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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Don't Mock Working Class Religion


Recently, a self-proclaimed "Silicon Valley liberal," Sam Altman, traveled the U.S. to interview Trump supporters in order to gain a better understanding of their point of view. His on-line article includes a number of quotes, but the first one he lists is telling:
You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It's Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.
This, I think, captures much of what bedevils the Democratic party. It has lost touch with its working class roots. It has become elitist. It's not that it no longer advocates policies that benefit working class women and men, but somewhere along the way, it seems to have lost its respect for them, and often it can't resist mocking them. I think this is best captured in the way that some regard working class religion. Some can't resist making fun of it, mocking it. Conservative Christianity is repeatedly portrayed as backward and ignorant, although studies by social scientists challenge such a blanket assessment (see e.g., American Evangelicalism by Christian Smith; "Rationality and the Religious Mind" by Laurence Iannaccone, Rodney Stark, and Roger Finke; The Truth About Conservative Christians by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout).

I am reminded of when I was researching a paper on the Promise Keepers. I ran across a story about two African-American women who were active members of Democratic Party but attended meetings of the Christian Coalition, a theologically conservative advocacy group. When asked why, they responded, "We'd rather be with people who make fun of our politics than who make fun of our faith."

No doubt, the hostility that some hold toward working class religion is because many associate conservative religion with conservative politics, but it doesn't have to be (and hasn't always been) that way. People often forget that although William Jennings Bryant argued for the prosecution in the Scopes Trial, he was a three-time nominee for the Democratic Party, an outspoken critic of crony-capitalism, and a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State because of the U.S.'s entry into World War I. And Dwight Billings ("Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis") has documented how evangelical religion played a key role in the Appalachian coal miner strikes in the early 20th century. Independent rural churches of the Holiness and Baptist sects located outside the company towns allowed the National Miner's Association to set up soup kitchens for evicted miners and their families, and they 'lent a hand in the strike'" (p. 18). And has anyone seen Hacksaw Ridge? True story about a 7th-Day Adventist who worked as a medic in WWII and became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers. It's time to let our stereotypes go.

Of course, all this does not mean that one cannot critically engage the beliefs and practices of others. However, to engage someone critically requires a level of respect, something that is conspicuously absent the beliefs and practices of others are mocked. Time will tell whether Democrats will learn difference between to the two.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why a Free and Adversarial Press is a Good Thing

In the book of Job, the member of God's court who challenges God concerning Job's righteousness is called "the satan" ("ha-satan" in Hebrew), which has traditionally been translated, "Satan" (with a capital "S"), but is more correctly translated, "the adversary" or "the accuser." His role is somewhat analogous to what we often call a "devil's advocate," that is, someone who challenges the status quo, the accepted wisdom, what the majority takes for granted.

Researchers have found that devil's advocates provide numerous benefits, the primary one being that they prevent "group-think." Cass Sunstein ("Why Societies Need Dissent"), for instance, has shown that juries are more likely to reach reasonable decisions, social investment clubs are more profitable, and religious groups are less likely to radicalize if they include members who are unafraid to (and not prevented from) embrace a minority position. I recently drew on Sunstein's theory in order to explain the radicalization of the Hamburg Cell, the members of which played a major role in 9/11 ("Social Networks and Religious Violence").

All of this came to mind when some have wondered why Senator John McCain thinks that a free press is a good thing, even if it is sometimes an adversarial press. I don't know whether McCain has read Sunstein (or perhaps me?), but I suspect that he intuitively knows (as did the framers of the U.S. Constitution) that a healthy democracy is one that not only permits dissent but encourages it. Democracies need individuals and institutions that challenge the accepted wisdom for the simple fact that the accepted wisdom is sometimes dead wrong. What they say or write may upset us, and their critiques may turn out to be incorrect (they often are), but we still need such critiques, at least if we still want to live in a democracy, which is why (as McCain pointed out) the press is often one of the first things that authoritarian governments target.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Why I Don't Engage in Facebook Debates


Some folks have noticed that other than emoticons and minor clarifications I seldom respond to comments to items I've posted on Facebook. That's because I refuse to engage in debates on Facebook (or other forms of social media) over political and social issues (I am inclined to debate the merits of different IPAs, however). I've learned the hard way that such debates seldom settle anything, are usually counterproductive, and as such are a colossal waste of time. Basically, my approach to interacting on Facebook is as follows:
  1. I post articles and memes that I find interesting or funny that typically have to do with current events or sports (usually Bay Area sports).
  2. I try to only post from reputable sites (i.e., not fake news), and if I later discover that I have posted something that is from a bogus site, I delete it. Keep in mind, though, just because you don't like the content of a post, it doesn't mean it's "fake." In fact, dismissing things or opinions one dislikes as "fake" is no different that burying one's head in the sand, a poor recipe for a healthy democracy in my opinion.
  3. Although, as I noted above, I seldom respond to comments about articles, I definitely don't respond to comments if someone hasn't taken the time to actually read the article (I can tell). 
  4. It seems that some take offense to posts that are critical of political figures, arguing that because they hold a particular office, they deserve our respect. I beg to differ. Although I will always respect the various offices that our politicians hold, I do not feel obliged to respect everyone in those offices. They first have to earn that respect. This is an important difference, but it is one that seems lost on a number of people. Just in case anyone's wondering, I generally don't respect people who boast about sexually assaulting women, use racist memes in their campaigns, and make fun of people with disabilities.
  5. Finally, if you really want to debate an issue, I'm open to meeting over coffee or (better yet) an IPA.
That's all for now.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start

Donald Trump's election will almost certainly prove to be a boon for social science PhD candidates, who otherwise would've been scrambling for a dissertation topic. No doubt, each will offer their take on why Trump managed to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate. A handful of explanations have already been put forth, such as a recent essay in the Harvard Political Review on the "Alabamafication of America" and a rediscovered lecture/essay from 1988 by the late Stanford philosopher, Richard Rorty, but I think future dissertations will need to tackle (or at least should tackle) the portrait of Appalachian working class whites painted by J.D. Vance in his instant classic, Hillbilly Elegy. Trump is not mentioned once in Vance's book, but Vance's description of growing up poor in Ohio and Kentucky helps one get a handle on the alienation that much of the working class feels towards the political establishment.

Most folks who read the book presume that Vance is a liberal. He is, after all, an Ivy League (Yale) trained attorney working for an investment firm in San Francisco, and the bulk of the book focuses on the causes and consequences of poverty. Vance, however, is a conservative. Reflecting on this presumption shortly after speaking at a gathering in New York, Vance remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, "It’s very interesting, right? It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you’re a Democrat.” Vance is not a Trump fan, though, and did not vote for him in the election. He believes that Trump "ran an angry, very adversarial campaign that in tone matched the frustrations of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future."

It seems to me that for whatever reason (or rather reasons -- seldom can you reduce any phenomenon to a single factor), the Democratic party has lost touch with its working class base. I'm not sure what it needs to do to recapture it, but reading Hillbilly Elegy is probably as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Sound Like Anyone You Know?

DSM 5 refers to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association's classification and diagnostic tool that was published in 2013 (it is essentially unchanged from DSM IV, which was published in 1994). It notes that a narcissistic personality disorder is a (1) pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), (2) a need for admiration, and (3) a lack of empathy. People who "suffer" from it display five or more of the following symptoms:
  1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. Being preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Believing they are "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. Requiring excessive admiration
  5. Having a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations)
  6. Being interpersonally exploitative (i.e., take advantage of others to achieve their own ends)
  7. Lacking empathy: unwilling to recognize or identify the feelings and needs of others
  8. Being envious of others and believing that others envy them
  9. Displaying arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Sound like anyone you know?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Consider Us Dinosaurs, They Will

I recall watching a television movie some years ago, which was about a coach who helped integrate college athletics. For the life of me, I can't track down the movie's name or the coach it was about (my recollection is that it was based on a true story), but it contained a line that has stayed with me. When asked whether he was racist, the coach replied, "Of course, but I have great hope for my kids." The coach's remark may be apocryphal, but it captures how all of us are products of the cultures in which we are raised and in which we live, and how difficult it is for us to transcend them.

Unfortunately, many of us fail to recognize this. In fact, it has become quite fashionable to heap scorn on the backwardness of earlier generations, especially historical figures from those generations that are often held up as "great." For example, when Bernie Sanders was asked which foreign leader he took inspiration from with regards to foreign policy, he pointed to Winston Churchill because of his leadership in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. For this, Sanders was excoriated by some on the left because as Sanders noted, Churchill was something of a conservative and pursued policies (both foreign and domestic) that reflected his colonialist upbringing. Another favorite target, especially among Mainline Protestants is the Apostle Paul. Although one can make a pretty strong case that for his time Paul was rather progressive, many of us Mainline Protestants can't resist demonstrating how much more enlightened we are than someone who lived 2,000 years ago.

I'd like to suggest an alternative approach to evaluating the "greatness" of historical figures, one that takes its cue from statistics. When researchers use statistical methods with samples of data in order to test the likelihood that an observed association between two variables (e.g., level of education and voting for Trump), they determine whether the observed association differs significantly from a scenario in which there is no association at all. Specifically, when the former is greater than 1.96 standard deviations from the latter, the difference is considered to be "statistically significant," which means that there is only a 1 in 20 chance that observed association is spurious. In terms of the graph below, when the observed association falls within one of the tails of the distribution (shaded in the graph), it is considered to be a statistically significant distance from the distribution's mean ( = 0).


What has this to do with judging individuals from the past? I would argue that we can consider those who differ significantly from the population mean on various issues as potentially "great." In fact, pushing the analogy a bit farther, we could consider those who differ in one direction from the population mean as dinosaurs, while those who differ in the other as enlightened (in statistics, these are known as "one-tail" tests). Easier said than done, of course, since it's a bit difficult to return to the past and conduct surveys. However, we can roughly "estimate" how much various individuals deviate from the mainstream of their day. And I would argue that approaching history with such a framework would help us be a bit more tolerant of those from the past. That doesn't necessarily mean condoning their beliefs and behaviors, but it might prevent us from judging them too harshly. And, if such an approach catches on, it might prevent future generations from judging us too harshly although that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. As Yoda might say, "Consider us dinosaurs, they will."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What if Kyle Shanahan Says No?

It's official. Kyle Shanahan is the last remaining candidate for the 49er head coaching position. All of the other candidates have either accepted other positions or have withdrawn their names from consideration, which raises the obvious question: What happens if Kyle Shanahan says no? What if he tells the Niners he'd rather remain the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator? Who will coach the Niners then?

Such a scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Niner head coaching position isn't the most attractive in the NFL. As Steve Ruiz of USA Today put it a few days ago ("Kyle Shanahan should avoid the 49ers job"):
Why would Shanahan want to leave Atlanta - and guys like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman - for a team with no quarterback and a dearth of offensive playmakers? The 49ers rosters is still years away from competency, but the incompetent owner seems to think the team should win now. And when it doesn't, don't expect York, who runs the organization, to hold himself accountable... Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula got one year apiece despite overseeing one of the least talented rosters in the league. Give Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll that team, and you're getting roughly the same results.
One has to wonder if that is why Josh McDaniels decided to remain the New England Patriots offensive coordinator for another year. The official reason was that he didn't want to move his family, but local columnist Tim Kawakami has speculated more might have gone into his decision not to take the Niner position ("Josh McDaniels pulls out of 49ers’ search, so now Kyle Shanahan has all the leverage; do York and Marathe understand this?"):
I believe, and have believed from the outset of this long search, that the only candidates who possibly could fix the 49ers should and will have strong demands for Jed/Paraag, who have very much proven that they don’t like strong demands. We just saw the result of those competing interests, I’m very sure. 
McDaniels had the leverage to ask York and Marathe to clear out of his way, let him pick his own GM (likely ESPN’s Louis Riddick), and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways. If the 49ers had the wherewithal to meet those demands, they’d be worth McDaniels uprooting his young family and taking a shot with this talent-depleted roster.
And I am guessing that, once they heard what McDaniels was telling them, York and Marathe were not pleased–because one thing we know about the Yorks is that they love to be praised and flattered, not challenged.
But now that Tom Cable has also dropped out (thank the Lord), Kyle Shanahan should have even more leverage than Josh McDaniels did. He should be able to name his price -- not so much in terms of $s (although I'm sure he'll be offered that too) but in the words of Kawakami, the power to "pick his own GM... and guarantee him a commitment level that allayed general concerns about the Yorks’ impulsive, short-sighted, leak-prone, race-to-2-wins ways." Or as ESPN's Nick Wagoner put it ("To land Kyle Shanahan, 49ers must be willing to give"):
It was already pretty much a given that York and the Niners would have to concede a lucrative, long-term contract to whoever they hire as head coach. No strong candidate would walk into this situation after the events of the past few years without plenty of built-in security. Likewise, there are some concessions the Niners might have to make in terms of personnel control, or at least in terms of making sure Shanahan has a general manager he feels comfortable with.
But what happens if Shanahan says no?