Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Atlantic has "the birth of the new american meritocracy", which is another way of saying a new variation on an old observation about the upper fifth of America's castes

Will McDavid over at Mbird leads Another Week Ends with a read from The Atlantic about how even the "nones" in America have a statistical segment that believes there is a (G/g)od.

Crafting a religion is a self-defeating enterprise. For something to produce good feeling, it must be true (or at least be perceived as true); for something to be true (or perceived as such), it must be received rather than constructed (or perceived as non-constructed). Even Pygmalion, who fell in love with the statute he sculpted, needed Aphrodite’s intervention to bring it to life. That which he constructed couldn’t really come to life without a gift from outside himself.

So the study’s finding that American nones are ‘more’ religious–presumably because more of them are absolutely certain of God’s existence–bears qualification. Faith is a matter not only of the fact of God’s existence (God’s existence being one of the most philosophical, least personal, things about God), but also of what God is like. “Do you believe in total-immersion baptism?”, the old joke goes, with then reply, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it done!”. Existence of something is interesting, but it’s one’s attitude toward and relation to that thing which matter.


The "solution" that can be easily employed is in defining what the nature of truth is and the extent to which it has to be true.  It doesn't have to be true for you if it can be true for me.  Perhaps people can take a further step and simply employ the axiom that if it feels good it is good and if it feels true therefore it is true. 

The Pew research may have measured "none" in connection to affiliation with entities that can file 990s. To put this in a more tangential way, one of my friends who used to work for Mars Hill got her job cut in the 2014 meltdown and said she didn't feel she could ever work for a non-profit again.  She wasn't saying non-profits shouldn't exist or that non-profits as a whole were terrible but that she would personally never feel like she could work for a non-profit again.  The Pew research suggests a potentially comparable range of experiences, that there are people who believe a god exists and may, ,in fact, even believe in the risen Jesus, who nonetheless have been so put off by the conduct of some 501(c) variation of church they refuse to identify with such a formal institution. 

Tagged on at the end almost as an afterthought there's the article about the new meritocracy at The Atlantic.

... Our glory peaked on the day my parents came home with a new Volkswagen camper bus. As I got older, the holiday pomp of patriotic luncheons and bridge-playing rituals came to seem faintly ridiculous and even offensive, like an endless birthday party for people whose chief accomplishment in life was just showing up. I belonged to a new generation that believed in getting ahead through merit, and we defined merit in a straightforward way: test scores, grades, competitive résumé-stuffing, supremacy in board games and pickup basketball, and, of course, working for our keep. For me that meant taking on chores for the neighbors, punching the clock at a local fast-food restaurant, and collecting scholarships to get through college and graduate school. I came into many advantages by birth, but money was not among them.

I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. If you are a typical reader of The Atlantic, you may well be a member too. (And if you’re not a member, my hope is that you will find the story of this new class even more interesting—if also more alarming.) To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule

Over the last seven years I have sometimes wondered whether or not some Mbird readers who express skepticism about superhero movies are expressing skepticism about an unabashedly lowbrow idiom from a middlebrow or highbrow social position.  Yes, superhero films are often cheesy and predictable but the cheese is, so to speak, on top of the pizza.  The pizza "toppings" are things you may never discover if you don't take a bite.  In middlebrow as distinct from lowbrow the pizza has all the toppings on top like we'd expect a "normal" pizza to have, so all the meat is stuff that can be picked off a slice of pepperoni or a piece of Italian sausage at a time while the cheese itself, which is no less foundational to the core of the pizza by resting on the structural crust, is still as plentiful as ever.  But in terms of criticism as an art and social signal the toppings are all in a place where the fundamental cheese doesn't have to be addressed if you don't want to. 

What this allows for is for someone to make the quaint and obvious observation that Captain America suits up to fight crime while Wonder Woman strips down to fight evil.  Ah, yes, so cogent but the kind of bromide anyone could make who isn't committed to digging in a bit deeper; that Black Panther can be presented as a conflict between African and African American thought about the global history of black experience is right there on the surface and Charles Mudede can see it and note that it's one of many things that makes Black Panther fun.  But Wonder Woman and Captain America both run with the idea that the team that is supposedly the "good guys" is the seedbed of evil--in Wonder Woman Diana discovers Ares is not in Germany but comfortably ensconced within the English aristocracy and has secretly been orchestrating an "armistice" that will pave the way for even more war, as World War I ends in a way that makes World War II certain; Steve Rogers discovers in The Winter Soldier that SHIELD did not defeat Hydra but was assimilated into and taken over by it. 

What superhero movies have by way of surface cheese is still cheesy as ever but the meat under the toppings is that superhero movies are the American idiom in which those who benefit from the meritocratic strata of superheroes are examined in terms of what social and moral obligations they are expected to have by way of that aristocratic birth or benefit.  As I've been saying over the years, a Batman (whether in Batman: the animates series or in Nolan's Batman) is a way for Americans or people interested in American culture to consider what the one percent "should" be like--if there's always going to be a one percent what do we expect of that ideal one percent.  A play at meritocracy is a play at denying the benefits of birth, perhaps?   Richard Reeves' Dream Hoarders makes a similar case to the Atlantic piece on the meritocratic castes only he doesn't put his finger on the upper 9.9 percent but on the entire upper 20%.   All the rhetoric of the "99 percent" can be deployed by those who are in the range of 20 to 2 percent as if these people had solidarity with the 100 to 21 percentile participants in society.   People who can afford to attend Oberlin or Reed or Cornish or Seattle U or the University of Washington can speak and write as if they can identify the privilege in others with comparable educations as if they had solidarity with high school drop outs in socioeconomic terms. 

Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.
In between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent is a group that has been doing just fine. It has held on to its share of a growing pie decade after decade. And as a group, it owns substantially more wealth than do the other two combined. In the tale of three classes (see Figure 1), it is represented by the gold line floating high and steady while the other two duke it out. You’ll find the new aristocracy there. We are the 9.9 percent.

So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”

As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent. (And if you’re not there yet, relax: Our club is open to people who are on the right track and have the right attitude.) “We are the 99 percent” sounds righteous, but it’s a slogan, not an analysis. The families at our end of the spectrum wouldn’t know what to do with a pitchfork.


So it takes $2.4 million in net worth to reach the group median of the 9.9 percent?  If that's true then if this estimate has any weight then Mark Driscoll's firmly at the median of the net worth it takes to be in the 9.9 percent.  And perhaps as an exemplar of ("an", by no means "the") 9.9 Mark Driscoll's career depended on a lot of breaks given to him by other people along the way to his being a celebrity Christian. 
There's another article that comes to mind from The Atlantic, actually, and it's about how a recent study suggests the old "marshmallow test" not only doesn't necessarily replicate but was taken to measure something it didn't measure.  Kids waiting to get two treats instead of one if they just wait X minutes isn't necessarily a demonstration of "willpower" but of socioeconomic enculturation, i.e. rich kids grow up in contexts where they know they will be rewarded for patience and understand this concept.  The mighty Monarch can wait for his trust fund to kick out of escrow and then he can go on to a self-appointed career of supervillainy as a trust fund baby, for those who watch The Venture Bros.  But for those who don't, here's the pertinent other article from The Atlantic.

The marshmallow test is one of the most famous pieces of social-science research: Put a marshmallow in front of a child, tell her that she can have a second one if she can go 15 minutes without eating the first one, and then leave the room. Whether she’s patient enough to double her payout is supposedly indicative of a willpower that will pay dividends down the line, at school and eventually at work. Passing the test is, to many, a promising signal of future success.

But a new study, published last week, has cast the whole concept into doubt. The researchers—NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan—restaged the classic marshmallow test, which was developed by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel and his colleagues administered the test and then tracked how children went on to fare later in life. They described the results in a 1990 study, which suggested that delayed gratification had huge benefits, including on such measures as standardized test scores.
Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors—such as the income of a child’s household—that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success.

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

The marshmallow test isn’t the only experimental study that has recently failed to hold up under closer scrutiny. Some scholars and journalists have gone so far to suggest that psychology is in the midst of a “replication crisis.” In the case of this new study, specifically, the failure to confirm old assumptions pointed to an important truth: that circumstances matter more in shaping children’s lives than Mischel and his colleagues seemed to appreciate.

This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

So it's possible after all these years what that test measured was socio-economic class and its enculturated benefits, not "willpower". 

one of my favorite parts of the meritocracy article is where it translates the "part time nanny" of now into the "governess" of the 19th century Victorian novel idiom.

New forms of life necessarily give rise to new and distinct forms of consciousness. If you doubt this, you clearly haven’t been reading the “personal and household services” ads on At the time of this writing, the section for my town of Brookline, Massachusetts, featured one placed by a “busy professional couple” seeking a “Part Time Nanny.” The nanny (or manny—the ad scrupulously avoids committing to gender) is to be “bright, loving, and energetic”; “friendly, intelligent, and professional”; and “a very good communicator, both written and verbal.” She (on balance of probability) will “assist with the care and development” of two children and will be “responsible for all aspects of the children’s needs,” including bathing, dressing, feeding, and taking the young things to and from school and activities. That’s why a “college degree in early childhood education” is “a plus.”

In short, Nanny is to have every attribute one would want in a terrific, professional, college-educated parent. Except, of course, the part about being an actual professional, college-educated parent. There is no chance that Nanny will trade places with our busy 5G couple. She “must know the proper etiquette in a professionally run household” and be prepared to “accommodate changing circumstances.” She is required to have “5+ years experience as a Nanny,” which makes it unlikely that she’ll have had time to get the law degree that would put her on the other side of the bargain. All of Nanny’s skills, education, experience, and professionalism will land her a job that is “Part Time.”

The ad is written in flawless, 21st-century business-speak, but what it is really seeking is a governess—that exquisitely contradictory figure in Victorian literature who is both indistinguishable in all outward respects from the upper class and yet emphatically not a member of it. Nanny’s best bet for moving up in the world is probably to follow the example of Jane Eyre and run off with the lord (or lady) of the manor.

If you look beyond the characters in this unwritten novel about Nanny and her 5G masters, you’ll see a familiar shape looming on the horizon. The Gatsby Curve has managed to reproduce itself in social, physiological, and cultural capital. Put more accurately: There is only one curve, but it operates through a multiplicity of forms of wealth.

It's a really long-form piece for The Atlantic but when the author gets to this sarcasm soaked-paragraph it's ... :

You see, when educated people with excellent credentials band together to advance their collective interest, it’s all part of serving the public good by ensuring a high quality of service, establishing fair working conditions, and giving merit its due. That’s why we do it through “associations,” and with the assistance of fellow professionals wearing white shoes. When working-class people do it—through unions—it’s a violation of the sacred principles of the free market. It’s thuggish and anti-modern. Imagine if workers hired consultants and “compensation committees,” consisting of their peers at other companies, to recommend how much they should be paid. The result would be—well, we know what it would be, because that’s what CEOs do.


gotten me thinking about a previously alluded to possible member of the 9.9 percent, the celebrity Christian sort who may really believe he actually worked his way to that position so that his kids can have a great future.  In a way that plagiarism controversy could be distilled to a controversy about all sorts of writers whose work someone forgot to thank along the way to his success the first time around who got footnotes and acknowledgments in second editions.  Perhaps membership in the 9.9 percent is being able to afford that "do over" without having one's credibility or reputation completely decimated by such a set of controversies.

There are always going to be good old boy networks and what will happen when glass ceilings get broken is that the good old boy networks can turn into good people networks and that will, in some sense, be more fair in one respect but probably not in others. 

What an ideological turn like intersectionality may be best at, I'm afraid, is disguising privilege in such a way that those most committed to intersectionality and identity politics may completely fail to grasp that its socio-economic end is perhaps simply masking one's own privilege first from one's own self and from anyone else with whom a person of such privilege might be arguing.  Or as I've put it in other posts, there seems to be a generation of Americans who go to college and think that because they can quote Walter Benjamin they're not part of a ruling caste or participants in what the Frankfurt school authors sometimes called the culture industry.  If the right-leaning "red state" variation of this is meritocracy (inevitably noted along the way in the Atlantic article) the left-leaning blue state variation of hiding privilege from yourself may reside in intersectionality but, I suggest this weekend, the rhetorical gambit, the magic spell, can end up being much the same. 


It seems to me that the appeal of a guy like Jordan Peterson might be explicable in terms of a 9.9 percent concern about the danger of downward social mobility.  As the character Charlie in Whit Stillman's film Metropolitan put the question, why do Americans always love stories of social mobility where the trajectory is always up?  Why don't we see American stories of downward mobility?  While conservatives have a penchant for Stillman (see how easily his name springs up at The Imaginative Conservative, for instance), Whit Stillman gets that not all forms of socialist thought are automatically Marxist or Leninist.  One of the funniest lines in Metropolitan is, "You're a Fourierist!?"  Brook Farm may have failed but at least Charlie knew who Fourier was in his conversation with Tom.  When hanging out with conservative friends and family one of my regular frustrations is their propensity to collapse anything and everything to the left of them as Marxist, much like I find it exasperating that when I hang out with liberal or progressive friends that they regard anything to the right of them as fascist. 

And so for fans of Jordan Peterson any credulous moment of doubt that he can meaningfully appeal to men who aren't in some way in the 9.9 percent may get blasted as being unconcerned about the crisis of masculinity in our contemporary society.  My friends who work in construction or as electricians don't seem to know or care who Peterson is and there's nothing he seems to have on offer that matters to them.  They have their wives and children and they can debate whether or not it's worth it to see the next Star Wars installment without it necessarily being about whether we need to jettison the cliché of the strong female character with appeals to stereotypes about what women can plausibly do in action genres in which people who believe in the Force can perform superhuman feats.  I found The Last Jedi exasperating for a lot of reasons but Rey being a Mary Sue was not one of them because a Mary Sue or Marty Stue is the new normal.  Seeming to effortlessly master everything as if by benefit of birth or being the chosen one might just be a new variant of pop cultural tropes imbued with a generation's worth of cultural accretion from, just to be polemical about this, the 9.9 percent.  What better way to demonstrate in popular culture how the chosen few are basically born into their greatness by dint of parentage than via fantasy genres like Star Wars or the superhero genre? 

What made Roberts' handwringing essay so ridiculous was that by the time Rogue One got released a bit more than half a year later the kinds of bad dialogue that was littered in the trailer didn't even show up in the film.  Turned out Erso's character arc involved a form of reconnecting with her father and carrying on his quiet form of dissent as a designer by capturing the plans to the Death Star so as to give the Rebellion a chance to destroy the Death Star in a plot that made sense in relational terms and solved the most glaring plot hole in the original Star Wars, which was why on earth anyone would design a planet-destroying space station weapons system in which a single well-placed shot could cause a chain reaction that would destroy the entire platform.  Plus Donnie Yen was in it, which, honestly, was what tipped the scale for me. 

But even there, what did we see?  The child of someone great goes on to greatness.  Even in our pulpiest genre films who you're born to makes all the difference in the world.  Even in complete, abject misfires like the Amazing Spider-man with Garfield there were needless subplots about Peter trying to find out the truth about his parents.   We didn't get what we got in the comics, Parker learning that his parents were traitors and spies who worked for the Red Skull before discovering later they were secret agents who died after discovering what the Red Skull planned to do and warning people.   Instead we got yet another tedious Norman Osborne back story in which family is destiny. 

Here's the thing, though, what if people from the 9.9 percent are so aghast at wasting time on the pulp stories and what they can tell us that they aren't looking at how the upper tiers of American culture-making are dropping the reality of the entrenched meritocratic aristocracy of superheroes and world-changers in every pulpy piece of popular culture for the masses and the lowbrow while explicitly and emphatically denying that in preferences for middlebrow and highbrow? 

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