage was in the early 20s, now it is in the late 20s.  It is not likely that many wait for marriage to enjoy sex today as was more likely 50 years ago.  The impetuous and romantic teens and early 20 somethings of the 1960s have given way to a more mature and financially more independent set of partners marrying for the first time.

Two trends seem to be especially important.  The older age at first marriage, cited by Pew, and then another, cited in a study by Bowling Green University, “The Gray Divorce Revolution:  Rising Divorce Among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2009.”  While divorce rates have stabilized and even fallen, they have spiked among this age group.  These are marriages that have lasted 25+ years.  Qualitative research cited in the study indicates that many older couples who divorce simply have grown apart. “Life-long marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies; older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages.”

In response to a question of whether marriage as an institution is obsolete, Pew found, that 39 percent said “yes.”  This compares to only 28 percent in the 1970s.  This view varied by education and age.  The more educated were less likely to see marriage as obsolete while those under 50, compared to those over fifty, were more likely to see marriage as obsolete, a difference of 10 percentage points.  Among the never married, 61 percent indicated they wanted to get married.  It does not appear that one’s view on the obsolescence of marriage affects the wish to marry.

Perhaps most telling is that 58 percent of unmarried parents and 62 percent of cohabiting parents agree that marriage is obsolete.  Marriage is our society’s primary mechanism for tying adult responsibility to children and clear majorities of unmarried parents respond that marriage is obsolete.  It would be interesting to see if heterosexuals in those states where same-sex marriage is legal differ in their views and experience of marriage and divorce from those in states who have banned same sex marriage.

For many years the cause of marriage equality, and backlashes to it, have played out.  The gay community (a minority community) organizes and pushes for access to an institution defended by the straight majority.  As victories mount for the cause of marriage equality, it may be those victories are aided because the straight community no longer views marriage the same, are devaluing it, thus less likely to defend its boundaries. 
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