“Cultural Collapse”

Tablet recently had an interesting essay on the theme of “why did Trump win?”

The material-grievances theory and the cultural-resentments theory can fit together because, in both cases, they tell us that people voted for Trump out of a perceived self-interest, which was to improve their faltering economic and material conditions, or else to affirm their cultural standing vis-à-vis the non-whites and the bicoastal elites. Their votes were, from this standpoint, rationally cast. … which ultimately would suggest that 2016’s election was at least a semi-normal event, even if Trump has his oddities. But here is my reservation.

I do not think the election was normal. I think it was the strangest election in American history in at least one major particular, which has to do with the qualifications and demeanor of the winning candidate. American presidents over the centuries have always cultivated, after all, a style, which has been pretty much the style of George Washington, sartorially updated. … Now, it is possible that, over the centuries, appearances and reality have, on occasion, parted ways, and one or another president, in the privacy of his personal quarters, or in whispered instructions to his henchmen, has been, in fact, a lout, a demagogue, a thug, and a stinking cesspool of corruption. And yet, until just now, nobody running for the presidency, none of the serious candidates, would have wanted to look like that, and this was for a simple reason. The American project requires a rigorously republican culture, without which a democratic society cannot exist—a culture of honesty, logic, science, and open-minded debate, which requires, in turn, tolerance and mutual respect. Democracy demands decorum. And since the president is supposed to be democracy’s leader, the candidates for the office have always done their best to, at least, put on a good act.

The author (Paul Berman) then proposes Theory III: Broad Cultural Collapse:

 A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Berman is insightful until he blames cultural collapse on the educational system (those dastardly teachers just decided not to teach about George Washington, I guess.)

We can’t blame education. Very few people had many years of formal education of any sort back in 1776 or 1810–even in 1900, far fewer people completed highschool than do today. The idea that highschool civics class was more effectively teaching future voters what to look for in a president in 1815 than today therefore seems unlikely.

If anything, in my (admittedly limited, parental) interactions with the local schools, education seem to lag national sentiment. For example, the local schools still cover Columbus Day in a pro-Columbus manner (and I don’t even live in a particularly conservative area) and have special Veterans’ Day events. School curricula are, I think, fairly influenced by the desires of the Texas schools, because Texas is a big state that buys a lot of textbooks.

I know plenty of Boomers who voted for Trump, so if we’re looking at a change in school curricula, we’re looking at a shift that happened half a century ago (or more,) but only recently manifested.

That said, I definitely feel something coursing through society that I could call “Cultural Collapse.” I just don’t think the schools are to blame.

Yesterday I happened across children’s book about famous musicians from the 1920s. Interwoven with the biographies of Beethoven and Mozart were political comments about kings and queens, European social structure and how these musicians of course saw through all of this royalty business and wanted to make music for the common people. It was an articulated ideology of democracy.

Sure, people today still think democracy is important, but the framing (and phrasing) is different. The book we recently read of mathematicians’ biographies didn’t stop to tell us how highly the mathematicians thought of the idea of common people voting (rather, when it bothered with ideology, it focused on increasing representation of women in mathematics and emphasizing the historical obstacles they faced.)

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, the percent of Americans who think living in a Democracy is important is declining:

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. …

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

Note, though, that this is not a local phenomenon–any explanation that explains why support for democracy is down in the US needs to also explain why it’s down in Sweden, Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands (and maybe why it wasn’t so popular there in the first place.)

Here are a few different theories besides failing schools:

  1. Less common culture, due to integration and immigration
  2. More international culture, due to the internet, TV, and similar technologies
  3. Disney

Put yourself in your grandfather or great-grandfather’s shoes, growing up in the 1910s or 20s. Cars were not yet common; chances were if he wanted to go somewhere, he walked or rode a horse. Telephones and radios were still rare. TV barely existed.

If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked over to them and talked. If you wanted to talk to someone from another town, either you or they had to travel, often by horse or wagon. For long-distance news, you had newspapers and a few telegraph wires.

News traveled slowly. People traveled slowly (most people didn’t ride trains regularly.) Most of the people you talked to were folks who lived nearby, in your own community. Everyone not from your community was some kind of outsider.

There’s a story from Albion’s Seed:

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she wold not have done it if she had known the were Germans. The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”

And then your grandfather got shipped out to get shot at somewhere in Europe or the Pacific.

Today, technology has completely transformed our lives. When we want to talk to someone or hear their opinion, we can just pick up the phone, visit facebook, or flip on the TV. We have daily commutes that would have taken our ancestors a week to walk. People expect to travel thousands of miles for college and jobs.

The effect is a curious inversion: In a world where you can talk to anyone, why talk to your neighbors? Personally, I spend more time talking to people in Britain than the folks next door, (and I like my neighbors.)

Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.)

How do these technological shifts affect how we form communities?

From Bowling Alone:

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

to data on how many people don’t have any friends:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category.  The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.

it seems that interpersonal trust is deteriorating:

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.

Interestingly:

Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.

Also:

Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Just look at that horrible trend of migrants being kept out of Europe

Our technological shifts haven’t just affected ideas and conversations–with people able to travel thousands of miles in an afternoon, they’ve also affected the composition of communities. The US in 1920 was almost 90% white and 10% black, (with that black population concentrated in the segregated South). All other races together totaled only a couple percent. Today, the US is <65% white, 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and Native American, and 9% “other” or multi-racial.

Similar changes have happened in Europe, both with the creation of the Free Movement Zone and the discovery that the Mediterranean isn’t that hard to cross, though the composition of the newcomers obviously differs.

Diversity may have its benefits, but one of the things it isn’t is a common culture.

With all of these changes, do I really feel that there is anything particularly special about my local community and its norms over those of my British friends?

What about Disney?

Well, Disney’s most profitable product hasn’t exactly been pro-democracy, though I doubt a few princess movies can actually budge people’s political compasses or vote for Trump (or Hillary.) But what about the general content of children’s stories? It sure seems like there are a lot fewer stories focused on characters from American history than in the days when Davy Crockett was the biggest thing on TV.

Of course this loops back into technological changes, as American TV and movies are enjoyed by an increasingly non-American audience and media content is driven by advertisers’ desire to reach specific audiences (eg, the “rural purge” in TV programming, when popular TV shows aimed at more rural or older audiences were cancelled in favor of programs featuring urban characters, which advertisers believed would appeal to younger viewers with more cash to spend.)

If cultural collapse is happening, it’s not because we lack for civics classes, but because civics classes alone cannot create a civic culture where there is none.

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Angola and Atomization

Quick excerpt from God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison:

Before the rodeo [Terry Hawkins] had graduated out of the fields to the position of fry cook. It was better than being A.D.H.D. (A Dude with a Hoe and a Ditch)–after stirring fried rice or flipping hotcakes on a sove ten feet long, he could grill hamburgers, bag them, and stuff them down his pants to sell in the dorm. Sometimes he snuck out with fried chicken under his shirt and cuts of cheese in his socks. Payment came in cigarettes, the prison’s currency. Later he would stand outside the canteen, and trade a few packs for shampoo or soap or deoderant, or “zoo-zos”–snacks of candy bars or sardines. He knew which guards would allow the stealing, the selling. He made sure to send them plates of fried chicken.

While reading this I thought, “This man has, at least, something to offer his neighbors. He can sell them food, something they’re grateful for. The guy with cheese in his socks and hamburgers in his pants is probably a respected member of his community.”

What do I have to offer my neighbors? I have skills, but they’re only of interest to a corporate employer, my boss. I don’t make anything for sale. I can’t raise a barn or train a horse, and even if I could, my neighbors don’t need these services. Even if I had milk for sale from my personal cow, my neighbors would still prefer to buy their milk at the grocery store.

All of these needs that we used to fill by interacting with our neighbors are now routed through multinational corporations that build their products in immense sweatshops in foreign countries.

I don’t even have to go to the store to buy things if I don’t want to–I can order things online, even groceries.

Beyond the economic, modern prosperity has also eliminated many of the ways (and places) people used to interact. As Lewis Mumford recounts (H/T Wrath of Gnon):

The Bible would have been different without public wells

To sum up the medieval dwelling house, one may say that it was characterized by lack of differentiated space and differentiated function. In the cities, however, this lack of internal differentiation was offset by a completer development of domestic functions in public institutions. Though the house might lack a private bake-oven, there was a public one at the baker’s or the cook-shop. Though it might lack a private bathroom, there was a municipal bath-house. Thought it might lack facilities for isolating and nursing a diseased member, there were numerous public hospitals. … As long as the conditions were rude–when people lived in the open, pissed freely in the garden or the street, bought and sold outdoors, opened their shutters and let in full sunlight–the defects of the house were far less serious than they were under a more refined regime.

Without all of the little, daily things that naturally brought people into contact with each other and knit them into communities, we simply have far fewer reasons to talk. We might think that people could simply make up for these changes by inventing new, leisure-oriented reasons to interact with each other, but so far, they’re struggling:

Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at DukeUniversity and the University of Arizona.

“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one of the authors of “ Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” …

It compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t trust most people, and most people have given me no reason to trust them.

Tesla vs. Edison

... and fight! 220px-Thomas_Edison2

It has become popular of late, especially on the left, to love Tesla and hate Edison. (Warning: that is a link to the Oatmeal, which is very funny and will suck up large quantities of your time if you let it, but if you aren’t familiar with the leftists hate of Edison and valorization of Tesla, it’s a necessary read.)

Edison, (1847 – 1931) was an American-born (son of a Canadian war refugee of Dutch descent) auto-didact, inventor, and businessman who was awarded over a thousand patents. His most important inventions (or inventions produced by his lab,) include the first actually useful lightbulb, the phonograph, the first movie camera and a device to view the movies on, the electrical grid necessary to power the lightbulb, the movie studio necessary to make the films for people to watch, and the scientific research lab.

He was friends with Henry Ford, a community volunteer, deaf, and a general humanitarian who abhorred violence and prided himself on having never invented an offensive weapon.

His worst mistake appears to have been not realizing what business he was in during the “War of the Currents;” Edison thought he was in the lightbulb-selling business, and since he had invented a lightbulb that ran on DC, he wanted everyone to use DC. He also seems to have been genuinely concerned about the high voltages used by AC, but DC just drops off too quickly to be used in non-urban areas; to get the country electrified required DC. Edison not only lost the Currents War, but also got kicked out of the company he’d founded by his stock holders. The company’s name was later changed to General Electric.

His political views were fairly common for his day–he advocated the populist position on abolishing the gold standard, tax reform, and making loans interest free to help farmers. Religiously, he was basically a GNON-believing deist. He preferred silent films over “talkies” due to being deaf, and had six children, three of whom went into science/inventing, one with a degree from Yale and one from MIT.

The idea that Edison was “merely” a businessman or CEO is completely bollocks. He was not only a brilliant inventor, but also understood how his inventions would be used and created the systems–both human and mechanical–necessary to bring them to full fruition.

Edison's lab in Menlo Park
Edison’s lab in Menlo Park

 

Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serb born in Croatia back when Croatia was part of the Austrian empire. By all accounts, he was exceedingly brilliant. His father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest, but he received a scholarship to the Austrian Polytechnic University, where he burned like a meteor for his first year, earning the highest grades possible in 9 subjects (almost twice the required course load.) In his second year, he became addicted to gambling, then gambled away his tuition money in year three and forgot to study for his finals. He flunked out and ran away.

A couple of years later, his family raised money to send him to university again, which was another fiasco, since Tesla didn’t have training in two of the required subjects and so couldn’t actually attend.

Nevertheless, Tesla managed to get work at a telegraph company and was eventually invited to the US to work under Edison. Here he did excellent work, but quit over a rather stupid sounding misunderstanding about pay, wherein Tesla expected to be paid far more for an invention than Edison had in funds to pay anyone. Edison offered a raise instead, but Tesla decided to strike out on his own.

Tesla attempted to start a business, which ended badly (it sounds like it went south because he wasn’t focusing on the stated goals of the company,) and left him a penniless ditch-digger.

He then hit on a series of successes, including the polyphase induction motor, which ended with him quite handsomely employed by one of Edison’s competitors, Westinghouse, but even here he had difficulties getting along with his co-workers. Eventually it seems he established his own lab and convinced investors to give him $100,000, which he promptly spent on more lab equipment instead of the new lighting system he’d promised. His lab was later sold and torn down to pay off debts.

Tesla received yet another major investment, $150,000 to build a wireless telegraph facility, but appears to have blown the money on stock market speculation. He did manage to finish the project, though without any more funds from his now very jaded investors, but eventually he had to sell the building, and it was demolished.

Many of Tesla’s inventions were clearly brilliant and far ahead of their time. Others are delusions, like his mechanical oscillator. Tesla claimed it nearly brought down the building; Mythbusters built one themselves, and it did no such thing.

There is a kind of brilliance that slides easily into madness, and Tesla’s was clearly of this sort. He was too adept at pattern matching (he could do calculus in his head) to sort out real patterns from ones he’d dreamed up. He never married, but once fell in love with a pigeon at the park, feeding it daily and spending over $2000 dollars on it when its wing was injured.

In his personal life, he was extremely rigid–working and eating at the exact same times every day, eating a very restricted diet, and wearing a fastidiously neat and regimented wardrobe. He was extremely thin and slept very little–perhaps only 2 hours a day. (There are a vanishingly few people in the world who actually do function like this.) He was critical and harsh toward people who didn’t meet his standards, like fat people or secretaries whose clothes he thought were insufficiently attractive. Despite not having any children of his own, he believed the unfit should be sterilized and the rest of the population coerced into a selective breeding program. He also said some unflattering things about Edison upon the man’s death, which is kind of rude.

To prevent him from sinking further into poverty, his former employer, Westinghouse, took pity on him and started paying his hotel bills, (Tesla seems to have not thought of living in a house.) Tesla spent much of his final years claiming to have built a “Death Ray” and claiming that various thieves had broken into his hotel room to steal it.

Upon his death in 1943, the government seized all of his belongings just in case there were actual Death Rays or other such inventions in there that the Nazis might try to steal. The box with Tesla’s Death Ray turned out to have nothing more than an old battery inside. The investigator concluded:

“[Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

To be frank, I’ve talked to homeless schizophrenics who sound a lot like Tesla; the line between correct pattern matching and incorrect pattern matching is, at times, easily crossed.

 

The modern habit of shitting on Edison and glorifying Tesla stems from the tendency to see Edison as a stereotypically American businessman who wickedly and cunningly stole ideas from from smarter people to build up his own wealth and reputation. It feeds into the notion that Americans (white Americans, especially,) have built nothing of their own, but stolen all of their wealth and a great many of their ideas from others. Here Tesla–attractive, urbane, brilliant, and most of all, not tainted by the blight of having been born in America–gets to stand in for the usual victimized classes.

Ironically, Edison’s political beliefs line up with the Progressives of his day–that is, socialists/liberals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Tesla, at least as far as the Wikipedia describes any of his beliefs, favored Nazi-style forced sterilization and eugenics. In daily life, Tesla may have been a nicer person than Edison (it is rather difficult to tell from Wikipedia articles what people were like personally,) but I question a left that denigrates one of their own Progressives while upholding a man whose political beliefs are, at best, anathema to their own.

Regardless, Tesla’s failures were not Edison’s fault. Edison may have screwed him on pay, but he didn’t gamble away Tesla’s tuition money, make him fail his classes, nor convince him not to marry. Edison didn’t make him blow his investment money on the stock market or wander around NYC at all hours of the night, feeding pigeons.

Edison, deaf since childhood, didn’t have half the advantages handed to him as Tesla. He had all of three months of schooling; no one ever sent him to university or gave him a scholarship to waste. He may not have been as smart as Tesla, but he was still an intensely intelligent man and adeptly capable of carrying out the business side of the operation, without which no research could get done. Without funding, you don’t have a lab; no lab, no research. Humans do not live in isolation; someone has to do the inglorious work of coordinate things so that other people can reap the benefits of a system set up for them to work in.

Ultimately, Tesla was a brilliant man who should not have been allowed to run his affairs. He needed the structure of a boss, a wife, parents, family, etc., to keep him on track and stop him from doing idiotic things like gambling away his tuition money.

Familial supervision during college could have ensured that he graduated and gotten him on the path toward a tenured position. Perhaps he would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Curie at the Solvay Conference. A boss would have ensured that the strategic, business ends of things–the ends Tesla had no great talent for–got done, leaving Tesla to do the things he did best, to reach far more of his full potential. (In this regard, Edison had advantages Tesla lacked–a wife, family, and a country he had grown up in.) But Tesla was too rigid to submit to someone of inferior intellect (real or perceived), and his family back in Europe was too far away to help him. Loneliness is madness, for humans are social animals, and so brilliant Tesla died alone, poor, and in love with a pigeon.

Tesla's wireless telegraph tower, 1904
Tesla’s wireless telegraph tower, 1904

Just imagine what Edison and Tesla could have created had they put their animosity aside and worked together.

Part 2 coming soon.