Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Where’s the Betterness?”

A lot of our society’s overblown technophilia goes on fulsome display at Austin’s annual gathering of the hip and innovative, South by Southwest Interactive.  Jacob Silverman, an independent writer, travelled to the 2013 festival to cover it for the fiercely contrarian review, The Baffler.

Bruce Sterling at SXSW

While dismayed by much that he witnessed, Silverman found some solace on the last day of the event. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, self-proclaimed futurist and no luddite, delivered the closing talk and offered some pointed criticism of the festival’s underlying celebration of “disruption”  and its belief in the boundless promise of technology:

About “disruption,” a term that in Silicon Valley receives sacramental treatment, he said: “The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.” That is, e-books and online shopping killed off bookstores, digital music and file sharing wrecked the music industry, Google and Craigslist upended newspapers. New technologies don’t just supplant the old; they change our culture and society; sometimes they destroy more jobs than they create. In his reproof was an echo of Rebecca Solnit: wealth can be cruel and destructive.

Turning to the festival’s undercurrent of techno-utopianism, Sterling said that SXSWers who talk about making the world better “haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naïveté.” He cited author Evgeny Morozov and his critique of technological solutionism—the belief that new digital technologies like smartphone apps and social networking can fix a range of social and political problems. “A billion apps have been sold,” Sterling declared. “Where’s the betterness?”

A new blog on The Hedgehog Review website, the Infernal Machine, will begin tackling similar issues around technology, knowledge, and culture when it launches in the coming weeks.

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Brand Loyalty After Virtue

It was a letter from my life insurance company that got me thinking about the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. I had applied for some additional insurance. After providing the company with the  requested medical information, I received a machine-signed letter from an underwriter indicating that she “had hoped to approve the increase” but was “sorry” that she would be “unable to approve this change.” I had had a screening colonoscopy a few years back, you see, and the doctor had found a polyp. I am now, it appears, a risky case.

It wasn’t risk or the coverage denial that got me thinking about MacIntyre. It was a reference to loyalty. In the last paragraph, the underwriter attributed to me “loyalty” as a policy owner and assured me that it was  “important” to the company.

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The connection with MacIntyre?  Well, in his famous book, After Virtue, he made the “disquieting suggestion” that our “language of morality” is in a “state of grave disorder.” Although we continue to use virtue terms, these concepts, he argued, have been progressively cut loose from “those contexts” of belief and practice “from which their significance derived.”

Surely something is adrift, I thought, when an appeal to “loyalty” can appear in the same letter whose purpose is to inform me that it’s not in the company’s financial interest to sell me a little more coverage. For whatever else it has meant, loyalty, a virtue term, has normally entailed mutuality and required some setting aside of self-interest for the sake of ensuring the integrity of particular and particularistic relationships with family, friends, and social groups of any kind to which one might belong or identify.

“Loyalty,” as in customer or brand loyalty, is an old idea in business and marketing, dating back to at least the 1940s. It is generally understood to have both positive emotional and behavioral elements. The idea is that consumers become attached to particular companies/brands, form a relationship with them, and seek to preserve the relationship. The notion of “loyalty” is intended to convey more than simply a pattern of repeated purchases, a pattern that may be rooted in factors such as cost or available alternatives having nothing to do with satisfaction or commitment. There is also an attitudinal and affective attachment that keeps the customer coming back regardless of convenience or changes in features or price relative to the competition. Marketers expend a great deal of energy trying to cultivate such “loyalty.”

Of course, a customer might be loyal to specific people in a company. Or to a company because it embodies the values of a larger community with which the customer identifies. But speaking of loyalty to a brand, as such, would seem to strip the word of all of its meaning as a virtue, reducing it to little more than a personal choice or preference unguided by any external criteria. Such a use of “loyalty” is precisely what MacIntyre argued is taking place with respect to all of our moral language. The rhetoric of morality is being transformed into “mere expressive assertion.”

But as MacIntyre also observed, while the virtue term may be used as an expression of preference, it purports to be something more than that, something that in fact appeals to a standard. Substitute a non-virtue term for the virtue term in my insurance letter and you will see his point. In the marketing literature, “loyalty” has a near-synonym: “stickiness.” Companies are seeking “sticky” customers, who exhibit the same dogged commitment as “loyal” ones. Had the underwriter used this term, the relevant sentence would read: “Your stickiness as a … policy owner is important to us.” Assuming I knew what the writer meant by stickiness and so took no offense, I would read no hint of obligation in its letter, no suggestion of a standard independent of the strictly commercial relationship between the company representative and me. While my “stickiness” as a customer may be important to the company, the word makes no implicitly ethical demands on me. There is nothing praiseworthy in being sticky, no betrayal in being un-sticky.  But the word “loyalty” makes a potential decision to change companies into an ethical one and brings my potential disloyalty into view. And, indeed, the letter gave me pause. I do not in fact owe any obligation to this company, and yet I felt the prescriptive force in the virtue language.

If there is no genuine appeal to impersonal criteria, then, MacIntrye argues, using moral language can only be manipulative, an attempt to impose one’s feelings, attitudes, and choices on another. I doubt the underwriter, from her desk in Hartford or Des Moines, had any such deliberate intention. But that is also part of the problem that MacIntrye identifies: We don’t recognize the “grave disorder,” and so continue to use moral language as if all was well.

 

 

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Have Children Become the New Opium of the Masses?

Rory Stewart may have been born with the advantages of Scottish aristocracy, but he has packed a lot of life into his mere 40 years.  A former soldier and diplomat, a fearless trekker, and a versatile author (The Places Between, The Prince of the Marshes, Can Intervention Work?),  he is now a Conservative MP representing a constituency in northern England.  Such accomplishments add sting to a scolding little piece he wrote for The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine.  Without going to any pains to prove it, Stewart charges that while previous ages valued honor, glory,  heroic achievements, or an active public life, ours is “the first civilization to find its deepest fulfillment in its descendants.  Our opium,” he adds, “is our children.”

Rory Stewart's book on his trek across Afghanistan

Rory Stewart’s book on his trek across Afghanistan

For Stewart, a relentless focus on our offspring bespeaks a numbers of failings, including a lack of ambition, a disregard for our communities and their other vulnerable members (namely the elderly), and a general failure of the imagination:

People who might once have been public figures, deeply invested in their work, are instead busy serving their children. Ours is a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendant worship. Children must sense that nothing an adult does is more important than their own desires. All political questions seem to come down to the interests of “the next generation”.

Though lacking argument or compelling evidence, Stewart’s assertive squib probably belongs in the “useful provocation” category.  It has elicited a wide response in the British press, including here  and here.  In this country, at least among those I know who have read it or even heard about it, it also seems to touch a raw nerve.

And well it should.  Judging by the evidence collected by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) in its recent Culture of American Families Survey,  many American parents do appear to have a curious emotional dependency on their own children.  “Almost three-quarters of today’s parents of school-age children (72 percent) agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends; only 17 percent disagree,” writes Carl Bowman, the IASC’s Director of Survey Research, in his essay  in the current issue of  The Hedgehog Review.  Bowman goes on to explain the cultural fragility that seems to drive this need:

Indeed, the adult world has become so fragile that parents who seek to be eventual “best friends” with their children may be making an unspoken bid for a return on their years of relational and monetary investment. The return they seek is nothing more than an emotional anchor of connection, assurance they are not being set aside or rendered irrelevant by their children in the same way they might be at work or in other socially limited relationships. In an age when “Father” and “Mother” no longer carry the intrinsic authority and respect accorded in a bygone age, “best friends” may be parents’ best attempt at sustaining something meaningful and enduring.

Whether symptom or contributing cause of a broader cultural malaise, this focus on offspring certainly goes along with the growing privatization of society, as connections among colleagues, neighbors, and fellow citizens weaken and the nuclear family becomes the last haven in a heartless world.

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The Imagined American Center

The bitter partisanship of the Obama era leaves some pundits and commentators longing for political transcendence, for a land of harmony and cooperation in which Americans work together to achieve common purposes. Such longings for political and cultural unity surface whenever partisanship threatens to paralyze government and bickering brushes aside reasonable discourse and debate. Just as James Davison Hunter’s analysis of America’s deep divides, Culture Wars (1991),  provoked a range of counter-arguments asserting that America was “one nation after all,” so the current drumbeat of political gridlock and paralysis kindles hopes that it just isn’t so, that most Americans quietly inhabit a middle-American cultural space between small but vocal extremes.

NBC News on the new American Center

Matt Lauer and Chuck Todd discuss “The New American Center.”

NBC News and Esquire Magazine are only the latest in a long line of purveyors of this hope, a hope that Washington’s bitter polarization bubbles up from an American melting pot much sweeter to the taste. They ground this hope not in America’s history of economic, technological, and military accomplishment, nor in convictions about American pragmatism or exceptionalism. Instead, it rests on their faith in the tools of survey research, specifically in a survey conducted on their behalf by the Benenson Strategy Group. This is how NBC’s Today Show host Matt Lauer and NBC Political Director Chuck Todd described their survey’s “startling” discovery on NBC’s Today Show:

Matt Lauer:  … We often talk about the political center, and the common wisdom has been that there is 40 percent on the right, 40 percent on the left, 20 percent somewhere in the middle, and maybe they’re wishy washy about things. We did a survey with Esquire Magazine — we meaning NBC News — and it’s startling what they found.

Chuck Todd: It is. A majority of the country is in the middle. Fifty-one percent is in the middle. The wings—the dominant part in Washington—is in between the 25-yard lines (21 percent on the left, 28 percent on the right), but the vast majority of the country—a majority of the country—is in between the 25-yard lines.

Matt Lauer: And when you look at the people in this 51 percent… It is the center, and they’re not wishy-washy on politics. They have very strong views.

Chuck Todd: … Some of them are supposedly “liberal.” Some of them are supposedly “conservative.” You know what they are? They’re pragmatic. This is people who live their everyday lives and look at politics through their own lives. They don’t look at it with a blue jersey or a red jersey.

NBC News Senior Staff Writer Tony Dokoupil summarizes the survey findings this way: “At the Center of national sentiment, there’s no longer a chasm but a common ground where a diverse and growing majority—51 percent—is bound by a surprising set of shared ideas.”

Discounting the fact that only a slim majority of this New American Center self-identifies as political moderates (the others calling themselves either liberals or conservatives), Dokoupil assures us that they nonetheless inhabit the center.

This raises a big question: How did the Benenson Strategy Group (BSR) decide that respondents who don’t claim to be moderate in fact are?  The answer lies in a statistical technique called cluster analysis, which is commonly employed by survey researchers to identify systematic patterns of difference among groups that were only vaguely imagined prior to the survey. While cluster analysis can sometimes identify sub-groups that have tremendous interpretive value, in most cases the survey researcher must specify the number of buckets (or groups) in advance before the cluster analysis can sort respondents into them. That is, had BSR specified 2 buckets, they would have found that Americans are sorted into 2 contrasting clusters with no one in the center. Had they specified 5 buckets, they might have concluded that only 20 percent were in the center (one of the five buckets), or perhaps 55 to 65 percent (three of the five). Instead, they settled on an 8-bucket solution with approximately equal numbers of Americans (ranging from 10 to 14 percent) in each bucket.  Had respondents been distributed evenly among the eight, which could easily have been the case, Chuck Todd would have reported that half (50 percent) of Americans, rather than the “vast majority” (51percent) are in the center. And if even 1 percent fewer, 49 percent, had fallen into the central four buckets, he might have concluded that the vast majority were at the extremes. In a word, a completely different conclusion would have resulted from a 2 percent shift.

But such was not the case. They did find 51 percent in the central four buckets, didn’t they? Yes, but to give this any interpretive weight is to place greater faith in cluster analysis than would statisticians themselves.  Statisticians realize that even a slight modification in the survey questions employed could yield different distributions into the eight buckets, easily shifting the 51 percent in the purported “center” to 44 percent or 58 percent. What is more, skilled data analysts know that if you specify 8 buckets and feed the cluster analysis purely random data generated by cats tiptoeing on computer keyboards—where there are no meaningful clusters at all—it will still sort “respondents” fairly evenly into eight buckets, just as they were in this research.

So how might the Benenson Group (and NBC News / Esquire), with the same data, have discovered a majority at the extremes instead?

1. Re-run the analysis, reporting three-, five-, or seven-group cluster solutions rather than eight.

2. Re-run the analysis, basing the cluster solution upon a different subset of questions from the same survey.

3. Keep the same analysis, but reclassify one of their existing groups—“Minivan Moderates,” for example—as liberal.  After all, two-thirds of Minivan Moderates voted for Obama, 41 percent say they are Democrats, 68 percent say they are pro-choice, and 70 percent strongly agree that gay people should be able to marry just like anyone else. Had Minivan Moderates been classified as liberals, NBC/Esquire would have reported that only 38 percent of Americans, slightly over a third, are in the Center. The important point here is that Minivan Moderates are in the Center because the Benenson Strategy Group says they are, not because Minivan Moderates make that claim.

Beyond the exaggerated claims for their cluster analysis solution, there are problems with the survey itself.  Rather than using a standard probability sampling procedure, for example, in which Americans from all walks of life are systematically sampled to achieve representative results, Benenson employed an opt-in approach, drawing from lists supplied by professional sampling organizations. No margins of error are reported for the New American Center study because their sampling procedures fail to meet the criteria for such claims.  Even if I accepted their cluster analysis at face value, which I do not, the study’s authors would not be in a position to say whether 51 plus or minus 3 percent are the center, or 51 plus or minus twenty.  What is more, since the survey was privately commissioned by the very media outlets that are reporting it, we are told that the raw data are private and unavailable, so there can be no testing or replication of their analysis by independent scholars. Additionally, rather than deciding in advance which survey questions were most meaningful for sorting Americans in groups, they used nearly every question in the survey.

Bottom line?  The lauded American Center recently touted as a startling discovery by NBC News was based on an opt-in sample for which margins of error cannot be calculated. It used a shotgun— “throw everything in and see what comes out”—approach to question selection. And it relied on a trial-balloon approach involving alternative solutions—of seven, eight, nine buckets, etc.—to find one that seemed most interpretable.  Based on the result, a claim was made that the “vast majority” of Americans (51 percent) now constitutes an emerging Center.  Because the data are private, independent scholars cannot verify their claim.

As a university-based scholar who strongly believes in the interpretative value of cluster analysis and also in the value of national surveys conforming to the standards of the Council of American Survey Research Organization (CASRO) and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers (AAPOR), I am disappointed to see the depths to which NBC News, and survey research in particular, has fallen in this case. The study should have been called the “Imagined American Center” or “Desired American Center” rather than the “New American Center.”  It would have been less misleading.

Cultural and political polarization are complex phenomena that do not emerge overnight. At the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, we have explored such realities for decades. (See for example this monograph from 2006 and this Hedgehog article from 2010.) Other university-based and independent survey organizations (most notably the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) have also monitored the ebb and flow of American “centers” and “”extremes.” NBC News and Esquire Magazine would do well to study such sources seriously before giving so much air-play to a study with so many methodological limitations.  And consumers of such reports should stop listening the moment they hear 51 percent referred to as a “vast majority.”

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Humanities, Heal Thyself!

News that humanities enrollments and majors are declining in American universities is not quite news, but the New York Times recently devoted first-page attention to the trend, complete with some numbers that might be scary to at least part of the professoriate.

While 45 percent of Stanford University’s faculty are in the humanities, for instance, only 15 percent of its undergraduates sign up as majors in their fields. Sure, that’s Stanford, where the sirens of nearby Silicon Valley beckon strongly to graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees.  But Harvard College has seen a 20 percent drop in humanities majors in the last decade. And across the nation the percentage has fallen  from 14 percent  in 1970 to 7 percent today.

French manuscript

A manuscript of the French medieval poem “Roman de la Rose.” (Credit: iStockPhoto.com)

Explanations for this decline, in the Times and elsewhere,  tend to run to economics and the utilitarian advantages of STEM and other more vocationally oriented degrees.  Responding to such realities, a study published last spring by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lamented the widespread drop in funding for the humanities in comparison to what the hard sciences receive.

Yet that same report—as we noted in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review—seemed unable to make the case for the humanities except in what seemed the most apologetic of instrumentalist terms, as though the greatest value of prolonged engagement with the best that has been thought and felt is to enable “citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process” or “to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures.”  All true, of course.  But that’s it?

While the study was long on skills conferred by humanistic study, it was almost silent on the deficiencies in so many contemporary courses in the area, notably their lack of real engagement with moral, ethical, and other ultimate concerns (truth, beauty, the common good) that should lie at the heart of humane studies.  While the study was a step in the right direction, we observed,

…it fails to acknowledge the many problems within the humanities and social sciences themselves—the fragmentation of fields and subfields leading to a lack of coherence, the often-frivolous nature of what is studied, the absence of judgment about what constitutes serious work, the openly ideological character of significant strands of work in these fields, and so on.

An excellent analysis of some of these deficiencies appears in the November issue of The New Criterion.  Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University,  sees in the teaching of humanities a fatal turning away from content, from the primary sources themselves, toward a preoccupation with the “expressive” and “creative” force of the interpreters.  Beginning some 30 years ago in response to the clarion calls of forceful academic critics like  Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida,  this new direction in the humanities quickly ran afoul of the “basic truth that genuine creativity belongs only to the fortunate few.”  Bauerlein continues:

Finally, apart from meeting political dreams and personal needs, the killing of primary texts—more precisely, canceling the primacy of them—could prosper only if a particular transfer took place. As the professors substituted their own activity for Great Books, the prestige of Hamlet, “Because I could not stop for death,” and Invisible Man couldn’t just go away. It had to fall upon them, the killer interpreters. That was the conviction—that the heritage of Dead White Males would lose its authority and the professors would gain it. The genius of Shakespeare would wane and the braininess of Judith Butler would soar. The transfer empowered them, and apparently they expected everyone but the retrograde elders to agree.

As it turned out, of course, growing numbers of students also disagreed.

But the conspicuous absence of concern with primary content (sometimes relative, sometimes close to absolute) not only weakened the various disciplines within the humanities, Bauerlein continues. It also diminished the various efforts to defend them:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

All of this need not lead to pessimism about the future of humanistic studies.   If the problem lies largely within those fields,  and is not simply the product of larger economic and societal pressures,  then those who teach the humanities have the power to restore them to their former strength and prestige. The question is whether they will have the wisdom and modesty to try.

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A Preview of Parenthood

pregnant lady

Questions of parenting are compelling even before the child has arrived. (Credit: Karpati Gabor / Morgue File)

“It is not hard to imagine why parents have come to approach child rearing with so much trepidation and so little self-confidence.”

—   Wilfred McClay, “The Family That Shoulds Together”

“Expectations are set so high it is little wonder that parents are uneasy.”

— Carl Desportes Bowman, “Holding Them Closer”

As the new managing editor of The Hedgehog Review, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the essays that make up our fall issue. As a mother-to-be—with the due date of our first child falling bracingly near the due date of my first issue—the delight has been tempered by a certain admonitory note running through every piece of our Parenting in America  thematic cluster. … Read full post >>

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What We Mean When We Talk about Culture

Welcome to the THR blog. As with the journal, our goal here is to make sense of the cultural changes we are living through, critically exploring our predicament in light of the important human goods that may be at stake. But what do we mean, exactly, when we talk of culture?

flower

Today, talk of culture is everywhere. There is a culture of fear, of flowers, and of food, not to mention pain, pastiche, and peace.

Today, talk of culture is everywhere. Crime and poverty have cultures, as do biomedicine, queers, and Bible Belt Catholics. There is a culture of fear, of flowers, and of food, not to mention pain, pastiche, and peace. We know corporations have cultures because, when mergers fail, incompatible cultures take the blame. Multiculturalists celebrate the cultures of minorities, while cultural studies scholars champion popular (but not mass-produced) culture. Both abhor the “culture of the establishment.” And, of course, in many contexts, “culture” still refers to cosmopolitanism and discernment in the arts, “high culture” over and against “low.” … Read full post >>

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