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”

not on the bernie train

In a discussion about politics with some students this week–outside of structured class activities!–several were surprised to learn that I wasn’t a fan of Bernie Sanders. How could a sociologist not support Bernie, they wondered (I should have pointed out that some great sociologists actually hold conservative convictions; next time, Gabe!).

This came up in the context of Sanders’ ignominious return to the news following his endorsement of anti-choice Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. He defended his position by saying:

The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about

And he’s right! But, he then went on to say

If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.

And I get off the Bernie train at this station. The man who can’t take the criticism of purity built his campaign on the idea of purity on economic populism of the kind that would help white, male workers in formerly union-heavy industries. Asking people to accept an anti-choice candidate as a means to an end for pro-choice policies doesn’t ring a note too discordant from finding wealthy supporters to fund support campaigns of politicians elected to upend economic inequality. Talking to Goldman Sachs should disqualify a Democratic candidate from consideration, but actively supporting an anti-choice candidate should not.

Continue reading “not on the bernie train”

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”

asking the wrong questions about protest

Originally published in Race, Politics, Justice About protest as a complex multi-actor field.

We social movement scholars are in the news a lot these days. There have been massive protests since the election of Donald Trump. Reporters want to know: will the protests be effective? Do protests work or are they just ego-trips of protesters? How can protesters be sure they can win? These are the wrong questions because they presuppose that people can just make the right choices and gain victory.  Continue reading “asking the wrong questions about protest”

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?”