Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Re: Maureen Dowd Beat Me To It, But I Will Now Catch Up

May 17, 2005


Re: Maureen Dowd Beat Me To It, But I Will Now Catch Up With Regard To The American Dream.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

On May 3rd The New York Times carried an article entitled Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift. (Page D7.) The article was, frankly, horrifying. It said that Canadian researchers have “found that physical attractiveness [of small children] makes a big difference” in how carefully parents take care of them. The research was based on observations in a supermarket: observations of whether kids were belted into grocery cart seats, were allowed to (dangerously) stand up in the carts, were allowed to wander away, even to wander out of sight. The researchers themselves ranked the children’s attractiveness (using a ten point scale).

Professors of psychology who were asked about the results by The Times sometimes thought there could be problems with claims of evolutionary reasons for the results it found, but none commented, or at least The Times did not carry any comments, to the effect that any methodological problem was raised by the fact that the researchers themselves ranked the children for attractiveness, an obviously subjective thing. One suspects this might conceivably be because peoples' looks are constantly judged. Moreover, “everyone knows” that good looking people are treated better than ones who aren’t good looking. Accordingly, a ranking by attractiveness, and findings based on it -- though horrifying -- seemed reasonable. What the researchers found, horrifying as it may be, comports with our experience.

And make no mistake. What they found is horrifying, notwithstanding what everyone knows. For whatever happens when people are older, we assume that parents will and should take care of their young children regardless of how they look. The idea that parents might let their little kids wander out of sight in a supermarket, or in a busy Barnes & Noble, not to mention on a street or in a stadium, makes one shudder in this day and age.

This blogger was going to write about the matter, because it unhappily fits so well with certain other things we have come to realize in recent years. But Maureen Dowd beat me to it. She wrote a column about the matter on May 4th, the very day after the article appeared. Saying that “the world can be harsh. Surface matters more and more,” and citing various sources, she said some things that have come to be increasingly understood. Good looking people make more money. Fat women make less money than ones who aren’t fat. Tall men do better in business and politics. Good looking professors get better evaluations. All of this is by and large, of course. But, by and large, it is true if you ask me.

(Two days after Dowd’s column, a letter to the editor in The Times asked, “So how long will it take before our social discourse stops berating people who seek to improve their looks as being shallow and frivolous?” The question is startling because we have all been taught this discourse, and so regard the search for looks as in fact being “shallow and frivolous.” But given society’s hypocrisies, the question, while startling, is not “shallow and frivolous.” And another letter to the editor did ask, “How were the beauty and ugliness of the children determined?” -- the question not brought up in The Times article (or by Dowd). (Letters to the editor in The Times, I note, are often quite salient.))

Just over a week after Dowd’s piece, on May 13th, The Wall Street Journal carried a front page, left-hand column article on a subject that one might think is a wholly different topic. The article was captioned As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls. Citing work done in the last ten years, the article said that today “Americans are no more or less likely to rise above, or fall below, their parents’ economic class than they were 35 years ago.” This is counter, thought The Journal’s writer, to the long-espoused, once true “myth” of American mobility, to “[t]he notion that the U.S[.] is a special place where any child can grow up to be president, a meritocracy where smarts and ambition matter more than parenthood and class.” The myth of high mobility is one “revel[ed]” in by George Bush, who is himself a “riches to riches story” (right -- as in effect posited here before, nobody born poor who is as inept as this (highly dishonest) guy, and who was as big a drunk as he was, could ever become president of a major company, let alone the country). The myth, said The Journal, is also the reason why Americans tolerate widening inequalities, and elect politicians who do not wish to restrain them. (For the word “politicians,” I think we must read Republicans, which is really something since we are discussing an article in The Journal.) And, with American mobility stuck in place for decades, and with more and more experts now accepting that this is in fact the way it is, it now is also the case that there is more social mobility in Europe and Canada than in the U.S. As one Canadian writer on the subject said, “‘The U.S. and Britain appear to stand out as the least mobile societies among the rich countries studied.’” (“‘Stand out’”? Did he mean “stand out” in a literal way?)

The Journal subsequently went on to present various hypotheses about why mobility in America is stuck in place. Race, education, genetics, better health born of money, personality, are all possible reasons, people suppose. Yet, when all is said and done, when the tumult and the shouting die and the captains and the kings depart (as Kipling said), it is “[n]onetheless” true that “Americans continue to cherish their self-image as a unique land where past and parentage puts no limits on opportunity, as they have for centuries.”

Fortuitously, after writing the foregoing paragraph, I picked up The New York Times of Sunday, May 15, two days after The Journal article. Lo and behold: In two sixty-percent-of-the-page left hand columns on page one, and continuing for no less than three full pages on the inside, The Times announced, and ran the first installment of, a series of articles carrying the headline of Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide. The Times said that “A team of reporters spent more than a year exploring ways that class -- defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation -- influences destiny in a society that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.” (Emphasis added.) (Did The Journal get wind of this series when it was still forthcoming, and race into print with an article that came ahead of it? -- sort of like Time and Newsweek have sometimes had simultaneous covers showing the same person when this would not ordinarily be thought likely?)

Being far longer than The Journal’s piece of May 13th, The Times’ initial, May 15th, instalment sometimes made the same points at greater length. “Mobility,” said The Times, "is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. It is supposed to take the sting out of the widening gulf between the have-mores and the have-nots.” But in the last decade or so -- when mobility has become the subject of serious academic study (by, among others, a Michigan professor with the apt name of Solon, a word which, among other meanings, means a wise person, a sage) -- it has come to be recognized that mobility is less than it was wrongly pronounced to be -- ex cathedra, one gathers -- by a University of Chicago Nobel laureate named Gary Becker in 1987. Becker apparently said that mobility in America was very high, so that little advantage was passed down the generations. (Except that it relies on propaganda rather than logic, this might otherwise serve as an example of the U of C style that a wag once called the triumph of logic over fact.) The aptly named Solon told The Times that in the past “‘people would say, ‘Don’t worry about income inequality. The offspring of the poor have chances as good as the chances of the offspring of the rich.’ Well, that’ s not true. It’s not respectable in scholarly circles anymore to make that argument.’”

What blows my mind is that it ever was respectable in scholarly circles to make such an argument, to assert such a preposterous triumph of propaganda over fact. Having lived through the time when the argument apparently prevailed, I can say that ultimately it came to seem as preposterous to me then as it does now, a point whose undergirding is developed to some extent later in this posting.

There is one very important way in which The Times went beyond The Journal. Unlike the latter, which said only that mobility has not increased, The Times said it may even have decreased in recent decades, although it will be a long time before this will be known with certainty. There is also, The Times said, “far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe.” (Emphasis added.) Mobility, it added -- very correctly -- is “a dimension of the American experience that tends to go unexamined, if acknowledged at all.” (Emphasis added.)

When the relevant questions are examined, the news is not so good. In today’s supposedly meritocratic system, “Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards” and the children’s “success is [then] seen [preposterously] as earned.” Some of these habits of success often, maybe most often, are ones that are obnoxious, like various kinds of dishonest crapola. (Contrary working class traits are the subject of a fine book by Alfred Lubrano, entitled Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams. If you want to learn what Lubrano has to say, either read his book or acquire a tape of the recent one hour long televised book review interview with Lubrano on MSL’s Books of Our Time.)

In the ensuing “contest among social groups . . . the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.” In income inequality, for example, between 1979 and 2001, “[t]he after-tax income of the top 1 percent of American households jumped 139 percent, to more than $700,000,” while “[t]he income of the middle fifth rose by just 17 percent, to $43,700, and the income of the poorest fifth rose only 9 percent.” (Emphases added.) In part, one gathers, this has been assuaged by the fact that, as one interviewee said, “‘The level of material comfort in this country is numbing.’” “‘You can make a case that the upper half lives as well as the upper 5 percent did 50 years ago.’” (Indeed, if you wish to read or hear that case, read Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox, or watch a tape of the recent televised one hour book review interview with Easterbrook on MSL’s Books of Our Time.) Although “The slicing of society’s pie is more unequal than it used to be . . . most Americans have a bigger piece than they or their parents once did” and “[t]hey appear to accept the trade-offs.”

Also assuaging the situation is the fact that some people have gotten filthy rich -- have become billionaires (of which we now have hundreds, believe it or not) -- and “These success stories reinforce perceptions of mobility, as does cultural mythmaking in the form of [utter trash] television programs like American Idol and The Apprentice.” But, as Christopher Jencks of Harvard is quoted as saying, though “‘turbulence creates the opportunity for people to get rich,’” this “‘isn’t necessarily a big influence on the 99 percent of the people who are not entrepreneurs.’”

To the extent that one seeks causes or reasons that, with some assurance, can be assigned for the standstill or decline in mobility, it would seem that at least one will qualify. As said by one “Berkeley economist and mobility researcher,” “‘There is no reason to doubt the old saw that the most important decision you make is choosing your parents . . . . While it’s always been important, it’s probably a little more important now.’” “‘Being born in the elite in the U.S.,’” this same professor said, “‘gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced . . . . Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada.’” (So, as The Journal pointed out, and The Times did too, we naturally are behind other countries today when it comes to mobility.)

Notwithstanding that our views on social mobility -- on the American Dream, I would say -- are significantly myth, people continue to cling to them. Apparently more than ever, people think hard work is the key to doing well, and there are even those who naively talk of “‘the end of class’” though we live in “‘a time of booming inequality’” (just as Fukuyama and others absurdly posited the end of history). For “Faith in mobility, after all, has been consciously woven into the national self-image.” (True.) “The idea of fixed class positions . . . rubs many people the wrong way. Americans have never been comfortable with the notion of a pecking order based on anything other than talent and hard work.” (Emphasis added.)

Yet, we are playing with fire here. As said by the President of Amherst (the aptly named Anthony W. Marx? Why do I doubt the aptness?), “‘If economic mobility continues to shut down, not only will we be losing the talent and leadership we need, but we will face a risk of a society of alienation and unhappiness. Even the most privileged among us will suffer the consequences of people not believing in the American dream.”’

On the same day as The Times’ initial article on class, May 15th, The Boston Globe published a piece in its oddly named Boston Works section entitled The Art of the interview, U.S. Style, and subcaptioned Brandeis helps foreign newcomers overcome cultural differences, find jobs. Titled in ways that perhaps would not immediately cause one to think it bears any relation to what The Journal or Dowd or The Times wrote, it actually is deeply related. A Brandeis professor and others are teaching immigrants -- from Russia, from Taiwan, from France, from Nigeria, etc., -- how to conduct themselves at job interviews in America. This training is crucial because, as immigrants make clear in The Globe, cultural mores are vastly different from country to country. In America there may be some small talk at an interview, but not in Taiwan, where to show respect you sit still, the interviewer asks questions, and the interviewee answers them. Small talk is generally not desirable in France either. There the interviewers, one gathers, do not care about you personally at the interview, and do not smile, and the interviewee later sends a handwritten, not a typed or emailed, thank you note, so that your handwriting can be used to assess your personality. In Nigeria, where mentors and contacts are said to have a major role, you must not make eye contact lest you be thought arrogant, must not speak unless spoken to, and must not engage in small talk. But to learn how to interview in America, said an employment specialist who helps aliens find jobs, people have to ‘“learn small talk, how to make eye contact.”’ They must learn ‘“how to be positive,’” and “how to show self confidence to sell themselves. They have to remember to speak enthusiastically, with confidence, and smile.”’

Much of this resonated with this writer, but what resonated the most, since I am myself the son of Russian immigrants, was one of the things that had to be learned by those particular immigrants. The Brandeis professor “told them to make direct eye contact, deliver a vigorous hand shake, [and] make small talk.” But shockingly, while he told them to be honest, he also had to tell them “not [to be] too honest.” “[O]ne Russian client,” the article continued, “was having so much difficulty that he confided to [the professor] that he felt like he was ‘committing a crime against my own personality.’” ‘“In Russia, honesty is an important part of the cultural ritual for interviewing,”’ the professor told the Globe ‘“But in the US, that can get you into trouble, especially with small talk like: ‘Any trouble finding the office today?’ ‘Yes.’ Or if you’d ask a recent Russian refugee, ‘So how do you like Boston?’ The answer might be: I really don’t like it much.’ ”

“At a mock interview, for example, the professor asked a . . . client to discuss his weaknesses. The trainee’s response: “I don’t like to work with other people.”’

“Talk about a culture clash.”

That Russian immigrants must learn to be dishonest in interviews is pretty shocking, isn’t it? In Russia, the land of pathologically lying Communists and of governmental mass killers, the land of Stalin, of Brezhnev, of Putin, the land of people who (like our Presidents) don’t even begin to know the meaning of truth, honesty is said to be de rigeur in interviews. In America, the new land of hope and glory, the land of freedom and opportunity, one must lie in interviews. Wow!

* * * * *

One must say that, as awful or as ironic as are lots of the stories and ideas in the articles, one is pleased to see the subject of social mobility finally become a subject of public discussion. The discussion is long overdue, several decades overdue. One of the reasons it is overdue is that for many years, in the absence of discussion, something of a fraud was perpetrated on people. And knowing no better, and hearing nothing to the contrary, many believed the fraud. By the millions people still believe it and want to believe it. As The Journal and Times’ articles make clear, people are unwilling to give up the myth, as far from truth as the myth often is. The myth is as akin to the great lies, like “The check is in the mail” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

The myth in question is known as The American Dream. For reasons that I have speculated about in the opening paragraph of the Preface to the first volume of a quartet of books collectively entitled Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, when those of us who are now in our 60s were growing up in the 1950s, “the American Dream was in full flower,” “was in the [very] air.” And it taught just about what the Wall Street Journal said it taught: that America “is a special place where any child can grow up to be president, a meritocracy where smarts and ambition matter more than parenthood and class,” where brains and hard work could take one far in any field. What was drilled into us was that in America all things are possible for anyone through the combination of smarts and unremitting work.

The quartet I wrote is in major part devoted to debunking this foolishness. But one cannot say here, one cannot even summarize here, what it took 1,200 pages to illustrate (900 of which are already in print). And looking back from a vantage of 45 to 55 years give or take, it is hard to understand how, it is hard to believe that, anyone ever swallowed such bovine defecation. One had only to look around to see its error and hypocrisy. One had but to look around to see that there was no American Dream of major success through talent and hard work for blacks, with but few exceptions. But people did not interpose this point in contravention to the American Dream. One had but to look around to see that with few exceptions there would be no American Dream for any woman who wished to be anything but a housewife. But people did not interpose this point either in contravention to the American Dream. One had but to open one’s eyes to see that only recently had things begun to open up for most Catholics. But people did not interpose this point. One had only to be sensate to know that Jews were excluded from a host of avenues leading to the American Dream. But people did not interpose this point. All of this begins to sound like Pastor Niemoller, does it not? But like what he said, it is true.

With few or nobody interposing these rather obvious points, the propaganda of the American Dream stood unopposed and triumphant, just like the propaganda fiction that on the world stage we were always and inevitably the good guys, acting for freedom, democracy and a better world, not for oil or economic or political power or similar less honorable reasons. But ultimately, for some of us, the truth began to sink in. As said, I cannot reproduce or even summarize 1,200 pages which illustrate it, but a small number of points can be made:

To wit: it turned out that smarts and hard work were not necessarily what counted, often were not what counted at all. If you were black, step back. If you were female, fuggedaboudit. If you were short, your chances often were the same height. If you were not good looking, your chances probably weren’t so hot looking either. If you were fat, your chances likely weren’t, except in the sarcastic sense. If you were honest -- well, just go home. If you were modest, your career almost surely would be too. If you were not celebrified, life was a lot tougher. If you cared about others instead of being purely selfish, well, you could bet most others didn’t give a tinker's damn about you. To put this stuff in reverse, in a way discussed or hinted at by the Canadian researchers, Dowd and the newspaper articles, success was the plaything of the good looking, the tall, the thin. It went to the dishonest, the pushy and immodest, the extremely selfish, the celebrified. It went to the white and WASPY.

Were there inroads on this over the years? Of course, there were, though other aspects, like the need for celebrification grew worse, and though the inroads took decades to accomplish. Women began catching a better break. So did blacks, though not all of them. Jews advanced in lots of fields. Catholics too, and they even became presidential nominees and, once, a President. Poor boys like Johnson, Nixon and Clinton could become President -- at least if they were major league liars and pushy beyond human comprehension. (And thank God George W. Bush has shown that it is still possible for inept, ex-drunk WASPS with Hope-Diamond-quality backgrounds to reach the top in every endeavor from Skull and Bones, to corporate presidencies, to the American presidency.)

But inroads, however great, are only inroads. And as the recent articles and apparently about a decade or more of research now show, the American Dream is still outside the reach of many, who are stuck in whatever class they started in -- who chose their parents unwisely, as so many of us did a long time ago. It is entirely obvious that, if we are to improve the truthfulness of the American Dream, so that the dream that so many people are psychologically desperate to believe in is to become less of a fraud, we will have to focus on the fact that today it still is extensively fraudulent, and will have to pursue the steps needed to change this. The recent articles can be no more than a beginning of public consideration of the matter, though one’s cynical nature, the current hegemony of the wacked out right wing, and the short attention span of the media -- the attention deficit disorder of the media -- cause one to worry that the articles will be the end of public consideration of the matter instead of the beginning of it.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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