September 14, 2005
Academic Nutjobs

A column by Mikita Brottman in the Chronicle contends that

It has often been observed that the more prodigious the intellect, the more it can compromise other aspects of the personality, such as self-awareness and social grace … All vocations attract certain personality types; academe appeals particularly to introspective, narcissistic, obsessive characters who occasionally suffer from mood disorders or other psychological problems.

The piece is pretty bad, and in places is a bit stupid — John Nash is cited as an example of a “forgetful genius,” when in fact he has been mentally ill for much of his life. But it did bring to mind A.J. Liebling’s remark that the University of Chicago constituted “the biggest collection of juvenile neurotics since the children’s crusade.” (With apologies to Dan, Jacob, et al.) I notice also that Brottman contends that “Eccentric characters seem particularly common in those departments known for the more abstract realms of thought, like … most often, philosophy, the field of notorious oddballs.” Moreover, she says people with Asperger’s Syndrome — a condition freely and confidently diagnosed by amateur psychiatrists everywhere, like ADD — are characterized by their “persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.” As it happens, my wife is a notorious oddball philosopher, and is presently writing an entire book about parts of objects. Hmm.

September 13, 2005
Maybe they can put my name on the cover of Suicide

Routledge publish a nice line of classic social science, literary criticism and philosophy. A couple of months ago I picked up their edition of Words and Things, Ernest Gellner’s entertaining hatchet-job on linguistic philosophy a la Wittgentein, J.L. Austin and the like. The flyleaf has a couple of blurbs from Bertrand Russell and the Times (“The classic attack on Oxford Linguistic Philosophy”, etc) but also one from Bryan Wilson, the sociologist of religion. He says “No one who has flirted with, or been puzzled by, postmodernism, or wondered about the meaning of resurgent Islam, should fail to read this tour de force.” What? This is in fact an endorsement of another of Gellner’s books, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Perhaps a small, once-off error, I thought — but then last night I was in a bookshop and saw Routledge’s edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. While the front cover affirms the author was Max Weber, the spine insists that credit should go to Friedrich Hayek. Perhaps there’s an intern somewhere in need of a harsh performance review. I suppose these errors aren’t quite so bad as they might have been: a friend of mine who was an editor for a major university press once told me that they had to recall the entire run of a prominent astronomy book because, mysteriously, every instance of the word “quasar” in the text had been replaced by the word “banana.”

September 12, 2005
CT is Down

Crooked Timber is down at the moment, because our host provider is smack in the middle of LA, which suffered a big old power outage today. We hope to be back up soon.

God Loves Flags

I went to watch the Arizona Wildcats beat Northern Arizona University in the first home game of the season last night in front of a happy home crowd. I’ve only been to one other American Football game in my life, so there was a whole novelty dimension. During the halftime show, as the marching band played Led Zeppelin favorites and marched in complex, quasi-aesthetic formations (it looked and sounded like you might imagine), the color guard drew a disproportionate amount of attention. (The color guard join in the band routines, twirling and throwing large flags. It looks tricky.) The color guard wore blue pants and sparkly, ruby-colored bustiers … except for one of them, whose whole upper body was covered in sparkly goodness. His presence was hard to miss, partly because he was the only male in the colorguard, partly because he was about twice the size of his fellow flag-bearers, but mostly because he twirled more effusively and pirouetted more extravagantly than anyone else. He flung himself en arrière and en avant, he pirouetted under the posts and _jeté _-ed across the fifty yard line. He was terrific. Some people in the crowd got a little wound up, apparently annoyed that a gender boundary might be in danger of subversion on the very altar of American masculinity’s defining ritual. There were some catcalls and cries of “Get that guy outta there!” But mostly people loved it. And the guy himself could have cared less, blissed out as he was in front of 40,000 people, having reached a kind of camp Nirvana.

September 07, 2005
Crossing the Great Divide

Alan Wolfe and Tyler Cowen are discussing Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bait and Switch on Slate this week. The book is a kind of white-collar counterpart to Nickel and Dimed, where Ehrenreich tries to get a job (using an invented identity) in the media/public relations sector. Neither Wolfe nor Cowen is much impressed by the result, so I wonder whether they’ll be able to keep agreeing with each other about this for the next few days.

Today, Tyler opens his comments by saying, “We still need a good book on why white-collar workers are having a harder time finding jobs.” I suggest Vicki Smith’s Crossing the Great Divide: Worker Risk and Opportunity in the New Economy, which does what Ehrenreich is trying to do, only — if Tyler’s characterization of Bait and Switch is accurate — with more nuance and better methods. Smith is a sociologist at U.C. Davis. Her book looks at the efforts of non-union, white-collar workers to build careers for themselves at three companies (including a photocopy service firm and a computer outfit) and a job-search club. It’s a clear and nuanced piece of work, and it might be what Tyler is looking to read. (The next few paragraphs draw on an unpublished discussion of mine about the book.)

Smith found that the labor market was indeed an uncertain and difficult one for all the workers she interviewed:

[T]he reality is that institutional, structural insecurity is an unrelenting possibility … What looks like a good contract for workers — participate, give extra effort and intensity to the job, sweat over production glitches and outcomes, all in return for being admitted to a partnership with management — is a contract betrayed when employment security is replaced with uncertainty or termination. (Smith 2001, 176-77.)

But Smith also discovered that many interviewees “were willing to adapt to
uncertainty because they felt they were gaining skills and insights that would allow them to maintain a solid footing in the new economy” (9). Moreover, many were “poised and willing to experiment, to undertake new responsibilities, to be held more accountable, and to identify their interests with those of their employers if they perceived that employers were committed to working with workers and not against them and to building quality work environments” (175).

Smith had expected labor market conditions to push workers towards collective action in an effort to insulate themselves from labor market instability. The absence of such efforts is partly explained by structural features of the labor market. Temp workers, for instance, routinely move from project to project, which makes it difficult to begin organizing. But the self-conception and choices of workers are also important. The Temps that Smith studied thought of themselves as good workers who were more reliable than the stereotypical “bad Temp.” They preferred to identify themselves with permanent workers or even management rather than with other Temps (114-116).

In general, workers were prepared to act on new economy rhetoric, though not in all circumstances. The work environment and its institutional setting were important to their willingness to do all that was demanded of them. Smith’s research deliberately tries to go beyond the good jobs vs bad jobs debate, arguing that “it is time to consider the possibility that these elements are planted side-by-side in dissimilar cases, not separated off with unquestionably ‘good’ jobs and work settings on one side and unquestionably ‘bad’ jobs and work settings on the other” (7).

September 05, 2005
Love Story
Go read this L.A. Times report about seven children — mostly toddlers, the eldest, six years old — who were lost and found in New Orleans these last few days.
In the chaos that was Causeway Boulevard, this group of refugees stood out: a 6-year-old boy walking down the road, holding a 5-month-old, surrounded by five toddlers who followed him around as if he were their leader. They were holding hands. Three of the children were about 2 years old, and one was wearing only diapers. A 3-year-old girl, who wore colorful barrettes on the ends of her braids, had her 14-month-old brother in tow. The 6-year-old spoke for all of them, and he told rescuers his name was Deamonte Love.

The story of how they got there, and what happened next, is just remarkable. There are a lot of lessons you might draw from it — organizational failures and successes, the appalling choices that people sometimes have to make, courage in unexpected places, and how important it can be be for people to pay attention and make an effort. It’s also a reminder of something else, something I can’t quite articulate properly. Events like Katrina breed chaos, and that leads to long chains of contingencies, to accidents piled upon accidents, sometimes lucky sometimes not. We come across people in the middle of such chains of events. In most cases, their situation will not conform to some tidy morality tale. It might look like it does, but that’s because we like to tell stories about how people got what they deserved. What you are really seeing — as in the case of these seven children — may turn out to be another thing altogether, or the accidental byproduct of many things.

September 04, 2005

I imagine that Joel (the thorough and keen-eyed guy who is copyediting my book manuscript) probably considered throwing in a few of these lesser-known copyediting and proofreading symbols as he dealt with my alleged prose last month. (Via Making Light.)

September 03, 2005
“This is all the perspective you need!”

Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera resist Sean Hannity’s efforts to spin the scale of the disaster and, in particular, the suffering caused by clear, continuing failures of organization. Smith, especially, was working hard to stay calm and focused on relaying the conditions in front of him — he seemed like he wanted to reach through his camera, throttle Hannity and shout “Can’t you see what’s happening here?”

DHS selling Bullshit; CNN not Buying
CNN reports, in uncharacteristically blunt terms on Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s efforts to exonerate his agency.
Defending the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur. But in fact, government officials, scientists and journalists have warned of such a scenario for years. … He called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.” But engineers say the levees preventing this below-sea-level city from being turned into a swamp were built to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes. And officials have warned for years that a Category 4 could cause the levees to fail.
They don’t let up, either:
[Chertoff] added: “There will be plenty of time to go back and say we should hypothesize evermore apocalyptic combinations of catastrophes. Be that as it may, I’m telling you … the planners … were confronted with a second wave that they did not have built into the plan” … But New Orleans, state and federal officials have long painted a very different picture.

Good for them. Chertoff is simply misleading the public when he says the disaster was not forseeable. This sort of reporting connects back to the political questions that will become more prominent as — one hopes — the Federal and local authorities continue to get things under control and figure out ways of humanely managing the needs of thousands of displaced Americans.

In a bitter post last night, Jim Henley said that, like September 11th, so far the disaster has “chiefly served to confirm people in their previously held views.”
Liberals proclaim it proof of the need for a robust federal government … conservatives find themselves confirmed in their belief in the overriding importance of social order vigorously enforced, and libertarians regard the disaster and its aftermath as an exemplary failure of government. … Environmentalists amaze themselves with the realization that Katrina proves we need cars with better gas mileage and religious nuts of all persuasions discern the hand of God … Hooray! Everyone wins! Again!

There’s a lot to this, I suppose, just as with the 9/11 attacks let everyone explain Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics. But maybe Jim is being too cynical. We should be able to separate the question of how to avoid this kind of nightmare in the future from the narrower, more immediate acknowledgment that there was a huge organizational failure. The former might end up being a debate of the sort Jim describes, but many political debates are like that. Agreement on the latter ought to be straightforward. Yet widespread and forthright agreement about it still seems like an achievement given the state of the American public sphere. Sure, FEMA and Chertoff are claiming there was nothing they could have done, and some loyal footsoldiers are saying that, appearances notwithstanding, “New Orleans and its residents owe the President a profound debt of gratitude.” But the dominant reaction across the political spectrum is that this was a gigantic, avoidable clusterfuck, and the reporting from the likes of CNN and Fox (of all places) forthrightly confirms this.

Disagreement about what the Administration could or should have foreseen about the September 11th attacks and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq was politicized from the get-go, and most of it has been played by the media in the “he said/she said” format we all know and loathe. But there’s evidence that this time, the starting point for the debate will be the correct one — namely, that a disaster like this was clearly foreseen and should have been handled much better, full stop. Where you go from there is, inevitably, going to be tinged by the tendency to think “this event confirms my politics,” and so maybe Jim is right to roll his eyes. But even to have this as a starting point still seems better than nothing. I think I really need to believe this. Frankly, if the Administration can successfully sell people on the idea that that the President’s actions were prompt and appropriate, that federal and state government agencies did what they could, and that the fault was not in themselves but in their stars (or maybe a few low-ranking FEMA bad apples) … well, I don’t know what to say.

September 02, 2005
The Drowned and the Saved

Alan Schussman takes a first look at the social ecology of the flooded areas of New Orleans:

The flood area has a population of about 380,000. Here’s how it compares to national numbers [from the 2000 census]:
  median HH income % black % poverty % owns home % private trans. % public trans.
US $ 41,994 12.1 12.3 66.2 87.9 4.7
Flood area $ 29,854 66.8 26.9 50.6 79.0 13.0

These real numbers should be part of the discussion of why so many people didn’t get out of town. Jack Shafer gives it some thought, but it’s also informative to compare these numbers with national rates: In the flooded area of the city, poverty is more than twice as high as the national rate; median income is twelve thousand dollars lower; reliance on public transportation is nearly three times as high. Lower rates of owner-occupation mean a greater lack of insurance coverage …

September 01, 2005
Social Disasters II

According to AP, this photo shows a man covering the body of a man who died — apparently in a chair — on Thursday outside the convention center in New Orleans. The baby in his arms looks to be about three or four months old. I wonder whether she has any milk to drink.

Plenty of people are saying this already, but the situation in New Orleans and the surrounding areas is just unbelievable, and the official response thus far is pretty appalling. The United States is the most powerful country on the face of the earth. Over the past few years in particular, a lot of money and thought was supposed to have been devoted to planning for rapid response to large-scale urban disasters in the wake of 9/11. While authorities in Louisiana and New Orleans are not as powerful as the Feds, they have known for years that a disaster of this kind was likely and were told in detail what it would do to their city. And yet. The reports of what’s happening convey little except how poorly-prepared, ill-coordinated and slow-moving the disaster response is. As Mark Kleiman comments, failing to plan is planning to fail. Kevin Drum provides a demoralizing chronology explaining why FEMA is being run by people with no experience in disaster management.

Meanwhile, apparently the secretary of state has been shoe-shopping on 5th avenue.

Social Disasters
I’ve written before about the sociological dimension of disasters — the fact that natural disasters are never wholly natural, because some kinds of people will be more likely to suffer and die than others, depending on how life is organized when the disaster hits. As everyone knows, social order is under severe pressure in New Orleans at the moment, and the media coverage is slowly coming around to analyzing the differential impact of the disaster. The fact that those who have been left behind, or turned into refugees, are disproportionately Africian-American, poor, or elderly is simply impossible to ignore from the media coverage. Seeing pundits and commentators react to these facts is, in a way, a barometer of their sociological imagination — their ability to see the systematic relationship between social structure and individual experience. For example, on the conservative side of the fence, the contrast between David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg (also here) is striking. Brooks is one of nature’s optimists, and his vice is a tendency towards complaceny. But he has a sociological eye, and immediately grasps the social dimensions of the disaster:
Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. … We’d like to think that the stories of hurricanes and floods are always stories of people rallying together to give aid and comfort. … Amid all the stories that recur with every disaster - tales of sudden death and miraculous survival, the displacement and the disease - there is also the testing. … Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What’s happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.

Brooks’ instinct to look at how the disaster exposes power relations and tests the social order is right on target. Contrast this with Goldberg. All his instincts are that talk of class and poverty and refugees are merely rhetorical cards in a never-ending political slanging match, and his goal is to make sure they don’t get played. His immediate concern is to deny that there are any systematic differences in the experience of disaster, and to pretend it’s all just a question of partisan labeling:

Whatever happened to the idea that unity in the face of a calamity is an important value? We’re all in it together, I guess, except for the poor who are extra-special.

And again:

My guess is that it will simply be a really unpleasent time for [Superdome refugees for] the remainder of the day, but hardly so unpleasent as to sanctify them with refugee or some other victim status.

Burkean conservatives may be too sanguine about the virtues of inherited ways of doing things, but, if they have Brooks’ cast of mind they at least understand that there is a social order, and that disasters like Katrina expose its structure and weaknesses. Meanwhile Goldberg — whom I’m sure has never gone a day without a hot meal in his life — is merely vicious.

August 31, 2005
Teaching Adam Smith

This semester I’m teaching Sources of Sociological Theory to undergraduate majors, a course I’ve taught several times before. After a crash course on the state of Europe and America prior to 1780 or so (100% guaranteed to make historians come out in at least hives, and possibly trigger fits), we’ve started reading Adam Smith. It’s always a pleasure to teach Smith as a social theorist. For one thing, he’s a clear enough writer (certainly compared to, e.g., Weber) and more importantly his central insight about the possibility of decentralized co-ordination always catches students by surprise. Even though students are all exposed one way or another to the rhetoric of free enterprise, free trade, market capitalism and what have you, in my experience even talented undergraduates have to work a bit to really see the power and elegance of Smith’s vision of a complex, co-ordinated division of labor. I do a few classroom exercises (based on ideas from Mitch Resnick and Tom Schelling, amongst others) to bring out the problem of co-ordination, the many ways it can fail, and the distinctive qualities of markets as a solution. (Though, as Schelling notes, not all cases of distributed co-ordination are markets, just as not all ellipses are circles.)

Although Smith is often presented as the champion of the individual, and opposed to thinkers who emphasize social structure or the state, it’s immediately clear when you read him that Smith was as much a “discoverer of society” — that is, of the idea that the social world is a human product consisting of myriad interlocking relationships dependent on specific institutions and human capacities — as any of the other theorists typically recognized as founders of modern sociology. His treatment of the problem of the division of labor also provides a platform to understand the others. Marx is much easier to understand once you know a bit about Smith, of course, but so are Durkheim’s ideas about social solidarity and the nonrational foundations of contractual exchange. And much of Weber’s work on the origins of capitalism was conceived explicitly with Smith in mind.