The sacred and the human (

Today’s atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it


A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board

No one is disputing that segregation was a heinous policy with far-reaching ramifications; the question is where do you locate the harm of segregation? And the court chose to locate the harm squarely inside the hearts and psyches of black children, whereas I would locate the harm in the world. I would say that the harm is located in the structure of laws and institutions that have the effect of systematically inhibiting and disempowering African Americans.

That may sound like a minor distinction. It is not. It’s a fundamental distinction. And particularly when you understand that it is the deliberate strategy of Southern whites to try and shift the racial conversation from institutions and political structures to hearts and minds. They’re trying to do that because they understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.

.. It’s because they’re locating the problem inside the hearts and minds of black kids that they can’t focus on teachers.*

..  it seems like they made a choice to pursue an argument that would convince the court. It didn’t seem obvious to me that they could have won making a structural argument, since that would involve taking power from people who would stand in their way.

.. Many African-American intellectuals have looked back on that and said, “You know what, we would’ve been better off if they had not overturned Plessy v. Ferguson,” and, “You want to play separate and equal? Let’s really do separate and equal,” and call them on their bluff. 

.. Like I said, many black intellectuals have subsequently said, “Look maybe what the court should’ve done in Brown in 1954 is say, ‘Alright, let’s actually do separate and equal—prove to me they’re equal before we go any further. Let’s start by equalizing funding. Let’s go down the list. If you want to have a separate law school for white people in the state of Texas then you have to prove to me that every element in the black law school is the equivalent of the white law school.’” That strikes me as being both a radical and a doable argument, at least in the short term. And then when you have equality—real equality—then you take the next step, and remove [segregation]. I’m not entirely convinced that would’ve been the right way to go—but I think that is an argument worth hearing.

..  I wouldn’t focus on the damage done to a person’s psyche, the way the Brown lawyers did for legal reasons, but rather on the burden of existing within a context that treats you as inferior. Other people’s beliefs, especially when they determine your outcomes, matter a great deal.

.. Maintaining separate school systems for blacks and whites in the south was very expensive, and they were able to maintain those systems only if they impoverished the black half. That’s what made it economically palatable to taxpayers in rural and urban southern school districts. They’re running two systems. It’s not cheap. And they get away with it by not giving any money to the black half. If you came along and said, “You have to fund the black half the same as you fund the white half,” you effectively force integration. But you force them to integrate themselves, as opposed to doing it from above

.. You’ve got to decide, what am I trying to do here? Am I trying to win a political battle, as expeditiously and expediently as possible, or am I trying to make a larger moral argument about race and society?

..  When they have a black teacher, black students are much less likely to be suspended and are more likely to get into the gifted program. But we don’t yet know what’s happening psychologically. Do the black teachers open doors, or do they motivate or inspire students?

..  In a sense, economists are much better suited for dealing with these big data sets. It’s incumbent on psychologists to figure out how to do that or collaborate with economists. But economists don’t necessarily care about the mechanisms, as long as there’s a difference. The problem then becomes, where’s that difference coming from? Is it about having someone that cares about you, regardless of race? Or is it about seeing someone like me in a position of authority, or seeing that person-like-me be successful?

.. The economists can look at the data set and describe the phenomenon with real precision. The psychologist can look at that same data and give us possible mechanisms—why is it happening? And then there is a role here for the sociologist, or even the anthropologist, to go in and, in a fine-grained way, to describe the experience of the participants.

.. there were enormous numbers of oral histories done over the last 30 to 40 years, and I drew on some of them. Interviews done in the 60s and 70s with black teachers, talking about the experience of being a teacher moving from an all-black school to a white school. That stuff—very anecdotal, very individual, placed alongside psychological accounts of mechanism and economic accounts of exactly what happened—that stuff is really powerful. Those three things in combination, I think, can tell you something really important.

Of money and morals

Moneylending has been taboo for most of human history. So how did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance?

In 2014, Citigroup called. The bank had been battered by successive scandals and a wave of public mistrust after the financial crisis, so they wanted to hire Miller as an on-call ethicist. He agreed. Rather than admonish bankers to follow the law – an approach that Miller thinks is inadequate – he talks to them about philosophy. Surprisingly, he hasn’t found bankers and business leaders to be a tough crowd. Many confess a desire to do good.

.. And then we spend next hour talking about ethics, purpose, meaning. So I know there’s interest.’

.. Miller wants people in finance to talk about ‘wisdom, whatever its source’. To ignore these traditions and thinkers, as the bulk of the industry tends to do, is equivalent to ‘putting on intellectual blinders’, he says.

.. Lending money has long been regarded as a moral matter. So just when and how did most bankers stop seeing their work in moral terms?

America’s Future Is Texas

With right-wing zealots taking over the legislature even as the state’s demographics shift leftward, Texas has become the nation’s bellwether.

Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free. Outsiders see us as the nation’s id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild. Texans, it is thought, mindlessly celebrate individualism, and view government as a kind of kryptonite that weakens the entrepreneurial muscles.

We’re reputed to be braggarts; careless with money and our personal lives; a little gullible, but dangerous if crossed; insecure, but obsessed with power and prestige.

.. Texas has been growing at a stupefying rate for decades. The only state with more residents is California, and the number of Texans is projected to double by 2050, to 54.4 million, almost as many people as in California and New York combined. Three Texas cities—Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—are already among the top ten most populous in the country.

.. For more than a century, Texas was under Democratic rule. The state was always culturally conservative, religious, and militaristic, but a strain of pragmatism kept it from being fully swept up in racism and right-wing ideology. Economic populism, especially in the rural areas, offered a counterweight to the capitalists in the cities.

.. In 1978, Bill Clements became the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction. To help him reach constituents, Clements hired a young direct-mail wizard named Karl Rove, who became a central figure in Texas’s transformation from blue to red. Rove attributes the change to the growth of the suburbs and the gradual movement of the rural areas into the Republican column: “They went from being economic populists, who thought the system was rigged against them by Wall Street, to being social and conservative populists, who thought that government was the problem.”

.. Moderate and conservative Democratic politicians followed the voters to the Republican Party. Rick Perry, for one, served three terms in the Texas House as a Democrat, and even campaigned for Al Gore in his 1988 Presidential run, before changing parties, in 1989. In 1994, Texas elected its last statewide Democrat. “It was a complete rout of a political party,”