Tag Archives: culture

Some Reflections

Travel is always educational–a way to challenge the “givens” of our own daily surroundings and routines by engaging with different cultures and environments. As our recent, extended trip has concluded, it seems appropriate to share some reflections.

  • In both Australia and New Zealand, we were struck by–and impressed with–the meticulous maintenance of the infrastructure and especially of the public spaces. In New Zealand, especially, the parks and beaches  weren’t only well maintained, they were numerous–and I found it particularly interesting that they routinely included public toilets–also clean and well maintained. Not “pay for use” facilities, as we’ve seen elsewhere, but conveniences open to the general public.

The emphasis on –and care for–free publicly available amenities really impressed me; it suggests a culture far more focused on community than we in the U.S. are accustomed to.

  • A couple of conversations–one with a passenger on our ship, and one with a New Zealand friend of my youngest son–gave me an insight into the contending reactions to lockdowns that we saw during the Covid pandemic. The first exchange occurred when I was in a line with another passenger; he said he lived in Florida, and (intemperate as it was) I asked him how he viewed Florida’s governor. His response was that DeSantis had “handled” the pandemic exceptionally well.  I restrained myself from remarking that the data showed a rather different result. It may have been less annoying for the Florida citizens who survived; but thanks to DeSantis’ dismissal o medical science, a significantly larger percentage of Florida residents died than died elsewhere.

The conversation with my son’s friend was a bit different. I remarked how much I  admired Jacinda Ardern, the former PM. She laughed and told me that Ardern was far more popular internationally than in New Zealand, and that she would not have been re-elected because of widespread disapproval of the way she’d handled the Covid pandemic–that New Zealanders overwhelmingly thought the lockdowns were too stringent, lasted too long, and were damaging to the economy.

The data confirms that Ardern’s management–a management consistent with medical advice– saved many lives. But those measures did depress the economy.

Both discussions illuminated something I’ve had great difficulty understanding: why did so many people resent the rules and restrictions meant to protect them from illness and death? I guess if you owned a small business or restaurant and the rules caused it to tank, recognizing that your pain had saved the lives of people you don’t know is asking a lot. Still…

  • Humans on planet Earth occupy vastly different natural, economic and cultural environments. The contrast between the native populations with whom we interacted in French Polynesia and Tonga, for example, and those who live in Australia and New Zealand was striking, and confirmed to me how much of individual well-being is  shaped by the institutions of a given culture and society.

I think particularly of the young man who drove us around in Uturoa. He spoke at least two languages–his own and English (and perhaps others), and shared that in addition to providing tours to visitors, he had established a small business exporting fruit and vegetables. He was clearly ambitious, hard-working and entrepreneurial, but it was also clear that what he will be able to accomplish will be limited by the extent of local dependence on tourism, by  the widespread, obvious poverty, and by the lack of a supportive economic infrastructure.

  • On a cruise and far from home, the news takes on a more detached quality. As we have heard heart-rending stories about the hostages, about Gaza and the continued travesty in Ukraine, and been treated to daily reports chronicling the chaos, stupidity and mean-spirited activity that passes for politics in the U.S. these days, it’s hard not to be depressed about the world our grandchildren will have to negotiate. I alternate between hoping that we can emerge from all the craziness and despairing that humanity is headed for another Dark Ages…

Most of all, a trip of this sort reminds me how very fortunate my husband and I have been. We may have missed Thanksgiving with our extended family, but my husband and I absolutely haven’t forgotten to be grateful for having been born in a time and at a place that allowed us to fashion a good life. I just want that same good life for my grandchildren– and for everyone else’s children and grandchildren.

A ship took us to an incredibly beautiful part of the world. Next year, I hope Americans will vote to keep another ship– the ship of state– in the hands of an equally sane, competent captain who can steer us into calmer waters.

It’s The Culture, Stupid!

During Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, the “ragin’ Cajun” hung a huge sign in campaign headquarters proclaiming: It’s the Economy, Stupid!

That approach, focusing upon economic issues, was evidently a winner at the time. Right now, despite considerable economic turmoil and growing economic unfairness (Gilded Age #2, anyone?), that sign should probably read “It’s the Culture, Stupid!”

In fact, when I read reports about the suicidal stupidity of lawmakers at both the federal and state levels, I remind myself that they are fighting a rearguard battle–that changes in the culture have been “baked in” and will sooner or later make them irrelevant.

I don’t mean to minimize the harm these self-identified “Christian soldiers” can do in the meantime, nor am I suggesting that those of us who are appalled by mean-spirited attacks on everything from trans children to accurate history should take a vacation from activism. But I do believe that cultural change will win the day, and that most people who despair–young people, especially– fail to recognize just how rapid and profound such change has been.

Those of us who are older–okay, a lot older–have seen immense shifts in our own lifetimes. When I delivered a “Last Lecture” at my university, back in 2015, I pointed out that I’d lived through the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement and truly explosive advances in technology, communication and transportation, all of which caused big shifts in public consciousness. Each shift has been accompanied by multiple less-remarked-upon, minor changes in our everyday lives. (Today you can wear jeans pretty much everywhere, and I haven’t seen a girdle in a very long time…)

What really brought the extent of cultural change home to me was research I’ve been doing for a book I’m co-authoring with Morton Marcus, who sometimes posts (usually sardonic) comments here. Morton and I have been friends for some thirty years, and our joint effort–titled “From Property to Partner”– traces women’s progress along that path. ( The book is in the last phase of copy-editing and will be available for purchase soon, at which time I will shamelessly urge you all to buy it.)

When women emerged from “barefoot and pregnant” status, we changed a number of cultural norms, and the extent of that change has been demonstrated in the reaction to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs. 

Jennifer Rubin was one of the many pundits pleasantly surprised by the unanticipated reaction to that first-ever withdrawal of a Constitutional right.

Who could have guessed that preserving access to abortion would be such a unifying position?

Given how divided our country is, and how loud voices seeking to criminalize the procedure have become, one might not expect abortion bans to be so unpopular. Yet polling shows that support for abortion care is remarkably consistent.

 A recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds, “Just under two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that abortion should be legal in most or almost all cases,” including 68 percent of independents. Only one-third say it should be illegal in most or almost all cases. Even among Republicans, 36 percent favor legal abortion. And the percentage of the party that favors banning all or most abortions has declined from 21 to 14 percent in just over a year.

In fact, majority support for abortion access cuts across gender, racial, ethnic, educational attainment and age lines. That support also spans most religious groups. The PRRI finds, “White evangelical Protestants (27%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (27%), Latter-day Saints (32%), and Hispanic Protestants (44%) are the only major religious groups in which less than half of adherents say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.”

Unlike the many positions that divide Americans, support for reproductive rights is not limited to residents of Blue states. In  2018–before Dobbs— there were only seven states in which fewer than half of residents wanted abortion to be legal in most or all cases: South Dakota (42%), Utah (42%), Arkansas (43%), Oklahoma (45%), Idaho (49%), Mississippi (49%), and Tennessee (49%).

I don’t have access to surveys posing similar questions back in the 1950s, but I imagine the results would have been very different. (Not that women didn’t abort back then–they just didn’t abort safely. In my high school days, I was aware of at least two deaths of girls from botched terminations–as the saying goes, the law can’t prevent abortions, it can only prevent safe abortions.)

I’m sure the magnitude of the response to Dobbs came as a shock to the inhabitants of what I think of as “holdout communities”–the bubbles populated by men (and some women) determined to cling to the verities of a bygone society. Those folks need to brace themselves, because the culture has turned sour on plenty of their other pet issues.

And ultimately, culture prevails.


Language, Fact & Emotion, Oh My!!

Many thanks for all the kind comments yesterday! They were much appreciated!!


Computers haven’t only changed our day-to-day lives in multiple ways, their computational capacities have made it possible to conduct studies far beyond the ability of mere humans. One of my sons sent me an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists detailing a research project that would have been impossible to conduct prior to the availability of today’s technologies.

The researchers set out to examine the roots of what they dub–accurately, in my view– our “post-truth era.”  In order to do so, they employed “massive language analysis” to document the rise of fact-free argumentation. They analyzed language used in millions of books published between 1850 to 2019–an analysis that required Google nGram data.

What they found is illuminating, to put it mildly.

After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

The researchers concluded that this “surge of post-truth political argumentation” is evidence that we are living at a time when the balance between emotion and reasoning has shifted.

To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.”

The reversal occurred in both fiction and nonfiction. It wasn’t limited to books, either– they found a similar shift in media (like New  York Times articles).  The results of the research “suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.”

The bulk of the article is a description of the methodology employed, the care taken to avoid “cherry picking” of data, and a variety of theories about the reason for the language shift. (There is definitely a “chicken and egg” aspect to the shift: did disillusionment with science and evidence drive a language shift? Or did something else prompt the change in language and thus promote an anti-science mood in the general public?)

The researchers concluded with a section they captioned “Outlook.”

It seems unlikely that we will ever be able to accurately quantify the role of different mechanisms driving language change. However, the universal and robust shift that we observe does suggest a historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and—inextricably linked—between the rational and the emotional or framed otherwise. As the market for books, the content of the New York Times, and Google search queries must somehow reflect interest of the public, it seems plausible that the change we find is indeed linked to a change in interest, but does this indeed correspond to a profound change in attitudes and thinking? Clearly, the surge of post-truth discourse does suggest such a shift, and our results are consistent with the interpretation that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking. If true, it may well be impossible to reverse the sea change we signal. Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of intuition and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity. Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global challenges such as global warming, poverty, and the loss of nature.

This study is fascinating, albeit depressing.

I’ve previously suggested that our current era will be labeled (assuming there are humans and historians left to do the labeling) “the age of Unreason.” The language we use matters far more than we generally recognize; it both reflects and produces our biases.

And right now, those biases evidently elevate emotion over reason and logic. Which explains a lot….




A Female Perspective

I was asked to make a (Zoom)presentation to a group of O’Neill women students, focused on “women and politics.” This is what I said.

I think I have always been a “political” person, in the sense that the question that has always fascinated me is a question that most women wrestle with in one way or another: how should people live together? What sort of social and political arrangements are most likely to nourish our humanity and promote—in Aristotle’s term—human flourishing? If the old African proverb is right, if it “takes a village to raise a child,” what should that village look like, and how should its inhabitants behave? How do we build that kind of village? Politics is the process of turning our answers to those questions into policy—and since women’s answers have been shaped by our life experiences, it is important that women’s voices be part of the policy process.

You have asked me to share my experiences as a professional and political woman, so let me get the biography out of the way. I was born in 1941, and I am very much a product of the 1950s, way before any of you were born. It was a time when women went to college to find a husband, a time when we were expected to be decorative and submissive—or at the very least, quiet. (You can see why I had a problem.)

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where being Jewish was at best exotic and at worst, Satanic, and where I was usually the only Jew my classmates had ever encountered. Those experiences undoubtedly deepened my interest in social divisions and the effects of marginalization. They also kindled an ongoing fascination with the ways in which religions shape our worldviews.

I left Anderson for college when I was 16. I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. That left teaching. Because I was so young, my parents sent me to Stephens College for Women, a two-year school that took very seriously its obligation to act in loco parentis. After Stephens, I briefly attended the University of North Carolina, where the most indelible lesson I learned was that when you pay Full Professors 3000/year, you get what you pay for. (Even in the 1950s, 3000 wasn’t much.) I transferred to IU Bloomington to finish my undergraduate degree, got married and divorced, and later did a semester at Butler, pursuing an MA in literature that I never finished.

I married a second time and took my first job (well, first if you don’t count the summer I worked for my father’s friend at his—no kidding—Cadillac-Rambler agency, where I was billed as Anderson’s first female used car salesman.) I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom. The theory evidently was that the kids would know what we’d been up to…

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children (four if you count the husband I had at the time). There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity… the few women’s restrooms were for the secretarial staff and inconvenient for students. After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at what was then Baker and Daniels.

To give you a flavor of the time—serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions—this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC. Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like some sort of radical bra-burning feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

I practiced corporate law for three years, until Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to serve as Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis–or, to the best of my knowledge, in any major metropolitan area. At the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb, and I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” I guess it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or even because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to. Gotta sell papers…

I left City Hall to be the Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, running against Andy Jacobs, Jr., in what was then Indiana’s 11th Congressional district. That was back when Republicans were still rational, and political campaigns less toxic. I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and I won a Republican primary. The worst name I called Andy was Democrat. My youngest son later served as his Congressional page, and after Andy retired, he and I would occasionally have lunch. As I say, things were different then….
I also remarried during that campaign and I’m happy to report that the third time was the charm—it’s been 41 years and counting.

After losing the election, I practiced law, started a Real Estate Development Company that went broke during the recession of the late 1980s, and served six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. I joined IUPUI’s faculty in 1998.

I’ve lived through the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, the 60s, the sexual revolution (I missed it by 6 years!), the gay rights movement, the decades of religious zealotry that a friend calls “America’s most recent Great Awakening,” and a dizzying explosion of new technologies. As George Burns once said, I’m so old I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

I became politically active at nineteen, as a Republican. I was persuaded—and remain persuaded—by what has been called the “libertarian principle,” the belief that the best society is one in which individuals are free to set and pursue our own life goals, determine our own telos, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others. Back then, with some notable exceptions, the GOP understood the importance of “so long as” in those last two caveats. Times, obviously, have changed. The political party to which I belonged no longer exists, except in name.

For those who begin with the libertarian principle as I just shared it, good faith political arguments tend to revolve around the nature and severity of the “harms” that government can legitimately prohibit or regulate, and the extent of government’s obligation to provide a physical and social infrastructure to be paid for through citizens’ “dues,” called taxes. Needless to say, we are not having those good faith arguments today—instead, we are in a culture war– what may well be an existential struggle between science and reason on the one hand, and a variety of fundamentalisms on the other.

Women do not do well in culture wars.

Of the nine books I’ve written, the two that taught me the most—the ones that required the “deepest dives” into our philosophy of government and suggested some answers to Aristotle’s question—were God and Country: America in Red and Blue and my small textbook Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth.

The research I did for God and Country provided me with a lens through which I’ve come to understand so much of our current political environment. Policymaking has become a power struggle between Puritans who believe government should make the rest of us live “godly” lives, based upon their particular version of what’s godly, and those of us who demand that government act on what John Rawls called “public reasons,” based upon logical persuasion and scientific and empirical understandings. Contemporary Puritans remain deeply antagonistic to the Enlightenment and to secular ways of knowing—especially science—and they utterly reject the notion that each of us gets to define our own morality. Scroll down a Facebook page, or read the comments section of an online newspaper, and you’ll come across posts from fundamentalists of various stripes who wrap themselves in victimhood whenever government fails to impose their preferred worldviews on everyone else. And as most women understand, those preferred worldviews almost always include a “biblically-mandated” submission of women.

Another example is the effort—in Indiana and elsewhere—to exempt so-called “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws. In our system, religious citizens have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want—that’s the individual rights pole of the continuum. But religious or political beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t entitle people to sacrifice newborns or bomb abortion clinics, and they don’t entitle them to engage in behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality. That’s the public good end of the continuum. There’s no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to America’s social health.

Let me just share a final observation: Social justice is a term we don’t hear very often these days. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities, genders or social status—a society that doesn’t draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

We should want to make our society more just for many reasons, practical as well as moral: for one thing, a more equitable society is in the long-term best interests of even those people who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or make health care accessible to poor people. That’s because in order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social systems that prevent people from contributing their talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and I also know that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Systemic barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

Even more daunting, when I look at today’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people. I see crazy people.

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” Black and brown people and “uppity women” are obvious targets.

I have hopes that your generation will be able to reverse this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

And women only flourish in a society that understands that.


Policy Versus Personality

A major benefit of the transition from Trump to Biden is that we have an opportunity to leave the politics of personality and return to boring and oh-so-welcome debates about public policy. Rather than acrimonious exchanges pitting those of us who were appalled by the buffoon and his incompetent mafia appointments against those who endorsed his assault on American values, we are gradually returning to arguments about lawmaking.

I thought about that change as I was going through some of my old teaching materials, and came across notes for my lecture on the requisites of good public policy. Since the demotion of Mitch McConnell means we may actually see policies enacted rather than stymied, I thought I’d share them.

Consider it a framework for further discussion….

The first question lawmakers must address is firmly rooted in political philosophy: does this proposal lie an area that government should control or even be involved in? Americans have very different ideas about the proper scope and authority of the state, and those ideas will affect the perceived legitimacy of any policy chosen.

One of the reasons that issues like equal civil rights for LBGTQ citizens and women’s control over their own reproduction are so salient and contested is because they begin with a profound disagreement over the legitimacy of government laws that are seen (I believe correctly)as privileging some religious beliefs over others.

This question—the right of government to decide certain matters—underlies many other policy debates. (Masks, for example.)To what extent should government dictate business practices? What areas of the economy should be left to market forces, and what services should be delivered collectively?

Disagreements about the propriety of government action are at the heart of many policy debates.

Once there is agreement that government action is appropriate, however, there are four further elements that will determine whether the policy that emerges is sound.

First, we need to agree upon both the existence and nature of the problem. Is the growing economic gap between rich and poor a problem, or simply an expected attribute of market economies? If it is problematic, why? What accounts for its growth and existence, and why and how is it damaging? Is there unacceptable racism in American policing? How do we know? If so, why has it persisted? If those making policy cannot agree that a situation or condition or existing law is a problem, and cannot agree on why it is a problem, correcting it is obviously impossible.

Second, once policymakers concur on the existence and nature of the problem, they will need to come to some agreement on the efficacy of proposed solutions. If there is agreement that the gap between rich and poor is impeding economic growth and generating social unrest, they will need to determine the probable causes of that gap, and analyze the probable consequences of the various steps being advocated to diminish it. Which “fixes” are likely to accomplish the goal? What does the available evidence suggest?Do the policymakers even agree upon the outlines of that goal, let alone the likelihood that a specific approach will accomplish it?

Third, does government have the ability to implement the solution that is chosen? Does the unit of government making the decision have the authority to impose it? Is the chosen remedy something that government can do? Would enforcement violate Constitutional principles or democratic norms?

If a proposed policy meets these standards—if there is agreement on the existence and nature of the problem, agreement on a chosen remedy, and the ability to implement it without doing violence to the country’s legal framework—a fourth necessity (and one most often ignored) arises: Are policymakers willing to evaluate the consequences of that policy? Are they willing to monitor its effectiveness and modify or reverse it if it doesn’t work, or has unanticipated negative consequences?

As I used to tell my students, Ideological, cultural and economic interests make each of these steps difficult. But difficult is not impossible–if  we elect people of good will who understand that their mission is to advance the common good.

Okay…we need to work on that last bit…