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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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…..

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.



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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Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

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Builders of the American republic in the decades either side of 1800 grasped and employed new philosophical and ideological tools for its construction.  The revolutionary idea of inherent political equality – “all men are created equal” with “inalienable rights” – however limited its reality then seems looking back from now, was the Next Big Thing of the day. Also critical were economic analyses originating with Adam Smith and his British colleagues. “Free market” arguments asserted that self-interested actors uncontrolled by authorities combine to create the greatest good for the greatest number.

John Lauritz Larson, in a recent presidential address to the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, notes a couple of important similarities between the political theories and the economic theories of America’s revolutionary era. Both sets of ideas demanded that the king’s government get off people’s backs, especially by stopping its interference in commerce. And both sets of ideas asserted, based 18th-century “scientific” analysis, that state rule distorted the God- or Providence- or Nature-given order of things. Men, advocates argued, were naturally equal and self-governing; similarly, markets were naturally productive and self-governing.

Larson goes on to make the point that there was nothing natural about the ascendency of the naturalistic argument for the laissez-faire philosophy. But we live with its seeming naturalness to this day.

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Dressing Down

Two scenes from twenty-first-century America.

Mid-20th C. America (source)

Young friends cycle to church for Sunday services. They stash their bicycles by the side of the building, walk in sporting their aerodynamic spandex, and take their places in the pews.

Later that day a waitress at a nearby restaurant approaches a silver-haired couple squinting at their menus. “So, what can I get you guys?” she asks the pair.

Across a range of behaviors, from dress to forms of address, Americans have become strikingly informal: we deviate from convention more than we used to, and the conventions we do observe entail less deference to institutions such as churches and statuses such as advanced age.

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


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