The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

time lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane

Photo by Mike Chai on Pexels.com

All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.

A long history of violence in American society

From the beginning, the story of the United States of America is a violent one. From violence against indigenous people to slavery to armed rebellion to colonial conquests to the Civil War to vigilante violence to violence-enforced residential segregation military intervention around the Western Hemisphere and then the globe to police brutality to gun violence to celebrating the military to assassinations.

Take vigilante violence as an example. I read Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism at the recommendation of a colleague and having read multiple works by sociologist James Loewen. He argues that a significant number of Northern towns and cities had informal sundown laws that prohibited minorities from being in the community after dark with violence implied if the norms were not followed.

Or, take the example of the role of violence in residential segregation. After violence at a South Shore beach set off moreviolence in Chicago in 1919, residential segregation was enforced not just with restrictive covenants and blockbusting and redlining: actions involved bombings and attacks. Historian Stephen Grant Meyer detailed some of this in his book As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, a book I read for a class paper. In places like Cicero, Illinois and Levittown, Pennsylvania, violence accompanied attempts of blacks to move to the suburbs.

CiceroRiot1951ChicagoTribune

Photo by Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1951

Or, take the last in the list as an example. The book that really brought this to my attention as a student was Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: CIA Diary. This led me to read a lot about the Church Committee’s work in 1975-1976 as well as assassinations in the United States and ones in which the United States played a role abroad. In several papers, I worked with the idea of assassinations, discovered databases of political violence in countries around the world that political scientists have collected for decades, and found that the political violence rates in the United States are high.

All together, the United States is awash in violence. It is part of American history, it is regularly promoted, and it is often excused or justified. Thinking about some of the examples I noted above, I found out about these through reading and research because these stories are widely taught, known, or experienced by significant segments of the population. Yet, violence is antithetical to numerous aspects of American society and ideals, including the religious beliefs of many Americans, particularly when harnessed alongside other destructive ideologies such as white supremacy or colonialism.

Michael Jordan embodied the American value of winning at all costs

An interview with Todd Boyd, featured in ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” included this answer regarding evaluating Michael Jordan’s competitive fire:

I would say it’s American, that’s what I would say. I wouldn’t characterize it as positive or negative, it’s American. I think what Michael represented was an especially American desire to win at all costs, to dominate.

Sports have the ability to both reflect America and lead to social change. Jordan’s example could serve both. He was wildly successful in American terms on and off the court as a winner and earning oodles of money. He helped usher in a new era of global superstars, taking a third-place American sport (behind football and baseball) to global heights, and a lasting brand built around shoes. He is still successful today as an NBA owner.

It can be easy to chalk up his success to his legendary work ethic and a quest to become better when others who had similar skills or athletic gifts took it easier. But, it would also be helpful to place Jordan in his context. He came along at the right time for multiple reasons: he built on the NBA stars of the 1980s, he was around at the spread of hip-hop (also discussed in the interview), he succeeded during an era of capitalist growth (“the end of history” and the demise of communism), and technology helped spread his play and brand (even down to the crying Jordan meme of recent years).

All of this means that Boyd’s answer is two-fold: Jordan exemplifies America (work hard and you will get ahead!) and what it considers success (become a winner and global icon!). Is this what Americans want to promote for their children or in schools or in politics? That is a much bigger debate.

Argument: “the real civic religion of America, business at all costs”

Which values should guide decisions in a time of crisis? Here is one argument regarding how decisions are made in the United States:

These approaches are the horns of America’s corona-dilemma. Every society has reacted to COVID-19 according to its principles or, if no principles were to hand, its habits. It has been America’s misfortune that its principles and habits are ill-suited to managing an epidemic. The federal system, by functioning as it should, prevented the kind of nationwide shutdown that worked in smaller countries like Austria. The real civic religion of America, business at all costs, can accept the redirection of the economy by the Defense Production Act, but it cannot tolerate the suspension of all economic activity. Yet a powerful counter-impulse — averse to risk, trusting of authority, and hence likely to seek out niches in the economy which are immune to booms and busts — prefers to shelter in place.

It is hard to make sweeping claims about cultural values in the midst of significant social change. At the same time, understanding “patterns of meaning-making” (the definition of culture from sociologist Lyn Spillman) is invaluable for analyzing why certain actors respond as they do in such times.

This reminds me of two sociological works that get at the same issue:

1. Emerson and Smiley’s 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities examined cities around the United States and the world to see if they put markets or people first. On the whole, American cities privilege markets with their policies and rhetoric. In American communities, growth – usually measured as economic growth and/or population increases, is always good. (See an earlier post on this book here.)

2. Dobbin’s 1994 book Forging Industrial Policy suggests in the early decades of the railroad the United States pursued a public-private policy regarding develpoment compared to the laissez-faire approach of Britain and the top-down, centralized approach of France. Yet, in the last few decades, a growing chorus of voices argues the United States privileges the interests of corporations over the welfare of all residents.

There could be other contenders for the civic religion of Americans including individualism, the civil religion described by sociologist Robert Bellah, middle-class values, and the importance of private property and private spaces. But, in this particular situation, what exactly should be done regarding businesses and the economy is a particular hot point.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

A nation beholden to cars: a record number of pedestrians die in US in 2019

A new report highlights the dangers to pedestrians in the United States:

Based on data from the first six months of 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association predicts there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths that year, which would be a 5 percent increase over the 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018.

The 2019 figure is the highest number of such deaths in more than 30 years, according to the association…

While there’s been a significant increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade, the number of all other traffic deaths increased by only 2 percent…

“Following 30 years of declining pedestrian fatalities, there has been a complete reversal of progress,” Retting said in the release. “Pedestrians are at an inherent disadvantage in collisions, and we must continue to take a broad approach to pedestrian safety.”

While there are particular aspects of driving and pedestrian behavior that could be debated and addressed, there is a larger point that can be made with such data: the priority on American roadways goes to vehicles. This has been the case for decades and will continue to be the case for years to come. While efforts to make streets more amenable to walkers and bikers, these efforts are often limited to only a few areas. The goal of roadways in many places, included dense, populated areas, is to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible to where drivers want to go.  Tackling specific issues may help reduce the number of deaths but still leave the larger problem: Americans like cars and driving and our lives are often organized around driving.

Is Washington D.C. the center of the United States?

I recently heard a promo for a news show that claimed it was going to broadcast from the center of the United States: Washington D.C. Here are a few ways to think about the center of the United States:

-Washington D.C. makes the most sense in terms of government. With the federal government based here and the number of federal employees in the region, Washington D.C. could claim to be the center. (It is the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country and may claim to the current second city.)

-New York City makes the most sense in terms of population size and global influence. The New York City region has the most people by over six million and is a global center for finance, media, the arts, and more. (Yet, it is on the coast in the Northeast region with a particular culture.)

-The center of population has steadily moved west. According to the Census, it is now in Texas County, Missouri. By definition: “The mean center of population is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.”

-The geographic center of the United States depends on whether it is just for the 48 contiguous states or for all fifty states. If just the contiguous states, the location is just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. If for all fifty states, it is north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

-Is it possible to measure a cultural center? New York could lay claim to this as could Los Angeles (Hollywood, sprawl) while Chicagoans might hold to the claim that it is the most American of cities. Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans? Are the coasts more representative of America or the Heartland? Perhaps particular locations are less important and common spaces like McDonald’s or Walmart or local government meetings or religious congregations or local libraries are more indicative of the center of the United States.

If Washington D.C. is now the center of the United States, does it provide a hint that national politics has come to dominate American discourse and self-understanding?

When the problems of America come out in the education systems

Two recent articles reminded me of what I wrote in the headline: for many Americans, the problems the country faces are part of the day-to-day realities of the local schools.

First, a report on a recent controversy in the schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio:

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools…

But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were…

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

Second, on enrolling students in New York City’s public schools:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future…

New York’s distortions let you see the workings of meritocracy in vivid extremes. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American. True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

Many factors seem to come together in these circumstances:

1. The American belief that schools are the great equalizer or should be if they are not.

2. The expectation that parents should help ensure their kids do better than them.

3. The idea that the right education is needed to be successful in life (both for the kids and the parents).

4. A difference in opinion over whether American systems should provide equal opportunities or equal outcomes.

5. The public nature of schools where community tax dollars and identity come together in a local institution.

6. An American preference for local control thus that public schools can be responsive to local residents and leaders.

7. With declining trust in other major institutions, schools might be one of the few remaining institutions that provide hope.

8. Varying opinions on how schools should (or should not) address issues of race, class, and gender present in communities.

Put these all together and the stakes are high for local schools and conflict can arise. On one hand, this passion about a local institution may help guarantee its success. Even as Washington invokes depression, Americans can dive into and try to correct issues in their schools. On the other hand, all of these expectations plus larger social forces at work beyond the control of local districts or residents means flashpoints can be difficult to resolve. A number of the problems schools face are not just school issues; they are tough issues for the whole country to converse about and address. Every school district has to work to address community and national issues in ways that are desirable to local constituents while also considering wider standards and approaches.