Immig Cartoon

Cartoon re Irish and Chinese Immigrants, S.F., 1860s

The 1965 Immigration Act literally changed the face of America, creating a much more diverse society and bringing the proportion of foreign-born in the country back to levels not seen since about 1910. Today, roughly 13 percent of the population was born elsewhere; add in their children and close to one in four residents are immigrants or second-generation. In this 50th-anniversary year for the Hart-Cellar Act, the National Academy of Sciences–our nation’s official authority on matters scientific–is issuing two reports summarizing years of research on what followed from that act. The first report, focusing on the social implications of recent immigration, is out; another, focusing on the economic implications, will be issued soon.

The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (pdf) presents no dramatic revelations for those who have followed the accumulating research. (That Mexican immigration has so sharply tailed off recently that Asian newcomers now outnumber Latin ones may be a revelation to some.) The short story is that immigrants and their children seem to be assimilating, becoming American, at about the same rate and in about the same ways as earlier generations of immigrants. Becoming more American, however, is not always a good thing.

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Lily Tomlin’s star turn, the recent movie, “Grandma,” presents–alongside a lot of over-the-top histrionics and screaming–a key truth about the role of grandparents today. More so than in previous generations, grandparents today provide a safety net for and probably bond with grandchildren. And the grandparents who do so are disproportionately grandmas.

In an era when Americans worry about the durability of the family–well, Americans have worried about the family in almost every era–grandparents have become, perhaps with little notice, more important in various ways. The reason starts with simple demography: There are more grandparents in more young people’s lives.

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The picture below (Hopper, 1932) suggests that the absence of conversation is not new.

You wouldn’t know that if you swallowed The New York Times publicity for Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, which apparently argues that smart phones are alienating everyone from everyone else. A front cover essay in the September 26 NYT Sunday Review by Professor Turkle combined with a forthcoming rave review of the new book by novelist Jonathan Franzen–huh, a novelist? when there are many expert researchers who could have reviewed?–and a 2012 preview by Turkle as well as a 2013 one–leave quite an impression that smart phones have silenced Americans.

Deja vu all over again (requiescat in pace, Yogi Berra).

In 2011, Times reviewer Michiko Kakatuni gave Turkle’s previous book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, a strong thumbs-up and science journalist Jonah Lerner  (later discredited) wrote the Sunday book review, albeit with some criticisms. One should also note that Professor Turkle has long been the go-to source on the social consequences of digital communications for the Times.

All this coverage despite researchers’ skepticism, based on systematic evidence, about the claim that digital technology is alienating Americans. (My earlier comments are here and here.) Indeed, the Times itself published a piece last year in the Magazine entitled, “Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All,”reviewing some of the science. I guess someone at the paper did not get the memo.

So, what am I complaining about now?

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Just Deserts

Now that growing economic inequality is widely accepted as fact—it took a couple of decades for the stubborn to acknowledge this—some wonder why Americans are not more upset about it. Americans do not like inequality, but their dislike has not increased. This spring, 63 percent of Gallup Poll respondents agreed that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed,” but that percentage has hardly changed in thirty years. Neither widening inequality nor the Great Recession has turned Americans to the left, much less radicalized them.

This puzzle recalls the hoary question of why there is no socialism in America. Why is the United States distinctive among Western nations in the weakness of its labor movement, absence of universal health care and other public goods, and reluctance to redistribute income where the elderly are not concerned? Generations of answers have ranged from the American mindset (say, individualism) to exercises of brute political power (e.g., strike-breakers, campaign money) to the formal structure of government (such as single-member districts). Some recent research presents a cultural explanation—specifically, Americans’ tendency to see issues of inequality in terms of deservingness . . . . See the rest of this post–and its discussion of Americans’ belief in the “just society”– at the Boston Review here.


Re-posted on 3QuarksDaily (September 29, 2015)

Cell Phone Etiquette

People have been complaining about bad cell phone behavior for years. What are the twenty-first century’s Emily Post rules for cell phones and texting? (For the millennials: Emily Post was the great doyenne of etiquette and manners advice in the twentieth century. Her descendants still produce advice books under her name. And there actually are new-era Emily Post rules; see below.)

In 2012, John Dvorak, a tech journalist, complained that “somewhere along the line, it became okay to yak on the phone in the restaurant . . . . Nobody cares unless you are talking too loud or making a scene. . . . [T]he mobile phone has plagued etiquette on the planet . . . . [and] all the old manners have been tossed out.” That same year, a chip-making company sponsored a survey which revealed that “most adults believe that mobile manners are getting worse (81%) and wish people practiced better mobile etiquette in public (92%).” Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a large survey on “Mobile Etiquette.” Its findings suggest that people have some real peeves, but also that some consensus on proper cell phone behavior is emerging.

This fraught discussion recalls one about a century ago about the proper manners around non-mobile, landline telephones. Indeed, people generally meet new technologies with a period of bungling exploration toward a manners of proper use. (How much do people follow the etiquette? Well, that’s another issue.)

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Considerable attention has come to the video of Hillary Clinton’s conversation with Black Lives Matter activists. In it, Clinton responds to a spokesman’s plea for her to lead a change of white “hearts” regarding the treatment of blacks. She responds, after acknowledging the historical and contemporary grounds for complaint, by saying, in effect, that one can do all the consciousness-raising possible, even change a lot of hearts and “get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say: ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ [but] that’s not enough….” Without a pragmatic program for systemic change and without practical politics to attain those programs, it’s all for naught. Develop a program, she says, or “we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation.”Hillary Black Lives

Clinton’s position reminds me of a comment that left- and gay-activist, former representative Barney Franks wrote about political activism: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” A bit hyperbolic, as Franks is wont to be, the point rings true as a lesson from decades in realpolitik. Expressive politics–feel-good, self-affirming, and heart-addressing demonstrations–usually don’t yield results. Nor do over-the-top demands. “Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy; it is often the only effective means of expressing it,” Franks writes.

The exchange between the activists and Clinton echos one that emerged around the Occupy movement.

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Abraham Lincoln cherished and annotated Mary G. Chandler’s popular 1854 book, The Elements of Character, which urged readers to take control of themselves and “build up a worthy Character.”

Self-improvement books of this sort are an American perennial. David Brooks’s The Road to Character is squarely in this tradition of willed self-creation. My commentary on Brooks’s new book appears in the latest issue of the Boston Review here. Chandler

[The column is titled, “The Problem with David Brooks.” This is the editors’ title, not mine. I think Brooks just displays what may be an American problem.]roadtocharacter-web


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