Sir, are you aware you were using a caustic tone back there? (photo: Thomas Hawk)
Nicholas Wolfinger reviewed my book Enduring Bonds for Social Forces (paywalled [why paywall book reviews?]; bootlegged). It would be unseemly of me to argue with a two-page book review instead of letting my life’s work stand on its own, so here goes — but just on one point: tone policing.
This is the opening of the review:
Philip Cohen has a lot of beefs. Hanna Rosen is an ”antifeminist” (p. 134) prone to “errors and distortions” (p. 146), and a “record of misstating facts in the service of inaccurate conclusions” (p. 185); W. Bradford Wilcox offers an “interpretation not just wrong but the opposite of right” (p. 76) and elsewhere gives a “racist” interview (p. 175); Ron Haskins, a “curmudgeon” (p. 175), presents a meme that’s “stupid and evil” (p. 47); David Blankenhorn is the author of a “deeply ridiculous” article (p. 80); Christina Hoff Sommers speaks in “[a] voice [that] drips with contempt” (p. 200) and is deemed to be an “antifeminist” (p. 155), even though she’s later identified as a
feminist (p. 197).*
Also making the list: Paula England, for her “disappointingly mild” review of Cohen’s Public Enemy Number One, the “obtuse, semi-coherent” (p. 106) and “simply unethical” (p. 91) Mark Regnerus. Indeed, 29 of the 209 pages of Cohen’s book are spent excoriating Regnerus for two different studies.
This makes up his argument that, “Cohen writes so tendentiously that the useful bits get carried away in a torrent of ad hominem asperity,” and his conclusion, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
Over my many years as a caustic person, I have heard this a lot, mostly from academics, bless their hearts. Which is cool, that’s my career choice and it would be unseemly to complain about it now, so here goes.
Listing the bad words I used doesn’t mean anything. And telling me I spent 29 pages on Regnerus (Wolfinger doesn’t mention that his frequent co-author, Brad Wilcox, is featured heavily in those 29 pages, or even that Wilcox is his frequent co-author), is not a meaningful critique unless you explain why these people don’t deserve it. I’ve heard, for example, that people have written very good whole books about specific individuals and the bad things they’ve done — including, off the top of my head, Hitler. The meaningful question is, am I wrong in those assessments, and if I am, why? In other words, you catch more flies by telling the reader why it would not be unacceptably harsg to write a whole book about Hitler but the same cannot be said about 29 pages on Regnerus and Wilcox. Or why it’s wrong to criticize Rosin, Haskins, Blankenhorn, Sommers and (lol) England in harsh terms.
If you want to enjoy a world where entire reviews are written about the use of harsh words, reviews that don’t even give a hint — not even a mention — as to the content of the issues and disputes that prompted those harsh words, then I can only suggest a career in academia.
I tweeted a link to Wolfinger’s review, even though it is completely negative, because I’m scrupulous and fair-minded.
I hate to bring up Hitler again (not really), but the last time someone spent so much time pretending to not understand I was joking it was actual nazis, quoting a tweet where I joked that Jews were devoted to “eradicating whiteness and undermining its civilizations” (not linking, but you can google it). This led to a lot of online grief and some death threats, including posting my address on Reddit. So it irritated me.
The online nazi mob technique is to pretend things Jews say aren’t jokes, then pretend they themselves are joking when they talk about genocide. I’m sure many Jewish readers will recognize that failure to understand sarcastic humor is actually a common trait among rank-and-file anti-Semites — the people who have a hard time differentiating “New York” from “Jewish” — something that leading anti-Semites are very adept at manipulating. So that resonated with me.
(The above is labeled “aside” to make it boringly over-clear that I’m not saying Wolfinger is anti-Semitic.)
* Correction: Sommers is not “identified as a feminist” on p. 197, I just reported the name of her video series which is, absurdly, the The Factual Feminist.
I am wrapping up a 12-month sabbatical leave from my professor job, which means I didn’t teach or go to a lot of meetings on campus, and instead got to spend more time on the other parts of my job (at home, in loungewear), and try some new things as well.
At the beginning of the year I decided to read more books, and used Goodreads to set a reading goal of 42 (one per week, less 10 for slower books). One goal was to improve my Twitter-degraded attention span [just spent 5 minutes randomly flitting around, now I’m back], or at least expose myself to the feeling of having a longer attention span. And honestly, it was great. I hope this made me more of a book reader forever.
So this year, my year-end book post is about books I read, rather than just books that came out this year. Feel free to make suggestions for gift books in the comments (including your own!). Also, feel free to judge me for anything about this list.
Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well.
Unfortunately, I found the book to be an extended screed against leftism with but a few pages of anti-Trump material grafted in here and there, which ultimately amounts to blaming leftism and immigration for Trump. And that might sum up the state of the anemic conservative movement. Goldberg’s own weak-kneed position on Trump is not resolved until page 316, when he finally concludes, “As much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him” (316). In the end, Goldberg has charted a path toward a détente between his movement and Trump’s.
The Goldberg essay proved quite popular (almost 1200 downloads on SocArXiv) after a Twitter thread listing some of his errors took off:
Here is a list of factual errors in Jonah Goldberg's @JonahNRO book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. In no particular order: 1/
Anyway, Kakutani pairs nicely with another small book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (2018) by philosopher Jason Stanley. He described 10 features of fascist politics, drawing from Nazi Germany and contemporary Hungary, Poland, India, Myanmar, and connecting them to Trumpism. I see Kakutani and Stanley as setting out framing for the moment, in light of history but without facile parallels. Having read these, for example, made Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (2018), which wasn’t very insightful, more interesting to read.
Semitism: Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018), by Jonathan Weisman, made a good addition to the contemporary fascism collection. It’s a personal reflection and description of alt-Right anti-Semitism, and a call for Jewish solidarity with other groups targeted by Trump and his movement, especially those with fewer institutional defenses. For both me and Weisman, the explosion of anti-Semitism inspired by Trump’s campaign and presidency reinforced our sense of both Jewishness and American otherness. Like me, only much more, Weisman was also the victim of anti-Semitic social media pile-ons when he spoke out against Trump. I never seriously considered myself a minority in America, or applied a consciously Jewish identity to my work, but there are a lot of anti-Semites around, and they think I’m neither White nor American.
In the wake of all this, I found myself staring at this picture from 1920s Poland of my great-great-grandparents, the Patinkins, with their grandaughter, my grandmother’s cousin (later the wife of my grandmother’s brother). And I grew my beard longer.
Anyway, the Trumpism book series was kicked off by We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a brilliant and wrenching retelling of Coates’ own career as a journalist through the arc of Obama’s presidency, the era that made Coates a household name and also, now seemingly inevitably, birthed Trumpism.
It’s hard to believe I read Coates in the same year as Rebecca Traister’s excellent new book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2018). Although Traister does a good bit of history, especially about women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights, it’s a post-2016 election book, inspired by the Women’s March in particular. The books is a dense but powerfully written treatise on all the ways women’s anger makes the world better — and its suppression is a mechanism of patriarchy. It was written fast, and you can read it fast, moving back and forth between 1848 and 2018, Trump and #MeToo, with interesting dives into intrafeminist debates about sex, intersectionality, and other topics.
In the category of feminist debates, but no longer about Trumpism, I also liked Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017) which was quite polarizing in feminist sociology circles. Even if you don’t buy her account of the excesses of campus feminism and the overreach of Title IX bureaucracy, you have to at least wrestle with it. Kipnis herself overreaches a little, in my view, but I agree that much of the rape-culture talk on campus is disempowering for women — even though rape culture is real. (Incidentally, Kipnis didn’t like Traister’s book, and I didn’t agree with her review.)
In the sociology of population section of the American Sociological Association, I was on the award committee that gave the book prize to The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future (2017), by Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher. The book is excellent as an introduction to contemporary genetic analysis of social traits, which is completely taboo among many social scientists but is still real and not all bullshit. Conley and Fletcher offer compelling explanations of what current techniques can reveal and what they can’t (including race). For the non-expert social scientist, they also offer a review of the history of genetic analysis, from the now-discredited quests for target genes (e.g., the “warrior gene”), to twin studies, to polygenic scores, which use genome-wide analysis to generate propensities for both biological and social traits.
Also on the sociology shelf, I finally read Elizabeth Popp Berman’s 2012 book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. It’s one of those books in sociology where the substance of the research is important an interesting even if you don’t know anything about the theories or disciplinary debates that comprise the immediate context for the book. Why did universities and researchers generally start to pitch themselves as primarily drivers of economic growth? The answer is important, and it’s in this excellent book. (Beth is a friend and colleague in the SocArXiv project.)
In response to an invitation to participate in a meeting on Israeli demography and the environment, I read The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (2016), by Alon Tal (who organized the symposium). The book is really interesting. I wrote about the whole thing at some length, with graphs and photos from my eye-opening trip, and audio of my talk, here.
Not sociology, but sociological, I rate highly I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street (2017), by Matt Taibbi. It’s an in-depth investigation into the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police, including much of his life and community, in the context of larger processes such as community policing, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, and urban redevelopment — and how that all led to the gaping wound of injustice after his death.
Also sociological, and recommended, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (2018). It’s an irreverent takedown of various wellness fads, but also preventative screenings, and the quest for longevity itself. In the process, she digs back into her microbiology roots to explore the self-destructive tendencies of our own cellular programming, which make an internal mockery of our futile attempts to forestall the inevitable. A very 2018 book.
Cheap Sex is an awful book that no one needs to read. The book is an extended rant on the theme, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” wrapped in a misogynist theory about sexual exchange masquerading as economics, and motivated by the author’s misogynist religious and political views.
You didn’t make it all this way to read my thoughts on fiction, so I’ll just say that books are a medium, a category of experience, and mixing in fiction affected the quality of the whole project. So I read some classics I never read before, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. I read the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, which are on the literary side of murder mysteries; as well as a handful of Michael Connelly novels and the one Carl Hiassen novel I had missed. Lucky Jim, a 1954 academic satire by Kingsley Amis, is great if you like that sort of thing (which I do — ask me about my novel in progress.) Finally, I loved The Humans, by Matt Haig, which is funny and dark and thought-provoking.
Israel’s trajectory is unsustainable in more ways than one.
The political situation is not the subject of this post, but it’s necessary to say at the beginning that the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel, made possible by the United States, is morally unacceptable and relative to all the other national oppression in the world rates pretty bad. For that reason, although I don’t endorse the movement for academics to boycott Israel, I oppose the movement to censor it.
So, last month I went to Israel for the first time since 1979. Since this is a blog I can include both academic and personal observations from that visit.
The workshop I was invited to attend was a joint effort of colleagues at the University of Maryland and Tel Aviv University, with the Israel Forum for Population, Environment, and Society, called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Culture and Sustainable Population Dynamics.” The main organizers were Alon Tal and Michele Gelfand. Tal has written a very good book called, The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel, which is both a demographic history and an ecological analysis, from which I learned a lot.
I’m not expert on the ecological stuff, but the demography is quite shocking on its own. (In the demography here, unless noted I’m talking about Israel within its pre-1967 borders, which is now most of these statistics are reported.) Israel is very densely populated, although everyone I talked to (besides demographers) was surprised to hear it. That may be because when you travel outward from the cities, it quickly looks like barren countryside — it’s just that the empty countryside doesn’t go on very far before you get to the sea or a border.
The population of about 1 million in 1950 is now almost 9 million, having doubled in the past 30 years. This figure shows the population density of countries with 5 million or greater population in 2016, with select countries labeled using World Bank codes and those with populations over 100 million circled. The 1986 density is on the x-axis and the 2016 density is on the y-axis, so to distance above the diagonal is the increase. That’s Israel way up at 200, 400 (click to enlarge).
The rapid rise in population density in Israel will invariably exacerbate their problems with water, energy, transportation, housing, habitats, pollution, and — of course — politics. These are all pretty bad problems, which Tal explains at length.
Contrary to popular belief, since the wave of ex-USSR immigrants in the early 1990s, most of the population growth has been from births, not immigration. And contrary to other popular beliefs, the growth is now — and increasingly — driven not by the Arab or Muslim populations but by the so-called Ultra Orthodox or Haredi population. (Here I cite a paper by Barbara Okun, but we also heard from demographers Eliahu Ben Moshe and Ameed Saabneh, whose presentations I do not have to share.) This figure from Tal’s book shows the Jewish/Arab breakdown. Where in 1997 there were about 2.3 Jewish births for each Arab birth, in 2013 it was more than 3-to-1:
Overall, Arab and Muslim fertility have fallen a lot, and Jewish fertility has not (most but not all Arabs are Muslim; some Jews have Arab ancestry, but they don’t count as Arab). Here are the overall trends, using completed fertility by birth cohorts, from this paper by Barbara Okun:
The Arab/Muslim trend looks like a lot of poor countries, while the Jewish and total trends (Israel is about 80% Jewish) does not look like a lot of rich countries. As a result, Israel has the highest birth rate of all OECD countries, by a lot, and it’s now rising (runner-up Mexico shown for comparison):
Why is Israel’s birth rate rising? Increasingly, because of the Ultra-Orthodox population, among whom the most recent cohorts to reach age 40 have averaged about 7 children per woman:
Right now the Haredi population are 13% of the total Jewish population. Not-that-long story short, the Haredi will be the majority of Israeli Jews pretty soon (maybe 50 years). And because of population momentum (the next generation’s parents are already born), that is likely almost no matter what else happens.
As Ben Moshe pointed out, this process of rising ultra-orthodox dominance may be accelerated if the “secular” Jews (two-thirds of whom think having a religious wedding is “very important,” and 38% of whom fast on Yom Kippur) reduce their fertility rates to something more like the European norm. If that happens, it won’t do much to slow Israel’s population growth, but it will change the composition of the population. The math of this is pretty dramatic.
Postmodern premodernism. She wears a fashionable wig, he wears an old European-style hat and coat, the baby (girl, just guessing) wears pink. (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/24BvW9C)
The idea of a policy to reduce birth rates — that is, Jewish birth rates — in Israel is so far a complete political non-starter. Even among secular Jews, Ben Moshe reports, 80% say they would like to have three children or more. State policy is very pro-natal. The national health insurance pays for unlimited IVF cycles, and Israel has more than 10-times as many IVF treatments per capita as the US does, and more than twice as many as the next highest country (as Daphna Carmeli reported). Same-sex couples can’t marry or adopt children, but they can produce and parent them with IVF or through surrogacy. Abortion is technically legal but discouraged. The state pays monthly child subsidies for each kid, and provides child care from age 3.
The Haredi population, which plays a pivotal role in the country’s parliamentary coalition, controls their own state-funded school curriculum, and they are exempt from the mandatory military service that most other Jews are required to perform. In addition to fostering resentment among the non-orthodox, this also means they get started on their childbearing earlier, since they don’t have military time after high school. Of course, these are not biologically distinct populations, and people can move in and out of the groups, but thus far the Haredi population is not experiencing much intergenerational defection, partly because of the institutional supports they have from the state.
Anyway, I had the chance at the workshop to offer remarks, which I present in edited form here, in a 15-minute audio clip.
One part is was a warning about “population policy” from Puerto Rico and China. And I commented on gender inequality, saying, “It’s indelicate to walk into a place and say that. On the other hand, if we look at the history of extremely high-fertility, very religiously-oriented, patriarchal societies, that’s what they are,” and talked about how education affects birth rates:
It’s one thing to increase an individual woman’s education and then see that she is less likely to have more children. But you’re not increasing her education when she’s 18, you’re increasing her educational opportunity when she’s 18, or her vision for herself 20 years in the future that’s going to change her behavior at age 18. If you say to an 18-year-old, “You live in a society where everybody goes to college, and women have good jobs when they come out,” then her behavior at age 18 is much less likely to be marriage and children right then. It’s more likely to be, “I will pursue this education, and then I’ll be in a better position to pursue my career, to bargain from a better position in terms of choosing a spouse,” and the behavior follows from that knowledge of the future.
Also some comments on the border situation, where I said, in a very roundabout way:
I think it’s interesting for the discussion of why do the secular Israel Jews still have such non-European fertility levels, and it partly is the context. Maybe it’s how religious were their parents, or their other relatives or their siblings, or maybe it’s their city or the culture they were brought up in in some way, or the policies of their government, but it’s also — in terms of the war and ethnic conflict — it may have to do with the political or ethnic or perceived national threat. And so in my idealistic world when we open all the borders, one source of conflict is actually reduced, and the people’s behavior is changed.
Here’s the talk:
There was a writeup on the workshop in the Jerusalem Post, here, which includes more from Alon Tal.
As far as I’m concerned I’ve always been White in America, which is the dominant status. But once in a while being Jewish makes me feel I’m down a peg. Or even sometimes, for a fleeting minute, as the Nazis on Twitter like to tell me, that I’m not really White. Funny thing about being in Israel, for me, was that it felt kind of like being really White in America. My people were on top, as they usually are, but a little more specifically. Surprisingly, perhaps, this felt less morally compromising than I expected, at least in comparison to how I normally feel in America. It also reinforced my growing sense of Jewish as ethnicity rather than religion in the US context (I’m an atheist), which has of course been exacerbated by the current pro-Nazi regime and anti-Semitic attacks I get on Twitter since Trump took power.
Being a Jewish-American (the ethnic term) anti-Trump person on Twitter is odd. One of the weirder things I did not predict, but which I see very often, is the gotcha thing the anti-Semites give me when I speak out against Trump on xenophobia and the Mexican-border wall. For example, these are tweets I got from people I don’t know in response to posting this photo essay on the border wall in Contexts, without mentioning Israel.
Contrary to popular belief among Nazis, some Jews don’t support Israeli apartheid. (I wrote a post comparing the Israel/Palestine and US/Mexico borders, here.) Anyway, on top of that, I have family members in Israel whom I dearly love. And on top of that, some of those family members are Jews with whom I have the most in common about Israeli politics (and some, not much at all). So, it’s complicated.
On the bus in Jerusalem. (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/GxAkrE) Also on the bus was a sign that read: “Anyone may sit anywhere (except places marked for disabled people). Harassment of a passenger on this matter may be a criminal offense.” This was to stop ulta-orthodox men from forcing women to sit in the back of the bus, and represented a victory for feminists.
Of course, the closer you look the more “nuanced” things become. To Haredi folks, for example, there are large, vital differences between different Haredi communities, that you or I would probably find hard to discern. And for another example, there are a lot of negative attitudes toward the Haredi people from some secular Jews in Israel, for living off government benefits, not serving in the military, not letting the buses run on Saturday, and subjugating women. And sometimes, maybe just because I’m more defensive about anti-Semitism these days, those attitudes have a slight anti-Semitic aftertaste. So they are simultaneously the “most” Jewish people in a “Jewish state,” with outsized political and cultural influence, but also something like a disparaged minority.
Anyways, I have no conclusion.
These photos, and others from the trip, are on Flickr under Creative Commons license: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmeU5n6s.
I made a Storify story out of a Twitter conversation I had with a bunch of racist Trump supporters yesterday. Here it is: Racist pile on. I can’t embed it here, probably just as well because a lot of readers probably don’t want to read Nazi propaganda, racial slurs, and gas chamber references.
This was the only thing they gave me that I actually laughed at.
It sums up the power theory of racism nicely. But you have to stop to think about it. That’s not really how it happens, two innocent kids saying the same thing. In real life it’s more like Black Lives Matter saying “We like to be Black, and I don’t want our people to be killed for it,” and a mob of DavidDuke/Trump supporters burning a cross and yelling back at them, “White power!”
But anyway, interested to hear what you think if you go read the Storify thing.
It’s been hard for me to stay out of electoral politics debates lately (follow the elections tag if you’re having the same problem).
The latest is another piece with Sean McElwee in Salon. It again features my analysis of the ANES 2016 pilot survey, with Sean’s write-up, this time focusing on attitudes of White Trump supporters toward Blacks. The short answer is White Trump supporters stereotype Blacks more than other Republican or Democrat Whites, and people with self-described “cold” feelings toward Blacks are most likely to support Trump. The biggest difference was on answers to the question, “How well does the word ‘lazy’ describe most blacks?”
This ANES data has lots of potential for addressing the pressing questions on a breaking-news basis. Whether it holds up (it’s an opt-in online survey) is yet to be seen, but I haven’t seen a reason to think it would be biased toward producing racist Trump supporters. So I think it’s worth doing. (I’ve also discovered that when you criticize Trump on a popular website like Salon, and have a Jewish name, you attract anti-Semitic Twitter.)
Q: First, a challenge: What’s one single thing you “know” with certainty, after years of research into modern families?
PC: Family inequality is remarkably resilient, but when it changes it does so under the influence of external forces. When women’s opportunities increase (or men’s decrease), when public investment in education increases, when the legal environment changes when technology permits reductions in household labor, when policies lighten (or compensate) the load of caring labor — that’s when inequality within families shifts. There is a dialectic here, and micro-level interactions within families matter, but these external forces are in the historical driver’s seat.
Q: Give us the “Twitter” version of your current research—in 140 characters (give or take), what are you working on now?
PC: This is what I’m working on today, in 140 characters: The culture wars over family politics always return to gender difference itself; it’s what’s at stake when left & right fight over families.
Q: How would you encourage a scholar of family life to work to get their research into public life, affecting policy and challenging assumptions about “average families”?
PC: The public loves to argue about families. There are lots of opportunities to get your work out there and make it relevant. Unlike some areas of sociological research, if you’re working on families, almost everything has a potential angle — in fact, one of the challenges is to not oversell the implications of our research. There is also a lot of translational work to do — interpreting and explaining new data and research as it comes out, helping people figure out what to make of the latest findings in the context of what we already know rather than participating in the whipsaw advice machine that thrives on contradicting conventional wisdom. I recommend that junior scholars get involved with the Council on Contemporary Families, which helps organize and transmit new research responsibly and effectively, and to look for opportunities to publish popular pieces in online venues that encourage well-reasoned and empirically-grounding discussion and debate.
The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky [chants of “USA! USA!”] … We are going to argue American exceptionalism, the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American federalist papers; the founding fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. He draws his from Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers and people who don’t like the classical America.
Here he is in a December debate on Fox:
Who is Saul Alinsky? And what kind of first name is “Saul,” anyway? Jewish. And who Googles “alinsky”? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that whoever they are, they live in the same states as people who Google “obama citizenship” at a correlation of .73:
Some other searches that have the highest correlation with “Alinsky” across states (all .68 or better):
greta van susteren
health care bill text
mccain for president
national firearms act
natural born citizen
My guess is that hardly anyone in Gingrich’s intended audience knows who Saul Alinsky is. But I think he’s giving them enough information to know what kind of person he is. In December he put it this way:
…if you look at his background, he’s really a lot more Saul Alinsky and radicalism than he is anything to do with the traditional American models.