Identity

I still remember when I first recognized the extent and reality of racism. I was in middle school, and I thought, well, when enough people have intermarried to make the whole world more or less the same color, that would take care of the problem.

At that age, I was blissfully ignorant of the tribalism that would make mankind unlikely to reach that simple “solution”–or the likelihood that if we were all the same skin color, we’d find other ways to distinguish between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the suspect “others.”)

What made me recall the naïveté of my long-ago “insight” was a really fascinating essay in the Hedgehog Review, titled “My Identity Problem.” In it, Alan Shapiro–a poet and professor of English– muses about his lifelong experience of “belonging, yet standing apart.” Shapiro focused on the relationship between his Jewish-ness and his American-ness, and  explained how that experience affects his approach to contemporary arguments about cultural appropriation: is a given example an exercise in empathy, or an unjustified (and inevitably inauthentic) intrusion into someone else’s culture?

That led him to a consideration of the way group identities serve us, and then to a really wonderful anecdote from one of his classes that–at least for me–illustrated the impossibility of avoiding “appropriations.”

A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”

I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.

Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably.

And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.

As Shapiro writes at a later point in the essay, our group identities are an inescapable part of who we are–but only a part.

In an America where most of us identify as members of many “groups,” (what sociologists and political scientists call “cross-cutting” identities), being a member of any particular one–even a particular marginalized population–doesn’t determine how we think or act. We all take different parts of ourselves from the various communities to which we all belong–a reality that prevents us from being wholly defined by any specific one of them.

That reality is ultimately why bigotry–racism, Anti-Semitism, etc.– is so stupid.

At its core, bigotry is the belief that group identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion or sexual orientation all share essential characteristics that distinguish “them” from “us.” It is a worldview that refuses to see people as people—as individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.

It just isn’t kosher.

 

 

Technology Versus Governance

I have a question I’ve been pondering for years. Perhaps one of the people who read this blog can answer it–or at least shed some much-needed light on it.

Here’s the thing: I am constantly coming across news items about technological progress that is incredibly impressive, innovations that promise to solve real problems faced by real humans. Here’s just one recent example:  an effort to bring electricity to almost half of Africa’s 1.3 billion population, which currently lives without it, and not by replicating the way most electricity is generated and transmitted in countries whose populations are almost universally served today.

As the article reports,

The results of fossil-fuel-based, centralized, power-plant strategies of the past 50 years speak for themselves: high levels of pollution and slow rollouts due to high construction and fuel costs. Instead, we need to focus on minigrid-based electricity powered by solar power and batteries, which can provide 24-hour clean energy. And because they are decentralized—with the electricity that each community needs provided by solar farms in the area (optimized through artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies) and without long, expensive transmission lines—minigrids are often low-cost and deployable in weeks. Already, Energicity has brought solar-powered electricity to 40,000 people, and our goal for 2022 is to reach 250,000 more, across four countries in West Africa.

You can read more detail at the link.

Reading about new methods of providing clean energy, or new ways to communicate, or new ways to pay for goods and services (many of which are also new) is hardly a unique experience. I see similar reports on an almost daily basis, and they make me applaud the ingenuity and scientific “know-how” of so many of my fellow humans. We’ve come a long way from inventing the ax by attaching a stone to a wooden handle!

Good for us! We’re resourceful creatures!

So why–why–are we unable to apply that ingenuity and intellectual rigor to the mechanisms of communal life–to systems of government?

I don’t hear our retrograde politicians criticizing the folks who invented the iPhone, or developed the Internet. Even our insane anti-vaxxers aren’t pontificating against the discovery of penicillan. They aren’t refusing to board airplanes (at least, not pre-pandemic). They have computers. They drive cars outfitted with the newest features, and  use GPS to get from point A to point B. They talk to Siri and Alexa. I could go on and on.

And they use these things without the dimmest idea of how they work, or “what is in them.”

Our relationship with technology is evidence of respect for talent and expertise. You don’t see the men and women who are creating these new tools boasting that they don’t really  know much about whatever their factories produce;  recruiters aren’t out looking for employees who  have absolutely no prior experience with, or training relevant to whatever widget the factory is producing. The managers of those factories don’t level their most withering critiques at workers who actually know what they are doing.

Only in political life do people consider ignorance of government and the policy process a virtue. Only in political life do we award our support to people who are clearly clueless about the imperatives and mechanics of governance–at least, if we think we’d like to have a beer with them.

Only in political life do ideologues encourage their own followers to reject the products of expertise–most recently, to risk dying rather than take advantage of the knowledge of others if that rejection is thought to advantage the know-nothings who aspire to elective office.

Bottom line: For every genuine innovation in governing, like the “doughnut economy” that is a subject of experimentation in Amsterdam and a few other places, there are literally thousands of innovations in technology. We humans are really good at invention, at subduing our environments, making daily life easier and more interesting. Not only that, most of us applaud those innovations; we consider them evidence of progress.

Why don’t we approach our governing systems that way?

 

 

 

 

 

Inequality Isn’t Just About Money

Believe it or not, despite their sometimes dense arguments and arcane vocabularies, academic papers can be fascinating.

A couple of months ago, at lunch with a former colleague, he referred to a paper that sounded intriguing, and I asked him to send me a link. Given the number of books and papers I tend to amass, I just got to it–and my initial impression was confirmed.

The lead author is Paul K. Piff, a Professor at the University of California at Irvine, and the title of the paper is “Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior.”

The authors began by sketching out fairly widespread assumptions about folks who occupy a lower social class, which they define in terms of socionomic status. In other words, poor people. They note that poor people have access to fewer resources,  face greater exposure to threat, and experience a reduced sense of personal control, and they observe that, given these life circumstances, many people expect lower class individuals to “engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others.”

The authors’ researched a related, but different, hypothesis. They investigated whether poorer individuals might “orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments” and they examined evidence to determine whether such an orientation exists and if so, whether it gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. (In the excerpt below, I’ve removed the copious citations.)

Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

The degree to which those who enjoy abundant resources should
act altruistically toward others is a contentious issue within moral
frameworks and political philosophies.

In the present research, we examine how social class influences
prosocial behavior. Relative to their upper class counterparts,
lower class individuals have fewer economic resources; fewer educational opportunities; less access to social institutions such as
elite schools, universities, and social clubs;
and subordinate rank in society relative to others.

Moreover, people with lower class backgrounds often face increased stress in their close relationships and violence in their homes. In the face of these life circumstances, lower class individuals might be expected to be more focused on their own welfare, prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others.
An emerging body of research points to an alternative hypoth-
esis: Despite experiencing life stressors on a more chronic basis,
lower class individuals appear to be more engaged with the needs
of others. Relative to their upper class counterparts, lower class
individuals are more dependent on others to achieve their desired
life outcomes, more cognizant of others in their social environ-
ment, and more likely to display other-oriented nonverbal behaviors.

The article proceeds to outline the four studies referenced, and to test their hypothesis by measuring the effect of social class on “core aspects of the construct”– objective
indicators of material resources (i.e., income): and subjective perceptions of social class .

In both correlational and experimental designs, using university, community, and nationwide samples that represented a range of social class backgrounds, controlling for plausible alternative explanations (e.g., reli-
giosity, ethnicity), we explored the effects of social class on
generosity (Study 1), charitable donations (Study 2), trust (Study
3), and helping behavior.

There’s a lengthy explanation of the methodologies employed in each of these studies, and discussions of the findings and implications at the link. But the bottom line was clear: The evidence strongly suggested that social class does shape what the authors call “people’s prosocial tendencies” and that “having less leads to giving more.”

So much for noblesse oblige and the stereotype of the generous rich. Turns out poor folks really aren’t Romney’s “takers”…

Most of the national debate over income inequality and the enormous gap between the financially fortunate and everyone else focuses on the extensive privileges enjoyed by the wealthy,  including the immensely greater influence that monied folks exert on policy–in contrast to  the multiple barriers faced by people whose incomes are barely adequate (or inadequate) to cover life’s necessities.

This paper–and the numerous studies cited by its authors–suggests another reason to be concerned about our present levels of inequality. If we want a kinder, gentler, more compassionate society, populated by citizens who behave in a pro-social manner, pursuing policies that further enrich the already wealthy is definitely not the way to go.

Indiana’s “Pro Life” Liars

Those of you who read this blog with any sort of regularity already know that the Hoosier legislators who wrap themselves in the “pro-life” label are anything but.  They are either pro-birth or anti-woman or focused on pandering to far right constituencies–usually, all three.

Nowhere is the hypocrisy of that label more vivid than in their devotion to instruments of death. I recently received the following email from a university staff member; I am sharing it in its entirety, in the hopes that many of you will take the indicated actions (not that our legislators listen to the broader public, which favors more gun control by massive margins.)

House Bill 1077 passed the house last week despite broad opposition, including from law enforcement. This bill allows for anyone, 18 or older, unless otherwise prohibited, to carry loaded handguns in public without a permit. Senate Bill 14 is similar to House Bill 1077; it allows anyone, 21 or older, unless otherwise prohibited, to carry loaded handguns in public without a permit. Senate Bill 14 will be heard by the Judiciary Committee on January 19th. Indiana has nearly 1,000 gun deaths a year, and gun deaths have increased 30% in the last decade, compared to an 17% increase nationwide. Indianapolis has seen a record number of homicides in 2021— many of which were gun homicides. Repealing the permitting requirement is irresponsible, reckless, has led to increased gun violence, and guts essential permitting standards for carrying handguns in public.

What you can do:
Sign and Share the Petition: https://www.change.org/p/oppose-hb-1077-say-no-to-permitless-carry.
Text INDIANA to 644-33 to tell your lawmaker to vote NO on HB1077/SB14 when it comes up for discussion and a vote before the full Senate chamber.

Senate Bill 143, Self-defense, specifies that “reasonable force” includes the pointing of a loaded or unloaded firearm for purposes of self-defense and arrest statutes. This is a dangerous policy as pointing a firearm does not deescalate a confrontation. This stand your ground expansion will likely disproportionately impact communities of color. When white shooters kill Black victims, the resulting homicides are considered justifiable 5 times more often than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white. Senate Bill 143 has a hearing on January 18th.

What you can do:
If your senator is on the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, tell them to vote NO on SB 143.Corrections and Criminal Law Committee: Sen. Michael Young, Sen. Susan Glick, Sen. Mike Bohacek, Sen. Aaron Freeman, Sen. Eric Koch, Sen. Jack Sandlin, Sen. Kyle Walker, Sen. Rodney Pol, Sen. Greg Taylor
If your senator is not on the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, tell them to vote NO on SB 143 if it comes up for discussion and a vote before the full Senate chamber.

Senate Bill 228, Acquisition and storage of firearms, prohibits a person from keeping or storing an unsecured firearm on any premises controlled by the person under certain circumstances; it also requires a person wishing to transfer a firearm to another person to transact the transfer through a firearms dealer. Senate Bill 228 has yet to have a hearing scheduled. Unsecured guns in the home pose a substantial risk to children who may find and use them against themselves or others. Estimates suggest that modest increases in the number of American homes safely storing firearms could prevent almost a third of youth gun deaths due to suicide and unintentional firearm injury

What you can do:
Email or Call Senator Young (s35@iga.in.gov | 317-232-9517) and ask him to hear SB 228 in the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.

Something else you can do, if you live in a district (mis)represented by one of Indiana’s pro-death, pro-gun cowboys, is vote against them at the next election and get your rational neighbors to do the same.

And be sure to let them know why.

 

Another Reason To Get Rid Of The Electoral College

A few days ago, Heather Cox Richardson–a historian who writes Substack’s popular “Letters from an American”–reported on several aspects of the Trump coup effort. Among the various efforts she itemized was the following

Over the past several days, news has broken that lawmakers or partisan officials in various states forged documents claiming that Trump won the 2020 election. This links them to the insurrection; as conservative editor Bill Kristol of The Bulwark notes, false electoral counts were part of Trump’s plan to get then–Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count a number of Biden’s electoral votes on the grounds that the states had sent in conflicting ballots.

Interestingly, on December 17, 2021, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that in four states there were an “alternate slate of electors voted upon that Congress will decide in January.” McEnany talked to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol yesterday.

Over the past few election cycles, the history and operation of the Electoral College has come under increasing scrutiny. And the more closely this odd element of our electoral process is examined, the more anti-democratic and positively dangerous it looks.

Whether, as several constitutional scholars insist, the Electoral College was a concession to the slave states, or as its defenders contend, it was an effort to give added electoral heft to smaller states–it  It currently undermines democracy and–as Richardson’s report illustrates–facilitates the efforts of those who would overturn the will of American voters.

Structurally, there is a great deal wrong with the Electoral College. For one thing, it substantially advantages white rural voters. Research suggests that–thanks to the current operation of the College– every rural vote is worth one and a third of every urban vote. Small states already have a significant advantage by virtue of the fact that every state–no matter how thinly or densely populated–has two Senators.

No other advanced democracy in the world uses anything like the Electoral College (and as political scientists have noted, there are good reasons for that). And for those who fashion themselves as “originalists,” it’s worth pointing out that our current version of the Electoral College is dramatically different from the mechanism as it was originally conceived and even as it was later amended.

According to law professor Edward Foley, who wrote a book on the subject, the changes made to the College by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 rested on the assumption that the candidate who won a majority of the popular vote would be elected. Those who crafted the Amendment failed to foresee the emergence of third party candidates whose presence on the ballot often means that the winner of a given state doesn’t win a majority, but a plurality of the vote.

These issues aside, the main problem with the Electoral College today isn’t even the  undemocratic and disproportionate power it gives rural voters and smaller states. It’s the statewide winner-take-all laws, under which  states award all their electors to the candidate with the most popular votes in their state– erasing all the voters in that state who didn’t vote for the winning candidate.

Forty-eight states have winner-take-all rules. As a result, most are “safe” for one party. The only states that really matter in any given federal election are “battleground” states — especially bigger ones like Florida and Pennsylvania, where a swing of a few thousand or even a few hundred votes can shift the entire pot of electors from one candidate to the other.

Winner-take-all has an even more pernicious effect–it disincentivizes voting by people who are in their state’s political minority. If your state is red and you are blue, or vice-versa, it’s easy to convince yourself your Presidential vote is meaningless, because it is.

Winner take all rules are why Democratic votes for President simply don’t count in Indiana and Republican votes for President don’t count in New York. Even if the margin is incredibly thin, the candidate who comes out on top gets all of that state’s electoral votes. If the votes were apportioned instead—if a winner of 51% of the popular vote got 51% of the electoral vote, and the candidate who got 49% got 49%, it wouldn’t just be fairer. It would encourage voters who support the “other” party in reliably red or blue states to vote, because–suddenly– that vote would count.

Joe Biden had to win the popular vote by five percentage points or more — by more than seven million votes — to insure his win in the 2020 election. That’s not only an unfair and undemocratic burden–it’s insane.

Now we learn that–in addition to its multiple anti-democratic effects–the College facilitates cheating. It really needs to go.