(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all”*…

To be sure the 1% deserves scrutiny, but there is another– much larger– kind of elite entrenched across the U.S…

American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination.

The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.

These elites’ wealth derives not from their salary—this is what separates them from even extremely prosperous members of the professional-managerial class, such as doctors and lawyers—but from their ownership of assets. Those assets vary depending on where in the country we’re talking about; they could be a bunch of McDonald’s franchises in Jackson, Mississippi; a beef-processing plant in Lubbock, Texas; a construction company in Billings, Montana; commercial properties in Portland, Maine; or a car dealership in western North Carolina. Even the less prosperous parts of the United States generate enough surplus to produce a class of wealthy people. Depending on the political culture and institutions of a locality or region, this elite class might wield more or less political power. In some places, it has an effective stranglehold over what gets done; in others, it’s important but not all-powerful.Wherever these elites live, their wealth and connections make them influential forces within local society. In the aggregate, through their political donations and positions within their localities and regions, they wield a great deal of political influence. They’re the local gentry of the United States.

These folks’ wealth extends into the millions and tens of millions rather than the billions we typically associate with the world-shaping clout of international oligarchs. There are, however, a lot more of them than the global elites who get all of the attention. They’re not the faces of instantly recognizable brands or the subjects of award-winning New York Times profiles; they own warehouses and Applebee’s franchises, concrete companies and movie-theater chains, hops fields and apartment complexes.

Because their wealth is rooted in the ownership of physical assets, they tend to be more rooted in their place of origin than the cosmopolitan professionals and entrepreneurs of the major metro areas are. Mobility among major metros, the characteristic jumping from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York to Austin that’s possible for younger lawyers, creatives, and tech folks, is foreign to them. They might really like heading to a vacation home in Bermuda or Maui. They might plan a relatively early retirement to a wealthy enclave in Palm Springs; Scottsdale, Arizona; or Central Florida. Ultimately, however, their money and importance comes from the businesses they own, and those belong in their locality.

Gentry classes have been a common feature of a great many social-economic-political regimes throughout history. Pretty much anywhere you have a hierarchical form of social organization and property ownership, an entrenched gentry class of some kind emerges. In the course of working on my doctorate in history and years of research for my podcast, Tides of History, I’ve come across many different gentries, each with its own ideas about its legitimacy, role in society, and relationship to those above and below on the social scale: the local civic elites of the Roman Empire, the landlords of late Han China, the numerous lower nobility of late medieval France, the thegns of Anglo-Saxon England, the Prussian Junkers, and the planter class of the antebellum South. The gentry are distinct from the highest levels of a regime’s political and economic elite: They’re usually not resident in the political center; they don’t hold major positions in the central administration of the state (whatever that might consist of); and they aren’t counted among the wealthiest people in their polity. New national or imperial elites might develop over time from a gentry class, even rulers—the boundaries between these groups can be more or less porous—but that’s not typically the case.

Gentry are, by definition, local elites. The extent to which they wield power in their locality, and how they do so, is dependent on the structure of their regime. In the early Roman Empire, for example, local civic elites were essential to the functioning of the state. They collected taxes in their home city, administered justice, and competed with one another for local political offices and seats on the city council. Their competition was a driving force behind the provision of benefits to the common folk, in the form of festivals, games, public buildings, and more basic support, a practice called civic euergetism.

When we talk about inequality, we skew our perspective by looking at the most visible manifestations of it: penthouses in New York, mansions in Beverly Hills, the lavish wastefulness of hedge-fund billionaires or a misbehaving celebrity. But that’s not who most of the United States’ wealthy elite really are. They own $2 million houses on golf courses outside Orlando, Florida, and a condo in the Bahamas, not an architecturally designed oceanfront villa in Miami. Those billionaires (and their excesses) exist, but they’re not nearly as common as a less exalted category of the rich that’s no less structurally formative to our economy and society.

An enormous number of organizations and institutions are dedicated to advancing the interests of this gentry class: chambers of commerce, exclusive country clubs and housing developments, the American Society of Concrete Contractors, and fruit growers’ associations, just to name a small cross section. Through these organizations and their intimate ties to local and state politics, the gentry class can and usually does wield significant power to shape society to its liking. It’s easy to focus on the massive political spending of a Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg; it’s harder, but no less important, to imagine what kind of deals about water rights or local zoning ordinances are being struck across the U.S. on the eighth green of the local country club.

Some people work their way into this property-holding gentry class by virtue of their blood, sweat, and sheer gumption. That’s one variant of the American dream: the belief that hard work and talent, and maybe a bit of luck, can take a person into the ranks of the elite. But far more members of the gentry class are born into it. They inherit assets, whether those are car dealerships, apple orchards, or construction companies, and manage to avoid screwing things up. Managers run their companies, lawyers look over their contracts, accountants oversee their finances, but they’re the owners, whether or not they’ve done a single thing of their own volition to accumulate those assets. This is broadly true of gentry classes: They’re hereditary. Large amounts of property of any kind form a durable base for generational wealth, whatever specific shape it might take. The American gentry class isn’t entirely closed to new blood, but it, too, is hereditary.

Equating wealth, especially generational wealth, with virtue and ability is a deeply American pathology. This country loves to believe that people get what they deserve, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Nowhere is this more obviously untrue than with our gentry class.

The American gentry stands at the apex of the social order throughout huge swaths of the country. It shapes our economic and political world thanks to its resources and comparatively large numbers, yet it’s practically invisible to the popular eye.

Forget the skyscrapers and opulent country mansions, the elite family dynamics of Succession and the antics of the Kardashians and Kardashian-adjacent; look instead to the far more numerous multimillion-dollar planned golf-course communities and their controlling homeowners’ associations. Think about the informal property-development deals struck between sweating local grandees at the country-club bar in Odessa, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Power resides in gated communities and local philanthropic boards, in the ownership of staggering numbers of fast-food franchises, and in the smooth transmission of a large construction company’s assets to a new generation of small-yacht owners. Power can be found in group photos of half-soused, overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts, and in the millionaires ready and willing to fly their private jets to Washington, D.C., in support of a certain would-be authoritarian. The yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur: These were the people who, remembering or inventing their tradition of dominance over their towns and cities, flocked to Make America Great Again. As much as the United States loves to think of itself as an egalitarian paradise open to talent of any stripe, hierarchy and local power are no less the American way.

American Gentry“: the jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies. From the invaluable Patrick Wyman (@Patrick_Wyman) , author of The Verge, newsletter writer– both of which are eminently worthy of reading, as is the full article excerpted above.

* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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As we ponder privilege, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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“Teach Your Children”*…

Values around the world, graphed…

What’s more important for a child to be encouraged to learn: imagination, hard work or both?

And what do you value the most: family, work, friends, leisure, religion or politics?

These are questions asked by the World Values Survey, “a large non-commercial, cross-national, longitudinal investigation of human beliefs and values.” The comparative social survey polled 1,000-3,000 people in countries around the globe to get a consensus on where they stood on varying principles and ideals.

Anders Sundell, a political scientist at University of Gothenburg, scoured through the data and put the results on a line graph, with each country represented by a dot.

Many Nordic countries said they wanted to encourage children to learn imagination the most, with Sweden being the country to list hard work as the least important attribute. Guatemala and South Korea were the countries that overwhelmingly valued both imagination and hard work. Zimbabwe was the country that listed imagination as the least important quality.

Sundell also mapped the countries around the globe that valued family, work, friends, religion, leisure and politics the highest, e.g.:

Dive more deeply into the data at “The Countries That Value Family, Work, Friends, Leisure, Religion And Politics The Most, Visualized.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash (written by Graham Nash)

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As we compare cultures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old local real estate dealer, was alighting from a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car when an electric-powered taxicab (Automobile No. 43) struck him. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his head and chest. He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital; but upon arrival the house surgeon, Dr. Marny, said his injuries were too severe to survive, and Bliss died from his sustained injuries the next morning… becoming the first recorded instance of a person being killed in a motor vehicle collision in the U. S.

Bliss in 1873 [source]

“Culture is the name for what people are interested in”*…

Henry Nelson O’Neil; “The Last Hours of Mozart”

… but “culture” (that’s to say, “high culture”) has also been a form of authority, a kind of superego for society. These days, Adam Kirsh argues, not so much…

From the 1920s to the 1950s, from jazz and blues to rock and roll, tweaking the canon was part of the appeal of pop music—and a favorite device of lyricists. Ella Fitzgerald had a signature hit with Sam Coslow’s “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to “It’s a Simple Little System,” from the musical Bells Are Ringing, in which a bookie uses composers’ names as code to refer to racetracks: “Beethoven is Belmont Park/ Tchaikovsky is Churchill Downs.” Chuck Berry hit the same targets in “Roll Over Beethoven”: “My heart’s beating rhythm/ And my soul keeps singing the blues/ Roll over Beethoven/ Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

In recent decades, however, this type of indirect homage to the authority of classical music has completely disappeared from popular music. The last example may be “Rock Me, Amadeus,” a German pop hit from 1985 that was inspired less by Mozart himself than by the 1984 movie Amadeus, in which the composer is portrayed as, in the song’s words, “ein Punker” and “ein Rockidol.” Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience.

Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate…

And while that change has its costs, Kirsch explains, it also has its benefits : “Culture as counterculture.”

Walter Lippmann

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As we contemplate canons, we might recall that on this date in 2008 the #1 song in the U.S. was “Whatever You Like” by T.I. Jared W. Dillon of Sputnikmusic called the song a “more sophisticated take” on Lil Wayne‘s “Lollipop.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2021 at 1:00 am

“One cannot walk down an avenue, converse with a friend, enter a building, browse beneath the sandstone arches of an old arcade without meeting an instrument of time.”*…

Frieze on the Tower of the Winds in Athens, an early public clock

Time has ordered human life for millennia….

The Tower of the Winds, in the Greek city of Athens… is one of the best-​preserved buildings from the ancient world. This octagonal marble tower, sited close to a busy marketplace at the foot of the hill of the famous Acropolis, rises forty-​two feet into the air and measures twenty-​six feet across, and it was an astonishing sight for the people of this crowded and vibrant city. The external walls were covered in brightly colored reliefs and moldings representing the eight winds, with each of the eight walls, and a semi-​circular annex, carrying a sundial. Inside the ceiling was painted a stunning blue color covered with golden stars. At the center of the imposing interior was a water clock, which was fed from a sacred source high up on the hill of the Acropolis called the Clepsydra, a name which became synonymous with all water clocks. The clock is believed once to have driven a complex mechanical model of the heavens themselves, like a planetarium, orrery, or armillary sphere.

Nobody is quite sure when the Tower of the Winds was built, but it was probably about 140 bc. As with the sundial at the Roman Forum, we can think of it as an early public clock tower, giving Athenians the time of day as they went about their daily business at the market and elsewhere, and giving order to their lives. It was also symbolic of a wider order. The gods of the winds, depicted on its decorative panels, were allegories of world order; the stars inside, together with the water clock and its mechanical replica of the heavens, were symbolic of a cosmic order. Certainly, it was an astonishing spectacle.

But, also like the sundial proudly installed by Valerius in Rome, the Tower of the Winds may have carried a further message. If, as some historians believe, the structure was built by Attalos II, king of the Greek city of Pergamon, to commemorate the Athenian defeat of the Persian Navy in 480 bc, then it could serve as a vivid peacetime reminder of the military strength of the state—​and the discipline needed to maintain it…

In empires around the world, the sight and sound of time from high towers had begun to organize the lives of the people, and project a message of power and order.

It is tempting, in the twenty-​first century, to feel that we are the first generation to resent being governed by the clock as we go about our daily lives; that we are no longer in control of what we do and when we do it because we must follow the clock’s orders. During our long warehouse shifts, sitting at our factory workstations, or enduring seemingly never-​ending meetings at the office, we might grumble that the morning is dragging on, but we cannot eat because the clock has not yet got around to lunchtime. But these feelings are nothing new. In fact, while the public sundial was new to Romans in 263 bc, it had been in widespread use long before that in other cities around the world; the first water clocks date back even further than sundials, more than 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.

It is easy to think that public clocks are an inevitable feature of our lives. But by looking more closely at their history, we can understand better what they used to mean—​and why they were built in the first place. Because wherever we are, as far back as we care to look, we can find that monumental timekeepers mounted high up on towers or public buildings have been put there to keep us in order, in a world of violent disorder.

Public time has been on the march for thousands of years: “Monumental Timekeepers,” an except from David Rooney‘s (@rooneyvision) About Time- A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks. Via @longnow.

* Alan Lightman

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As we watch the clock, we might send timely birthday greetings to George Alfred Leon Sarton; he died on this date in 1956. A chemist by training, his primary interest lay in the past practices and precepts of his field…an interest that led him to found the discipline of the history of science as an independent field of study. His most influential work was the Introduction to the History of Science (three volumes totaling 4,296 pages), which effectively founded that discipline. Sarton ultimately aimed to achieve an integrated philosophy of science that connected the sciences and the humanities– what he called “the new humanism.” His name is honored with the prestigious George Sarton Medal, awarded by the History of Science Society.

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“I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightfoward pathway had been lost”*…

Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Domenico di Michelino‘s 1465 fresco [source]

What an early 14th century masterpiece can teach us today…

Dante Alighieri was early in recognising that our age has a problem. He was the first writer to use the word moderno, in Italian, and the difficulty he spotted with the modern mind is its limited capacity to relate to the whole of reality, particularly the spiritual aspects. This might sound surprising, given that his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is often described as one of the most brilliant creations of the medieval imagination. It is taken to be a genius expression of a discarded worldview, not the modern one, from an era in which everything was taken to be connected to the supreme reality called God. But Dante was born in a time of troubling transition. He realised that this cosmic vision was being challenged, and he didn’t seek to reject it or restore it, but to remake it.

The scale of this ambition partly explains why he wrote his three-part narrative journey – through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso) – in Italian, for a mass audience, not just the Latin-reading literati. The Divine Comedy was an instant hit. Hundreds of early manuscripts of the work survive, and people were soon demanding public readings of it. And it has continued to excite the imaginations of more recent poets, from T S Eliot to Clive James, as well as artists from William Blake to my favourite contemporary illustrator, Monika Beisner. Dante takes you somewhere you didn’t previously know. He does that because his epic verse is a self-conscious response to a shifting consciousness with which, in many ways – particularly when it comes to meaning – we are still wrestling…

At 700, Dante’s Divine Comedy is as modern as ever – a lesson in spiritual intelligence that makes us better at being alive. Mark Vernon (@platospodcasts) explains: “The Divine Dante.”

See also, “Mary Jo Bang Wonders Why It Takes So Long to Meet Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno,” in which the author ponders Dante’s modernity in a different dimension:

Several times in Purgatorio, Virgil defers to her when he reaches the limits of his pagan knowledge and can’t answer Dante’s questions, each time saying something like, “I’ve told you all I know. Ask Beatrice when you see her.” I took Virgil’s deference at face value: she’s Christian, she has Christian faith, she’ll know what a pagan can’t fathom. Of course, that was my mistake. Each time the poet Dante has Virgil say “ask Beatrice,” he is laying the groundwork for a character so psychologically astute that she’s nothing short of amazing…

As a character, she’s truly ahead of her time, and further proof that Dante as a poet was ahead of his. I was in awe watching her confront our hero and chip away at his defenses. It was like watching an old Perry Mason movie where we sit on the edge of our metaphoric seats as we get closer and closer to the complicated truth…

* Dante, Inferno, Canto 1

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As we muse on modernity, we might send insightful birthday greetings to a thinker who wrestled in our times with many of the same challenges of modernity as Dante did in his: Jean Baudrillard; he was born on this date in 1929.

A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, Baudrillard is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist  philosophical school.

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