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I confess to being (pleasantly) surprised; I was too skeptical.

The protests that began with the killing of George Floyd seem to be defying the historical pattern for street action. As I write (morning of June 23, 2020), they have neither fizzled out nor launched a self-defeating backlash. Thousands of whites, many with their children, have joined the protests in towns large and small across the country. Clear majorities of Americans have told pollsters that they agree with the concerns of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters. Major institutional leaders, including heads of major corporations, have rushed to acknowledge racism and to take a virtual, sometimes a literal, knee in solidarity–even the NFL. And there appear to be some successes beyond charges against specific officers on the horizon.

Why have these protests have done so well so far in broadening their appeal when so many other takings to the street–Occupy Wall Street, anti-Iraq War, anti-Vietnam War, the 1968 Chicago convention clashes, the ghetto “rebellions” of the ‘60s, and so on–did not? And what are their chances for bringing significant change?

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Let’s start with these quotations:

From President Obama:

“[T]he small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods… and detracting from the larger cause…. [L]et’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”

From Terrence Floyd, brother of George:

“In every case of police brutality the same thing has been happening. You have protests, you destroy stuff … so they want us to destroy ourselves. Let’s do this another way,” he said, encouraging the crowd to vote and to educate themselves. “Let’s switch it up, y’all.”

From Congressperson Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis:

“When we see people setting our buildings and our businesses ablaze, we know those are not people who are interested in protecting black lives… Every single fire set ablaze, every single store that is looted, every time our community finds itself in danger, it is time that people are not spending talking about getting justice for George Floyd…”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta:

“What we saw overnight was not a protest, and it was not Atlanta. We as a people are strongest when we use our voices to heal our city instead of using our hands to tear it down. . . .  If we are to enact change in this nation, I implore everyone to channel their anger and sorrow into something more meaningful and effective through non-violent activism.”

These statements by African Americans contrast with some of the commentary that I have been hearing and reading in the liberal-tilting media like NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and online sources, commentary that effectively tries to ignore or wave away the destruction of public property, private businesses, and workers’ jobs. (When a business is destroyed, its employees as well as its owner lose.)

At this writing (midday, June 2), it appears that the street action involves three groups: One, the largest, comprises genuine protesters legitimately outraged at yet another unwarranted killing and at the persistence of institutional racism. The second are anarchist terrorists, overwhelmingly white and young, fomenting destruction. We in the Bay Area are familiar with them. They show up wearing helmets and Guy Fawkes masks, carrying hammers and incendiary devices, to hijack political protests and to break and burn. The third group is comprised of criminals, sometimes organized in caravans, exploiting the situation to break into upscale stores.

The inclination of well-intentioned whites to airbrush the ugly parts of this scene is condescending and it is bad politics. It helps the Trump administration claim that it is defending the peace against the violent and the appeasers of violence. Modern American history tells us that the political winner of these street confrontations is almost always the side of reaction and repression. So, it could be again on election day, 2020.

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May 22, 2020. As we await the nation finding an equilibrium between Covid-19 deaths and routine life, observers are biding their shelter time forecasting the great social changes that the pandemic will have left in its wake. How much, how transformative, social change can we expect this pandemic to have brought?asteroid

Whether you anticipate profound changes or instead expect pretty much the same America after Covid-19 may depend on how you generally understand the way profound social change occurs. Does it entail “asteroidal” or “glacial” events? I borrow the terms from evolutionary history. An asteroid’s impact about 66 million years ago suddenly transformed life on Earth, including terminating the dinosaurs. On the other hand, gradual alterations in the earth’s spin and orientation expanded and reduced glacier coverage of the planet, which, in turn, slowly forced Earth’s life forms to adapt.

Is the Covid-19 pandemic an asteroidal shock to America, or will, a decade from now, its occurrence hardly be noted amidst America’s glacial changes?

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Around this time of the year, I write a post to celebrate the arrival of baseball, the national pastime. This year the pastime has not arrived on time; it may not arrive at all.

Its absence is far from the saddest story of Covid-19–though sad enough for the unemployed beer vendors, ticket-takers, and security guards, as well as the hot prospects who were going to break into the big leagues this year and the fading veterans who were going to resurrect their careers for just one more turn. Yet, true fans still yearn. We read the latest stories that baseball writers have scrounged from the recycle bins of their laptops, such as features on the best second-string left fielders who played on the teams west of Mississippi in 1977 or on the meals that the local team’s bullpen catcher is whipping up for his kids during confinement. Meanwhile, TV provides reruns of games that local nine never lose. empty ballpark trimmed

What will MLB do with the season? One idea being pitched and batted around, semi-endorsed by Dr. Anthony Fauci himself, is to play the games in stadiums scattered in a restricted locale–the Phoenix region is often mentioned–with the players effectively quarantined together (think of a cruise ship berthed in Scottsdale) and no fans in the stands, just tv cameras. What would baseball be like without the fans?

Athletes almost always publicly credit the fans, calling them the 6th man in basketball, the 10th man in baseball, the 12th man in football–really, the 6th, 10th, 12th person. Winning teams thank their fans for the support without which victory would have been impossible, losing teams praise them for their faith and loyalty through hard times. But, do fans really matter (besides paying the fare)?

I did a quick literature search on the topic.

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Sheltering-in-Place, Berkeley, CA. March 23, 2020. Let’s think about the COVID-19 crisis in a cold-blooded, sociological, and historical way. Rough estimates seem to be that between 200,000 and 1,700,000 will die of COVID-19, depending on how completely authorities shutdown in-person interaction. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the trusted face of the national response, said on March 20 that Americans would need to maintain maximal social distance–or, more correctly, physical distance–for at least several weeks.

Flu Seattle cops

Seattle Police to Enforce Face Mask Rule (National Archives, 165-WW-269B-25)

Those would be several weeks of extended economic destruction, school hours lost, severe family stress for many, cratering of civic institutions, and considerable social and emotional pain. The alternative, not locking down as severely and only partly “flattening the curve,” would mean more medical system chaos and tens or hundreds of thousands–some might argue millions–more lives lost. What is the trade-off between the social and economic destruction caused by the lockdown versus lives lost?

Making this calculation seems brutal. Do we not believe that each and every life is invaluable – “valuable beyond estimation: priceless”? No. If we really did, we would have 40 MPH speed limits and make cancer treatments free to all who cannot pay. Our society makes trade-offs. (One rough cost-benefit calculation is here.)

Properly speculating about the answer to the trade-off question requires some sense of what the consequences of the current shut down may be. Perhaps a look at the last great pandemic, the 1918 so-called “Spanish” influenza, can help. Here, I first review some lessons from the 1918 flu (based on an admittedly quick skim of the literature and archives, so sure to have some error) and then explore what they might imply for understanding the trade-off today.

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Bernie Sanders often declared that his is “a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class,” calling for that class to rise up, vote for him, and make the democratic socialist revolution. He was sorely disappointed. At this writing, soon after the second “Super Tuesday” primaries, it is clear that Sanders mobilized hardly any of the black working class and not that many of the white working class either.Debs

Sanders thus joins a long list of well-educated lefties (University of Chicago, 1964) whom the working class seems to have disappointed. Long ago William Jennings Bryan–who, in his 1896 “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” speech, asked “Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ or upon the side of ‘the struggling masses’?”–lost repeatedly. Soon after, Eugene V. Debs, a hero to Sanders, ran several times for president–explicitly as a socialist on a Socialist ticket–and topped out, in 1912, at only six percent of the popular vote. Compare that to eccentric, conservative businessman Ross Perot who won 19% as a third-party candidate in 1992. Crushing disappointment.

The major exception to the working class’s spurning of the Left was, of course, Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign and then, his 1936 re-election. FDR’s New Deal created a couple of generations of working-class loyalty to the Democratic party. But it took the onset of the Great Depression to get that first win (much like it took the onset of the Great Recession to elect the first black president).

For the most part, the call of socialism, or of democratic socialism, or even of basic European-style welfare-state-ism has done surprisingly poorly with the American working class. Repeatedly, their passivity and even opposition has posed a frustrating puzzle for those of us on the Left: Cannot working-class Americans see where their interests lie? Repeatedly, as well, many of us had faith that, with just the right message or just the right messenger, the masses would rise up, vote the Wall Street bastards out, and vote social justice in. What’s gone wrong?

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Last October, Attorney General William Barr drew attention for a fiery speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. Barr asserted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground” in America–measures such as illegitimacy, violence, and suicide rates. This has happened because Americans are losing their self-control. People are naturally “subject to powerful passions and appetites” and thus to “licentiousness.” In a free society, restraining licentiousness requires an “internal controlling power.” Only religion, faith in “an authority independent of men’s will . . . a transcendent Supreme Being,” can inhibit these passions. In the last 50 years, Barr contended, we have experienced a loss of inhibition because “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Organized forces of secularism have promoted the “destruction” of religion, especially through government by, for example, restricting prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and inserting LGBT curricula into the schools.

Moral duty, Barr concluded, required using the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom. That would restore Americans’ self-control and thus reverse the tide of pathology. “We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.”

Barr pic

Source: South Bend Tribune

The howls from the Left over this speech focused on the specter of Barr using the DOJ’s powers to weigh in on the conservative side of the great Culture Wars. My concern here is simply to ask, How factually correct is Barr’s story? His is a sweeping, powerful, and consequential description of recent American history. Is it true?

I address Barr’s argument from first cause to final result: Are religion and faith in decline and, if so, because of secularists’ attacks? Does religion provide and is it necessary for free people’s self-control? Has Americans’ self-control weakened? Has there been increasing social pathology and, if there has, is weakening self-control the explanation?

I approach this topic with some empathy. Barr is a serious Catholic; I am an active member (and past president) of my synagogue. We are on the same side of the divide between organized religion and mobilized secularists. However, the historical facts are clear and they are not on Barr’s side.

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Along with reviving The “failing” New York Times, Donald Trump can take credit for having launched an entire academic enterprise, Trumpology: trying to understand how and why he rocketed from a reality show celebrity to the White House. It’s been about a year since I summarized studies trying to answer that question and it’s now about a year before Americans revisit their 2016 decision. What does the last year’s research show?Trump

My previous two entries on Trumpology (“Explaining Trump” and “Explaining Trump Some More”) suggested the following tentative conclusions from earlier studies:

* Explaining why Trump actually won the electoral college is not very interesting. The election was close and any number of minor events could have made the difference. We need to understand why such an improbable candidate won the nomination of a major party and, in particular, what motivated his MAGA enthusiasts.
* The key seems to have been cultural anxieties–Trump’s success in addressing and inflaming worries about race and immigration, clearly, but also worries about feminism and other elements of the “culture wars.” Trump’s attention to economic distress was, at best, secondary.
* Once Trump won the nomination, party partisanship–much greater in 2016 than it was a couple of decades ago–ensured strong support from Republicans and strong opposition from Democrats. Thus, the fall campaign was fought over a very narrow no man’s land, where any event (say, Access Hollywood, purloined emails, or an FBI news conference) could make the difference.

The new research I report below is consistent with these conclusions but fills them out, particularly telling us about Trump’s takeover over the Republican party and his nature as a populist. I am sure that there are many more studies out there, but this is a start. I will review what new we have learned about Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination and of the fall election, place Trump the populist in international perspective, consider parallels to a 1960s-’70s precursor of Trump, and close by speculating about 2020.

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It is now well-understood that lead in the bloodstream, even at levels once thought negligible, harms people, especially children. Discovery, in the mid-2010s, of dangerous lead levels in the water of Flint, Michigan, brought this home to many Americans. Even as the United States purged paint and gasoline of lead and closed lead-emitting smelting plants, lead residues in millions of older homes, in the soil near high-traffic roads, and, as in the case of Flint, in many water pipes persisted.

Lead poisoning is a story of environment and health; it is also a story of environment and behavior. Although lead was a known poison when it was first added to gasoline nearly a century ago, only in recent decades have studies pointed to lead poisoning as a cause of problematic social behavior ranging from underperforming in school to teen pregnancy to murder. Such findings enrich sociologists’ understanding, but it also makes them nervous about biology’s role in explaining social phenomena. Should it?

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This year has seen disturbing flare-ups around issues of race, immigration, and white nativism generally.

Flags

Source: Chet Strange/Getty Images News

They ranged from clumsy White House tweets about Jewish “disloyalty” to angry controversies around two Muslim congresswomen, more episodes of police shootings of blacks, all the way to mass murders such as the slaughter of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart (and last year of synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh).

Correspondingly, Americans’ anxieties about race have spiked in recent years. In 2016, 38 percent of respondents told the Pew survey that they thought race relations have worsened; in 2019, 53 percent did.[1] Respondents to the Gallup Poll felt the same surge of concern. The following graph shows the percentage who said that they worried a “great deal” about race relations.[2]

Worry_Gallup

Does the rising tide of worry mean that the nation is descending into a maelstrom of racial conflict? More likely, we are seeing the kind of fearful and angry reaction that major social change often brings.

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