Thoughts on evaluating President Obama

Quick impressions to follow. Maybe I’ll build this out later with references, but why not enter the ‘Obama Legacy Game?’

Barack Obama was a good president in the sense that he did a good job administering an inhumane place. He effectively led America as it did the same sort of inhumane things it has done for most of its history. His passage of the ACA, something Democrats had been trying to do for at least 50 years, can’t be dismissed. It was a massive political achievement, even as its flaws were immediately obvious and its far from a progressive win.

He wasn’t transformative, but what a ridiculous standard to which no white president would be held – certainly not a white male president. Obama’s failings are the failings of American Institutions, of American culture, of American politics. He led those institutions, worked within that culture and our polarized politics with remarkable skill. He won most of the political battles he entered, even as Republican opposition was set on not letting him claim even the smallest victories.

As Obama now faces attacks from both the right and left, criticizing him as a failed leader, it is important to remember that expecting a black man to be excellent in exchange for granting him adequacy is the essence of racism. Look at who President Obama followed. George W. Bush was the definition of mediocre, and his rise to power was entirely a function of his family ties and wealth. Look at who is following America’s first black president. Donald Trump represents all of the worst things of white masculinity and American arrogance. Say what you will about how much better President Obama could have been, maybe even should have been, but don’t apply a different set of standards than we have before, and certainly will not with President Trump.

How to ruin voting for a 4 year old

My polling place was only slightly busier than normal today, which was nice because it let me see one of the strangest, saddest things I’ve ever seen.

A man and a woman with two young daughters went to the table to check in. They were then handed their ballots, but turned them down because, according to the dad, they were going to “cancel each other out anyway.” So, they didn’t vote. They walked out. But, as they did, their younger daughter started to cry. She wanted to vote.

She could have gone into the booth with one of them, right? They could have given their daughters a great lesson about civic responsibility. They could have gone in with their Clinton voting parent and ‘voted’ for a woman president when they were 4 years old. Hell, they could have started making America great again at 4 years old.

Instead, their dad took that away with “we’re going cancel each other out anyway.” Yes, the mom left too. But, come on. Who does this? What explains it? Sexism? Desiring marital stability? Apathy? I don’t get it.

Electric Customer-Service-Lady Land

We have Verizon Fios, and this morning our Fios box in the basement started beeping. It is notifying us, via the beep and a little flickering light, that the backup battery is about to fail and that we should replace it. This means calling Verizon customer service which I hate because I’ve had to call it far too many times and it’s almost always futile. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced worse customer service than I’ve received nearly every time I’ve called Verizon. Problems with Fios aren’t resolved without talking to at least 4 different people across multiple phone calls; even then it seems like the problems just resolve themselves without anyone doing anything. I prefer just to avoid calling and the problems usually go away after a bit. But, sometimes it requires an angry phone call with an employee who has no responsibility for what’s wrong and a manager who tries to tell us nothing is wrong. I hate it, and it often involves a rant about capitalism and a let’s move to the woods lament.

About a month ago we got a new wireless router which we required to buy from Verizon or they’d put a new service charge on our bill for keeping the old router which apparently isn’t supposed to work anymore. The old one worked just fine, but I installed the new router when it arrived, and, surprise, it didn’t work. I hooked the old one back up and went about my internet saturated life. Rather than call Verizon, I’ve been putting it off because why deal with the terrible customer service? Why hassle the employee who picks up the phone who won’t be able to help?

Well, the beeping Fios box in the basement isn’t as easy to ignore. The cat doesn’t like it at all. So, I called, if just to save my cat from the terror of the periodic beep. I figured at least I can deal with the router issue now too, so twice the help for half the agony!

I dialed the customer service number on the Fios box, and who picks up? A robot. ‘She’ tried to sound like a human woman, but it was an automated customer service agent. ‘She’ asked me human questions like “are you authorized to make decisions about this account,” and then paused to wait for answers, just like a human would. She even waited long enough for me to think to myself “Am I supposed to push #1, or do I just say ‘yes?'” She wanted me to say “yes,” and the interaction moved on. ‘She’ verified my phone number, started casually calling me Matt, and then immediately told me my backup battery was about to die. It saved so much time not having to say it. So efficient. She understood my problems better than any human customer service representative ever has, and I bet she never demands a raise or quits in the middle of her shift. ‘She’ asked if I’d like to order a new battery. I wondered, ‘do I have a choice, robot lady?,’ but all I said was “yes.” Would I let the charge go onto my next Verizon bill? “Yes.” That’s how you do business!

After that last “yes,” I think ‘this interaction is going well.’ Too well. It’s going so efficiently, in fact, that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to ask my question about the router. As I was realizing the potential problem, I think the robot lady said some things about how I might continue the conversation with the right command, but I was too distracted to hear it. “Oh no,” I thought, “what did I just miss? Was that my chance to say my router sucks? Can I talk to her about this problem she clearly wasn’t programmed to already know about?” The pause was long enough to have that entire thought, and then the kind robot lady said “thank you” in the coldest slash cheeriest voice I’ve ever heard and hung up. Interaction over, and I’m stuck with the bricked router and I’ve still got to call Verizon. Sigh.



The steady Humvees of War

I can’t forget March 2003. I was teaching a section of Research Methods to Notre Dame undergraduates. The country was having the ‘debate’ about invading Iraq. There was no debate. We were going. We knew, if for no other reason, because the American General plant in Mishawaka, IN was surrounded by a sea of recently produced Humvees. Bush was going to send those Humvees and their 20 year old drivers on his revenge mission to the desert. People the same age as the privileged ND students I was in the room with.

I brought it up one day. To a one, they had no idea the ‘debate’ was even occuring. They had no opinion one way or the other. I told them that was not OK, and that even if you disagreed with my anti-Iraq war stance you should be just as engaged. Just as angry. But why would they be. I’d guess most of them are now living comfortable lives mostly untouched by that war that has destroyed so many lives, given us ISIS, and tied this country’s hands with debt and turmoil for at least a generation. Their lives were set one way or the other. I think about that whenever I reflect on the fact that Bush got away with it. People don’t care because why would they?

It’s nice to see that British Parliament may try to hold Tony Blair accountable. Will we ever do the same to Bush, Cheney, and Powell?

Secular is good for us!

I’ve been fascinated to see a growing literature showing that religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about god, reduce social trust (examples here and here). Much of the work in the sociology of religion for so long has had a more or less explicit ‘religion is good for society’ thrust. I’ve published in that mainstream view myself, and usually the most you’ll see is ‘religion is mostly good for us, except for maybe fundamentalism.’

But, I’m starting to think this is because most survey data, particularly in the United States, has only allowed quantitative sociologists to study the very religious and the moderately religious, until recently. Now, with more and more seculars all the time, our samples are catching more people at the ‘not religious’ end of the spectrum, and it turns out they trust people too, and a paper I’m finishing up argues nontheists are more trusting than believers. So, it’s not ‘mainline’ versus ‘evangelical,’ but really it’s ‘very religious,’ ‘moderately religious,’ and ‘not religious.’And it turns out secular is good for you, and for us.

Goldilocks and the three GOP’ers

It’s ‘somewhat important Tuesday’ with primary elections in Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, and Hawaii. Today’s media narrative appears to be ‘Is Trump losing Momentum to an ascendant Ted Cruz?’ Frankly, it’s a terrifying question, and there do seem to be reasons to believe Cruz could a make  real move today (admittedly without consulting polling data or experts). I think you have to hope Trump’s recent fascist antics would cost him the campaign, and I think there is a good explanation as to why Cruz is better positioned to take advantage than Rubio (and all the polling data I look at suggest this is what’s likely to happen should Trump trip). Here’s my take in one short paragraph.

“Ideas” candidates, like Paul Ryan, for example, sometimes struggle to effectively connect their ideas to people’s perceived problems. Because that can come as ‘I know your problems better than you do,’ it appears like a fundamental misunderstanding of representative government. I think voters, maybe particularly GOP voters, prefer at least the impression of responsiveness to material problems rather than champions of philosophy who say ‘you’re seeing it wrong, you don’t quite get it.’ This explains, at least partly, why candidates like Donald Trump, for example, can be successful. Trump’s campaign is framed as a reaction to some people’s ‘real’ problems rather than a lesson about a worldview they don’t understand. Cruz might be the middle ground between Trump and Rubio in this regard. Rubio comes off as a teacher committed to out-of-date ideas. When Trump calls Rubio a loser, he’s really just saying you’re out of touch like Romney, like Bob Dole! Cruz, however, is effectively offering a better balance of material analysis and philosophy than either Rubio or Trump. Whereas Trump seems to be saying, ‘geez, not having jobs because of foreigners sure isn’t great, let’s get rid of the scary brown people’ and leaving it at that before jumping into some other crazy rant, Cruz seems to be saying pretty much the same things while also being much better able to articulate ideas about the constitution and religiosity that give his message more philosophical substance and continuity. But, not so much that it feels like old-GOP commitment to free trade and economic theory you have to study in college to really understand. So, for GOP primary voters maybe the moral will be that Trump is too reactionary, Rubio too professorial, and Cruz just right.



Quantified Self and Interaction

I recently started using a FitBit. I use it mostly to understand why I’m not fit, not because I think it’s going to encourage me to get fit. It turns out my non-teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays are probably killing me, and Sundays aren’t helping. I know this because I can look at my week and see daily counts of how many steps I’ve taken, the miles I’ve walked, how many calories I’ve burned, and how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. I’m grading papers today, and right now, at noon, my numbers look like this:

Steps: 856

Miles: 0.35

Calories burned: 941

Stairs Climbed: 1

That’s really bad (so bad I’m questioning the validity); worse than my typical Tuesday, Thursday, or Sunday, even.

Counting as a way to know something about who I am is an example of ‘the quantified self.’ There’s a ton of commentary about the significance of the quantified self, just do a Google search. Maybe start here:

On some days when my counts tell me I’m a bad person who is going to die young, I go for a walk around campus. I’m walking less to get fit and more so that I don’t feel bad that my count is low. On some days it’s so I don’t lose so spectacularly to my wife in the ‘step challenges’ our phone apps run for us.

An unintended consequence of these walks has been that I keep running into and talking to people I don’t regularly see in my typical work day. I’ve run into colleagues from the math department, a new anthropologist I never see otherwise, an economist friend, a former student who is out in the world doing really cool things, as well as many others. My brow is usually sweaty, and I have to say ‘look, I’m wearing a FitBit!’ (it’s required).

After that, however, we’ve had nice conversations about non-work topics. We hear often that technology is making us less social, substituting ‘false’ relationships for ‘real’ ones, etc., etc., etc. I don’t believe that, and I’m always looking for counter evidence. For example, when people are staring at their phone, more often than not they are interacting with someone on the other side. Staring at Facebook or Twitter are examples of being really involved with other people, and the phone just happens to be the interface. Similarly, I’m out walking to increase my steps, but I end up in the world, meeting and talking to people.

So, maybe we need to think about not just the ‘quantified self,’ but also the ‘quantified self and interaction.’

Marginalization and Trust: What’s Religion Got to do With It?

Tomorrow morning I’ll be giving a paper at the 2015 meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. It’s about religion and trust. In particular, me and my coauthors India Bolden-Maisonet and Alex Capella are exploring the idea that secular people may be more trusting than religious people. It’s more complicated than that, and this is very much a preliminary work, but I do plan to develop this idea. Hopefully I’ll get some good feedback in the morning.

Here is a link if you’d like to read the talk. Right now it doesn’t have a work’s cited page, but it does include in-text citations. If you see any cite you’d like more info on, just let me know.


Cardinal Dolan at Le Moyne: sociological reflections (not culture war material, sorry)

Le Moyne College has made the news recently because we have invited Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree. A group of students started a petition to disinvite Dolan because of his role in the Church’s response the child sex abuse scandal and because of statements he’s made about same sex relationships.

I was interviewed a few times by different journalists, but my comments weren’t used –I’d guess because I didn’t really have anything controversial to say. I didn’t sign the petition, and except for rather limited contact with just a few students who have signed the petition or are involved in various forms of protest, I haven’t really been involved. I’ll wear a rainbow sash during Sunday’s commencement ceremony, as will several other faculty members. When Cardinal Dolan speaks, I’ll probably be just as uninterested as I ever am in commencement speakers.

Probably the biggest media splash was yesterday when two representatives of Le Moyne, our president Dr. Linda LeMura, and director of mission and identity, Fr. David McCallum chose to appear on Fox & Friends to discuss the ‘controversy.’ Honestly, I was under the impression things had mostly died down here on campus. Yes, there is some slight civil disobedience planned for Sunday, but the man is speaking and I’ll be very surprised if any Le Moyne students engage in disruptive protest.

Fox News, and in particular Fox & Friends, make their money by stoking the culture war (also see this silly piece in National Review Online). To hear the segment from the morning ‘news’ show, you’d think ‘leftist, secularist’ students were flipping the pope mobile. On the contrary, this is the most active protest having to do with religious issues I’ve seen in my 10 years here, and it’s decidedly civil and reasonable. There are good reasons to be upset that Le Moyne has invited Fr. Dolan (apparently an invitation offered by our Eric Dolphy loving past president), just as there are good reasons to invite the Archbishop of New York to be the speaker at Jesuit Le Moyne College (this is why I didn’t sign the petition, defensible choice or not).

Because I’m a sociologist of religion, however, this is certainly an opportunity to think about the sociological meaning of the protest on our campus.

Le Moyne got more Catholic after we moved to lay presidents. It’s a case study in the processes of secularization and resacralization. With Jesuit presidents, we just were Catholic. It was more difficult for outsiders to question it. Now it’s easier to question, so it has be demonstrated more overtly. We got our first director of mission and identity, and we are increasingly offered opportunities to explore our Ignation heritage.

However, were I to guess, I think our student body follows the general trends of their generation in terms of religiosity. When I ask, as I regularly do, students rarely say they’ve come because the school is Catholic, and less because it is Jesuit. Many seniors barely know what a Jesuit is, and I think we see that as more of a problem now than we used to. There is probably a selection effect as I teach social science electives, and I’d not be surprised if more religious students avoid me because of my relatively outspoken attitudes about atheism. But, I don’t think there is much self-organized religious activism on campus, orthodox or progressive. The Dolan reaction is the most I recall in my time here. I’m sure there is support, but it’s not organized like the opposition. I think that is indicative of the general apathy about religious issues on campus. The Dolan protest isn’t about Catholicism, per se. It’s more about sexuality and sexual assault, issues common across college campuses, Catholic or not.

Drone police and instant replay justice

As yet another video of a police officer murdering a black man makes its way through the media, we are again hearing calls for officers to wear body cameras. It’s not certain that body cameras would make much difference in police behavior. Nonetheless, cameras on cops all across the country opens up a number of exciting possibilities.

Here are some ideas.

Police departments need revenue – sometimes they’ll stop and fine you just to pay the bills. That’s patently unfair, and not very entertaining. Why not affix a camera to every officer and live-stream the feed over the police department website? Charge a few bucks a month for access, and put the long running tv show Cops right out of business. Violence voyeurs everywhere will sign up for Gold Subscriptions that include exclusive access to the racist jokes making their way around the local police department.

Americans love instant replay almost as much as reality TV. Who doesn’t like an X-Mo replay of a great diving catch, or viral video replays of police brutality? But, why not use the replay technology to make sure everybody gets a fair shot at justice? Pop a camera on every police officer in America, give every citizen 2 ‘challenges,’ and set up a Police Replay Operations Center in Times Square. Whenever a citizen feels unjustly treated by an officer of the law they can use one of their remaining challenges. The Police Operations Replay Operations Center will spring into action, carefully evaluating all available video angles to make sure the police officer made the right call. Broadcast the replays on a mega-sized video board in the town square so citizens can deliberate the case as well. Rationality will deliver indisputable justice. (To be fair, however, people of color should probably be allowed more challenges).

I can’t help but think that the Police Operations Video Operations Center could be put to better use than a clunky replay system that disrupts the flow of police work. Why not let the folks at the monitors play an active role in protecting and serving? In fact, police work can be dangerous for cops out on the streets, so why not use the technology to remove the cop from the beat where things can get out of hand quickly, while also giving them the eyes and force needed to control any situation? It works for the military, and police forces all around the country are using military grade resources. Yes, drone cops is clearly the way to go. Remote controlled, camera equipped, fully armed drone cops will ensure the safety of the police while delivering swift, reviewable, streamable, profitable justice.