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The Marriage Contract

Recent reports by the Gallup organization (here, here, here) have stressed that Americans’ views on personal morality issues have moved “left,” by which, I assume, they mean toward permissiveness. (Since libertarians would be the most permissive of all and are usually put on the “right,” this kind of geometry confuses.) More Americans polled in 2015 than in 2001 say they accept, for example, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, and, most dramatically, gay marriage. There is notable exception to this permissive trend: views on extramarital sex. The percentage of Gallup respondents who said that was “morally acceptable” was 7 in 2001 and 8 in 2015.

Gallup’s non-trend for adultery puzzled some, including the Gallup folks. (Columnist Russ Douthat, for example, wrote a column parsing philosophical issues of human rights to suggest, I think, that the constancy is still part of the national decline of virtue.) I write this post to say: the seeming exception of adultery to increasing permissiveness is not new; its exceptionalism has gotten starker over decades; and there is an explanation.

I covered the topic in a post over two years ago and beg the reader’s indulgence for some repetition.

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Attaining Adulthood

One of the deep, long-term changes in American lives has been what social historians call the “standardization” of the life course. From the 19th into the 20th century, increasingly more young Americans were able to follow a common sequence: get educated, get a job, leave parents’ home, get married, have children, and become financially secure (to be followed by empty nest, retirement, and “golden years”)–the American Dream in one, widely-shared package.*

In recent decades, however, Americans’ life courses have become less standardized, less shared. A new study, by Jeremy Pais and D. Matthew Ray, shows how much this historical reversal is connected to economic fortunes. The less affluent, who were late to standardization in the 20th century, are in the 21st increasingly leading “non-standard” lives.

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Left Out: Working-Class Kids

Two new books worry about the unstable lives of the white working class. Both Andrew Cherlin, noted sociologist of the family, and Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone (2000) fame, warn that the economic insecurity blue-collar workers have faced over the last forty years has disordered the lives of white working-class children. That transformation, in turn, has handicapped their cognitive development, personal ties, community involvement, and economic success.

The basic story is well known. Since about 1970, there has been a gross deterioration in the jobs, wages, and employment stability available to men with no more than a high school degree. A few conservative writers have tried to muddle these facts, but facts they are. And it is not just that the economic fortunes of less-educated men have diverged sharply from those of men with bachelor’s degrees . . . .  Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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For Shakespeare the seven ages of man moved from the fifth, the established man of “Justice,” to the sixth, “the lean and slippered Pantaloon / With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,” essentially a wealthy fool, to the seventh, “second childishness and mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Modern Americans might ask: But where is Retiree with golf club and RV?

This stage of life, which most Americans not only recognize but strive to enjoy (“having fun spending the kids’ inheritance,” reads one bumper sticker), typically commences with a distinct move, formally leaving the workforce and beginning to collect a pension. Giving up work at an advanced age is not new, but this official stage is a twentieth-century invention. Indeed, the phrase “retirement age” hardly ever appeared in American writing until the 1920s and then it became commonplace.[1]

The story of how twentieth-century economic and political change altered what Shakespeare described as an eternal cycle of life from “the infant / Mewling and puking” to the “second childishness” underlines the social malleability of what seems “natural.”

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Family Farms vs. Americanism

Although much of today’s debates around immigration reform is, on the surface, about legalities and economics and human rights, we know that below the surface–and sometimes above it–a lot of it is about cultural assimilation. Resisters worry that recent immigrants, usually meaning those from south of the border rather than those from, say, Europe, will not assimilate to mainstream American culture. And some on the immigrants’ side worry, at least privately, that the new arrivals or their children will assimilate too much and abandon their native cultures.

An earlier post reported evidence that recent arrivals from Spanish-speaking nations were assimilating at least as fast as those who had come from Europe a century earlier. Now, a new paper in Rural Sociology addresses the issue of immigrant assimilation from a wholly different angle: the continuing cultural distinctiveness of German-American farmers in the Midwest.

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I first heard the phrase “political correctness” on the Berkeley campus in the 1970s, from the lips of a Marxist activist office worker. It was self-mockery: we may be in class struggle, but let’s have a sense of humor. She and her comrades took a stern, old Communist Party phrase—assessing whether one adhered sufficiently to doctrine—and punctured its sanctimoniousness. As in: “We had to eat where he wanted. It was PC, because he comes from a real proletarian family.”

In the 1990s conservatives grabbed the term, stripped it of its humor, and cudgeled leftists with it. The heyday of the PC battles is behind us, although an occasional spitting contest still breaks out, such as the brouhaha surrounding a recent New York magazine essay by the political journalist Jonathan Chait. Beyond the name-calling, however, remains a real concern about how political correctness impedes thinking.

Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here…..

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Opening Day 2015

Baseball is back this week. Hallelujah!

Actually, it was back earlier, in spring training, which has become highly popular in recent years. One fieldwork observation about spring training in the Phoenix area,where 15 MLB teams train in close proximity, 10 of them sharing stadiums: The teams’ enthusiastic fans seem to mingle in good cheer. Why is this amicability worth noting? Because if one looks to Europe (and Latin America), one sees violence between gangs of fans at a scale and intensity shocking to Americans. The U.S. has a much higher rate of violent crime overall than does Europe and yet, in this regard, our stadiums seem like oases of peaceful sportsmanship.

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To be sure, violence does break out among fans at American sports events, even baseball. Mix together young men, competition and alcohol and you have a formula for brawls in the stands, dousing opposing players with beer, and busting things. In the Bay Area, we have had a couple of tragic fights break out among handfuls of fans just outside stadiums. Last year in southern California, three U.S. Marines were stabbed in a brawl between Dodgers and Angels fans. Post-championship celebrations too often end up in street violence–as did the celebration of the Giants clinching the 2014 World Series–although usually the damage is just to property. Still, American sports have nothing like the brutal battles between the supporters of European football (soccer) teams–for example, 39 deaths in a 1985 European Cup riot. How come?

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