The Atlantic, April 2014

In her cover story about trends in parenting styles in the US and Britain, Hanna Rosin tells several charming anecdotes contrasting her mother’s approach to raising her some years ago to her own approach to raising her daughter today.  Ms Rosin follows up with data showing that her mother’s relatively laissez-faire methods were typical of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, while her own much more intensive style of supervision is typical of the early 21st century.  Statistics do not show that the newer approach has led to any improvement in the safety of children, and in fact support claims that such close supervision harms children in a number of ways.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from the heart of Ms Rosin’s article:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

Also in this issue, several authors are asked to name the best fictional character of all time.  Children’s author R. L. Stine convinced me:

Aside from being amiable, Mickey Mouse has no discernible personality of any kind, yet he has captivated the world, appeared in hundreds of films, and sold billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Has any other fictional character held sway over so many countries for so long?

To build an empire like that of Disney on the basis of “no discernible personality of any kind” is indeed an achievement I would have thought impossible had it not actually been done.

Michael O’Donnell reviews some recent work on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and seems mystified at the reluctance of some writers to give President Lyndon Johnson his due in that process.

Robert D. Kaplan seems to be less prominent than he was before the 2003 Iraq War; he may be the only person in the USA whose career took a hit for supporting the war.  Not that he is backing down; his piece in this issue is called “In Defense of Empire.”  I suppose we have to salute him for his willingness to stick by his principles.

At any rate, Mr Kaplan’s argument exhibits the some of same bizarre weaknesses in reasoning that underpinned so much of the rhetoric he and his fellow warhawks deployed in favor of invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.  As he and others habitually did in those days, Mr Kaplan makes a generalization and flatly refuses to analyze it, insisting on applying his glossy abstractions in several senses at once.  So, Mr Kaplan tells us in this piece that empires are more likely than homogeneous nation-states or loose confederations to “protect minorities,”  but that dysfunctional empires sometimes fail in their mission to “protect minorities.”

Now one need not be an expert in such things to realize that a statement like “empires protect minorities” needs some unpacking.  Sometimes an imperial power will align itself with an unpopular minority group, promoting the interests of that group and to some extent governing through it.  The minority’s unpopularity makes it dependent on the imperial power for protection, and therefore more likely than the majority to collaborate with whatever schemes that power may put forward.  That very collaboration exacerbates the minority’s unpopularity and vulnerability.  And of course there are many other ways in which imperial powers divide and rule their subjects, many of which involve favoring minorities as against majorities.  An sober examination of these methods might leave some people willing to tolerate imperialism from time to time, but it would hardly be likely by itself to constitute a case “In Defense of Empire.”

Derek Thompson explains “How National Basketball Association Teams Fool Themselves Into Betting Too Much on the Draft.”  Mr Thompson’s explanation identifies fallacies that distort decision-making in non-sports related organizations as well:

In most professional sports leagues, including the NBA, the worst teams are first in line to snag the most-promising amateur players in the next draft. When the ripening crop of amateurs looks especially tantalizing (this year’s is projected to be historically good), multiple teams will suddenly compete to be so uncompetitive that, through sheer awfulness, they will be blessed to inherit the top pick. One anonymous general manager told ESPN the Magazine earlier this season, “Our team isn’t good enough to win,” so the best thing is “to lose a lot.”

In a way, there is a dark genius behind the tanking epidemic. In what other industry could you persuade your customers to root for the worst possible product? But tanking puzzles academics like David Berri, the author of the 2006 book The Wages of Wins and a widely read commentator on sports economics. “Tanking simply does not work,” he told me. Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.

All three of these ideas seem to spring from an addiction to a messianic view of life, in which the best things can come only to those who have suffered the worst things (so, never to the merely mediocre, but perhaps to those who lose every game for months,) there exists a true path to greatness that will be revealed to those who seek it by the right means(so, the fetishization of science, including the anointing of such obviously non-scientific pursuits as basketball scouting as sciences,) and a charismatic figure is destined to come to the lowly in their darkest hour and to lead them on that true path (so, sacrificing a whole season of potentially competitive play in the hopes of attracting such a savior.)  For all I know, messianism may reflect a cosmic truth, as Christians and others say that it does, but it certainly does seem misplaced in the world of professional basketball.

Jenny Xie writes about a graphic designer named Nikki Sylianteng, who received many parking tickets because she was confused by the famously complex street signs that are supposed to tell New York City’s residents where they may and may not leave their cars.  Ms Sylianteng designed some street signs according to a simpler scheme.  She tacked her signs up next to city signs giving the same information and invited the public to tell her what they thought of them.  Here’s Ms Sylianteng’s website.

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a book called Living With a Wild God.  In it, Ms Ehrenreich mentions an strange psychological break she experienced in her youth.  She was walking by herself in a desert town when all of a sudden she was transported by a wave of ecstasy and the world seemed to be a radically different place.  Ms Ehrenreich has no idea what that was all about.  Though she recognizes the feeling in descriptions that talented religious persons give of their mystical experiences, Ms Ehrenreich is herself quite sure that whatever happened to her was entirely of this world.  In a brief notice of the book in this issue, Ann Hulbert summarizes this story and quotes a remark of Ms Ehrenreich’s:

The young Barbara had been keeping a hyper-articulate journal as she puzzled over the meaning of life, but she found no coherent words for the predawn blazing onrush of … what? Was she crazy? God wasn’t in her vocabulary. In the years that followed, Ehrenreich the biology grad student, social activist, journalist, and brilliant cultural critic and historian was struck dumb, too.

Now she has come up with the words, and I’m tempted to credit Ehrenreich with managing a miracle. But she resolutely avoids rhetoric in that “blubbery vein”—which is why her book is such a rare feat. “As a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training,” she struggles to make sense of the epiphany without recourse to the “verbal hand-wavings about ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendence’ ” that go with the territory. There was nothing peaceful or passive about the ecstatic state that seized her: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” There is nothing pious about her reckoning with her past self, and with “a palpable Other, or Others.” Ehrenreich has no interest in conversion: “I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender.” She wants, and inspires, open minds.

I don’t know whether Ms Hulbert has quoted Ms Ehrenreich fairly, but if she has I am surprised.  “Belief is intellectual surrender.”  So it is.  That’s the point, believers call for surrendering oneself altogether to the supernatural, in the case of monotheistic religions surrender to God.  Therefore, the challenge is to prove that intellectual surrender is bad, not to prove that belief is intellectual surrender.  Ms Ehrenreich is one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, and so I suspect she knows that, and that Ms Hulbert’s quotation was cut short by limitations of space.

How to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”

If only Robert A. Taft were still alive...

The March issue of The American Conservative notices a reissue of Russell Kirk’s The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft.  Taft, long the Republican Party’s leader in the US Senate, opposed US entry into the Second World War; that was a common position on the American Right before 7 December 1941.  Unlike many of the conservatives who had been reluctant to commit the USA to war with Germany, Taft continued to resist the creation of a militarized superstate after America’s would-be warlords shifted their attentions from the defeated Germany to the insurgent Communist powers.  

Taft never accepted the premises of the Cold War.  He led opposition to the formation of NATO, faulted President Truman for ignoring the Constitution and sending US troops into the Korean War without congressional authorization, argued against the doctrine of “collective security,” demanded reductions in military spending, and in 1950 braved widespread derision to predict that if the US continued the interventionist policies of the day, American troops might someday be sent to war in some preposterous place like Vietnam.  Not even Taft would dare to incite the laughter that would greet a warning that Americans might someday be sent to make war in Afghanistan. 

When Taft died, the New Bedford, Massachusetts Standard Times said that he had left a void that the Republican Party would never fill.  While there might still be a political group under that name for many years to come, it was destined to be a “faceless, slinking thing” for want of a man like Senator Taft.  I don’t suppose we can call today’s Republicans “faceless,” and their spokesmen are more likely to strut and preen than to slink, at least when the cameras are on them.  But their unfailing support of ever-larger military budgets and an ever-wider scope of authority for the government headquartered in Washington DC would have struck Taft and his coevals as the very opposite of conservative. 

You might think that cultivating a cheerful outlook and making a consistent effort to show that cheerfulness would be a sure way to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing.”  But depending on what brings you to those habits, they may have the opposite effect.  Self-declared misanthrope Florence King reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.   King begins with Ehrenreich’s description of her time as a breast-cancer patient, a time spent in a world slathered with pink and buried under teddy bears.  While breast-cancer professionals may intend to create a space where women can feel free to let go of burdens that might get in the way of their healing, what they have actually brought about suggests to Ehrenreich and to King not a liberation from troubles, but an exile from adult womanhood.  Relentless cutesiness infantilizes women, while “The emphasis placed on industrial-strength cheerfulness also [leads] to victim-blaming… and self-punishing guilt… Ehrenreich soon discovered that ‘dissent is a form of treason.’  One day she posted hers on an online message board and heard back ‘You need to run, not walk, to some counseling.'”  It wasn’t enough she had to be in medical treatment to be freed of cancer, she was also supposed to go into psychological treatment to be brought into conformity with the prescribed attitudes.  

When a person is diagnosed with a major disease, the number and variety of people who wield power over that person often increases dramatically.  Suddenly, one is dependent on the good conduct of health-care professionals and the goodwill of friends and relatives.  Such an experience of subjection can be quite demoralizing all by itself.  Added to the suffering and weakness that disease inflicts on the body, this subjection might be enough to teast any person’s mettle.  If one’s new masters use their power to force one to display cheerfulness amid the agonies of disease, one might well be stripped of one’s dignity, and feel like a “faceless, slinking thing.” 

I suppose people who wield power might themselves become “faceless, slinking things.”  That was the point the New Bedford editorialist was making about the post-Taft Republican Party, that under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower that party had come to echo the Democrats’ will to make war abroad and centralize authority at home.  Traditional conservatives had traded their principled opposition to statism, and with it their dignity, for a chance to play the role of Caesar in the new drama of empire.  One statesman who seems to have thought along lines that Senator Taft might have favored was George Ball, who was undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  A piece in this issue carries the subhed “From Vietnam to Palestine, George Ball got it right.”  Taft and Taftians may well have thought Ball was right, but did he escape the fate of becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”?  This question haunts the piece.