August 12th, 2010

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] How Bristol Palin is helping to save marriage

David Frum, Canada's most famous ideologue export to the United States, briefly became popular early when he pointed out that the United States' Republican Party was being taken over by "movement conservatives," by people whose conservatism isn't informed by experience or pragmatism but rather by blindness. Joe. My. God. has pointed out that Frum is back at it with his latest essay over at CNN, "Bristol Palin and future of marriage", wherein the decision of Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol to--it seems--finally break with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Levi Johnston, the father of her child, takes on great significance.

Bristol Palin is exactly the type of girl who would have been pushed into a "shotgun marriage" in 1964: Her parents were leading citizens first of their town, then their state, now the nation. Their position and reputation would have absolutely precluded an unwed mother in the family.

Their friends and neighbors (and maybe more important, their daughter's friends and neighbors) would have enforced the expectation: marriage first, children second.

Not any more. Today, nobody expects it -- quite the contrary, when Levi reveals himself to be a jerk again, every People magazine reader in the country fully sympathizes with Bristol chucking him out, again. Get married for the sake of the children? Unwed motherhood as a disgrace? What is this, the Middle Ages?

I agree that this is an important decision; I think that it shows how Bristol values marriage. Levi, by all accounts, is a feckless media-hungry idiot who precipitated the most recent breakup by starring in a music video that mocked her family. Why would she want to debase the institution of marriage--for her community, very importantly for herself--by marrying the guy?

The problem with Frum's analysis of the importance of marriage is that, besides not bothering to note the effect that the non-recognition of same-sex couples and families on the same terms as their opposite-sex counterparts, he assumes that the institution of marriage is inevitably positive. He's not speaking about "educated" women (not men?), though, but only the less-educated.

Better educated Americans have discovered and absorbed these facts and altered their choices accordingly. College-educated women who married in the 1990s are much less likely to get divorced than were college-educated women who married in the 1970s. As ever, only a comparative handful of college-educated women give birth unwed: under 5 percent.

But more vulnerable Americans have not heard the message.

As of 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 40 percent of America's children were born outside marriage. If you are wondering why children born poor are having so much more trouble escaping poverty today than a generation ago, that statistic holds a big part of the answer.

Nice to know that American socioeconomic structures linked to diminished interclass mobility has nothing to do with this. Nice to know, too, that assuming that an idealized conservative version of the institution of marriage would help everyone, by locking some parents--we can imagine some hypothetical shotgun couples, right?--who'd be locked into unsuitable relationships. Nice to know that an institution shouldn't be functional, but should in fact be a sort of a straitjacket, stiff and insensitive and ultimately unresponsive yet charged with such supreme important.

Me, I think it's nice to know that Bristol Palin has taken charge of her life. Let Levi try to become mayor of Wasilla for some misbegotten reality TV show; let Bristol do something else with someone who respects her. Let marriage mean something for both of them, and for us.

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • At Acts of Minor Treason, Andrew Barton comes out strongly in favour of the durable book: unlike the e-book, the hardware of the book is durable.

  • Burgh Diaspora examines the surprising success of Atlantic Canadian businesspeople in their diaspora, contrasted particularly with Atlantic Canada's ongoing issues.

  • Edward Lucas at Eastern approaches mourns the impending replacement of Estonia's young kroon with the Euro.

  • The Global Sociology Blog cites evidence that patriarchy is a norm that has to be reinforced with violence, first through the murder of a Pakistani-British couple for not marrying their daughters off to Pakistani relatives, second to the abuse meted out to women abducted to be wives in Chechnya.

  • Dave Noon at Lawyers, Guns and Money savages a John Robbins column at the Huffington Post purporting to link the latest Chinese baby food scandal with American milk production ("hormones" do differ from each other).

  • Savage Minds' Rex makes the point that communities where the potlatch, not the market, is the basic mechanism for economic exchange tend not to be generally caring so much as generally very watchful.

  • At Understanding Society, Daniel Little examines how the first generations of French anthropologists curiously didn't connect their study of subject peoples in the colonial empire with studies of local communities back in the metropole.

  • Window on Eurasia collects documents suggesting that one in five Russians would be willing to move, this proportion rising to one in two Russians in the Far East.

  • At the Zeds, Michael Steeleworthy gives a positive review of Lawrence Lessig's recent book Remix, which critiques current copyright regulations as stifling of innovation and commentary.

[BRIEF NOTE] On regionalism vs separatism

Articles like Morgan Meis' "Death to Belgium!" (found via 3 Quarks Daily) reminds me why facile analyses of transnationalism--here, examining the consequences of Belgium's implosion on European identities--annoy me. Forgive me the extended quote; it's important.

Louis was smoking a cigar the size of a small tree trunk and holding a glass of tequila. He has spent a lifetime traveling the world, thinking about how it is that human beings govern themselves and one another. He peered at me across the table. "Why," he asked, "why do you need Belgium anymore?" The question took me off guard. I hadn't thought about it exactly that way before. Louis was right that the complexity of Belgium’s government is overwhelming. There are so many layers of governing you don't know where to start: local, city, regional, national, federal. Adding the EU to the already complicated mix seems cruel. The question is whether the entity we call “Belgium” is really contributing anything to the equation anymore.

In more radical terms, this would mean that the nation state in general, in Europe, could become superfluous. A shocking thought, no doubt. But with the EU providing a federal role, and local and regional governments doing the rest, what good is the nation? The nation state can simply be replaced by direct regional relationships with the transnational body called the EU. If Catalonia is part of the EU, what need for Spain? If Sardinia is an EU member, why the extra baggage of Italy? This isn't to say that all national entities must be dissolved, simply that many of them have outlived their usefulness.

That is exactly what Bart De Wever is calling for. Hardly parochial, he and his party are firm supporters of the EU. What his party supports is not the mass extermination of the Walloons, but the "evaporation" of Belgium and the direct absorption of two new states — Flanders and Wallonia — into the EU. There is no need for that extra entity, Belgium, at all. In a sense, De Wever wants Belgium to get smaller so that it can get bigger. This is not your father's separatism, not the retreat into prejudice and closed-mindedness that the word so often invokes.

This new separatism makes for another interesting chapter in the unfolding story that is the EU experiment. The chapter has far-reaching implications for what national identity is in a global age. The withering away of the nation state means, potentially, that individuals in the EU can simultaneously identify with their local region and with the continent as a whole. When it comes to day-to-day affairs, a Flemish person can concentrate fully on being Flemish — the specific traditions, foods, language, history, stories, and anything else that makes a woman feel Flemish. But a Flem still has that EU passport. The EU passport means she is also European, and this transnational kinship allows her to go all over the continent with the freedom and confidence that such a trans-national identity provides. It also means that she agrees, in principle, to protect the greater project of the EU as the umbrella under which all the little regions of Europe get to be who they want to be.

I agree with Meis that the European Union is facilitating the ongoing political shenanigans in Belgium, by providing a safety net via the functions of the national government safely removed to the European level--the currency crisis that certainly would have hit the Belgian franc by now hasn't hit a Belgium with a GDP that constitutes a low single-digit percentage of the Eurozone total.

I disagree with Meis in seeing this to be that notable a phenomenon. You're not seeing a very big push towards the regionalization of national powers, and the disappearance of the central state, in regions of European Union member-states like Yorkshire, or Aragon, or Lower Saxony, or Silesia. You're seeing this push in regions of European Union member-states like Scotland, and Catalonia, and Flanders, i.e. in places where large majorities of the population think that they live in non-sovereign (though autonomous) nations and large minorities think that their nations should become sovereign nation-states ... sovereign within the European Union.

Why is this distinction important? Nation-minded regions of existing member-states of the European Union may hollow out some of the functions of some of said member-states' governments, and non-nation-minded regions may well do the same--the competitive federalization of Spain comes to mind as an example of this--but the difference is that, for the non-nation-minded regions, the idea of independence is a complete non-starter. Is there any sizable constituency in Yorkshire that yearns for independence? Do Lower Saxons want to constitute a state independent from Germany?

If Scotland and Catalonia and Flanders and the other nation-minded regions of Europe all became independent from their parent states and members in good standing in the European Union, all that would do would be to create new nation-states as relatively homogeneous as the old: in Flanders, there might be a resurgence of the Ghent versus Antwerp rivalries that Meis starts his article with. The idea that Flemish independence could augur an era where Europeans would identify with Europe and their region of residence more than with their nation-state strikes me as so false. There wouldn't be a decomposition of Europe's nation-states, but rather a recomposition. The distinction matters.

[REVIEW] Haruki Marukami, Norwegian Wood

"I'll give you ten dollars for these," the guy behind the counter at the BMV used bookstore location at Yonge and Eglinton said as he pointed to the seven books I'd brought in for sale. "Most of these are common as spit, but," he held up Norwegian Wood, "but I can't keep Murakami on the shelves.

Was I wrong to sell so readily my trade paperback copy of the 2000 English edition of Haruki Marukami's 1987 breakthrough novel? I don't think so.

One famous problem with translated literature is that sometimes, no matter how fluent the translation, the resulting work can be opaque. For me, the sensation of reading some badly translated works is akin to the sensation of sliding over slippery smooth ice; there's just no traction. That's the sensation that I got when I was reading Norwegian Wood, with the added complication that the plot just didn't grab me. The setting of student unrest in dynamic late 1960s Japan should have interested me, but nothing seems to happen to the protagonist apart from silent suffering and contemplation.

I'm happy with the ten dollars I got.

(You judge my accuracy for yourselves thanks to the generosity of Google Books.)

[LINK] Lake Ontario; Ontario Lacus

I was very pleased when astronomers let Lake Ontario supply the name for Ontario Lacus, the hydrocarbon lake located in the south polar region of Saturn's planet-sized moon Titan. They do look somewhat alike, don't they?

Lake Ontario, Earth

The Toronto conurbation is located on the shoreline in the lower left corner, while the outlet to the St. Lawrence River is in the upper left corner.

Ontario Lacus, Titan

Ontario Lacus, located on a world with a cryogenic nitrogen-methane atmosphere that's nonetheless too warm to support bodies of liquid hydrocarbons outside of the polar regions, lacks such a sophisticated human geography. (So far?)

Ontario Lacus is a lake composed of methane, ethane and propane near the south pole of Saturn's moon Titan. Its character as a hydrocarbon lake was confirmed[1] by observations from the Cassini spacecraft, published in the 31 July 2008 edition of Nature. Ontario Lacus has a surface area of about 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles), slightly smaller than its terrestrial namesake, Lake Ontario in North America.

On January 12, 2010, Cassini took a more detailed radar-image of Ontario Lacus showing numerous remarkable features. The northern shoreline features low hills, probably about 1 kilometer (3,000 feet) in altitude, and flooded river valleys. A smooth, wave-sculpted shoreline, like that seen on the southeastern side of Lake Michigan, can be seen at the northeastern part of the lake. Smooth lines parallel to the current shoreline could be formed by low waves over time, which were likely driven by winds sweeping in from the west or southwest. The southeast shore features a round-headed bay intruding into the shore.

"New Toronto, Titan," would be a cool address.

[MUSIC] Eminem ft. Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie"

Anyone at all plugged into American pop culture knows about the enormously controversial song and video "Love the Way You Lie," featuring Eminem and Rihanna.

Yes, the song features the steely rhythms of Rihanna (a victim of partner abuse) and Eminem's great delivery (a possible perpetrator, the emotions famously depicted in his chilling song "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" covered to such great effect by Tori Amos). It's a great song, even if the lyrics certainly aren't the kind that you'd sing to yourself.

Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that's alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that's alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie

Or this.

You ever love somebody so much
You can barely breathe
When you're with them
You meet
And neither one of you
Even know what hit 'em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling
Yeah them chills
Used to get 'em
Now you're getting fucking sick
Of looking at 'em
You swore you've never hit 'em
Never do nothing to hurt 'em
Now you're in each other's face
Spewing venom
And these words
When you spit 'em
You push
Pull each other's hair
Scratch, claw, bit 'em
Throw 'em down

The Grumpy Sociologist made an interesting point in a recent very well sourced and researched post, about the many ways in which the violences described in the music and shown in the video can be received. It's quite possible to read this song in ways that don't involve criticisms of domestic violence.

In my dissertation, adolescent research participants spoke quite openly about the ways they saw IPV as completely normal. These were teens who had experienced multiple forms of violence throughout their lives (peer, family, romantic, drug, physical, verbal) -- certainly not the average college student. I wonder what their interpretations would be.

[. . .]

Since people with different social histories interpret popular culture differently, I'd be interested to see how young people from different demographics digest this song and video. Do the cultural artifacts problematize IPV (the stated intent) or further normalize and perpetuate this form of violence?

Or, as indicated by the radio DJ, does this video mobilize codes that perpetuate misunderstandings about co-occurring violence in intimate relationships? For instance, too many people assume that when males and females hit each other, the physical ramifications are equally harmful. Does the video gloss over the fact that verbal abuse, social isolation, and other forms of control (
e.g., forcing what a partner wears) can be more damaging than physical violence?

There's a lot of discomfort with this song and video out there in the wider world. I'd like to suggest that this discomfort comes from the ways in which the song's two characters try to rationalize their sufferings and their conflicts to themselves and each other, trying to convince each other that it's worth it. Isn't that the sort of creeping justification for bad things, both careful and careless, that can happen in relationships generally? It might be too thin a line for many; it certainly can be for some.

[LINK] The Power and the Money on organized crime in Mexico

Over at the Power and the Money, Noel Maurer has made an excellent series of posts taking a look at the ongoing epidemic of organized crime in Mexico, seemingly marked by massacre after massacre.

What's going on? Something bad, certainly. Noel crunched some numbers to demonstrate that Ciudad Juárez is more dangerous than Baghdad today, the Mexican city's homicide rates being surpassed by the Iraqi capital's only in 2006, when the city was going through the worst stage of the civil war. More, homicide rates are rising throughout northern Mexico, not only in the state of Chihuahua where Ciudad Juárez is capital: "Four states border Chihuahua; homicide has risen in all of them. That said, things need to stay in perspective. Coahuila’s homicide rate would still fit comfortably within the United States, having risen to the level of Maryland. Sonora’s rate has soared past Louisiana and Puerto Rico, but is still around the same as it was in the early 1990s. (A time when bandits hijacked entire trains and chilangos feared to drive to the States through the state.) Sinaloa has always been violent; I saw narcos walk into a barbacoa place, put guns on the table, and scare the hell out of the other patrons (or at least me) back in the 1990s. That said, it is certainly possible that killings in Coahuila and elsewhere will soar in the next few years. The signs are there."

The consequences of such a criminalization of northern Mexico--what he calls the Sicilianization of northern Mexico--would be extreme, with gangs "fighting it out to establish themselves as Mexico’s version of the Cosa Nostra or ‘Ndrangheta. Extortion and racketeering, drugs and vice. The end result would see violence decline ... along with economic growth, political democracy, and Mexico’s prospects." This doesn't mean that the doesn't mean that the Mexican state is failing, that there's an insurgency.

Organized crime in Mexico does not want to displace the state. It does, of course, want to end the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, because you can’t run an extortion racket without that. But it has no desire to replace or destroy the state. The capos certainly would like to subvert the state, and failing that, they’d like it to leave them alone. But that’s it. This is why Ciudad Juárez can experience Baghdad-high levels of violence (and I owe a favor to Anon for pointing out that misplaced decimal point) without experiencing Baghdad-like breakdowns of public service. If you define an “insurgency” as any group with a desire to break the state’s monopoly on violence, then most organized ones become insurgents and the word loses all its usefulness.

It would mean that Mexico, a country of more than one hundred million people with one of the more substantial countries in the world, a partner of Canada in North America and a much bigger partner of the United States, would stagnate. That would be a tragedy.

Noel has blogged about the origins of northern Mexico's crime rings, starting with early 20th century opium-smuggling rings based in Baja California, and evolving into a stable situation where crime existed but under the control of the Mexican government.

[O]rganized crime was tied up with the political system practically from the very beginning. The result wasn’t good for Mexican governance, but it did mean that the politicians were in control of the gangsters. There were violent outbreaks in the 1960s and then again in the late 1980s, but organized crime simply didn’t exist separately from the political system. There were individual gangsters and criminals, but no independent syndicates and no armies upon which the capos could draw to resist the state or intimidate the citizenry ... at least not without the active cooperation of the politicians.

That went away with the transition to democracy in the late 1990s. But violence didn’t really get out of the control until the last few years. So something else is going on. If that “something” turns out to be Sicilianization, then the end result will be a return to the bad old days of the PRI’s dictatorship, minus the protectionism. In Sicily in 2007, extortion rackets collected about 12% of GDP from businesses on the island — that’s more than the Mexican federal government collects in non-oil revenue.

The growth of cross-frontier cocaine smuggling, and--as a student suggests--the new, less connected Mexican government’s efforts to crack down on these networks, catalyzed the change.

Melissa Dell, a brilliant student at MIT, has crunched the numbers to test the hypothesis that the national crackdown may have in fact incited the violence. She took daily county-level data on drug-related homicides (generally called “executions” in the Mexican data). She then tested a simple, but not intuitive, hypothesis. If the government crackdown prompted more violence, then we should expect drug-related violence to jump after a county elects a mayor from the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). The reason is that Calderón’s party is the PAN. Not only did the federal PAN spearhead the assault on organized crime, but PAN candidates generally campaigned on a “tough on drugs” platform, and one would expect PAN mayors to be better able to coordinate law enforcement with the PAN federal government.

These are all good posts. Go, read.