Turning to Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Anne Case and Angus Deaton

Joseph Heller once said the effect he was striving for in his second novel, Something Happened, was for the reader to feel like a piece of metal banged into a new shape by the repeated blows of a ball-peen hammer.

I don’t recall feeling that way after reading the novel, but the far more than 400 blows delivered in this book Continue reading

It’s All in the Game

Super Bowl Sunday 2022

Something tells me I shouldn’t ignore our secular mid-winter national holiday. But like almost everyone else, I’ve got to prep for the party!

Since the stove beckons, I’ll limit myself to one simple thought. Sports sort of serve as a metaphor and metaphors serve as almost a Gregg shorthand for things we ought to not overlook.

Maybe, then, we can remember that the teams play the best they can. The fans root for the team they support. And if the game lives up to the playoff season, we all move on either elated or deflated but without rancor.

Despite my demonstrated ability to always root for the losing team, the lad made me engage in the ritual of choosing. Because I once spent a long feverish night in a Cincinnati hotel room, my misery punctuated by the cascading roars of fans enjoying their home team at play, we’re backing the Bengals.

If you’re a Rams fan, enjoy the game!

 

Know Your Place in Our Republic

Understanding American Domestic Terrorism: Mobilization Potential and Risk Factors of a New Threat Trajectory
Robert A. Pape and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats

We live in binary times.

We also like to think that’s unique.

I’m not so certain. Roundheads and Cavaliers. Sans-culottes and aristocrats. Montagnards and Girondins. The Wobblies and the AFL. Pick a period, pick a place and I’ll show you two teams.

That, and a good stern talking-to by an anthropologist friend who cares, has enabled me to maintain use of the word tribal in its proper context. Because what we see in our current politics is not, I submit, rooted in the dynamics of small closely-related homogenous groups. What it more closely resembles, at least to me, is the rabid passions exhibited by the fans of sports teams.

Organized athletic competitions started in antiquity. It’s not a stretch to picture the earliest hominids foot-racing. Organizing teams, traveling between cities and campuses, selling tickets, paying players and generating fan loyalty that can extend to painting one’s face or torso in the team colors? You need modern society to create and sustain that sort of commitment.

The fans of each team-nation may have a unique language.  But they share a common approach to pronouns I associate with rabid fandom: the use of the first person plural. “We need better pitching.” “We better pull it together in the second half.” “We’re having a rough season.” The boundary between the entertainer-athletes and the fans is blurred, at least in the minds of the fans. I’d be surprised if anyone on the pitch, field, gridiron, floorboards or ice thinks the fans are part of the athletic, as opposed to the commercial, enterprise.

Some folks (click the image to see an example) think Chuck Jones was aiming for comedy or commerce. I think it was a send-up.

For some people–and in an earlier time, I’d have counted myself among them–politics serves as a spectator sport. Except that the barrier between the fans and the players has always been more porous. The more fervent one’s political beliefs, the more the idea that opponents could oppose each other and yet be friends was as improbable as, well, the post-workday friendship of Chuck Jones‘  Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.

In politics, though, the fans vote. That means they pick the players. Consequently, the line between the two has faded to virtual nonexistence.

One result is January 6.

That day, a significant number of people who had come to believe the officials had been bought off decided they needed to remind everyone who really controls the game. That these folks were a subgroup of a larger polity hardly mattered. They knew the rules. They knew only their team was capable of winning. They knew something had to be done about the obvious tampering. So they acted.

The question thus arises: was the reaction to the 2020 election a unique set of circumstances? Or has something happened in our society that we need to worry about in the next election cycle?

You don’t have to look very far to find countless numbers of people answering the second question in the affirmative. The Bulwark, started after the demise of The Weekly Standard, was early to the game from the conservative side. In the January 2022 issue, The Atlantic weighs in from the center-left. Neither picture is pretty.

I’d recommend Barton Gellman‘s cover story in The Atlantic as a place to start thinking about the question of our near political future. Or if you have a commute and podcasts figure in it, listen to his conversation with The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes. He covers the same ground. It was in his article that I first learned of Robert Pape’s work.

It’s really worth your time to read this. Just click the image above.

It’s not that I didn’t find the journalism compelling; I found it disturbing. In general, I think it’s a good idea to check sources. When those sources are social science and involve the methods and subjects I’ve studied, I feel obligated to dust off the old toolset. Besides, the dry language of social science might soothe my concerns.

Fat chance. The document (linked to here) is actually a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes three specific studies. It contains more than one sentence like this one, presented as Specific Finding #3 from the first study:

Storming the US Capitol was an act of collective political violence, inspired by a leader, President Trump, and not merely vandalism or trespassing for other purposes. ”
                                                                                                     Slide 41

While I’d welcome the opportunity to dive deeply into the collected data, the summaries, examples and methodological statements presented here provide more than enough to chew on. The work is solid and inarguable. Would I have liked to see a journal-style results table or the ANOVA? Sure. Do I need to? No.

This presentation gathers data collected in the first months of 2021. The researchers have regularly updated their initial study, which focuses on individuals arrested for their activities in January. Those data have been regularly updated though July. That most recent update ought to be read in conjunction with the April release. For skeptics, it’s a demonstration of how to define all the information incorporated in the study, and of how to address factual changes as data are updated.

The survey data presented in Studies 2 and 3 are intended to help understand the prevalence of beliefs such as those held by the people arrested on January 6. Those are of forward-looking interest. But I found myself dwelling on Study 1, which focuses on the arrested folks. Like many others, I’ve wondered who these people are, sometimes if we even inhabit the same country.

Outside the US Capitol, 1/6/2021
Photo by Tyler Merbler from the USA
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fact is, the group these people least resemble is the typical person arrested for political violence in the first 19 years of the century. These were not young unemployed men playing dress-up with their militia friends. They were unaffiliated, educated, established professionals and corporate managers from small and mid-sized cities and the fringes of bigger cities.

I didn’t find it strange that states and counties that voted for Donald Trump were less likely to have been home to a protester who turned violent. Such places are secure. In fact,  the most impactful variable is how much change was seen in the non-Hispanic white population of the detainees’ counties.

I won’t say it’s race so much as fear of change. Rural origin turns out to be unimportant. Living in a second or third-tier city worrying about when it becomes the next Chicago may well be the best marker of who’s likely to be susceptible to the Lorelei of political mayhem.

I wish I could say the conclusions the researchers draw are a stretch. The best I can do is muster a half-hearted protest at the possible size of the population willing to take up arms on behalf of their political beliefs. The low-end figure, 3.6 million, is troublingly high, but almost any significant fraction of it is equally so.

“What Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic, if you can keep it.”

The higher-end estimate is unimaginable. Were a force of such size to mobilize, the United States as I’ve known it in my lifetime and through my reading of history, would cease to exist.

That’s not a pleasant thought and not just because I have kids who will inherit this mess. The United States is a flawed country that has made mistakes both within and outside its borders. At its best, though, the promise, the ideals and the actual quality of life here have been a beacon to millions.

That I’ve accepted such hackneyed thinking is not just a result of my age. It’s to accept that there’s some truth in even the hoariest of cliches.

Benjamin Franklin said we have a republic if we can keep it. The choice is ours.

 

 

 

 

Teacher Teacher Teach Me More

That Day the Rabbi Left Town
Harry Kemelman

More than once in this space I’ve mentioned my teen-aged employment in the local library.

I was always on an alternate path, so alternate I couldn’t even get a typical part-time job. Civil service and exempt from the minimum wage law. In high school. Clearly, I was going places although it really was one of the better jobs I’ve had.

I’ve also mentioned the library’s abundance of crime fiction, a category so vast it warranted two aisles of hard-cover volumes. By the time I was introduced to that trove I was familiar with crime; The Hardy Boys played a large role in my youthful reading. But conceive of it as an adult genre? Sorry, that made no sense. I probably thought lesser of the patrons who made a beeline for that part of the building.

One thing that distinguished those shelves from the others was the presence of series. Publishers of these books took a lot of lessons from the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Packaging counted, especially an instantly recognizable cover layout.

A lot of effort went into titles. Seemingly, a premium was put on any approach that naturally proliferated. You still see these practices today, titles based on letters and numbers with endless variations on simple cover schemes abound. It all serves a purpose, to help the reader find (and purchase) the latest offering.

Packaged just like flavors of Cheerios.

Among the series I found myself shelving, the Rabbi Small books featured prominently. We even had multiple copies of each title.  I suppose that reflected a truth brought over the county line from the New York City boroughs: every ethnic group seems to need its own hero. My town had two synagogues and two Catholic churches. I’m sure there must have been a vaguely Catholic shamus lurking on the shelves, too.

Until Apple Books offered this title for 99 cents, I’d resisted the lure of Kemelman’s corpus. That was more the result of sloth than willfulness. It’s not as though I’d circumscribed crime fiction so as to exclude Jewish authors and tecs. Jake LeVine, Andrew Bergman‘s delicious noir knock-off, was as Jewish as his creator.

There is nothing noir about Rabbi David Small, who in this volume is retiring from his post with a congregation located in the fictional hamlet of Barnard’s Crossing, a town on Boston‘s North Shore. The rabbi is almost non-descript. Perhaps that’s by design. As these things go, about 4% of Massachusetts‘ population is Jewish. That’s roughly in the middle between New York, where nearly 1 in 10 residents is Jewish, and North Dakota, where Jewish residents are as rare as white elephants. (There were 400 in the state in 2020.)

Marblehead, Mass., a neat North Shore town.
Click the photo for a travelog item that  mentions Rabbi Small
Courtesy Jewish Week

Maybe the rabbi and his congregation are just trying to fit in. New England‘s commitment to maintaining its regional sub-culture is evident. So all the things amplified in, say, early Phillip Roth novels–the hondling1, the big machers, the crazy-character-filled mishpuchehs–are toned down here, like January in New Hampshire.

To illustrate just what that means, the imminent arrival of a new rabbi has the congregants in a twist. It’s more than the loss of a familiar face. The rabbi and his wife are a known quantity, members of the community enmeshed in the social life from after-service coffee to holiday dinners. In a close-knit community, they’re family.

The new rabbi, Dana Selig,  presents challenges. It’s not just that he’s young. It’s his behavior. He runs. For exercise. That can’t be a good look for a learned man. He dresses casually in the off-hours. And his wife! She’s a lawyer! With an office! How will that work? It’s not that a rebbitzen has official duties so much as there are expectations of her.

That’s before the dead man shows up at the foot of the driveway of the house the Seligs are renting.

Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Kemelman is vague but I sort of see the Smalls living on a street like this one.

Meanwhile Rabbi Small is settling into the next chapter of his life. He’s teaching a class at Windmere College of Liberal Arts, in Boston. The Smalls are maintaining their home in Barnard’s Crossing, but they have also taken an apartment in town to reduce the pressures of the commute and enjoy a bit of urban stimulation.

That dead man I mentioned above? He just happens to be a faculty member at the same school. Ultimately, by application of vaguely Talmudic reasoning, the Rabbi identifies the killer of the dead professor.

Two things struck at me as I read this story. The first was the perspective. Without doing any real counting, my guess is that the first-person and omniscient viewpoints occur equally in crime tales. And yet even when the narration is in the third person as in, say, a Carl Hiaasen novel, the impression is nearly the same as if the main character was telling the tale.

Here the author feels much more removed. That may explain the other thing that stood out. There was a lot of explaining. And not about crime-solving either. One thing that makes crime fiction unique is that it breaks the cardinal rules of writers’ workshops. “Write what you know,” they say. “Show, don’t tell.”

These are freshmen at a Catholic college. But the school is in New England and a seminar room is a seminar room.

Most crime novelists do not commit murder. And all seem intent on explaining. They almost require a sidekick to share the details with.

Not Rabbi Small. His presence is quite, well, small, pun intended. And when explanation occurs it’s less about the crime or solving it and more about the differences between Jewish and Christain practice. That Rabbi Small is teaching a course entitled Judaic Thought leaves a lot of room for explication.

There are a number of scenes involving the temple board, the search committee and various congregants. For me, these were the best part of the book. If you’ve always wondered what lies behind the old joke “What do you get when you have two Jews on a desert island? Three synagogues!” you’ll relish these tidbits.

Showing, not telling, at its best.


1 . My go-to reference for real-world translations of Yiddish is the dictionary page at Bubbygram.com . I’m sure there are more formal references available. But Adrienne Guoff’s sensibility, to me, reflects the good-humored way I heard Yiddish used by friends and family-by-marriage, so I’m loyal.

 

 

We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
Jason Stanley

I’m burdened by an unusually retentive memory best defined by what it is not.

I am not one of those Marilu Henner-like people who can recall the events of any calendar day they’ve lived through. Nor do I have a purely eidetic memory, although Continue reading

I’m Losing Friends, I’m Losing Face

Midsummer 2021

If I’m unable to finish a book I ought to at least prove I keep reading.

What better brain food for a Sunday morning, then, than a sociological take on just what’s going on with folks refusing Continue reading

It’s Sheep We’re Up Against

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American
 Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz

Each of us has an Achilles’ heel, so I find no embarrassment in sharing mine: I’m a sucker for almost every form of biting the hand that feeds you. It’s comforting, somehow, to know that as operating modes go it’s an evergreen.

Admittedly, some corners of the world offer a safer refuge than others for hand-biting. As long as they Continue reading

I Meant to Close the Polls

The Day After Election Day 2020

I’ve as much business as anyone mouthing off about an election in which votes are still being counted. Which is to say I really have no business doing so at all.

That isn’t going to stop me, although I’m going to limit myself to a few observations and implications:

• In a binary situation, there are some things we should be able to agree about.
First and foremost I’d put the absence of open violence and armed voter intimidation in the success column. I’m not talking about the ongoing efforts of one shrinking political party to limit the franchise. I’m talking about what in my darkest moments I feared was possible: ‘citizen militias’ showing up at polling places in multiple states. Maybe our civil disagreements can remain heated, but civil.

There will be plenty of time for autopsies but we need a body first.
I stayed up well past my Benjamin Franklin bedtime and arose before dawn. At each end of my shortened slumbers, talkers and writers were hard at work, explaining away the world as they saw it at that moment. Sure, there are questions. Aren’t there always?  Is polling broken? Was the existence of Silent Trump Supporters proven? Whose strategic missteps mattered more?  I’m as interested as anyone, but really, don’t we all deserve a break? I kind of feel wrung out.

As an idea, civic religion may have been oversold.
For months, I’ve listened to pundits talk about the sacredness of American elections and always thought, what malarkey. Religion belongs in your favorite house of worship on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Politics is transactional and that’s not a bad thing. It means the folks voting against your candidate (who may be friends, neighbors or relatives) don’t think the offered policies will much benefit them, nothing more or less. That’s not a failure, it’s a raging success.

• Whatever the ultimate outcome, this year’s electorate has sent a message.
Bear with me as I dust off an old grad school truism:  response–whether aggregated or individual–contains information. Understanding that information is where the value lies.  Here’s the number one fact: at least 60 million Americans (9:22 AM, 11/5/2020, Washington Post) agreed with enough of President Trump’s message and past actions to say he deserves four more years. They just can’t be ignored or disparaged.

Emotions about politics have never been higher. I think we’d all benefit from turning the temperature down.

But I’ve also been told I think too much.

I’m Off to the Civil War

The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial
Robert Penn Warren

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking it’s time to bone up on the 1850s. In more sober moments I think I should venture even further back. I mean, all those easy-to-confuse Presidents in between Van Buren and Buchanan got up to something, didn’t they?

Premonitions of civil unrest aside, I’m also forever looking for band-aids to slap over Continue reading

Judge Not

Thoughts on the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice, United States Supreme Court
1933-2020

A few years back, catching up with an old friend,  I heard a statement that caught me by surprise. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said the voice from Red State America, “has got to go. She’s the biggest threat to America as a country. ”

It’s still a shocking statement, even if my old buddy now has reason to sleep easier.

How did we get to such a place? Continue reading