Posted in Culture, Gaming, Politics, Social media

Online Gaming Is Teaching Us that We Live in a World Without Constraints

This post is a piece by Francis Fukuyama published February 8 in American Purpose.  Here’s a link to the original.

What I particularly like about this brief analysis is the way he uses his own experience trying to work with an engineering design and manufacturing software to throw light on the recent invasion of the US Capitol.  The problem, he says, is that people who are living in the social media world and who play online games have become accustomed to operating in a world with no constraints.  Without actually having to face the people you’re talking to on social media, you feel free of the usual norms of civility.  And in game world, you can get killed in action and get reborn to play again.  Storming the citadel of American democracy is just another harmless game event, which you can live-stream to your followers.  Thus the surprise when participants suddenly found themselves subject to arrest.  What — is this real?

Constraints

Francis Fukuyama
Over the past few weeks I’ve been teaching myself how to use Autodesk’s Fusion 360. Fusion 360 is an amazing software package written primarily for mechanical engineers. It incorporates a CAD (computer assisted design) program for making drawings of anything from a small screw to a giant imaginary spaceship. In this, it performs like Autodesk’s earlier program AutoCAD, or the popular Sketchup. But it also incorporates CAM (computer assisted manufacturing) software, which allows you to use your design to control machines that will actually produce the object you imagined, whether through a CNC (computer numeric control) milling machine, or an additive 3D printer.

Fusion 360 is an unbelievably complex program, and there are legions of engineers whose life work is spent inside of it. If you are new to the program, one of the things you don’t at first understand is the concept of constraints. In a simple drawing program like PowerPoint, or even a more sophisticated one like Adobe Illustrator, you can draw figures anywhere you want, move them, modify them, or add to them at will. This doesn’t work in Fusion 360 because the figures have hidden constraints. Once you draw a rectangle you can’t change the corner angles, or set the parallel sides at different angles. The purpose of these constraints is to mimic the behavior of physical objects in the real world: just as you can’t move your hand through a metal plate, neither can you move the representation of your hand through a plate in Fusion. This is what allows you to create software versions of, for example, a piston being moved up and down by a crankshaft, or to test whether parts with the dimensions you specified will actually mate with one another. (If you want to get a sense of constraints in Fusion 360, see this YouTube tutorial by Paul McWhorter.)

Fusion 360 is unusual in the way it imposes constraints. Much of the online world is characterized by lack of constraints. There are many software programs where you can, in effect, move your hand through a steel plate. Online, you can talk to anyone you want, free of the tyranny of distance. Because so much online interaction is anonymous, you are also free of the normal constraints of civility that characterize face-to-face interactions. This is all the more true of the gaming world. If you play a first-person shooter game like Call of Duty, you are given a physically endowed body, limitless energy, and the ability to move effortlessly. Life’s most important constraint is the fear of death, or death itself. But in online gaming you don’t have to worry about being killed; if that happens, you just get a new life. Nor does taking lives have any consequences either: you aren’t arrested and put in jail. You get to try out new activities like spraying a room full of people with machinegun fire and committing mass murder. Online gaming blends seamlessly with the plague of superhero movies that Hollywood has churned out, where all men have bulging muscles and all women have gigantic breasts.

In watching the pro-Trump rioters who attacked Congress on January 6, it occurred to me that we have produced an entire generation that has grown up not just on Facebook, but in this gaming/superhero world where normal constraints do not exist. It is notable how gaming memes have proliferated among right-wing groups, like Pepe the Frog or the Red Pill.  

Creating new memes has itself has become a way of advancing in that hierarchy, as Tara Isabelle Burton has documented in her book Strange Rites. From the many background reports and interviews with participants in the riot, it would appear that very few of them were unemployed factory workers angry about their jobs has been exported overseas. Many seemed to be middle-class men and women with steady but perhaps boring jobs and marriages. They were living in right-wing filter bubbles, yes, but many of the younger ones were also living in an online gaming world in which normal constraints did not apply. It seemed that many of them had a hard time distinguishing between online fantasy and the real world, driven as they were by QAnon conspiracy theories and hidden signal from their President, Donald Trump. Most had no real plan for what they would do when they got into the Capitol, because you don’t really need a plan when you play an online shooter game. Many of them were busy taking selfies and boasting about their experiences, oblivious of the fact that they were providing evidence that would be used to charge them with crimes.

This is part of a much broader phenomenon that Adam Garfinkle has recently called the “Collapse of Reality” in these pages. We are used to being fed a continuous stream of engaging spectacles. We increasingly don’t have direct experience of reality that is not mediated by a screen, and not influenced by algorithms that are intended to alter our behavior. This narrowing realm of autonomy is masked by the apparent endless expansion of consumer choice that fools us into thinking that we are in fact masters of our environment.

Right-wing politics in the United States used to revolve around policy issues like free trade, immigration, taxes, regulation, and the like. In recent years it has become increasingly detached from specific policy positions. I’m old enough to remember the days when Republicans attacked Obama’s “reset” with Russia as the hopelessly naïve coddling of a dictator. After January 6th, by contrast, a female rioter who had taken a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office in the Capitol tried to sell it to the Russians, because they were being helpful to Trump. What we have now on the right instead of commitments to policy and ideology is a cult of personality, and beyond that, devotion to outlandish fantasy stories about a global cabal of Satanists intent on drinking children’s blood. It appears that a substantial part of the Republican Party thinks it is living inside a video game, where they can put their hands through steel plates and overturn national elections. The “metaverse” online world first imagined by the Cyberpunk science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash has in fact become reality, or rather has melded with reality in ways much darker than Stephenson—always a hugely imaginative writer—ever himself imagined.

Americans need to return to a world full of constraints. And I need to learn how to use Fusion 360 more effectively.

Posted in Culture, Higher Education, Inequality, Meritocracy, Wokeness

Michael Lind — The New American Elite

This post is a lovely essay by Michael Lind, which was recently published in Tablet magazine.  Here’s a link to the original.

In this piece, Lind provides a rich analysis of the history of the American elite.  The key to this story is that the elite used to be plural — a set of local elites in cities across the country.  They shared a white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon (or at least Northern European) culture, but they often emphasized different components of this culture and worked hard to develop a distinctive local literary tradition and upper-class accent.  In contrast, the new elite is a cosmopolitan national entity with its own distinctive identity markers.  If a listing in the Social Register was the badge of membership for the old elite, ownership of an advanced degrees from one of the Ivy + universities serves this role for the new elite.

This analysis pushes back against the myth of America’s egalitarianism in its earlier years and also revises the current wisdom about the nature of what he calls today’s “overclass.”

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

The good part is that, “Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias.”  However, “Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.”  Here’s how he explains these cultural cues:

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter.

The new American elite, therefore, is distinctive in being national rather than local and grounded in badges of academic merit rather than proper birth.  But, in common with Mrs. Astor’s 400 Families (which dominated New York society in the bad old days), it is also defined by a rapidly shifting set of orthodoxies that distinguish us from them.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Lind Pic

The New National American Elite

America is now ruled by a single elite class rather than by local patrician smart sets competing with each other for money and power

BY

MICHAEL LIND
JANUARY 19, 2021

In the third decade of the 21st century, the Social Register still exists, there are still debutante balls, polo and lacrosse are still patrician sports, and old money families still summer at Newport. But these are fossil relics of an older class system. The rising ruling class in America is found in every major city in every region. Membership in it depends on having the right diplomas—and the right beliefs.

To observers of the American class system in the 21st century, the common conflation of social class with income is a source of amusement as well as frustration. Depending on how you slice and dice the population, you can come up with as many income classes as you like—four classes with 25%, or the 99% against the 1%, or the 99.99% against the 0.01%. In the United States, as in most advanced societies, class tends to be a compound of income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, and race, in various proportions. There has never been a society in which the ruling class consisted merely of a basket of random rich people.

Progressives who equate class with money naturally fall into the mistake of thinking you can reduce class differences by sending lower-income people cash—in the form of a universal basic income, for example. Meanwhile, populists on the right tend to imagine that the United States was much more egalitarian, within the white majority itself, than it really was, whether in the 1950s or the 1850s.

Both sides miss the real story of the evolution of the American class system in the last half century toward the consolidation of a national ruling class—a development which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That’s because, from the American Revolution until the late 20th century, the American elite was divided among regional oligarchies. It is only in the last generation that these regional patriciates have been absorbed into a single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent, manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. This is a truly epochal development.

In living memory, every major city in the United States had its own old money families with their own clubs and their own rituals and their own social and economic networks. Often the money was not very old, going back to a real estate killing or a mining fortune or an oil strike a generation or two before. Even so, the heirs and heiresses set themselves up as a local aristocracy. Like other aristocracies, these urban patricians renewed their bloodlines and bank accounts by admitting new money, once the parvenus had served probation and assimilated the values of the local patriciate.

These regional urban patriciates were similar demographically, at a time when the racial caste system that divided whites from nonwhites was accompanied by an ethnic caste system among whites. Within the white population, Anglo American Protestants, preferably Episcopalian or Presbyterian, were at the top, followed by Anglo Americans belonging to more vulgar denominations like the Methodists and Baptists. German and Scandinavian Americans could be honorary Anglo Americans. But Irish American Catholics, Jews, and Italian and Polish Americans occupied a lower rung. Mexican Americans occupied an ambiguous position. In some areas they were discriminated against as Blacks were, in others they were treated as the equivalent of low-status whites. Black Americans and Asian Americans were excluded.

The Anglo American Protestant patricians in every region and state shared a common Anglo American and Trans-Atlantic culture—but not a common national culture. Instead, they had regional cultures separately based on a common British and European heritage. This is so peculiar that it needs to be explained.

Let us begin with what they shared: Trans-Atlantic culture. From the earliest days of the republic, the wealthy elites of even the most remote and Godforsaken parts of the South and West could afford to vacation in Europe. They would bring back the latest French and British fashions to rural Mississippi or Wyoming. Before the self-consciously regional Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, there was never any indigenous American architecture, just wave after wave of faddish European styles: Palladianism, Greek Revival, Gothic, Romanesque. The relics of these transient Europhile fads litter the United States in the form of courthouses and other old public buildings from coast to coast.

In contrast, local patriciates tried to boost their own authors at the expense of those in other American regions. My maternal grandmother, a schoolteacher for part of her career, belonged to the minor Southern gentry. She saw to it that my brother and I were introduced to the literary canon as educated white Southerners of the early 20th century conceived of it: A British substrate, consisting of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, overlain by Southern writers like Sidney Lanier, whose “The Marshes of Glynn” introduced me to the wonders of verse. The equivalent New England literary canon ran directly from Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and Scott and Tennyson to Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier and the other “Fireside Poets” (Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville only acquired their present status later, thanks to mid-20th-century academics).

In short, for two centuries there was a double competition among regional American oligarchies. On the one hand, the local notables, particularly those from the newly settled regions, had to prove they were not backward bumpkins, but were just as up-to-date with regard to European fashions as the patricians in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. On the other hand, some of them dreamed that the city they ran, whether it was Atlanta or Milwaukee, would become the Athens or Renaissance Florence of North America, and favored local writers, poets, and artists, as long as their work was in fashionable styles and did not inspire seditious thoughts among the local masses. The subnational blocs of New Englanders, Southerners, and Midwesterners fought to control the federal government in order to promote their regional economic interests.

The status of Harvard and Yale as prestigious national rather than regional universities is relatively recent. A few generations ago, it was assumed that the sons of the local gentry (this was before coeducation began in the 1960s and 1970s) would remain in the area and rise to high office in local and state business, politics, and philanthropy—goals that were best served if they attended a local elite college and joined the right fraternity, rather than being educated in some other part of the country. College was about upper-class socialization, not learning, which is why parochial patricians favored regional colleges and universities. If your family was in the local social register, that was much more important than whether you went to an Ivy League college or a local college or no college at all.

American patricians of earlier generations would have been surprised that rich people, many of them celebrities, would scheme and bribe university officers to get their children into a few top universities. Scheming to get into the right local “society” club—now that would have made sense.

Upper-class women were the chief enforcers of local “society.” Anybody who thinks that women are somehow naturally more generous and egalitarian than men has never encountered a doyenne of high society. Mrs. Astor’s 400 families in New York had their counterparts throughout the United States, from the Mainline elite in Philadelphia to the Highland Park set in Dallas.

As in the novels of Jane Austen, the daughters of the local ruling class had to be married to a young man from a good family, if the dynasty was not to fall into disgrace. Until recently (and to this day, in some circles) a young woman’s debut in society was, if anything, more important than marriage itself, since the debutante ball helped to define her eligibility for a high-status marriage.

When I explain all of this to friends from other countries, they tend to be surprised, if not suspicious of my account. What about frontier egalitarianism? Wasn’t America dominated by the just-folks middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries? Isn’t America in danger now, for the first time in its history, of becoming an Old World style hierarchy?

The egalitarianism of the American frontier is greatly exaggerated. Some of the myth comes from European tourists like Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Dickens. For ideological reasons or just for entertainment, they played up how classless and vulgar Americans were for audiences back in Europe. On their trips they mostly encountered the wealthy and educated, who might have been informal by the standards of British dukes or French royalty, but who were hardly yeoman farmers. If these famous tourists had spent their time in slave cabins, immigrant tenements, miners camps, and cowboy bunkhouses, they might have gotten a different sense of how egalitarian America actually was. Elite Americans might have been more likely than elite Brits to smile politely when dealing with working-class people, but they were no more likely to welcome them into the family.

The Western frontier was not entirely a myth, to be sure. My great-great-grandfather proposed marriage to my great-great-grandmother by handing her a letter from horseback before riding north on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, and a distant uncle was murdered by outlaws on the road outside of Austin in the 1880s. But the Wild West or boomtown era everywhere was brief. The first white settlers in a region may have been trappers or small farmers or ranchers or outlaws or pirates, but once Native Americans had been removed to reservations and the railroad was in place, the area was rapidly gentrified. The rich moved in, bought up the good land, built mansions and the local opera house in the current European style and drove the frontiersmen and their families out.

White poverty in the United States today is concentrated in greater Appalachia, because the Scots Irish settlers, often illiterate squatters, were priced out of other areas and ended up in the hills of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Texas Hill Country. As soon as the affluent discover the scenic views in those areas, they will be forced to move once more, just as old-stock families are already being priced out of the Texas Hill Country by rich refugees from California, bringing with them their cultural heritage of trophy wineries and boutiques, New Age spirituality and organic cuisines.

Because there was no single national American elite, there was never a single Western frontier. New Englanders moved west in a band to the south of the Great Lakes, and then moved eastward and inland from ports on the Pacific Coast. While the Scots Irish followed the hills, the Southern planter class acquired cotton-friendly soil from Virginia along the Gulf of Mexico to central Texas, where the coastal plain collides with the southernmost part of the Great Plains. As the historians David Hackett Fischer and Wilbur Zelinsky have pointed out, these parallel bands of east-to-west settlement brought separate Anglo American cultures, reflected in everything from codes of honor to town layouts (town planners in greater New England laid out village greens with churches and schools, while Southern towns tended to be centered on the courthouse).

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. As recently as the 1970s, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a major Northeastern bank had to disguise the fact of his Irish ancestry from the bank’s WASP partners. No longer. Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”). Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average—which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).

Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma—preferably a graduate or professional degree—from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite. A decade ago, as a member of the American overclass you could get away with saying, along with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I strongly support civil unions for gay men and lesbians.” In 2020 you are expected to say, “I strongly support trans rights.” You will flunk the interview if you start going on about civil unions.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify—which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Austin, a columnist for Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

Posted in Culture, Meritocracy, Politics, Wokeness

Harris — The Key to Trump’s Appeal

This post is a transcription of a piece by Sam Harris, published in his podcast Making Sense on the day before the election.  It’s the most stunning analysis I have seen about the key to Trump’s appeal. 

I’ve seen some good things about the way he has tapped into the resentments of middle and working class Americans, who feel left behind by the coastal meritocracy.  See my post about Arlie Hochschild’s wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land and my post on Michael Sandel’s book, Tyranny of Merit.  So on these issues, I can see how he would look attractive compared to a meritocrat like Hillary Clinton.  But that still doesn’t explain how people could put up with someone whose character is so obviously appalling.

What Harris does here is show that his appalling character is in fact central to his appeal.  For people who feel disrespected by the meritocracy, it’s attractive to have a leader who is himself so unrespectable.  He’s one person who will not and cannot look down on you, because he’s as low as it goes.  Here’s the core of Harris’s argument:

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. 

Compare this to the sanctimony that is coming from the other side of the culture wars, where the woke are wagging their fingers at the deplorables and denouncing them as irretrievably racist, sexist, and colonialist.  People who are the target of a lot of “bad dog” sermons from the cultural left may find it comforting to have a bad dog president who aspires to be nothing more. 

I hope you find this analysis as enlightening as I do.

Trump

The Key to Trump’s Appeal

Sam Harris

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris. Okay. Well, it is the day before the presidential election. And I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to understand this, but you be the judge as to whether this should have been at all hard to understand. As all of you know, I’ve been struggling for years to understand how it is possible that nearly half of American society admires or at least supports Donald Trump.

I’ve spoken with Trump voters in search of illumination, but illumination never came. For instance, I had Scott Adams on my podcast to explain this to me. And he described Trump as a master persuader, perhaps the best he’s ever seen. But the problem for me is that I find Trump to be among the least persuasive people I have ever come across. Whenever I see him speak, I see an obvious con man and ignoramus. In fact, Trump seems to be so unaware of how people like me judge a person’s credibility that his efforts to appear credible, such as they are, always make him look ridiculous and even deranged. So the claim that he’s a brilliant persuader makes about as much sense to me as a claim that he’s a model of physical fitness would, right? In my world, the claim can be disproven at a glance. And yet one thing is undeniable, right? Half the country views him very differently.

Now, until a few minutes ago, I had more or less reconciled myself to never understanding this. But I believe at this late hour on the very eve of the 2020 election, I have discovered a significant part of Trump’s appeal. In particular, I think I finally understand how he is supported because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. That really is the key. How are all the things I find despicable in him not merely things that people are willing to overlook, but reasons in and of themselves why people support him? That’s what I didn’t understand until this moment.

Now, I have repeatedly described the man’s flaws on this podcast. To my eye, he lacks nearly every virtue for which we have a word:  wisdom, curiosity, compassion, generosity, discipline, courage. Whatever your list, he’s got none of these things, but his supporters know that. And he’s a paragon of greed and narcissism and pettiness and malice, real malice. This is a man who wears his hatreds on his sleeve and he will suddenly revile people who he claimed to admire only yesterday. While he demands loyalty from everyone around him, really above all else, he is an amazingly disloyal person.

All of this is right on the surface, so his appeal has been a total mystery to me, but I believe I have now solved that mystery. Again, I don’t know why it took me so long, because many of these thoughts have been in my head since the beginning. And I’ve certainly heard people describe some parts of this picture, but the whole image just fell into place. It’s like one of those magic eye illustrations where you’re staring at a random dot stereogram forever, and then finally the embedded 3D image just pops out. And this picture of Trump’s appeal is really best understood in comparison with the messaging of its opponents on the left. That’s how you can see it in stereo. That’s how the image finally pops out, so taking the Trump half of this picture.

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. Trump is fat Jesus. He’s grab them by the pussy Jesus. He’s I’ll eat nothing but cheeseburgers if I want to Jesus. He’s I want to punch them in the face Jesus. He’s go back to your shithole countries Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.

And now consider the other half of this image. What are we getting from the left? We’re getting exactly the opposite message, pure sanctimony, pure judgment. You are not good enough. You’re guilty not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a cis white heterosexual male, which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support, you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee. It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.

Now, I’m sure many of you have understood this before me, but for whatever reason, this image just became crystal clear. Needless to say, everything I’ve said about Trump previously still stands for me. I consider him to be terrifyingly unfit for office, and I consider most of his personal flaws to be public dangers. I think because of who he is as a person, he has harmed our politics and diminished our standing in the world to a degree that might take decades to repair. I sincerely hope we rid ourselves of him tomorrow, but I believe I now understand the half of the country that disagrees with me a little better than I did yesterday. And this makes me less confused and judgmental, less of an asshole probably, which is always progress.

Posted in Capitalism, Culture, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

Clare Coffey — Closing Time: We’re All Counting Bodies

This is a lovely essay by Clare Coffey from the summer issue of Hedgehog Review.  In it she explores the extremes in contemporary American life through the medium of two recent books:  those who have been shunted aside in the knowledge economy and destined to deaths of despair, and those who occupy the flashiest reaches of the new uber class.  She does this through an adept analysis of two recent books:  Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton; and Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, by Ashley Mears.  In combination, the books tell a powerful story.

Closing Time

We’re All Counting Bodies

Clare Coffey

Lenin’s maxim that “there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” can be tough on writers. You spend years carefully marshaling an argument, anticipating objections, tightening your focus, sacrificing claims that might interfere with the suasion of your central point, and then—bam, the gun goes off. Something happens that makes the point toward which you were gently cajoling the reader not only obvious but insufficient. Your thoroughbred stands ready, but the rest of the field has already left the gate.

So it is with Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. In 2014, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the latter a Nobel Prize winner, noted that for the first time, the mortality rate among white Americans without a college degree was climbing rather than dropping; further, while members of this group remained relatively advantaged compared to their black peers, the two cohorts’ mortality rates were moving in opposite directions. Case and Deaton found that a significant portion of this hike in mortality was due to deaths from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide—phenomena which, bundled together, they labeled “deaths of despair.”

Deaths of Despair Cover

Six years later, in this new book, the two economists attempt to turn these observations into a thesis: What can this horrifying data can tell us about American society at large? Instead of linking the deaths to any single deprivation, the authors place them in a context of wholesale loss of social status and coherent identity for those without purchase in the knowledge professions—a loss that encompasses wage stagnation, the decline of union power, and the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.

For Case and Deaton, the closing of a factory involves all three, and cannot be understood strictly in terms of lost earnings or job numbers. Even in a “success” story, in which workers get new jobs at a staffing agency or an Amazon fulfillment center, a qualitative catastrophe occurs: to the prestige of difficult, directly productive work; to a measure of democratic control over the conditions of work; to the sense of valued belonging to socially important organizations; to the norms governing work, marriage, and sociality that developed in a particular material context, and which cannot simply transfer over or remake themselves overnight. At least some of these losses are downstream of sectoral transition only insofar as firm structure and historic labor organization is concerned. There is no purely sectoral reason for companies to outsource all non-knowledge jobs to staffing companies, or for Amazon to fire whistleblowers. The differences between NYC taxis and Uber lie in the fact that one has a union and the other classifies its workers as independent contractors, not in NAICS codes. But however carefully you parse the causes, deaths of despair are the final result of a long, slow social death.

Who are the culprits? Case and Deaton are careful not to absolve capitalism, but they insist that the problem is not really capitalism itself but its abuses: “We are not against capitalism. We believe in the power of competition and free markets. Capitalism has brought an end to misery and death for millions in now rich countries over the past 250 years and, much more rapidly, in countries like India and China, over the past 50 years.” This qualification is not unique to them; it takes different forms, from the regulatory reformism of political liberals such as Elizabeth Warren to the attacks on “crony capitalism” of doctrinaire libertarians, for whom the true free market has not yet been tried. For Case and Deaton, the big-picture problem is unchecked economic trends that encourage “upward redistribution”; their more specific and more representative target is a rent-seeking health-care industry.

Their complaint is not only that companies like Purdue Pharma arguably jump-started the opioid epidemic by hard-selling their pain medications and concealing these drugs’ addictive potential. Case and Deaton also argue that the health-care sector has eaten up American wage gains with insurance costs, funneling more and more money to health-care spending while delivering less and less in terms of health outcomes. The numbers the authors have assembled are convincing. But who at this juncture needs to be convinced? A teenager recently died of COVID-19 after being turned away from an urgent care clinic for lack of insurance. Hospital personnel are getting laid off in the midst of a pandemic to stanch balance sheet losses resulting from delayed elective care. Hospitals that have been operated on the basis of years of business school orthodoxy lack the extra capacity to deal with anything more momentous than a worse-than-usual flu season. Who is in any serious doubt that the American health-care system is cobbled together out of rusty tin cans and profit margins? The more pertinent question is what in America isn’t.

The release of Case and Deaton’s book just as an often fatal communicable disease was going pandemic was not, of course, the fault of the authors. But it makes for oddly frustrating reading. Positing a link between deindustrialization and health-care rent seeking and deaths of despair is an abductive argument about historical and present actors rather than a purely statistical inference. As Case and Deaton freely admit, you cannot prove by means of regression analysis that any of their targets are the unmistakable causes of these deaths. For that matter, there’s too much bundling among both the phenomena (alcoholic diseases, overdoses, suicides) and the proposed causes (deindustrialization, the decline of organized labor, wage stagnation, corporate restructuring) to conduct even a controlled test.

While it may not be possible to demonstrate airtight causality, Deaths of Despair nonetheless provides valuable documentation of the humiliations, losses, and unmoorings of those on the wrong end of a widening economic divide. The book is less a technocratic prescription than a grim body count.

In Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, Ashley Mears is counting bodies too, albeit very different ones. From New York to Miami, from Ibiza to Saint-Tropez, all over the elite global party scene in which Mears, a sociologist and former fashion model, did eighteen months of research, everyone is counting bodies. The bodies are those of models, ruthlessly quantified and highly valuable to the owners of elite nightclubs. Very Important People hinges on one insight: The image of a rooftop party filled with glamorous models drinking champagne isn’t just a pop-culture cliché. It is a lucrative business model.

VIP Cover

According to Mears, up through the nineties the business model for nightclubs was simple. There was a bar and a dance floor. You paid to get in and you paid to drink. Ideally, you’d want a certain ratio of women to men, but the pleasures on offer were fairly straightforward. But in the early 2000s, a new model emerged, ironically enough, in the repurposed industrial buildings of New York’s Meatpacking District. Rather than rely on the dance floor and bar, clubs encouraged (usually male) customers to put down serious cash for immediately available and strategically placed tables and VIP sections, where bottles of liquor at marked-up prices could be brought to them. Clubs that could successfully brand themselves as elite might make enormous sums off out-of-town dentists on a spree, young financiers looking to woo or compete with business associates by demonstrating access to the city’s most exclusive pleasures, and the mega-rich “whales” proclaiming their status by over-the-top performances of generosity and waste.

The table is crucial for this strategy to succeed. It allows maximum visibility for both the whale’s endless parade of bottles of Dom Perignon (much of it left undrunk by virtue of sheer volume) and the groups of models that signal that this is the kind of club where a whale might be found. The good that is being advertised is indistinguishable from the advertising process.

A whole secondary ecosystem has grown up around this glitzy “potlach,” as Mears calls it—this elaborately choreographed wasting of wealth. There are the elite club promoters, who might make thousands a night if they show up with enough models, and whose transactional relationships with the models are defined in useful, fragile terms of mutual care. There are the models, young and broke in expensive cities, who get free meals, free champagne, and sometimes free housing as long as they show up and play nice. There are the bouncers, who police the height and looks of entrants, and the whales, who both command the scene and function as an advertisement for its desirability. Being adjacent to real wealth is a powerful incentive, especially for promoters, who dream of rubbing shoulders and making deals of their own through connections forged in the club.

The owners make money, and everyone else gets a little something and a little scammed. Perhaps among those who are scammed the least are the models, the majority of whom seem to be in it for a good party rather than upward mobility. When you are very young and very beautiful, the world tends to see those traits as the most important things about you. One way to register dissent is to trade them only for things equally ephemeral, inconsequential, delightful: a glass of champagne, moonlight over the Riviera, a night spent dancing till dawn. Reaping the benefits of belonging to an intrinsically exclusive club is not heroic. But it seems no worse than the trade made by the wives of the superwealthy, who in one scene appear, disapproving and hostile, at a table adjacent to their husbands’ at an Upper East Side restaurant. They have made a more thoroughgoing negotiation of their value to wealthy men—one resting on the ability to reproduce the upper class as well as attest to its presence.

Demarcating status is the limit of the model’s power. It is what she is at the club to do. The model is not there primarily to be sexually alluring—that is the role of the lower-class-coded bottle waitress. One of Mears’s subjects even confesses that models aren’t his type: They are too tall and skinny, too stereotyped, and after all, desire is so highly personal—less an estimation that a face has been arranged in the single best way as delight that it has been arranged in such a way. But models are necessary precisely because their bodies and faces have transcended the whims of any personally desiring subject, to the objectivity of market value. Their beauty can be quantified in inches, and dollars.

To contemplate and cultivate beauty is perhaps noble. To desire and consume it is at least human. To desire not any object in itself, but an image of desirability, is ghastly. There are many scenes in Very Important People, from the physical dissipation to the moments bordering on human trafficking, that are morally horrifying. What lingers, though, is this spectral quality: huge amounts of money, time, and flesh in service to a recursive and finally imaginary value. If anyone has gained from the losses of Case and Deaton’s subjects, it is the patrons of the global party circuit. But their gains seem less hoarded than unmade, in a kind of reverse alchemy—transmuted into the allurements of a phantom world, elusive, seductive, and all too soluble in the light of day.

Posted in Culture, History, Politics, Populism, Sociology

Colin Woodard: Maps that Show the Historical Roots of Current US Political Faultlines

This post is a commentary on Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  

Woodard argues that the United States is not a single national culture but  a collection of national cultures, each with its own geographic base.  The core insight for this analytical approach comes from “Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University [who] formulated [a] theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. ‘Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,’ Zelinsky wrote. ‘Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.’”

I’m suspicious of theories that smack of cultural immutability and cultural determinism, but Woodard’s account is more sophisticated than that.  His is a story of the power of founders in a new institutional setting, who lay out the foundational norms for a society that lacks any cultural history of its own or which expelled the preexisting cultural group (in the U.S. case, Native Americans).  So part of the story is about the acculturation of newcomers into an existing worldview.  But another part is the highly selective nature of immigration, since new arrivals often seek out places to settle that are culturally compatible.  They may target a particular destination because its cultural characteristics, creating a pipeline of like-minded immigrants; or they choose to move on to another territory if the first port of entry is not to their taste.  Once established, these cultures often expanded westward as the country developed, extending the size and geographical scope of each nation.

Why does he insist on calling them nations?  At first this bothered me a bit, but then I realized he was using the term “nation” in Benedict Anderson’s sense as “imagined communities.”  Tidewater and Yankeedom are not nation states; they are cultural components of the American state.  But they do act as nations for their citizens.  Each of these nations is a community of shared values and worldviews that binds people together who have never met and often live far away.  The magic of the nation is that it creates a community of common sense and purpose that extends well beyond the reach of normal social interaction.  If you’re Yankee to the core, you can land in a strange town in Yankeedom and feel at home.  These are my people.  I belong here.

He argues that these national groupings continue to have a significant impact of the cultural geography of the US, shaping people’s values, styles of social organization, views of religion and government, and ultimately how they vote.  The kicker is the alignment between the spatial distribution of these cultures and the current voting patterns.  He lays out this argument succinctly in a 2018 op-ed he wrote for the New York Times.  I recommend reading it.

The whole analysis is neatly summarized in the two maps he deployed in that op-ed, which I have reproduced below.

The Map of America’s 11 Nations

11 Nations Map

This first map shows the geographic boundaries of the various cultural groupings in the U.S.  It all started on the east coast with the founding cultural binary that shaped the formation of the country in the late 18th century — New England Yankees and Tidewater planters.  He argues that they are direct descendants of the two factions in the English civil war of the mid 17th century, with the Yankees as the Calvinist Roundheads, who (especially after being routed by the restoration in England) sought to establish a new theocratic society in the northeast founded on strong government, and the Anglican Cavaliers, who sought to reproduce the decentralized English aristocratic ideal on Virginia plantations.  In between was the Dutch entrepot of New York, focused on commerce and multiculturalism (think “Hamilton”), and the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, founded on equality and suspicion of government.  The US constitution was an effort to balance all of these cultural priorities within a single federal system.

Then came two other groups that didn’t fit well into any of these four cultural enclaves.  The immigrants to the Deep South originated in the slave societies of British West Indies, bringing with them a rigid caste structure and a particularly harsh version of chattel slavery.  Immigrants to Greater Appalachia came from the Scots-Irish clan cultures in Northern Ireland and the Scottish borderlands, with a strong commitment to individual liberty, resentment of government, and a taste for violence.

Tidewater and Yankeedom dominated the presidency and federal government for the country’s first 40 years.  But in 1828 the US elected its first president from rapidly expanding Appalachia, Andrew Jackson.  And by then the massive westward expansion of the Deep South, along with the extraordinary wealth and power that accrued from its cotton-producing slave economy, created the dynamics leading to the Civil War.  This pitted the four nations of the northeast against Tidewater and Deep South, with Appalachia split between the two, resentful of both Yankee piety and Southern condescension.  The multiracial and multicultural nations of French New Orleans and the Mexican southwest (El Norte) were hostile to the Deep South and resented its efforts to expand its dominion westward.

The other two major cultural groupings emerged in the mid 19th century.  The thin strip along the west coast consisted of Yankees in the cities and Appalachians in the back country, combining the utopianism of the former with the radical individualism of the latter.  The Far West is the one grouping that is based not on cultural geography but physical geography.  A vast arid area unsuited to farming, it became the domain of the only two entities powerful enough to control it — large corporations (railroad and mining), which exploited it, and the federal government, which owned most of the land and provided armed protection from Indians.

So let’s jump ahead and look at the consequences of this cultural landscape for our current political divisions.  Examine the electoral map for the 2016 presidential race, which shows the vote in Woodard’s 11 nations.

The 2016 Electoral Map

2016 Vote Map

Usually you see voting maps with results by state.  Here instead we see voting results by county, which allows for a more fine-tuned analysis.  Woodard assigns each county to one of the 11 “nations” and then shows the red or blue vote margin for each cultural grouping.

It’s striking to see how well the nations match the vote.  The strongest vote for Clinton came from the Left Coast, El Norte, and New Netherland, with substantial support from Yankeedom, Tidewater, and Spanish Caribbean.  Midlands was only marginally supportive of the Democrat.  Meanwhile the Deep South and Far West were modestly pro-Trump (about as much as Yankeedom was pro-Clinton), but the true kicker was Appalachia, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump (along with New France in southern Louisiana).

Appalachia forms the heart of Trump’s electoral base of support.  It’s an area that resents intellectual, cultural, and political elites; that turns away from mainstream religious denominations in favor of evangelical sects; and that lags behing behind in the 21st century information economy.  As a result, this is the heartland of populism.  It’s no wonder that the portrait on the wall in Trump’s Oval portrays Andrew Jackson.

Now one more map, this time showing were in the country people have been social distancing and where they haven’t, as measure by how much they were traveling away from home (using cell phone data).  It comes from a piece Woodard recently published in Washington Monthly.

Social Distancing Map

Once again, the patterns correspond nicely to the 11 nations.  Here’s how Woodard summarizes the data:

Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland, and the Left Coast show dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich, or poor.

Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel fell by only 15 to 50 percent. This was true even in much of Kentucky, the interior counties of Washington and Oregon, where Democratic governors had imposed a statewide shelter-in-place order.

Not surprisingly, most of the states where governors imposed stay-at-home orders by March 27 are located in or dominated by one or a combination of the communitarian nations. This includes states whose governors are Republicans: Ohio, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Most of the laggard governors lead states dominated by individualistic nations. In the Deep South and Greater Appalachia you find Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches. There’s Brian Kemp of Georgia who left matters in the hands of local officials for much of the month and then, on April 2, claimed to have just learned the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals. You have Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who on April 7 denied mayors the power to impose local lockdowns. And then there’s Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, who resisted action because “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do.”

Nothing like a pandemic to show what your civic values are.  Is it all about us or all about me?