Tag Archives: America

Those Alternate Realities

Paul Krugman had a recent column in the New York Times headlined “Why Does the Right Hate America?”

Although the headline was clearly meant as snark, it wasn’t wrong:  at its base, the division between MAGA voters and the rest of us rests upon MAGA’s clear distaste–even hatred–for the reality of today’s diverse America. That’s really what those anti-“woke” battles are all about; a not insignificant number of American citizens desperately want to “return” to an America that they mis-remember, an America that only existed in a Rightwing fever dream– a manufactured, inaccurate nostalgia for a world that privileged White Christian males.

Krugman began by referencing an essay by Damon Linker that profiled conservative intellectuals. Those writers, he argued, helped to explain where the MAGA right is coming from, and they paint a dire portrait of contemporary America.

For example, Patrick Deneen’s “Regime Change” describes America thus: “Once-beautiful cities and towns around the nation have succumbed to an ugly blight. Cratering rates of childbirth, rising numbers of ‘deaths of despair,’ widespread addictions to pharmaceuticals and electronic distractions testify to the prevalence of a dull ennui and psychic despair.” And he attributes all of this to the malign effects of liberalism.

When I read such things, I always wonder, do these people ever go outside and look around? Do they have any sense, from personal memory or reading, of what America was like 30 or 50 years ago?

I am old enough to remember the America of the 1950s and 60s, and like Krugman, my reaction to the quoted paragraph is incredulous.

I clearly recall separate drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks, the “Restricted” billboards on housing developments (warning that Jews and Blacks would be excluded), the rules prohibiting women from opening charge accounts or obtaining mortgages without a male co-signer…

Krugman is a bit younger; he references the Seventies, noting that these right-wing critiques of modern America seem “rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date. There seems to be a part of the conservative mind for which it’s always 1975.”

Start with those blighted cities. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s, when Times Square was a cesspool of drugs, prostitution and crime. These days it’s a bit too Disneyland for my tastes, but the transformation has been incredible.

 OK, that’s something of a Big Apple-centric view, and not every U.S. city has done as well as New York (although it’s remarkable how many on the right insist on believing that one of America’s safest places is an urban hellscape). Chicago, for example, has done a lot worse. But between 1990 and the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic there was a broad-based U.S. urban resurgence, largely driven by the return to city life of a significant number of affluent Americans, who increasingly valued the amenities cities can offer and were less worried by violent crime, which plunged after 1990.

True, some of the fall in crime was reversed during the pandemic, but it seems to be receding again. And Americans are coming back to urban centers: Working from home has reduced downtown foot traffic during the week, but weekend visitors are more or less back to pre-pandemic levels.

This doesn’t look like blight to me.

What about family life? Indeed, fewer Americans are getting married than in the past. What you may not know is that since around 1980 there has been a huge decline in divorce rates. The most likely explanation, according to the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, is that expanded job opportunities for women led to a temporary surge in divorces as women left unhappy marriages, which receded as marriages adjusted to the new social realities. I take this to mean that during the “good old days” there was a lot of quiet marital misery, some of which is now behind us.

Oh, and when we talk about declining birthrates, we should note that a significant factor has been a huge decline in teenage pregnancies, especially among women 15 to 17. Is this an indicator of moral decay?

There’s more, and I agree with all of it.

As Krugman concedes, we Americans do still have big problems. (As he also points out, those “deaths of despair” and similar symptoms of dysfunction are mostly artifacts of rural areas of the country, not the urban “hellholes” that MAGA folks love to hate–those “cesspools” where uppity women and Black people and other minorities have the nerve to flourish…)

I couldn’t agree more with Krugman’s conclusion:

Indeed, some people on the right clearly hate the America we actually live in, a complex, diverse nation, as opposed to the simpler, purer nation of their imaginations.

Says it all….


The Upside Of Secularization

I have long been interested in what you might call the “sociology” of religion–the effects of various forms of religiosity on the body politic, especially when that body politic is diverse. That interest led to the publication of my first sabbatical project–God and Country: America in Red and Blue, back in 2007. (I think Baylor University Press still publishes it.)

The conundrum, of course, is that certain aspects of religious devotion can be very positive–especially the support offered by religious communities. Those studies showing that religious folks were healthier or happier or whatever weren’t wrong, but the value was the existence of that supportive network, not a direct line to deity.

Other aspects of religiosity are negative–especially fundamentalist belief systems. Our current culture wars come courtesy of people who act on their belief that their God wants everyone to behave in a certain way, and those who pander to them. (“Live and let live” is simply inconceivable to folks who talk to God….)

Scholars tell us that the growing secularization of America has been accompanied by a loss of community and an epidemic of loneliness, which is certainly troubling, so I was very interested in this article focusing on the positives of secularization.

It began with the facts:

Last week, Gallup released new data showing that standard Christian beliefs are at all-time lows. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God; that figure is now down to 74%. Belief in heaven has gone from 83% down to 67%; belief in hell from 71% down to 59%; belief in angels from 79% down to 69%; belief in the devil from 68% down to 58%.

These declines in personal belief are tracking with church attendance, which is at an all-time low (even when accounting for the pandemic’s social distancing). Religious wedding ceremonies are similarly at an all-time low, as the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion has hit an all-time high.

The author acknowledged that weakening of religion meant the loss of strong congregational communities and the “comfort of spiritual solace and the power of religiously inspired charitable works.” Nevertheless, he insisted that it is good news for democracy.

When secularization occurs naturally within free societies and people simply stop being religious of their own volition, such a change comes with many positive correlates — not least healthier democratic values and institutions…

Democracy requires citizen participation.

On that front, atheists and agnostics stand out. When it comes to attending political meetings, protests and marches, putting up political lawn signs, donating to candidates, working for candidates or contacting elected officials, the godless are among the most active and engaged. Americans who are affirmatively secular in their orientation — atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers — are more likely to vote in elections than their religious peers.

Another crucial pillar of democracy is tolerance, the acceptance of people who are different from us, or behave and believe differently. In a diverse and pluralistic nation such as ours, civic tolerance of difference is essential. In study after study, nonreligious people are found to be much more tolerant than religious people.

Ironically, atheists are far more accepting and tolerant of religious people than religious people are of them.

What about information? Democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry–and these days, that means citizens who are able to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of misinformation.

Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.

The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This fundamental principle of our democracy, which bars the government from either promoting or persecuting religion, is essential in a society that contains millions of people with multiple religious faiths, and no religious faith at all. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bulldoze this safeguard, threatening one of the founding premises of our nation.

The best hope for our democracy may be the growing number of secular Americans, who are by far the most supportive of repairing this principle.

Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan. It’s notable that some atheist/humanist groups have regular Sunday meetings, to supply that very human need for companionship and fellowship.

Meanwhile, we should celebrate the waning belief that your God is the only “right” God, and He (always a He) wants you to impose “his” will on everyone else.



Modernity, Ambiguity..And Polarization

Back when I was in college (many years ago!), one of “the” raging intellectual arguments concerned the absolute versus relative nature of evil. We weren’t far removed from WWII and the discovery of Hitler’s “Final solution,” and “relativism” was a dirty word. Most Americans looked askance at people who suggested that different cultures might judge behaviors differently.

I haven’t encountered replays of that particular debate lately, but a recent newsletter from Pew brought it to mind. The newsletter–reporting on studies conducted by Pew’s Research Center–included the following paragraph:

About half of U.S. adults (48%) say that most things in society can be clearly divided into good and evil, while the other half (50%) say that most things in society are too complicated to be categorized this way, according to a new analysis of data from a recent Pew Research Center survey. Highly religious Americans are much more likely to see society as split between good and evil, while nonreligious people tend to see more ambiguity.

Ah–either/or. Good or evil. Right or wrong. If only the world was that simple…

Back in those youthful college days, most of us ended up by concluding that the fight between relativism and certainty was being vastly oversimplified. Although certain behaviors (genocide, for example) could undoubtedly be labeled “evil” no matter the culture, the real world confronts us daily with situations in multiple shades of gray. It might be comforting to believe in an accessible bright line that divides always good from always evil, but in the messy reality of the world we occupy, that line is often very fuzzy–and what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.”

There’s certainly wise versus unwise, wrong versus right… and then there’s good versus evil….

I still recall my first conversation with an Episcopal clergyman who later became a good friend, in which we discussed the positive and negative role of religion in helping people cope with the growing complexities of modern life, helping them navigate an increasingly complicated social and technological environment in which affixing unambiguous labels like “good” and “bad” was increasingly fraught. He saw his job as helping his congregants deal with the inevitable ambiguities of modern life–helping them ask the right questions, rather than insisting that they accept simple, pre-ordained, one-size-fits-all “right answers.”

My youngest son insists that this is the test of good versus bad religion–the good ones help you wrestle with such questions; the harmful ones insist they have the only acceptable answers….I think it’s fair to say that the growing number of “unchurched” and secular Americans is attributable in no small measure to the large number of religious denominations that  insist on acceptance of a particular, doctrinal, always-right “answer.” 

The Pew analysis does provide illumination of a fundamental (pun intended) reason for Americans’ current polarization. Whether based on religion or a semi-religious political ideology, the emotional need to categorize other humans–the need to divide an increasingly complex world into simple categories of “good” and “evil” that corresponds with “us” versus “them”–is a significant contributor to our current inability to communicate, let alone live together with at least a measure of civility and mutual respect. 

After all, if progressive policies are evil, rather than simply “unwise” or “mistaken,” then the “good” people–the Godly warriors who have affixed that label– are justified in ignoring democratic processes and the rule of law in order to counter that evil.

And as horrifying as it may seem, that’s where we are–reliving a throwback to pre-modern times, and to the religious wars the nation’s Founders they thought they were avoiding by erecting that wall of separation between church and state.

I’ve always realized that there were some folks who needed that bright line, the high degree of moral certainty that characterized simpler times–but Pew’s study found 48% of Americans endorsing that pre-modern mindset.

That explains a lot..and it doesn’t bode well for e pluribus unum.






Facts Are So Inconvenient

There’s what we believe, and there’s what is true. Sometimes those two things align; often, unfortunately, they don’t.

Most of us have yet to sink to Trumpian levels–in fact, it never ceases to amaze me that Trump can tweet out some nonsense, or make an idiotic statement at a news conference, then blandly deny that he said any such thing. It takes a certain type of mental illness to forget that there is actual evidence rebutting you.

We may not approach Trumpian levels, but most of us do cling to certain “truths” that we desperately want to believe. I’m no different–it took me a long time, well into adulthood, before I realized that my view of America’s past was seriously deficient–heavy on the Founders’ ideals, light on some of their slaveholding behaviors, and pretty much void of what was done to Native Americans, among other things.

Then there were my fond beliefs about America vis a vis other countries. Social mobility. Equality. Rule of law.

I now know–unfortunately–that our once-vaunted social mobility is worse than that of many countries. This helpful infographic shows us 27th--not dead last, but not exactly in bragging rights territory.

In the Age of Orange, I’m not even going to talk about the rule of law; as a concept, it’s  beyond Trump’s limited intellect, and as a principle, it has apparently been abandoned by the Mitch McConnell wing of the Supreme Court.

And then there’s equality.

Now, as I tell my students, there are a lot of different ways to think about equality: genuinely religious people will say that we are all equal in the eyes of God; our constitution  requires government to treat equally-situated people equally, irrespective of the color of their skin or the beliefs they embrace.

And clearly, we don’t come into the world equally talented or beautiful or intelligent…

But about civic equality as a goal: Another visualization I stumbled across recently–this one from Time Magazine– made me aware of just how unequal Americans are. It uses neighborhood data to pinpoint metropolitan areas with high and low levels of equal opportunity, by searching for areas with relatively small gaps between the highest- and lowest-ranked neighborhoods. (It didn’t help my frame of mind that my own city, Indianapolis, was represented by a dark red dot indicating highly unequal neighborhoods.)

As the text explained:

This information is useful because, even when places have the same opportunity level overall, actually living in those cities can be a very different experience. For example, Colorado Springs and Detroit both score an overall opportunity level of 55. But in Colorado Springs, a typical high-opportunity neighborhood scores an 87 and a typical low-opportunity one scores 24. That might seem like a huge gap. But Detroit’s high is 95 and its low is 2: a much less equal city.

The problem was, when we found areas with small gaps between neighborhoods, those cities tended to be racially homogenous. In other words, children in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, have access to comparatively equal opportunities, regardless of which neighborhoods they live in—but those cities are more than 80% white.

When combined, in all 100 metro areas covered by the study, neighborhoods where white children lived had a median score of 73. The median neighborhood score for Asian children was 72. It was 33 for Hispanic children and 24 for black children. Black and Hispanic kids live with considerably less opportunity than their white and Asian peers almost without exception.

The disparities are especially wide in certain parts of the country. Milwaukee and its surrounding area has the widest racial disparity in the U.S., despite having a high overall opportunity score. A white child there lives in a neighborhood with a median opportunity score of 85. For a black child, the median neighborhood score is 6.

Once this pandemic is over, there is a long “laundry list” of situations in our country requiring attention and repair. That list needs to be based on facts, not beliefs.

Add equalizing children’s prospects to that list–and put it near the top.


Tribes And Cults

American politics these days is a sociologist’s dream. Or nightmare.

The extreme polarization of the voting public has been noted, examined and explained from multiple perspectives: we have “sorted” ourselves geographically, economically and philosophically, and political scientists suggest that we increasingly revise our ideological commitments in order to conform to those of the “tribe” we have chosen to join, rather than joining a tribe based upon its compatibility with those commitments.

There may be thoughtful citizens among us who march–resolutely–to their own drums, analyzing issues and political trends and determining their positions and allegiances based solely upon the facts as they see them after doing dispassionate research. If these ideal citizens exist, I rarely encounter them–and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not one of them, try as I might.

Let’s be honest; we are all products of our socialization. We are influenced by our friends and families, persuaded by the information sources we trust, predisposed by our religious beliefs, our educations and our life experiences. Those influences on our political perspectives have always been with us, and I have difficulty imagining a time when they won’t be.

There is a difference, however, between the predictable diversity of opinion that is an inevitable result of our varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and what I have come to see as surrender to political cults. America’s increasing tribalism is worrisome enough; its growing political cultism is terrifying.

It is one thing to be a passionate Republican or Democrat. It is quite another to exhibit  behaviors indistinguishable from the members of Heaven’s Gate or The Branch Davidians.

What are those behaviors?

According to those who study cults, members tend to be excessively zealous; they show unquestioning commitment to their leaders. Anyone who raises questions about the actions or character or prospects of those leaders is vilified. Supporters display an extremely polarized us-versus-them mentality, and refuse to hold the leader accountable to rules or authorities–the leader is the final authority, by definition.

If damaging information about the leader emerges, it is “fake news.” If knowledgable people dispute the leader’s ability to make good on his promises, or the premises upon which he acts, they are part of the conspiracy working to bring him down. (The “deep state,” or the “elitists,” or–on the leftwing fringe–the DNC.)

Case in point: in August, Trump called himself “the chosen one.” Did any of the self-described “deeply religious followers of Jesus” in his base rebel? Nope.

 The far-right radio host Wayne Allyn Root called Trump “the second coming of God.” Then former Energy Secretary Rick Perry straight up affirmed Trump’s craziness, telling him, “You are here in this time because God ordained you.”

The question we face, in a theoretically democratic system, is: why? Why do some people on both sides of the political aisle suspend their capacities for judgment and attach themselves unconditionally to figures that others perceive as deeply flawed?

According to one explanation,

“Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways,” writes the late Margaret Singer, “but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued…. Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader….

In a time of paradigm shift–when the world around us is changing rapidly and the challenges to our existing world-views are multiplying–large numbers of people are “rushed,” “stressed,” “fatigued”and vulnerable. It is tempting to put one’s faith in someone who is convinced that he has all the answers; if you just follow him, you don’t have to think for yourself. (And yes, I keep using “he” and “him” because in our patriarchal society, these “leaders” are almost always males.)

America was based upon a belief in “We the People,” not “he the savior.”

We the People need to realize that even the best leaders we can find will all be flawed human beings in need of our constant supervision and constructive criticism, not our unquestioning loyalty.

We the People have a lot of work to do if we are to rescue our government.  That work will require a lot less passionate intensity and a lot more reasoned analysis than we currently display.