earnestly explaining the right

I heard Ken Stern on Morning Joe this morning, discussing his new book, Republican Like MeThis is not a carefully thought out response, but a quick thought and a question:

First, the title, which is an obvious paean to Griffin’s classic Black Like Me, serves at once to show the author’s earnestness and to imply that Republican-ness is like Black-ness: assumed to be unchanging, inborn, and genuine.

Second, the question. This is but the latest in probably at least a half-dozen books seeking earnestly to explain (often in crudely anthropological terms) the virtues of the right to liberals. Stern, in particular, references social division and “bubbles” as problems the book is intended to ameliorate. Are there any examples of the converse genre (books earnestly explaining the virtues of the left to conservatives)? If not, why not? And if not, doesn’t the apparent demand for this genre actually imply that the social division is uneven, with one side more interested in transcending the division than the other is?

of sandwiches and cultural exclusion

David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)

Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:

I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.

But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.

Other points on the column:

  • It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
  • Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
  • To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
  • Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.

Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.

blame it on pomo

Postmodernism is the first intellectual movement to acknowledge its own historical partiality. From that spring many of its faults and virtues, not to mention its caricatures. Because for a movement in some ways so arrogant — so insistent on its own epistemic correctness — to insist as well that it was always already partial evokes the kind of unease that many pundits (and social and natural scientists) feel when discussing postmodernism. Unfortunately, it also evokes the caricatures (not to say reaction-formations) that are common among those same pundits and scholars. Continue reading “blame it on pomo”

on carolina contextual transcript policy’s woes

Some background: since 2009 I’ve been working on grade transparency as one policy response to grade inflation, grade compression, and grade inequality at UNC. (See here, here, here, and here, among others.) After many, many meetings, conversations, presentations, and discussions, at last week’s Faculty Council meeting the Educational Policy Committee delivered a report on the policy that may well signal its demise. Below are the comments I made at the Faculty Council meeting in the discussion on that report. Continue reading “on carolina contextual transcript policy’s woes”

newfield, the great mistake

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them is a great book – you should buy it, read it, teach it, and recommend it to your friends. In an increasingly crowded field of books about the ills of contemporary higher education (many of which I also like), this one is particularly strong for its insistence on a systemic, political-economic analysis and its refusal to offer overly simplistic answers. In what follows I offer a discussion of the book’s argument and successes along with two critiques of elements that I think weaken its claims.

Continue reading “newfield, the great mistake”

the voter fraud investigation: an opportunity for science?

President Trump’s announcement that he will launch an investigation of voter fraud is interesting for many reasons. Some of these have been well-documented, such as that he continues to believe massive voter fraud caused his popular-vote loss, and that the main “evidence” cited for such fraud has been thoroughly debunked.

In the context of other recent announcements, it’s also interesting because it may offer an opening for demonstrating the value of evidence-based, systematic inquiry: that is, of science as a basis for policy.

Continue reading “the voter fraud investigation: an opportunity for science?”

why i resigned from the political instability task force

The below is a guest post from Colin J. Beck, Associate Professor of Sociology at Pomona College.

Since 2012, I have been a member of the Political Instability Task Force. The PITF is a US government funded research project that brings academics together with intelligence analysts to provide advice on how to anticipate episodes of political conflict and violence of various forms. I am no longer able to continue this work, and am disappointed that I am the only scholar of the two dozen affiliated with the project that appears to feel this way. Below is my explanation as to why I resigned from the PITF on January 20, 2017.
Continue reading “why i resigned from the political instability task force”