Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for the ‘Intellectual History’ Category

Extension AND Displacement: Identity and Class in the American Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Intellectual History on June 16, 2013 at 10:36 am

A powerful opinion piece appeared in today’s New York Times, written by Stephanie Coontz, a justly celebrated historian with impeccable credentials in the American left. Building on an argument from a book of hers from the early 1990’s she counsels the American intelligentsia to avoid the nostalgia trap. As she rightly suggests, “you can’t just stroll through the past, picking the things you like and skipping the ones you don’t, as if historical eras were menus.” She worries that we are beginning to forget the atrocities of the past and the value of hard-won advances in social policy achieved by feminists and civil rights and disability activists among others in a context of surging economic inequality. But as she inoculates us to the threats of nostalgia, she may also be blinding us to the challenge of our time: to blend arguments for what Nancy Fraser calls recognition and redistribution in a progressive social vision. Let me explain.

Looking back to early 1960s, it easy to see how the elderly, women, the disabled, and black people, among members of other groups, would look to opportunities they enjoy today, preferring them to what they would have enjoyed back then. As Coontz says, for many, the good old days were not so good. In that sense we have unambiguously extended social rights in favor of a broader conception of justice. But for various, complicated reasons the balance between capital and community seems also to have tilted in favor of the former over that same period. Most of us have seen the objective numbers of economic and wealth disparities, but what is most striking about this are not the features of the objective situation but rather of the moral case. Over the last thirty-five years (I pick 1978 as my mark for empirical reasons I discuss elsewhere) we seem to have lost the ability to see this transformation in unambiguously moral terms. As a political community, we are no longer in the habit of condemning the destructive effects of the market. There remain some unapologetic pockets of comradeship that once powered the Nader fringe, but as I demonstrate in my study of mainstream political talk on Meet the Press, outrage in the face of abusive class power is largely a thing of the past. Thought of in terms of conventional mindshare, class has been displaced by identity. If you care about how we once articulated outrage about economic inequality, you will have to risk the nostalgia label and look to the past, because few powerful examples are on display today.

As we imagine the bridge narrative of the future, it is no more nostalgic to look back at what we have lost in our capacity to imagine abusive power over the last half century than it is to look back to the horrors of slavery, Read the rest of this entry »


Paradigms of Injustice: Bureaucrats, Bigwigs, Bigots and the Lessons of Google Books

In Class and Social Stratification, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm


I’ve noticed that there is something tricky about my eclipse of equality thesis. It is tricky to explain to my conservative friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-government imagery, ideas and symbols. It is tricky to explain to my liberal friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-supremacist imagery, ideas, and symbols.

Both of these sets of colleagues might be right, but I hope that both are, in fact, wrong. What I think the eclipse of equality lens allows to begin to see is how a coherent plan for a just society requires us to balance our concern with the full spectrum of abusive powers that are arrayed against us and to plan institutions that have the balancing power to make those forces more useful than (ab)useful. The insight is that while planning authorities, wealthy entrepreneurs and ethical codifiers are all good things in one sense—they provide us with order, growth and morality respectively—they also invariably overreach, becoming villainous bureaucrats, bigwigs and bigots in the narratives that constitute our perspective on the just society.  My conservative friends fear the bureaucrat. My liberal friends fear the bigot. Both of them fear the vilification of the bigwig, which they associate with either Marxist Socialism on the conservative and reactionary populism on the liberal side. This helps to lock us into a pattern that makes it very difficult to articulate compelling popular ideas that challenge the concentration of economic power in precipitously few hands.

For the moment, I will postpone the argument about the objective data of class polarization and focus instead on how our value system and narrative ecology has evolved in this period of spiraling inequality. One has to be very careful in making attributions of causal direction when analyzing time series, or historical, data of the kind I will present here, but I think the drift in certain word choices in books printed in American English as represented in Google books might give us a supporting body of data to complement the deeply qualitative case I make in Eclipse about what is going on and why.

Consider Figure 1. You see here the result of a Google search using the incredibly seductive NGRAM Viewer application. I am deeply suspicious of many uses of this application for natural language or quantitative content analysis; in my own experience with it, the older dates are riddled with errors and there are odd patterns of what Google considered to be books. I am not clear about exactly what qualifies as a book for Google, but Life magazine seems to make the cut, as does a bound set of journals and other unorthodox sources. Taking these caveats in mind, Google books NGRAM is a mind-blowing application for purposes of mapping culture as the authors well advertised and it may help to put my arguments in context.

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Analyzing Discourse: A Methodological Note

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Eclipse of Equality

As part of the celebration of the release of my new book The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I thought it might be helpful to share in broad outline how I put together the analysis there, something the space requirements of the manuscript did not allow in the book itself. I won’t go into great detail, but I hope this will be helpful to any of my students who have an interest in cobbling together some similar an analysis in their own work.

Step 1: The Puzzle Trap

The first priority in a journey of this kind is to find a coherent stream of discourse that you would like to analyze—some discursive arena on which to set your attention. For me, this came easily. In all of my political work on the United States, and throughout my academic career, I have found it necessary to keep myself grounded by watching the Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, Face the Nation etc. At first, I didn’t think much about why these shows were so important in grounding my perspectives on survey work or for my teaching, but it was always true.

I remember in one of my early job interviews talking about how I anchored the codes for my dissertation work (a massive content analysis on the association of open-ended themes and Presidential party vote in the National Election Studies (NES)) in the Sunday morning debates. The literature in the top journals was essential to getting a bead on what mattered in American politics, but what that kind of immersion provided me was what I would now call a set of puzzles that were relevant from the point of view of the scholars rather than a set of problems that real people were confronting in their lives as practical politicians.

This contrast between the puzzles we spin and the problems our subjects manage is the first methodological insight. If you want actionable results in your social science, you can’t rely on the way you and your colleagues frame the problems (in terms of puzzles in the literature), but rather an immediate sense of how the participants frame them as problems they themselves confront, and they frame them in their own rhetorical forms. When you take these forms seriously, you find that the boundary between pure and applied research begins to dissolve and the relevance of your work increases immensely, this at the expense of veering close to the social science/journalism boundary.

This puzzle/problem distinction is a fine point, but it is easiest to see if you have had any experience in framing a survey question. Read the rest of this entry »

Equal Protection and the Politics of Difference

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Tolerance on February 23, 2013 at 11:18 am


In preparation for the release of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I have decided to return to the blogging business. The central claim of that book is that we have lived through a temporary shift in political emphases in which equality, one of the canonical categories of the moral imagination, has been allowed to atrophy. When we speak about equality today, we tend not to speak about equality itself, understood in non-ascriptive and universalistic terms, but rather about tolerance, inclusion and diversity in terms of their points of intersection with equality per se–hence the vogue of intersectionality. Equality and tolerance are related principles, but they differ in relation to the abusive power they were designed to oppose. My book is worth a read, because this confusion of categories leaves us unprepared to deal with our most pressing problems like uncivil communication, democratic gridlock and soaring rates of inequality.

Let me explain what I mean with a story. Back when I was in graduate training to become a professional sociologist, I used to suggest to my students that they would soon live through the rise of the LGBT movement as the central civil rights cause of our day. Even liberal sociology students back then were typically skeptical of my claim and we often politely moved on to other topics. In my personal life, I thought that people ought to be more aware of the centrality of this cause and so, when I was invited to join the Human Rights Campaign some time around 2002, whose logo you see rotated above, I put the sticker they gave me up on a kitchen door just as you see it represented there. Perhaps I was thinking of 9/11 or maybe I just didn’t like being bothered with swag, but this logo hung orthogonal to its meaning in my house for some time. It never occurred to me to rotate it and read the message as equality for gay people, even though my major field of study was the study of inequality. The problem struck me not as one of a inequality, read class, but one of intolerance. I thought what was needed was something like tolerance for religious difference–safeguards against state establishment of heterosexuality and the prohibition of free exercise of alternative sexualities.

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Use the Force: On Ideological Bias in Social Psychology

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History on February 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

When I read the New York Times yesterday, I couldn’t decide if I should be excited or disturbed. The occasion was  the otherwise fascinating article by John Tierney on the way that moral arguments have introduced political bias into the field of social psychology. Haidt is one of my favorite social psychologists and I think his work on intuitive primacy and social intuition is as helpful as social science can be. I did not attend the meetings in which his talk was delivered,  so I decided to check his own site to see what was there and found a reproduction of his talk called “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology.” I would recommend that anyone with an interest in political misunderstandings take a look at it.  The upshot is that our moral worldviews are shaped by sacred values that act like a moral force field. Haidt is a real Durkheimian and has learned much from sociology (think for a second about why there is a journal called Social Forces). This is part of what makes his work so compelling.

If the Haidt talk goes somewhat astray, it is not in being wrong but in presenting an incomplete picture. One can walk away from the talk (and certainly from Tierney’s article) with the view that only the moral systems dedicated to fighting ascriptive causes like racism and sexism act as blinding moral force fields. The larger point that Haidt knows (and often says) is that all moral systems work that way. This is what it means to have a vision and to have values. You believe in something because it appeals to your conscience. You believe in it because you feel deeply that it is right and that things that work against it are wrong. If you are to be a moral person (which you can’t really opt out of anyway), you cannot escape this condition. But the Haidt talk (but certainly not his broader research) can be read as misleading in that it restricts the scope of blinding moral force to the fight against racism. Of course the struggle against what Rogers Smith has called “Ascriptive Americanism” has taken on the binding and blinding form it has : that is what a moral worldview does for us. The same is true of beliefs in the rule of law, freedom of expression, consent of the governed and even the sacredness of property. These are all elements of binding and blinding moral force fields as well.  What is distinctive about these is that they are often held to be sacred on the right as well as on the left. You have to bear this in mind while listening to Haidt’s talk or it could seem like he is attacking the civil rights movement rather than making a far more general and radical argument.

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‘Muslims’, ‘Islamists’, and ‘Islamics’: The Dilemma of ‘Sacred’ Interpretation

In Guest Blogger, Intellectual History on May 21, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Here is a belated (on my part) post form our own Mohammed Cherkaoui, who returns to Confrontations with another fascinating piece on an important Arab thinker, this one more recently departed. Mohammed’s object in this essay is the  Mohamed Abed Al-jabri who passed away earlier this month. In Mohammed’s care, we see Al-Jabri as a careful and forward looking thinker who recognized the inherent dangers that come with a modernizing Islam, but who tried to forge a path toward a coherent future.

There is surely much for you to debate in Cherkaoui’s argument and his use of evocative phrases like “Salafists with liberal tendencies” and “a scientific critique of Arab reason by renouncing the traditional understanding of tradition” should get you thinking and curious about this intriguing figure that Mohammed introduces to us here.

From my vantage at Confrontations, I see this as a great moment to think about how the imagery of the “West against the Rest”can be set aside for support for engagement with the indigenous development of alternative modernities around the world. If Mohammed is right, then we should use the occasion of Al-Jabri’s passing to explore his answers to the questions that we all face.

While mourning the death of the Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Abed Al-jabri (May 3, 2010), one commentator said the loss of Al-jabri was also a “farewell to the reason and the philosophy of religions”, in recognition of his advocacy of innovative and modern thinking. Read the rest of this entry »

Living the Cascade: Why Johan Galtung remains the indispensable man

In Intellectual History, Reviews on May 12, 2010 at 10:22 am

I was having a chat with one of ICAR’s most thoughtful master’s students, Jay Filipi, yesterday in which he asked me about the soul of the field of Conflict Resolution. Jay’s question touched on what most of us likely ask ourselves all the time who have joined this strange enterprise that goes by the name of Conflict Resolution, Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies. He wondered what it was that made CR any different for me from my home discipline Sociology. Couldn’t one think of it as a kind of sub-field of (fill in your own home discipline here)?

My answer is that yes one could think of it in that way, but I don’t think that this is the right answer. Instead, I think that we get a sense of how to think of the field from Andrea Bartoli’s Lynch lecture given this Monday. Andrea, who is self consciously and brilliantly attempting to invite us to invent some coherent collective purpose for our field, focused on the second side of the escalation curve, the one that in most models goes down from the peak of escalation, but in his model climbs up from the well of despair. What we do that others do not is to investigate why conflicts fall into the well and why they climb back out.  This is why ICAR is called the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The Analysis part is the climb up the hill or the fall down the well. The Resolution part is the climb back down the hill or the ascension from the well. Andrea knows what this thing is that is emerging and he cares little if we call it resolution, transformation or peace so long as we do it (well he is sticking to resolution, but has “a rose by any other name” attitude toward it). If you want to know Read the rest of this entry »

Conflict Resolution à la Asabiyyah: Ibn Khaldun is back

In Guest Blogger, Intellectual History on April 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

This is a special day here at Confrontations. We have the first example of a guest contributor who is using this platform to publish scholarly ideas from his own research about conflict. Today, Mohammed Cherkaoui has provided us with a précis of his exciting arguments about a social science concept that is sorely overlooked in our Europhile culture from the great historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun. The concept, Asabiyyah, is not what one would call forgotten, but it has certainly been underexploited given our current fascination with identity formation and ethnic conflict. What excites me about the idea is that it has a vector quality–it goes somewhere–and as Richard Rubenstein has said, it helps us to understand how identities bring people together rather than simply tear them apart. Before we become starry eyed with the idea, we should remember that Ibn Khaldun was prompted in his efforts to understand the era of the Arab Conquests, which were anything but peaceful. Even still, it is exciting to place this classic idea back in play where it belongs. If one can cite Plato, Hobbes and Rousseau in one’s work, why not Ibn Khaldun? Let this serve as an invitation offered to us by soon to be Doctor Cherkaoui.

What drives social change toward conflict? This is probably the main challenge in addressing what nurtures intra-state conflicts, and why sub-groups rebel Read the rest of this entry »

This is your Brain on Conflict: An unwritten chapter in conflict studies

In Intellectual History on April 1, 2010 at 9:24 am

The most interesting article I came across this morning was from the New York Times (big surprise), and concerned the use of fMRI in English departments. This is written by Patricia Cohen who has a nice niche in covering intellectual movements and happenings at the University (full disclosure, she broke a big story about my research a couple of years ago). Patricia has a knack for picking up on novel aspects of the life of the mind and putting them out there for discussion. This is quite important work really.

In this story we see how important data is for the advancement of knowledge. If you have ever been a student of mine you will have heard the phrase: “love your data.” This is always my advice for those who would attempt to get in the knowledge game, for while explanatory theory is the goal, the data are the way. There is nothing that will get your well connected and over educated peers going than a new set of findings. When you add a new technology of finding making, watch out! This is what we have with fMRI. In case you don’t know what that is, the simple answer is that it is a brain scanning technology that helps researcher to know where in your brain thinking is taking place, and from this to infer what you are thinking about.

The know-how is progressing apace and already most of  social sciences have a cognitive subfield with cross-over Read the rest of this entry »

In the Air: Economics and the Social Sciences

In Intellectual History on March 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

In response to a request by ICAR’s communications guru, Paul Snodgrass, I will say a few words about the David Brooks column today. He must have read Kristof yesterday as well, because he has a really fascinating column on the history of Economics that gets us thinking. I think that Brooks’ call for a great history of economics is wanting right now. Of course, there are many good examples out there. One that bears noting is Joseph Schumpeter’s  History of Economic Analysis. If you read this posthumously published book, you see that there is quite a bit of diversity concealed in Brooks’ first act. His history is a bit truncated. In fact, there are many sciences of economics out there (and I hear at least one colleague quietly condemning me for my last post for overemphasizing fresh water schools). We could spend time with the now forgotten methodenstreit in Germany, which produced Max Weber among other things. We could remember John R. Commons and his Wisconsin institutionalism that helped to give birth to the Social Security Act and much more. This is alive today mainly in Transaction cost economics, which I once quipped did not inherit the lion’s share of Commons estate. There is today Read the rest of this entry »