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(Dec. 4, 2016. Most readers no doubt remain obsessed with the stunning election and the careening new administration. Me, too. I’ll return to that topic a few weeks. Meanwhile, for something that’s totally different … or maybe not.)

In 1969, singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, who died this year at 79, had a country music hit which also won the Country Music Association song of the year award: “Okie From Muskogee.” “Okie” became the Vietnam-era anthem for millions of “Silent Majority” Americans who resented the insult to their ways of life they saw in the antics of 1960s anti-war protestors and do-your-thing hippies.

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take no trips on LSD

We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

Merle Haggard, then

Merle Haggard, then

Haggard would later tell conflicting stories about the song that largely defined his career. At various times, he described it as a joke, a satire, a defense of his Okie father, and a justified rebuke to young kids who were bitching about America while soldiers were dying for their freedom to bitch. “I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said. “I thought about them [hippies] looking down their noses at something I cherished very much and it pissed me off,” he said more recently. Though celebrated at the Nixon White House in 1973, by the end of his career Haggard was, in sharp contrast, performing for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2010, he said, “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.” And he regretted, according to Rolling Stone, being seen as the “Poet Laureate of Pissed-Off White People” (see here, here, here).

Whatever Haggard’s intentions and regrets, the song became bigger than he. Country music audiences demanded it and cheered its flag-waving defense of Middle America. Many fans whose closest connection to rural America was wearing cowboy boots nonetheless saw themselves as culturally country and Haggard as their champion.

That was almost 50 years ago. Today, “Okie From Muskogee” also serves to tell us something about change in the parts of America that Muskogee represented.

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In 1971, the great Carole King sang: “So far away/ Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?” Thirty years later, the editors of The New York Times explained that families in the United States are changing because of “the ever-growing mobility of Americans.” And in 2010, a psychologist argued that “an increased rate of residential mobility played a role in the historical shift” toward individualism. It’s a common U.S. lament that human bonds are fraying because people are moving around more and more. Americans fear the fracturing of communities that constant moving seems to bring.moving-aeon

Yet when King sang, Americans had been moving around less and less for generations. That decline was even more obvious when the Times editorial appeared in 2001, and it has continued to decline through the 2010s. The increasingly mobile U.S. is a myth that refuses to move on. . . . . . . . This essay (which expands on a 2010 post) continues at the online site, Aeon, here.

Election Reflection

Mid-day, November 8, 2016. Not knowing the outcome and not being a scholar of elections, I thought I’d nonetheless make some comments on the election–hopefully informed ones.

The central question, the one that will occupy dissertations, articles, and books for many years to come, is how could about half of American voters, the great majority of whom are normal, decent, salt-of-earth Americans, choose as their president a self-admitted sexual predator and tax evader, policy ignoramus, major BS-er, unstable personality, and schoolyard bully who surrounds himself with neo-fascists?

(Does academic even-handedness require a similarly blistering description of Clinton? No, polite symmetry is not appropriate here. Clinton is in the historical range of somewhat-soiled presidential candidates–say, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy. That pillars of the Republican party such as the Presidents Bush and Mitt Romney at least implicitly and conservative newspapers explicitly–the Arizona Republic and the Manchester Union-Leader, for example–do not endorse Trump testifies to his exceptionalism.)

One feature of this year’s campaign is that we have been able to follow social science research on it in real time. Web sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, Five-Thirty-Eight, and others have provided not only a running score based on the polls, but also often substantive analysis directed at answering that question, How could Trump could have so much support?

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Scholars of religion and scholars of American society (including me) have conventionally described the United States as religiously “exceptional” compared to other affluent Christian nations. The claim has at least two features: First, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have been notably more religious than other westerners. Second, the U.S. has not experienced the decrease in individual piety (“secularization” in this discussion) that seems to have accompanied “modernization” in much of the affluent West. Indeed, observers have often been struck that, paradoxically, the U.S. has been at the same time the most “modern” society in the West and the most religious.god-we-trust

This description has, of course, been repeatedly challenged. Two new articles strongly argue that, at minimum, the U.S. has been experiencing “secularization” in the last several decades, so that, if American faith ever was immune to the supposedly secularizing forces of modern life, it is no longer.

Maybe. Maybe not.

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One of the fascinating stories about Americans’ encounters with modern technology has been about how the flurry of labor-saving devices from the early twentieth century–electric lighting, central heating, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves, washing machines, dryers, full water and sewer systems, etc.–did or perhaps did not reduce the domestic workload of American women.

The conventional answer among historians, developed most fully in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1980 classic, More Work for Mother (see also here), is a paradox: The time women spent in housework did not go down between, say, the 1900s and the 1960s, but stayed about the same. The reason, it is argued, is that standards for good housework rose and ate up the time savings provided by technology. No longer did gruel and cold cuts of meat make a passable meal; women now had to prepare “cuisine” each evening. No longer were monthly washings of bedclothes enough; they had to be washed weekly (and personal clothing had to be washed often enough to be changed daily). No longer was a bit of dirt and grime acceptable until spring cleaning; now homes had to be spic-n-span always.

1946 (source)

1946 (source)

Housework may have become less physically draining–no more hauling water or firewood to the kitchen; no more hand-wringing of wet clothes–and the results become more satisfying–better meals, healthier families, cleaner homes–but the time demands did not change.

A key research study behind this paradoxical story appeared in 1974. Joann Vanek compared several hundred “time-budgets” filled out by American women in the 1920s and ‘30s to those gathered from American women in the 1960s. (“Time-budget” studies ask respondents to report what they were doing in precise time segments, say, every 15 minutes, throughout the waking day.) Vanek found that among women not employed outside the home there was little difference in the amount of time they spent on domestic duties between roughly 1920 and 1970, despite all those new time-saving appliances. Given that many more women were working, Vanek concluded 40 years ago: “It appears that modern life has not shortened the woman’s work day. Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force. Indeed, for married women in fulltime jobs the work day is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”

In a newly-published study, Jonathan Gershuny and Teresa Atttracta Harms go back to the original time-budget reports, add more data and some new techniques, and come up with a somewhat different conclusion about technology and domestic work.

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Long-time Washington official and deal maker Leon Panetta was recently quoted–by long-time California official and deal-maker Willie Brown–reminiscing about the old days “when Republicans and Democrats often bunked together in Washington, D.C., and how that fostered a mutual respect we no longer see.” To those who view the recent decades of political polarization as rooted in deep social and economic forces, this observation seems more like nostalgia than serious analysis. But a new study of congressional polarization and congressional bunking together two centuries ago suggests that there may be something to the Panetta remark and to the idea that personal connections across party lines can build political bridges.

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The End of Good Work?

In 1879 farm laborers in Maryland destroyed harvesting machinery and left the farm owner a note:

“You will please stop your other machines or next will be your life. . . . We do not get work enough . . . we have to go into det.” In 1938 Congress examined how mechanization was displacing tens of thousands of farm workers and families. And in 1962 President Kennedy declared that machines replacing men posed the major domestic challenge of the decade.

Repeatedly, new technologies have displaced and “de-skilled” specific kinds of work. Overall, though, American workers have gone on to have better jobs in each case. A new book by economist Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, nonetheless argues that this time the end of good work is really coming. …. See the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.