Tag Archives: social change

Cultural Stagnation? I Don’t Think So

Regular readers of this blog have undoubtedly noticed my swings between hopefulness and despair–I am evidently politically bipolar. My swings lead me to wildly inconsistent diagnoses: is America beyond rescue, or are we simply in the midst of a generational shift (sort of like the eye of a hurricane, where it is impossible to see beyond the wind)?

I take a modicum of comfort from the fact that I have plenty of company for either theory. In fact, no one can really predict what comes next for that wobbly experiment being conducted by “We the People”–and my depressive episodes are far from being the most dire ones out there. A recent essay by one Mike Lofgren in Common Dreams makes my dark days look positively sunny by comparison.

The title and subhead pretty much tell the story: “Why the Idea of Progress Is Dead in America: The Right’s assault on reason and intelligence has killed the notion that things can improve.”

The introductory paragraphs are equally cheery.

Americans have become so inured to perennial gridlock in politics that when significant legislation passes, it’s regarded as a minor miracle. Should that legislation actually do something positive for the population as a whole, rather than for a few billionaires or corporations, we suspect divine intervention.

Once there were periods of our history like the Progressive Era, the New Deal, or the Great Society, when Americans perceived, however dimly, that using government to obtain a more abundant and just life for all the people was both feasible and desirable. Those eras now seem as dead as the Pleistocene and attempts to resurrect their spirit about as practicable as reviving the wooly mammoth.

The essay goes on in this vein, and it is difficult to argue that it is overheated or exaggerated. The governmental/political environment we occupy is admittedly pretty grim. Where I draw the line, however, is at Lofgren’s assertion that this culture we inhabit isn’t going to change. We are, he proclaims, in stasis, and he takes us through a tour of popular culture and the built environment to illustrate the “sameness” of the last forty years, and what he sees as the lack of cultural progress.

America, once the quintessential young country, is becoming as culturally static as the late Ottoman Empire. “Make America great again” is a potent slogan precisely because it appeals to the futile yearning by the very demographics that vote in the highest percentages, the Silents and Boomers, for the myth of an impossible time-travel to the days when they were young. Because they vote, and Millennials do not, they can impose both reactionary politics and cultural torpor on the rest of the country.

Lofgren traces the roots of modern conservatism’s opposition to science and reason, and the ways in which those attacks have tapped into “rising public cynicism about government”and its scheming bureaucrats. He notes that the GOP’s actions during the COVD crisis “would fill a hefty casebook of clinically pathological behavior.” And he concludes with a paragraph suggesting that liberal democracy, let alone civilization as we have known or at least imagined it, is pretty much over.

Some liberals may tut-tut schoolmarmishly about “ignorance,” meaning simple obliviousness to facts. What I have described is exactly that, but it is also something more deeply troubling and less amenable to correction: a systematic corruption of the power of reason and a conscious renunciation of critical and analytical thinking in service to a toxic ideology that hates progress as it hates human equality. There is no need to belabor the point about which interests in our society benefit from this intellectual deformation.

It’s hard to argue with Lofgren’s particulars, but I find it considerably more difficult to accept the assertion of cultural stagnation and hopelessness that animates his entire essay. If we pull back from the day-to-day train-wrecks that divert us from consideration of more longterm social movement (“squirrel!!), it is equally possible to see America’s current, overwhelming angst and discord as evidence of an emerging reformation.

Those of us who have lived through both the self-satisfied conformity of the 50s and the cultural turbulence of the Sixties are pretty sure that the upheavals we’re experiencing now don’t signal stasis and stagnation. Far from it. The real question is: what will emerge from the  conflicts of our time? Will a sufficient number of Americans be motivated to move the country in the direction of its founding aspirations, or will citizen apathy in the face of far-right nativism doom the American experiment?

Sometimes I’m pretty hopeful and sometimes…I’m not.

 

 

 

 

I Needed This

There’s a lot of gloom and doom out there–and plenty of reasons for despair. But I keep thinking back to the disruptions of the 1960s, and the then-widespread belief that the country was coming apart, that the riots and eruptions and emergence of a nonconforming youth culture were harbingers of ongoing and unstoppable social disintegration.

Actually,if I can be forgiven the metaphor, those disruptions were akin to labor pains–signaling the birth of a different set of social arrangements and understandings.

The chaos of the Sixties gave birth to massive social change, and although it was uneven, much of that change was positive. Isn’t it possible that the nastiness we are experiencing right now is similar–that it marks a hysterical effort by a minority of the population to foreclose changes that most Americans would consider improvements?

Rebecca Solnit has recently suggested precisely that, in an essay in The Guardian, titled “Why are U.S. Right-wingers so angry? Because they know social change is coming.”

While their fear and dismay is often regarded as rooted in delusion, rightwingers are correct that the world is metamorphosing into something new and, to them, abhorrent. They’re likewise correct that what version of history we tell matters. The history we tell today lays the groundwork for the future we make. The outrage over the 1619 Project and the new laws trying to censor public school teachers from telling the full story of American history are a doomed attempt to hold back facts and perspectives that are already widespread.

In 2018, halfway through the Trump presidency, Michelle Alexander wrote a powerful essay arguing that we are not the resistance. We, she declared, are the mighty river they are trying to dam. I see it flowing, and I see the tributaries that pour into it and swell its power, and I see that once firmly grounded statues and assumptions have become flotsam in its current.

Solnit points to replacement of monuments to the Confederacy and Columbus with statues of people like Harriet Tubman, to the renaming of streets and buildings and other public places–and she notes that “those angry white men with the tiki torches chanting, in Charlottesville in 2017, “You will not replace us” as they sought to defend a statue of Gen Robert E Lee were wrong in their values and actions but perhaps not in their assessment.”

The replacement of statues is symbolic of the far greater changes that have occurred within the lifetimes of many of us. Solnit enumerates several of the most consequential:

We are only a few decades removed from a civilization in which corporal punishment of children by parents and teachers was an unquestioned norm; in which domestic violence and marital rape were seen as a husband’s prerogative and a wife surrendered financial and other agency; in which many forms of inequality and exclusion had hardly even been questioned, let alone amended; in which few questioned the rightness of a small minority – for white Christian men have always been a minority in the United States – holding almost all the power, politically, socially, economically, culturally; in which segregation and exclusion were pervasive and legal; in which Native Americans had been largely written out of history; in which environmental regulation and protection and awareness barely existed.

Solnit compares our current unrest to an effort to push water back behind the dam. Despite the fact that the Right has thus far succeeded in protecting economic privilege and has won preliminary battles against voting and reproductive rights– she is convinced that the Right cannot, in the end, win the war.

While the right has become far more extreme and has its tens of millions of true believers, it is morphing into a minority sect. This has prompted their desperate scramble to overturn free and fair elections and other democratic processes. White Christians, who were 80% of the population in 1976, are now 44%. Mixed-race and non-white people are rapidly becoming the majority. On issues such as climate, people of color are far more progressive; if we can make it through the huge backlash of the present moment, the possibilities are dazzling….

Birth can be violent and dangerous, and sometimes one or the other of the two involved die. There is no guarantee about what is to come, and the shadow of climate chaos hangs over it all. We do not have time to build a better society before we address that crisis, but it is clear that the response to that crisis is building such a society. So much has already changed. The river Alexander described has swept away so much, has carried so many onward.

At risk of torturing a metaphor, we can–we must— work to midwife the birth of a better, fairer society.

 

Memory Lane Is Gendered

My husband and I were kibitzing with Bill Brooks a few days ago. Bill was previously the editor of several small-town newspapers in Indiana, and in semi-retirement, he publishes the Urban Times, an outgrowth of several urban neighborhood newsletters. He mentioned that he’s planning to run a feature with answers to a question he intends to put to readers who are long-time residents of the city: What do you miss about Indianapolis that was once here but is now gone?

My husband (whose memory for such things is much better than mine) immediately responded by naming a couple of bygone festivals and civic celebrations. I was unable to come up with anything I truly miss, and later in the day, I brooded a bit about that inability. Granted, I tend to live in the present–but then I also realized that my lack of nostalgia is significantly attached to my gender.

To be blunt, it’s a lot easier being female today than it used to be–in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Not perfect–that “glass ceiling” may be cracked, but it’s still there–but immensely improved. A few examples from my long-ago youth:

When I went to college, 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. Ergo! I’d teach.

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 or librarians “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom.

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children. There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity, since the few women’s restrooms in the relatively new building had been included–and located– to accommodate the secretarial staff.

After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at one of Indianapolis’ then “big three” law firms. To give you a flavor of the times, 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 a bra-burning radical 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!”

In 1977, Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to be Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis, and at the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb.  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…” Apparently, it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to.

I could spend all day adding to this litany, but the bottom line is: things are better for women now. Not perfect, but much, much better.

My female students–even those who didn’t consider themselves feminists–were appalled at suggestions that they should expect  to be offered lower pay than their male classmates for the same positions. My granddaughters are incredulous when I tell them these stories.

I’m sure that, with some thought, I’ll be able to answer Bill Brooks’ question–able to come up with the names of retail establishments or festivals or restaurants that I miss. (To  be honest, what I really miss is the naïveté and uncomplicated patriotism that was facilitated by what I now know was my very incomplete understanding of American history.)

Overall, however, I’ll take today. Given the lunacy and ferocity of the backlash–the furious efforts to roll back the changes that a lot of us celebrate– I do worry quite a lot about tomorrow.

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.
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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.

 

Picturing Change

I know this blog can often be a downer. Especially during the Trump years, there has just been so much damage, so much polarization, so much hate–it’s sometimes hard to focus on areas of actual improvement.

Today, however, I want to do just that.

Social and cultural changes are almost always slow, but I am not the only observer who looked at the people protesting after George Floyd’s murder and saw multi-racial, multi-ethnic crowds who weren’t there during previous era protests. And much as I worry about disinformation in today’s fragmented media landscape, I firmly believe that certain of the changes in that media have prompted social change for the better.

Pictures matter.

Until he retired, I team-taught a course–Media and Public Affairs–with Jim Brown, then Dean of the Journalism School. We created the course, which was offered to both journalism and public affairs students. Thanks to Jim, I learned a lot–probably a good deal  more than the students.

Jim was a photojournalist, and thanks to his insights, I learned to appreciate the impact of pictures on social attitudes, and to see how photojournalism practices of the country’s newspapers had fed and supported racism. For years, the old media truism–if it bleeds, it leads–led to the publication of (often dark and grainy) photographs of people accused of crimes.  Those photographs tended to be disproportionately of Black offenders. Worse, in the early days of television and in rural areas of the country, those were often the only portrayals of African-Americans that white Americans saw.

There weren’t interviews with Black scientists or doctors, no “human interest” pieces about Black educators or successful businesspeople. Aside from sports, television didn’t feature talented Black performers. A recent “Sunday Morning” interview with Leslie Uggams included the story of her hiring by Mitch Miller; she was the first regular Black performer on a nationally-syndicated show, and a number of southern stations threatened to stop airing it if she remained. (Miller, to his credit, ignored the threat.)

Today, our televisions and newspapers, as well as our workplaces and other parts of our environments, are far more representative of American reality. There are African-American newscasters, entertainers, scientists…And that increased representation isn’t limited to Blacks. Women are now news anchors, weather-people and even sports commentators. Figures with Asian and Latino names are prominent.

For the past decade or so, the media has been delivering a far more accurate picture of America and American diversity.

If you look at the names on the list of credits accompanying a television drama or movie, you will see a wide range of ethnicities represented. Actors no longer feel the need to “Americanize” their names in order to be acceptable to folks who might be put off by anything stranger than Smith or Jones.

And then, of course, we had a Black President.

Granted, the response from the hard-core racists to all of this has been hysterical. When Obama was elected, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out in force. But for eight years, the rest of us saw a class act–a cultivated, brilliant lawyer with a great sense of humor, an impressive way with words, an equally accomplished wife and an impeccable family life–a vivid contrast with his crude, inarticulate and ignorant White successor.

This forced encounter with the reality of America’s diversity has been anything but smooth or easy. Those old White guys of a certain age (and plenty of younger ones) have looked at the pictures that are everywhere–uppity women executives, newscasters of all races and genders (many with Latino or Asian names), Black people famous for something other than sports (and uppity women who are famous for sports!)–and seen only their own loss of dominant status. They’ve resisted. Some violently.

But the pictures are there, not just in the traditional media, but in the viral testimonies captured by those ubiquitous cellphone cameras. The visual environment has changed, and with it, the broader culture. Americans are talking about privilege. We are talking about injustice. About representation. We’re seeing the world–and ourselves–far more accurately.

We aren’t nearly “there” yet. But we’re picturing it.