Honor Not So Bright

August 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Restoring Honor” was the theme of Glenn Beck’s rally. No signs, no politics, no policies, just positive principles.

Honor is one of those values that we’re all supposed to cherish. But in most cases, I find it harder and harder to distinguish honor from narcissism and brittle pride, an overweening concern for what people might be thinking of you.*

When someone feels he has lost honor because of what he himself has done, the result can be a resolve to improve, or it can be depression, even suicide. But when he feels his honor has been lost because of what another has done, things can get nasty. Under those circumstances, people usually go about restoring honor not by doing something for someone else, but by doing something to someone else. Think “honor” killings.

I can’t see where our country has lost any honor since Obama took office. A lot of jobs and many houses, maybe some of our hope, optimism, and confidence. But not honor. Beck and his followers disagree. They feel we’ve lost our honor. I’m also sure that they do not see that loss of honor as stemming from anything that they themselves have done. Little surprise then that most Tea Party rallies seem to run on anger.

Ever since the anti-Obama forces fought so hard against healthcare reform, it seemed to me that what motivated them – more so than policies on healthcare, economics or anything else – was ressentiment. So despite the Beck rally awards for “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” despite their Beck’s claiming to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (yes, that’s what he actually said), the theme of honor, especially coupled with the glorification of the military, suggests that what they want is something much less benign. They want revenge. As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, “This is going to be very, very ugly.”


* For more skepticism about honor as a virtue, see my post on the Landon school.

Choosing My Confessions (A Sunday Post)

August 29, 2010 Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to clergy who no longer believe?
It suddenly hit me: “growth” is a euphemism for “I don’t believe the same crap I did when I started my divinity school training.”
This quote at Missives from Marx provides one answer: they use psychobabble to turn apostasy into “growth.” But then what do they do? Who do they tell? Do they leave? How do they handle the contradictions?

The quote took me back to “Marjoe,” the 1972 documentary about Marjoe Gortner, child revivalist prodigy at age four. When we see him in the film, still preaching in his twenties, he has lost his belief. The film (go here for excerpts) follows him on his last tour.

I have used “Marjoe” in class to illustrate Goffman’s idea that what is crucial for a situation is the performance. Whether that performance is sincere or cynical is secondary or even irrelevant. Marjoe, alone in his motel room (alone except for the film crew), tells us that he doesn’t believe in God. But when he preaches – laying on hands, speaking in tongues, working the crowd, and generally doing a great job – we realize that his unbelief doesn’t matter.

It makes you wonder about the other preachers. They all have their gimmicks; after all, they do need to rouse the audience (and raise money). They may still believe strongly in God and Jesus and the Bible. Or they may not. There’s no way to know.
Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing.
That’s not Marjoe 1972. It’s “Adam,” currently a minister in a Church of Christ congregation in South Carolina. The quote appears in “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Their sample is small (N=5), but that’s probably five more than anyone else has come up with as far as I know. Dennett and LaScola present the five as individual case studies, tracing both the institutional and internal aspects of their careers.

Nonbelieving preachers in 2010 have much in common with homosexuals (especially in earlier eras). For example, the authors note that “atheist ‘gaydar’ is not yet a well-developed sensitivity among the clergy”
Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries: “And I let on like I do have an uncle who’s a non-believer, and he always said, ‘You know, it’s…’”
An uncle -- yeah, right.

“Coming out” is difficult because of the web of institutions (work, family) that define them. So the preachers must devise strategies for handling their secret – practical strategies for dealing with others and psychological strategies for resolving the personal contradictions.

The article sounds much like Chicago sociology-of-deviance studies that go back nearly 100 years. Yet it was published in a journal called Evolutionary Psychology, though its links to that field remain hidden, at least to me. I guess evol-psych works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

Old and New Views of the Internet

August 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Shortly after Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody, his take on how the new technology is changing social organization, he was asked to meet with a TV producer who thought he might be a good guest for a show. Shirky reports on the meeting in his new book Cognitive Surplus.


The producer asked about social media, and Shirky told her about Wikipedia. Astronomers had recently decided that Pluto was not a planet after all. Wikipedians responded with a flurry of activity, many people putting a lot of effort into the intense and frequent rewriting of the page on Pluto. Shirky expected the producer to ask about how knowledge is constructed, who knows what, who has authority, and other problems of wikis. “Instead, she sighed and said, ‘Where do people find the time?’”

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question,” Shirky snapped.

Shirky doesn’t say whether she ever put him on her show. But the producer’s taken-for-granted assumptions are a good examle of the old-style view of the Internet and social media. She found it unremarkable, maybe even a good thing, that people spent an average of four hours a day sitting on the couch watching TV. (In a classroom of thirty-five students, that’s over 1000 person-hours a week in front of the tube.)

But when it came to active and intense involvement in a wiki conversation, she wondered where they find the time. She didn’t get it.

2. The newer world-view is represented by Ethan,* age 6, who does get it.

His grandfather was doing some work on the computer, and Ethan walked over to him, asking questions, as kids often do. “Grandpa, where do we go after we die?” he asked. His grandfather pretended to be busy with his work and said briefly, “I don’t know.”

Ethan pointed to computer screen. “Google it,” he said.


* Not his real name

Tocqueville Pop

August 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Right now, I'm reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s pretty heavy what he says about America. It could be an album.” – Iggy Pop quoted in Rolling Stone, July 29, 2010.

De Tocqueville as a rock album? I haven’t followed Iggy Pop’s career closely, so I won’t even guess as to what such an album might be like. But why not? Democracy in America is the basis for a recent novel, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

Carey takes liberties with Tocqueville’s biography, which is why he renames him – Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont. His traveling companion is not Beaumont but Parrot, hired by Olivier’s mother to be his servant and secretary but also to spy on the young Frenchman and report to her. Parrot is an Englishman, older than Olivier and far less aristocratic. So Tocqueville/Olivier’s reactions to his circumstances are personal, not just abstract.
My intuitions and sympathies were limited by the circumstances of my birth. A person like my servant was a foreign land.
Olivier is almost a caricature of a nobleman – overly delicate (he gets frequent nosebleeds) and effete. His relations with people (notably Parrot and an American girl he falls in love with) provide plot. They also, along with a detailed painting of the scenery – New York streets, shops, and houses, rural farms – provide the background for the more general observations. Carey seems to have lifted these directly from Democracy in America. For example:
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals,* the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. . . . The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture. (p. 161)
No doubt, Iggy Pop will do something similar, maybe tracking down what Tocqueville had to say about raw power.


*Like the real de Tocqueville, the fictional Olivier has come to America ostensibly to report on prisons, though Carey makes it clear that his mother was spiriting him out of France as a political precaution. Olivier’s grandfather, like Tocqueville’s, had been guillotined, and in 1830 there are rumblings of revolution.