State of the Union

Wi-Fi Invades the Wilderness

Jason Mark’s article for The Atlantic, “Wifi in the Woods,” points to an alarming trend: Wi-Fi connectivity brought into national parks—or at least, for the time being, their visitor centers. Parks Canada was the first to begin the push, spurring the National Park Service and National Park Hospitality Association into action.

This prompted a popular outcry. Mark sums it up nicely when he writes that “if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.”

Parks Canada issued a statement guaranteeing that Wi-Fi connectivity will remain unavailable in most areas, adding that “You will have to wait to be back from your hike to update your Facebook page or add a squirrel selfie.” A similar conciliatory tone is maintained by the NPS and NPHA. An article on the project states that the “backcountry and wilderness areas in general would not become Wi-Fi hubs—at least, not through this pilot project.”

Not through this project, but perhaps through another? Google is more ambitious than the park services in its efforts to affirm the ubiquity of Internet connectivity. A fleet of 180 mini satellites is being launched at the price of an estimated $1 to $3 billion. Google’s first avowed goal is simply to enhance their mapping capabilities, but that by no means precludes the later addition of Internet connectivity.

Alistair Barr and Andy Pasztor wrote on the project for the Wall Street Journal in June, highlighting Internet access as the primary economic motive: “Google’s project is the latest effort by a Silicon Valley company to extend Internet coverage from the sky to help its business on the ground.” And this latest effort is extensive. Google is launching balloons and drones in addition to its satellites. (Facebook has a drone project of its own.)

Anxiety at the apparent inexorability of Internet connectivity is justified: the American imagination has long been fascinated with the notional purity of nature. At the time Thoreau penned Waldenhe was witnessing the earliest cultural precursors of the Industrial Revolution: cities were growing at unprecedented rates, families were being uprooted, individuals were becoming increasingly isolated from one another in the rush to gain employment and wealth—the Gilded Age was coming. Thoreau retreated into the woods to find truth, saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We are now facing the effects of the Information Revolution. iPhones, laptops, and social media are its hallmarks; compulsive data aggregation and exchange its symptoms. Cities and industries are shifting rapidly again and, once more, we face another wave of technological advancement to which we must become accustomed.

We may yet see Wi-Fi at Walden Pond.

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Place and the Politics of Slacktivism

Americans have come to stand at quite a distance from their government. The interests of government, as well as those of politics, are a point of indifference to many citizens. A Pew Research Center study conducted before the 2012 election cycle designated 43 percent of the voting-age population in its entirety as “non-voters.”

As a result, our political process has seen the rise of slacktivism, defined by one august Internet institution as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It manifests itself in many ways: hashtag activism (see also: #WeAreN, #YesAllWomen, and #BringBackOurGirls), social media campaigns for “change,” and clicktivism, to name a few. Laura Seay at The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage writes that the logic of slacktivist campaigns “are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them.”

Why the emphasis on awareness? Today’s political sphere has been atomized. The public has no voice, no agency unless it somehow finds a way to leverage its power in Washington indirectly. This is where slacktivism is so appealing. A click, a share, and you feel that you have influenced something, somewhere. Seay again:

[Slacktivist campaign] logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.

Of course, this is not merely a political matter. Social media activism is a massive commercial industry, as Vice points out:

With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty InternationalSierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.

Some of the petitions do indeed go “viral” and cause change—the article points to the “pink sludge” and Gatorade campaigns as success stories, with one caveat.

Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change. But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you’re more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand.

Large-scale petition programs often end up being little more than a means to translate widespread but apathetic goodwill into monetary gain. Micah White, in a piece that ostensibly named the “clicktivism” movement, posed the conflict as “a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

The article is an eloquent jeremiad, declaiming what he sees as a crass by-product of capitalism.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities.

But in that last sentence, he hits upon the truth of “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” etc. Local organizations, formerly the “authentic voice” of the community, have been all but eliminated in modern politics. The problem is not capitalism, but the lack of a meaningful way to act and influence others locally—namely, the absence of the intermediary social institutions of town, church, home; in a word, place.


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Punk Rock and Poultry With a Kick

punkrocker

Johnny Rotten would probably be horrified to be grouped with the likes of today’s foodie counterculture—and, true to character, the odds are good that he would unabashedly vocalize his distaste—but the fact remains that his sneering anarchy is, in some ways, as much of a political statement as the choice to eat and cook locally.

Punk came about as a form of critique. In the beginning, it managed to create a now-iconic counterculture where (often subversive) political commentary could flourish. The anti-establishment attitude resulted in a remarkably hardy group: early punk rockers largely embraced self-promotion, preferring informal and community-based means of production to systematized or formalized industry structures. (Not to mention hard drugs.)

Today, the genteel locavore movement is forming its own, more subtly subversive, counterculture. The strengths of the punk movement—as with any truly sustainable anti-establishment culture—are to be found within those who choose to grow their own food, eat and cook locally, and focus on re-establishing local communities in the face of an ever-growing industry structure. And the movement is anything but a partisan project.

Joel Salatin, a hero among many who hope to return food production and consumption to its local roots, wrote a book titled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” addressing the difficulties that independent farmers face. He is a champion for local and sustainable agriculture, and a charismatic one at that. Andrea Gabor from The Atlantic wrote about her visit to the “mecca of sustainable agriculture,” Salatin’s Polyface Farms, in 2011. She observed that his appeals to the listener are not only rooted in his trade, but political and moral sentiments as well. Salatin is fulfilling a vocation, creating a counterculture.

As he does frequently during the tour, Salatin digresses to matters more spiritual and political than agricultural: “The pig is not just pork chops and bacon and ham to us. … Our culture doesn’t ask about preserving the essence of pig, it just asks how can we grow them faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper.”

Salatin is far from alone in his rejection of factory farming and industrialized food. Though Salatin’s rhetoric tends to appeal to the Right, John Schwenkler wrote in 2008 of an unexpected ally on the Left: Alice Waters, the leader of what she calls “the Delicious Revolution.” In a 1997 speech, she seems to echo—though in very different vernacular—what Salatin is saying.

[Schoolyard gardens] “teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting—for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives.

Salatin strives to preserve the existence of what Waters calls “the real, the authentic, and the lasting;” sustainability is, like all sound countercultures (punk included) a principled critique.

But the ethical case is not the only one to be made. The factory farming industry is corrupt in precisely the same way that other sprawling industries are: Schwenkler writes that “Official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stand to benefit.” (Sid, are you listening?)

The punk movement, in the end, was not particularly conducive to law and order—or sustainable community of any kind, for that matter. It was the earnest, if misguided, rebellion of disenfranchised youth, rejecting legitimate and illegitimate social obligations without scruple.

The essence of the locavore movement on both Left and Right is its unique anti-authoritarian aims: not anarchy for its own sake, but the rejection of what they see to be a corrupted system. Alice Waters’ rebellion seeks to combat corporate and governmental sprawl by cultivating local community; Salatin’s, by rousing it.

Perhaps there’s a little punk in all of us—even while tending the hens.


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As Mosul’s Christians Flee, Religious Freedom Gets an Ambassador

mosul

The State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom paints a dark picture for religious liberty advocates. The AP says that “Millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year,” referring to the IRF report’s summary of “the devastating impact of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.”

The IRF report itself opens by saying that, in 2013, “the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. … Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”

In Mosul, the crisis of Iraqi Christians has reached fever pitch: a fourth-century monastery was recently taken by force. The tomb traditionally held to be the resting place of Jonah was destroyed by insurgents. The Iraqi government has denounced the rebels’ actions, but done little to stop them. An AP report sheds light on the havoc:

Residents in Mosul also say the Islamic State group’s fighters recently have begun to occupy churches and seize the homes of Christians who have fled the city. … Already in Mosul, the extremist group has banned alcohol and water pipes, and painted over street advertisements showing women’s faces. It has, however, held off on stricter punishments so far.

The State Department report was released on Monday, serving to illustrate a known trend of international religious chaos and neatly coinciding with President Obama’s announcement of David Saperstein’s appointment as Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom for the U.S.

The appointment has been a long time coming. Obama, criticized by some for dawdling, has allowed the post to remain vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook, Saperstein’s predecessor, vacated the post in October 2013.

Mark Silk writes at Religion News Service that Saperstein is highly qualified for the position:

Saperstein’s religious liberty bona fides is without peer. Two decades ago, he put together the coalition responsible for gaining all but unanimous passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that has recently become the darling of religious conservatives. In 1999, he was unanimously elected by his fellow commissioners to serve as the first chair of the USCIRF. He served on the first advisory council to Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and was a member of the task force to reform the office. No representative of a religious organization in Washington comes close to matching his credibility across the political spectrum.

His appointment comes at a time when religious strife is prominent at home and abroad. Saperstein has been tasked with what is arguably one of the most complex and difficult political missions of the moment. He faces extraordinarily violent international religious conflict, in addition to the prospect of political resistance at home. And given the trajectory of the world, things look likely to only get worse before they get better.


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Pentagon Audit Goes Once More Into the Breach

Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Image courtesy Congresswoman Barbara Lee

H.R. 5126 is the latest effort in a longstanding and increasingly bipartisan movement to send the Pentagon sailing into the azure waters of Sound Fiscal Policy. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and co-sponsored by Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

For those seeking immediate, significant cuts to military spending, the measure might be less than satisfying, but Jill Shatzen, Communications Director for Rep. Burgess, said that the primary goal of the bill was to “put a little pressure on them in order to gain compliance.” The bill will “reduce by one-half of one percent the discretionary budget authority of any Federal agency for a fiscal year if [it] does not receive a qualified or unqualified audit opinion by an external independent auditor[.]“ A similar bill proposing five percent budget penalties for un-auditable Pentagon programs failed in 2013, so a more modest approach has been taken.

Led by Rafael DeGennaro, the Audit the Pentagon Coalition has secured endorsements from a diverse range of political figures. “[H.R. 5126] is a well-crafted and moderate piece of legislation,” DeGennaro said at a press conference. “It’s backed by a broad coalition: from Grover Norquist on the right to Ralph Nader — who endorsed it only recently — to Code Pink on the left.”

The law that H.R. 5126 seeks to enforce, passed in 1990, required the Pentagon to pass an annual audit and has been utterly disregarded since. “The current law is strong and clear,” said DeGennaro, ”The deadline was [25] years ago. We need to impose immediate financial consequences on un-auditable agencies.” Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, emphasized at a press conference that establishing baseline accountability is an important first step to reform, regardless of political affiliation. ”There is always going to be a discussion on how and what to spend on defense,” Norquist said, “but do any of us know how much we are spending? You can’t begin to have a conversation without the facts.” Norquist is a long-time supporter of the effort to audit the Pentagon. TAC‘s Michael Ostrolenk interviewed him in 2012 about his efforts at the time. During the interview, he quipped that “[s]pending is not caring. Spending is what politicians do instead of caring.”

DeGennaro said that by requiring each individual agency to be responsible for passing an audit, H.R. 5126 sidesteps the mistake of treating the Pentagon as a “monolith.” Necessary spending cuts can be decided once the numbers are available and the agencies are once more operating within definable boundaries.

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, strongly supported the Pentagon audit in a 2013 interview with TAC: “Audit the Pentagon?” he asked. “Absolutely—a no brainer. Just do it.”


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Slenderman and the “Mythos” of Modernism

On May 31, a bicyclist found a young girl, stabbed 19 times with a five inch blade, after she crawled out of the Wisconsin woods and dragged herself toward the nearest road.

The perpetrators Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 and classmates of the victim, are being charged as adults with attempted murder. The stabbing was an attempt to pay tribute to Slenderman, a faceless, betentacled, and besuited character from Internet lore. The two girls were caught along the road after they had committed the crime, apparently walking to an imaginary rendezvous point with Slenderman.

They first discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki, which is where most of the current fan fiction resides. They reportedly planned the attack for months, finally luring the victim into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek.

The Slenderman myth is one of the first pieces of popular lore truly borne of the Internet, beginning online and accruing momentum and backstory as people photoshopped and blogged Slenderman into existence. The rapid spread of his legend surprised even Eric Knudsen, Slenderman’s creator. He said in an interview that he didn’t expect it to move beyond the Somethingawful forum where he posted the first Slenderman image:

It was amazing to see people create their own little part of Slender Man in order to perpetuate his existance [sic]. … I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend.

When he created Slenderman, he said that he wanted something “whose motivations can barely be comprehended,” and that caused “general unease and terror in a general population.” He here pinpoints the power of Slenderman: the omnipotence of the unknown. The Internet has, after all, given us the ability to know every imaginable aspect of our world; but not to belong to it.

Vice chalks the violence up to poorly-managed hormones and small-town boredom. An Mytheos Holt at R Street asks whether their violence could have been prevented by addressing mental illness openly. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times makes Slenderman’s faceless horror emblematic of the “selfie” age—an attempt to use fear to push against compulsive, narcissistic self-documentation.

Collin Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College, mentioned in an e-mail that the need to find meaning and community, to craft an identity, could have driven the crime, “Killing in the name of Slenderman and investing oneself in religious rituals are not entirely different and may reflect latent fears we have about being utterly alone in the universe.”

In the mythos, Slenderman’s victims are always alone, and radically estranged from help or support. There is no intelligible pattern or motive to the victimization. In contrast to the bogeymen of “organic” folklore, he has no distinct vendetta against transgressors of social or moral norms.

The two girls were not driven to violence by their encounter with Slenderman. He was emblematic of faceless, nameless dread: of complete alienation. As Kathleen Hale pointed out at Vice, girls of their age are experiencing radical emotional isolation, and possible mental health issues and public school social dynamics only exacerbate the problem. In a way, the killing was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to connect with someone or something when faced with being “utterly alone.” Slenderman is the demon of a suburban age.


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“Emoji Dick”: American Classic?

“Call me Ishmael,” the opening line to one of America’s greatest works of literature, looks very different when rendered in emoji characters.

The Library of Congress accepted data engineer Fred Benenson’s pictorial rewrite of Moby Dick, titled “Emoji Dick,” after Michael Neubert advocated its addition:

“[The book] takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?’”

Pictorial communication is becoming increasingly widespread as Emoji, “the more elaborate cousins of emoticons,” get deployed incessantly across social media. There is a forthcoming communication app called Emoji.li that uses exclusively emoji characters to communicate. One Tumblr account offers emotional analysis based on emoji use. There is even an art and design show dedicated to the pictorial system.

Hannah Rosenfield took a look at the linguistic possibilities (and impossibilities) of emoji. It has yet to develop syntax or grammar: changes in the placement of emoji within a “sentence” fail to convey any significant change in meaning. It shares many characteristics with pidgin languages, which often arise when two groups without significant linguistic common ground must communicate. “Pidgins typically have a limited vocabulary and lack nuance, a developed syntax, and the ability to convey register,” Rosenfield writes.

But just because pictorial systems are non-viable as a means of communication themselves doesn’t mean that they can’t enrich the language—and this goes beyond emoji to other forms of visual media. For example, teachers are utilizing graphic novels to aid reading comprehension in schools, as well as relying more upon digital and visual media to engage young children in their text work.

The key, though, is that these are used to supplement—not replace—traditional language. Camilla Nelson writes that “good transmedia narratives do not merely repeat across media platforms. Rather, each text offers a way to supplement, analyse and evaluate the rest—a bit like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together through the use of imagination and problem solving.” Indeed, “Emoji Dick” is primarily an exercise in translation: Benenson accompanied the strings of emoji “sentences” with the original text, in order to provide context for the reader and intelligibility to the characters.

Picture languages give us an opportunity to emphasize or complement the language in which we think and speak, be it utilized for the sake of education, to bridge a language gap, or in casual communication. “Emoji, for all its detractors, is about embellishment and added context,” writes Rhodri Marsden for The Independent. “[I]t’s about in-jokes, playfulness, of emphasising praise or cushioning the impact of criticism, of provoking thought and exercising the imagination.”

The idea that pictorial systems could be used to engage language—streamline it, give it further nuance—has been around since before the 1500s. The problem is that visual representation is just that: representation. It refers to something concrete; points, as it were, to something else. Advanced languages derive meaning from context, from the relationships between the words themselves as well as the associations they evoke. Emoji and other visual media are highly contingent, useless without at least some explanation.

Useful? Perhaps, but by no means representative of the eclipse of the written word.

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America the Abstracted

Two recent studies offer up what appear to be contradictory results: one, by the Pew Research Center, indicates that young Americans are less patriotic than their forebears. On the other hand, a recent MTV survey purports to have found that young Americans far and away surpass past generations’ patriotism.

One explanation for the disparate findings is that both surveys approach patriotism in a different manner. For MTV’s purposes, patriotism implies zealous adherence to and belief in “American ideals.” For the Pew Research Center, patriotism and exceptionalism are neatly conflated. (For example, one question the Pew survey uses to determine “patriotism” is whether the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.”)

Daniel Larison recently looked at the disparity between “old” and “new” exceptionalism. He writes that “believing that the U.S. is exceptional in certain respects because of its political traditions and institutions doesn’t require one to endorse the idea that the U.S. ‘stands above’ all other countries.” Conversely, a commitment—no matter how zealous—to an America of universal platitudes does not mean that you are patriotic.

But it is precisely this zealous commitment to universalist moralism that MTV emphasized in its own survey. As Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post put it:

Rather than trying to boil patriotism down to whether millennials think we are number one, MTV took a look at what young people think constitute American values and how much faith they have that the country can live up to them.

Are you proud of America? Are you inspired by America? The use of emotional, idealistic vocabulary led to paradoxical results. From the MTV press release:

· Nearly 90 percent of young people feel it is “American” to advocate for equality and fairness, yet nearly 7 in 10 believe the country only embraces college-educated, well-off people.

· Over 80 percent of Millennials say America remains the land of opportunity, however 56 percent also feel the American system has let them down.

· Nearly 7 in 10 Millennials believe “America is the best country in the world,” yet 8 in 10 young people agree that some actions of the American government make it hard to be proud.

As Richard Gamble explained in a 2012 cover article for TAC, contemporary American exceptionalism and its belief that American values are universal values results in an aggressively global perspective; it presumes America “to be a beacon to the world and a liberator on a mission of universal redemption.”

But abstract principle comprises only part of American identity. The Declaration of Independence, while universalist in its rhetoric, was not intended to be an absolute expression of human emancipation.

Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review makes an excellent point when he says that the Founders “sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were ‘entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.’”

Cooke writes that, “[w]ith its attestation that all men are created equal, the Declaration of Independence represented a glorious break with all that had gone before.” But the Founders did not seek to march forward into global progress. He continues: “…it is a reflective, rather than a subversive document — one that is predicated upon ancient principle and marinated in a wisdom that had taken centuries to accrue.”

Young Americans are emphatically committed to the principles upon which America was founded, but will sometimes reject the country itself as well as the wisdom and history embodied in its establishment. It is fealty to an idea, not loyalty to a nation, that they profess.


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Aggregated Soul, Quantified Self

Know thyself!

According to the Quantified Self movement, data aggregation is the answer to one of mankind’s oldest and most fundamental problems. Its catchphrase, “self knowledge through numbers,” implicitly suggests that objective self analysis by various means of data collection will allow users to reach their goals, whatever those may be.

Lo! Self knowledge, delivered in an easy-to-read graph and often helpfully accompanied by concrete, attainable steps to self-improvement.

The American public has proven incredibly receptive to the idea. Indeed, the Quantified Self movement is nestled within a much larger industry of self-quantification and description. Josh Bersin for Forbes Magazine points out that we have turned nearly everything into a means to this end:

Not only are we instrumenting our bodies, we are instrumenting everything else. … Facebook itself is an “instrumentation” system – it encourages us to post more and more data about where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are with. And Twitter, which now has around 260 million users, has become a self-description engine.

One man has taken to coding himself a daily itinerary. HTML prompts appear at various intervals, reminding him to get up and stretch, tell his wife he loves her, evaluate his energy level, take 10 minutes to think, etc.  Another man used the massive amounts of data he self-collected to lose 100 pounds and launch himself into a successful business career. And then there’s the man who just got drunk.

A look into the ways consumers use the data collection industry gives insight into why they are self-aggregating in the first place: they are telling a story. (Take, for example, the tendency of Facebook and Twitter users to thoroughly chronicle and distribute their existential minutiae.) The “narrative” of the Age of Information is a torrential data stream.

While this transformation seems radical, American society has experienced rapid shifts in the quantity and speed of shared data before. A City Journal article points out that the printing press, telegraph, and telephone each vaulted data distribution to what were then-unprecedented levels. The authors, Mark P. Mills and M. Anthony Mills, make the distinction between two prior stages of the information revolution and the peculiar nature of this latest development:

The first information revolution spawned mass printing and telecommunications; the second saw the ascendance of mass computing and the Internet. … We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

The distribution of this information seems to require no interpretation; only mediation, passive transmission of fact. It is tempting to lament that the qualitative self—man as storyteller, as interpreter—has been largely supplanted by the quantitative self: a man of data and metadata, of fact and sleek efficiency.

Though our imagination may very well have shifted, our nature has not. We are intrinsically subjective, incapable of complete objectivity. The image of mankind rendered by quantification, though ever more extensive, is by no means comprehensive. Scientific description cannot now and never will alter fundamental facts of human nature. Relentless reduction to objective fact cannot somehow circumscribe mankind.

“Know thyself” is an exhortation as profound and relevant in the Age of Information as it was in the age of Classical Greece: there is more to know, more to be known by, than numbers.


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Religious Discrimination Found in the Workplace

One might think that having a stronger cultural bias toward religion would lead to less discrimination against religious affiliations. Two sociological studies, one of New England and one of the South, indicate that in the workplace, at least, that may not be true.

The first study, the survey of New England, measured employer response to fictitious resumes that had various religious affiliations (including a made-up “Wallonian” faith) and a control group that had no such affiliation listed. The second study was a simple replica of the first, performed in the South. Both studies found that including an overt religious affiliation caused a significant drop in follow-up contacts from prospective employers.

The original study was focused on New England because, in the authors’ own words, “New Englanders express the lowest levels of religiosity in the country,” and the “notoriously taciturn New Englanders are not typically prone to flamboyant displays of religious fervor.” The New England study was then replicated in the South, a region known instead for being strongly religious. (The introduction to the survey of the South calls it the “most devout,” in contrast to New England’s label of “least religious.”)

The results? In both studies, Muslims were by far the least likely applicants to receive a follow-up contact, receiving 38 percent fewer e-mails and 41 percent fewer phone calls than the control group in New England. In the South, the numbers were 38 and 54 percent, respectively.

The New England study found that Catholics, pagans, evangelicals, and atheists were again subject to discrimination, if considerably less than Muslims. Each group received roughly 27-29 percent fewer phone calls: close to the effect that religious affiliation itself had on contact returns. (The reaction against these minority groups, save evangelicals, was similar but more pronounced in the South.)

Even cultures that are highly religious—such as the South—will discriminate against expressed religious affiliation in entry-level hirings. From the conclusion of the study conducted in New England:

This suggests that the secularization has developed a normative aspect … prescribing when and where it is “acceptable” to express one’s religiousness. … As such, secularization implies not just independence from religion but normatively enforced separation from it — even to the point of religious discrimination.

The key to overcoming prejudice seems to lie, oddly enough, with Southern Jews. They were given even preferential treatment by employers, despite the fact that their culture is unfamiliar to the regnant strain of Protestantism. From the conclusion of the survey conducted in the South by Wallace, Wright, and Hyde:

While Jews are culturally different from evangelicals in many respects, Southern Jews have deep historical roots in the South and have more successfully assimilated into mainstream culture than Jews in other regions. … In short, Jews thrived in the South, not by brandishing their religious differences but by embracing key aspects of Southern evangelical culture.

American culture has indeed secularized and, as this study shows, become more wary of overt religious affiliation. The separation between public and private freedom of religion is more and more strictly defined. Many Christians chafe at the idea of such restriction. But perhaps, as the success of Southern Jews has demonstrated, the answer is not to “brandish religious differences” but, as Samuel Goldman describes in the latest issue of The American Conservative, to make peace, within limits, with the culture in which we live, for the sake of common harmony.


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