Friday, June 15, 2007

Secular Tribes Here, Religious Tribes There

Paul Waldman wrote a piece in The Prospect in which--after pondering this study on the tribalization of evangelicals--he wonders if secularists are going to tribalize themselves. This has prompted some discussion by Ross Douthat (who also wrote a piece based on the same study) and the guys at The Corner. First, Waldman:
David Campbell of Notre Dame describes how evangelical voters are affected by the demographic makeup of their environment -- but not in the way you might think. Building on the "racial threat" hypothesis -- which states that as the number of African-Americans in a community increases, the more likely white voters are to support conservative candidates and oppose policies that benefit African-Americans -- Campbell set out to see whether he could identify a similar effect among evangelical voters. It turns out that, even when you control for factors like party identification, the more secular people there were within a county, the more likely that people from evangelical denominations living there would vote Republican.

In other words, the more that evangelicals saw non-religious people around them, the greater the likelihood they'd walk a straight line from the church door to the voting booth and pull the GOP lever.

So the question now is whether non-believers will, in large numbers, begin to define themselves as a tribe of their own. In order to do so, they'll have to feel at least some measure of antagonism toward those on the outside. That's what makes a tribe a tribe, after all. (What would Red Sox fandom be without the Yankees, or punk rock without the conformist corporate tools?) But one key question for secular people is who, exactly, the Other is. Is it anyone who is religious? Those who want to convert you to their beliefs? Those who want their beliefs to be enshrined in government policy?
Douthat summarized his take on the matter:
The argument, in short, is that just as the elite-level secularization of the 1960s and '70s (in the intelligentsia, the Courts, and the Democratic Party) produced backlash in the form of the religious right, so now that backlash has bred its own backlash, in the form of a mass secularism whose attitudes toward religion, politics, and church-state separation are more European than anything we've seen before in American political life. This, not the supposed right-wing religious revival that conservatives champion and liberals dread, is the newest new thing in American political life, and the trend that's likely to have the most impact on the culture wars over the next decade or so.
Jonah Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and Mark Steyn have all weighed in and Douthat has responded. Read their posts to see the argument over the particulars of how the tug-o-war between secularism and religion has played out over the last 40-odd years.

And then there's this study which indicates that adults who graduated from college during the last 10 years or so are more religious than their non-college educated peers.
Researchers found four-year college students and college graduates are the least likely to curb church attendance, to say religion is less important in their lives, or to completely disassociate from religion. Young adults who do not pursue a college degree are the most likely to abandon their faith.

"Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion," Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology and author of the book "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers," said. "But we found young adults who don't experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion."

The evolution of campus culture might explain the surprising results, Regnerus said. As more universities shift attention and resources from liberal arts to professional programs, students are increasingly sheltered from philosophical questions or debates that challenge their beliefs. When they are challenged, they can gain support from campus religious organizations and like-minded peers.

"Religion and spirituality are becoming more accepted in higher education, both in intellectual circles and in campus life," Jeremy Uecker, graduate student and lead author of the study, noted. "Religious students are encountering a much less hostile environment than in years past."
It appears as if this study supports the idea of religious tribalization indicated in the study cited by Douthat and Waldman. Further, if a majority of the next generation of college-educated kids is more religious than their peers and if it can be assumed they will comprise the future "leadership class" in the U.S. Does that mean that their secular, college-educated peers will indeed be pushed toward tribalization? Well, I guess we'll see.

Civility in the Commons

While writing about the acute issue of the conservative side of the debate concerning immigration reform, Jonah Goldberg wrote:
The beauty of a democratic system is that it depends on democratic arguments. Even if every partisan is a villain, he has to make his case in a way that will convince people. And it's those arguments we're supposed to be dealing with. It's very easy for me to say that while my opponent may say X that he secretly believes Y because he is a member of a supersecret Satanic cabal or because his fern is speaking to him through his dental fillings. But unless I have proof, debate should be confined to X.
Dale Light adds:
He's right. We should be debating ideas, not attacking people or indulging sick conspiracy fantasies, but increasingly we don't, and it is important that rather than simply denouncing this disturbing tendency, we begin to ask why.

Historically speaking such things are characteristic of people and groups who are, or perceive themselves to be, powerless. It is telling that in these times so many people, of all political stripes, should feel that the powers that be are not only out of touch with, but actively hostile to, the best interests of the American people. In part this would seem to reflect the increasingly undemocratic nature of modern political institutions. In part it derives from the common, and to my mind accurate, perception that the major institutions that emerged in the Twentieth Century to organize our society are increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional and that they function to serve the interests of a narrow segment of our society.

These are things I have been thinking about a lot in recent years and to which I intend to return time and again in this forum. For now it is enough to point out, as Jonah Goldberg has, that a mode of discourse that formerly was a marginal element in our political culture has now become so widespread that it is manifested throughout the political spectrum, and that is something to worry about.
I can't help thinking that the "one bad apple..." canard also applies. The average Jill or Joe sees the "snipe and snark" and gets even more turned off. Then again, it may not be the "snipe and snark" so much as the language used: profanity-for-its-own-sake and the constant issuing of the same hyperbolic cliches (Bush=Hitler, Liberals are Commies, etc.). Responsible and respectable debate doesn't have to be boring, and it doesn't require ad hominem for spice. But I guess that, in a world where everyone is a pundit, the bar gets lowered. Rhetorical levelling, if you will.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Review: The Unknown Gulag

The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin's Special Settlements by Lynne Viola
(Oxford University Press).

Lynn Viola is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She specializes in the social and political history of twentieth century Russia and is well-published in this area of study. In The Unknown Gulag, Viola details how Stalin and his cohort planned and executed a policy that resulted in the exile of over 2 million "capitalist peasants"—kulaks—into the first gulags.
Whether planned or not, the release of the book coincides with the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Viola does a fine job of portraying one group of those victims: the forgotten kulaks.

Stalin's primary motive for removing the kulaks from villages, she explains, was based on his and the Communist Party's political and ideological goals. Primarily, the Communists believed that the peasants stood in the way of their ideal of agricultural collectivization.

Their desire for collectivization was largely an outgrowth of the failure of past Communist economic policies. In 1927/28, the Party had implemented price controls that artificially held down the price of foodstuffs consumed by industrial workers while at the same time they expected the rural farmers to pay a premium for the goods coming out of the factories. This disregard for the natural self-interest of individual farmers led to unintended consequences. Instead of selling their goods at below market value, the farmers held their goods back or sold them on the private markets. In 1928/29, the Communists responded by implementing various laws and taxes to harass and punish the peasants and to force them to sell their goods to the government--at the government price.

The Communist Party came to believe that the "capitalist peasantry" needed to be removed for the sake of more efficient collectivization. Gradually—often based on whim or prejudice—anyone who was perceived as an obstacle to collectivization was declared a kulak. By 1929/30, collectivization efforts were in full swing and with it de-kulakization. Peasant farmers who didn't move into collective farms had their goods confiscated by "grain requisitioning brigades" composed of "urban communists and industrial workers" whose antipathy towards rural peasants was exploited by Stalin.

The Communist Party perceived issues of socioeconomic stratification through political and ideological lenses. That meant, in practice, that the (broadly defined) political behavior and actions of a peasant were often equally, if not more, important in determining social status than economic position in the village. During the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, almost anyone could be labeled a kulak—the village critic, the outspoken Red army veteran, peasants with large families (and therefore greater land resources), and a host of other village authorities, including priests, church council members, tradesmen, craftsman, byvshye liudi (village notables from the prerevolutionary regime), and even seasonal workers as well as the occasional prosperous peasant. As the state entered into what would be a protracted war with the peasantry, the kulak came to serve as a political metaphor and pejorative for the entire peasantry.

De-kulakization helped Stalin destabilize the traditional village social and political structure by removing leaders and intimidating any peasants left behind. Thus, the Communist party engaged in a "virtual war" that resulted in the destruction of the traditional peasant society that they neither understood nor trusted. In its place, the Communists erected agricultural collectives that would supply the food for the idealized industrial workers who were the true heart of the perpetual Communist revolution.

But what to do with all of the kulaks? G.G. Iagoda's OGPU (secret police) was charged with implementing the policies of that came to be known as de-kulakization. But little thought had been given to how to facilitate the removal of millions of kulaks. Or where to put them.

As a result, Iagoda made it up has he went along. Seeing the increasing disarray in the countryside, Iagoda developed a plan to relocate the kulaks to the Northern Territories, Siberia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, peasant riots broke out and local and regional mismanagement of the policy led to "excesses." Additionally, tensions arose between those territories who sought rid themselves of the kulak problem and those regions that were charged with taking them in. As so often happened, the "perfect" Communist plan somehow failed to materialize in reality.

Despite these problems, the relocation went forward. But a concrete plan was still lacking and kulaks languished in temporary settlements. Eventually, they were moved to remote areas where they began the slow, arduous and uncoordinated process of building permanent special settlements, usually located near prospective labor camps. These families worked together--though they were often separated, too--to scratch out an existence in the remote regions of the Soviet Union.

Such is the lead-in to the heart of Viola's work: the personal stories of those who survived life in these unknown gulags. Viola's work is both a solid institutional and an engaging social history. She accents her intricate sketch of the Soviet bureaucracy with the vivid and often heartbreaking accounts of those who survived the kulak gulags.

In the final analysis, Viola believes that Stalin's de-kulakization policy has been overlooked as a key component of his consolidation of power and that "the peasantry paid the highest price for the Soviet experiment..."
The Soviet superpower was built upon the poverty of the village, artificially fueled by an economy and a society that could not in the end sustain its growth and power. Long before 1991, to those who could see, it was evident that the Soviet Union was a Leviathan in bast shoes. Soviet modernity always remained moored to its agrarian legacy.
Soviet Communism relied on exploiting the common people it claimed it was trying to help. Eventually, the Iron Curtain was drawn and the world saw the fallacy upon which the Soviet utopia had been built. Unfortunately, it was too late to help a lost generation of small farmers.

ADDENDUM: Viola explained her research and previewed her work over at the Oxford University Press blog:

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Keeping the Gates at the Medieval Castle

Over at ADM's place, there is a fine discussion concerning academic gatekeeping. I tentatively entered the fray by quibbling with what I inferred to be condescension towards those of us who may not regularly translate texts for ourselves. Yikes! I got smacked around and explained my perspective after the fact (with some help). Ah well. The perils of attempting to scale the ivory tower with only a step ladder...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ideology and Anglo-Culture

The Kirk Center's most recent University Bookman contains William Anthony Hay's review of J.G.A. Pocock's The Discovery of Islands. Begins Hay:
Each generation revises history to fit its own needs and preoccupations because, while the past itself remains constant, the prism through with it is seen changes. Besides helping people understand their own time, history shapes identity and provides a sense of place. These factors together explain how historiography—the principles, perspectives, and methods behind the writing of history—responds to questions driven by contemporary preoccupations.
Spot on. Take British History, for example:
The Whig interpretation in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s nineteenth century History of England and Henrietta Marshall’s children’s book Our Island’s Story describes British history as the progressive movement toward increasing liberty and prosperity. As academic history emerged in Britain under the guidance of scholars like Macaulay’s nephew George Otto Trevelyan, it largely assimilated Whig assumptions to shape public culture into the 1920s. Declining power and a crisis of confidence posed new questions that led British historians to examine the past in different ways. Marxism and social science methodology turned historiography from constitutional history and focused instead on class conflict and social change. Postmodernism reflected the growing hold of expressive individualism from the 1960s with a consequent interest in identity that posed questions about sexuality and ethnic differences. Failure of the post-1945 social democratic consensus during the 1970s followed by Thatcherism further shifted the terms behind historical inquiry.
So, what about Pocock?
Decolonization, renewed interest in histories of component nations within the United Kingdom, and reorientation toward Europe as part of Britain’s membership in the European Union have also influenced historiography, and J. G. A. Pocock’s essays in The Discovery of Islands offer a profound reconceptualization of British history....Pocock argues for a British history that examines relationships within the Atlantic archipelago and its overseas progeny.
This rings familiar--the interpretive frameworks of the Anglosphere and Bernard Bailyn's Atlantic History came to mind. The seeming symbiosis of the latter with Pocock isn't too surprising, given both Bailyn and Pocock found themselves largely on the same side (forgive the implied oversimplification) of the "republican synthesis" debates of the '70's and '80's. This leads to the context that Hay provides concerning Pocock's point of view:
Far from nostalgic pining for a world he admits has been lost, Pocock’s emphasis on the British diaspora follows from his efforts to understand the terms in which people see themselves or what he would call “the nuts and bolts of the mind.” A noted historian of ideas, he pioneered a new approach to intellectual history that viewed texts in the context of their time so as to understand the language contemporaries used to communicate ideas. Instead of great books providing a debate amongst themselves across the ages, key texts could offer insight on how men at a specific point of time saw their world. Pocock’s approach to British history as the story of nations interacting with and occasionally seceding from an imperial state plays this theme from his other work in a different key.
Both Bailyn and Pocock dealt with how ideologies were formed and used to justify the actions of individuals and groups. Bailyn has gone deeper into how Anglo culture and society has been maintained and modified around the Atlantic basin. Pocock has turned his head to Europe.
“Europeanizing” British history involves downplaying the centrality of the state and refocusing relationships toward continental Europe rather than within the British isles or overseas. Deconstructing identities often involves a smug provincialism among elites who cannot see beyond their own times. Pocock warned that demolishing Whig history—even though it brought a deeper understanding of past and present—amounted to a program for “asking the present to live without a past that justifies it.” Much the same could be said of postmodernist enthusiasm for Europe without the compensating benefit of illuminating the past. Indeed, where revisionism opened doors, the politics behind the new historiography of Europe seems eager to close them. Pocock contends that a history of either Britain or Europe must consider how it is a creation of nation-states even before attempting to transcend that framework.
Too often this mistake is made: the present circumstance is taken as a priori. Little thought is given to the political, social or cultural structures or mores that were in place that allowed [insert currently en vogue enlightened state here] to flourish. Pocock is warning that we need to be careful. Finally:
Pocock’s concluding chapters highlight the symbiotic relationship between historiography and politics. History serves a central purpose in public culture, and, consequently, the question of how it is to be written never quite finds a resolution. Each generation rewrites its history to understand its present. Pocock gives a judicious and well-written overview of the process, and his essays leave a sense that the past may not be such a foreign realm as is sometimes thought.