“Alienated America”, Timothy Carney, reviewed by James Bradshaw, Position Papers

Found this review extremely interesting. Some highlights:

Carney begins his account of social alienation in an unusual location: Chevy Chase, Maryland. Far from being a depressed post-industrial town in the Midwest, Chevy Chase is one of the most affluent communities in the United States. And that wealth can be measured in more than just financial terms. Chevy Chase is a reservoir filled with social capital. As in other parts of affluent America, there is a wide range of community activities constantly afoot. Churches are well-attended, political participation is high, and married two-parent families are the norm.

Parents in such an environment can be confident that their children will grow up to have lives as happy and comfortable as theirs are, if not even more so. That sense of optimism and comfort within a community has important political implications, especially when voters are being encouraged to vote for a candidate who represents the antithesis of the status quo.

Candidate Trump campaigned across the United States by repeatedly delivering a fairly bleak message: “The American Dream is dead” (this was usually followed by a modest affirmation that he alone could fix this). Unsurprisingly, in the presidential election in 2016, Trump bombed in Chevy Chase. He performed abysmally in a huge number of other affluent communities across the nation, where people opted for Hillary Clinton by landslide margins.

This is not too surprising: the Democratic Party has long ruled the roost in America’s wealthiest metropolitan areas, which tend to be strongly socially liberal (in theory, if not in practice). What is noteworthy though is the extent to which Trump’s message was rejected in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries earlier in 2016. Even within the narrow Republican base in Chevy Chase, Trump was considered extremely unpalatable, gaining about 15% support.

It wasn’t just in richer communities where most Republican voters rejected him, either. Carney describes visiting the small town of Oostburg in rural Wisconsin. Most of Oostburg’s residents are ethnically Dutch, and affiliated to one of the town’s well-attended Dutch Reformed churches. While Oostburg’s denizens lack the financial status of their counterparts in Chevy Chase, the sense of togetherness is even stronger.

Locals look after each other, as Carney describes, and virtually everyone in the town is involved in its social and civic life.

This is where it gets interesting.

In spite (or perhaps because) of the little Dutch town’s conservatism, Oostburg was the site of one of Trump’s worst performances in the Republican primary in Wisconsin. As in Chevy Chase, grassroots Republicans preferred more traditional conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or more moderate alternatives such as Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Wherever church and community were strong, Trump underperformed. Wherever they were weak, he swept all before him.

People aren’t working together and many people aren’t working at all: preferring to get by on whatever unemployment assistance or disability benefits they can draw down. In the midst of such despair, addiction to illegal drugs or opioids has become common. And it is not just in the world of work where atomisation is more prevalent. Almost a generation after Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have continued to plummet in those communities which can least afford to suffer further alienation.
The percentage of people who are married, and the percentage of children who are being raised by married parents, has also fallen dramatically. Most importantly of all, the decline of religion among America’s working class has resulted in many churches shutting their doors for the last time.
In large portions of America, these trends have created deserts where social capital is all but absent.
It was in these communities where Donald Trump gained the extra votes he needed to win both the primaries and the presidency in 2016.
A large amount of social science data exists which shows just how close the correlation was between growing anxiety and disillusionment and the desire of the American working-class for a change in direction. Carney cites one study of the difference between Trump’s performance in 2016 and the Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney in 2012, carried out by the statistician Ben Casselman, which is particularly clear.

“Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.” Casselman wrote, “The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support.”

Trump’s success in 2016 led to much analysis of these problems, and the publication of Hillbilly Elegy in that same year helped many to put a face – even an imaginary one – to what one kind of Trump voter looks like.
What sets Alienated America apart though is Carney’s strong focus on the role of religion in sustaining communities, and the role which the decline of religion has played in hollowing out the social support network which used to hold communities together. For Carney, this has been even more consequential than the economic upheavals.

“The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems,” he argues. “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.”


You are not alone: the word “sonder”

I recently came across the word “sonder”

Coined in 2012 by John Koenig, whose project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, aims to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words.[1][2]Related to German sonder- (special) and French sonder (to probe).[3]

(neologism) The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

I am not that sure how I feel about it. As with solastalgia I am somewhat suspcious of the resort to neologism. I have a nagging sense that there is another, already existing word for this… perhaps I should think of a word for this nagging sense.

A Surfeit of Quarters

Recently in Limerick I came across this:



Earlier that day I had been in Limerick’s Fashion Quarter:

limerickfashionquarter 810 x 456_0

I must admit on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas there wasn’t much evidence of living culture in St John’s Square. I have come across the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and have heard a Quaker Quarter being spoke of in Clonmel. Presumably all these are inspired at least in part by the “cultural quarter” that is Temple Bar.

I fully understood local business and cultural organisations trying to raise a buzz about somewhere being a “quarter”, but it does seem more than a little forced. Surely a meaningful “quarter” developed organically, with particular business or groups or what have you gathering in an area for some reason separate from the slightly desperate planning of a committee somewhere? (in fairness, the businesses occupying the Fashion Quarter do seem to have developed there naturally enough)

The Titanic Quarter is obviously part of a laudable effort to rebrand Belfast and shift the associations in the international mind (from terrorism and conflict to, um, the most famous shipping disaster ever) although I do find it a little redolent of the somewhat samey “regeneration” of many areas in post-industrial cities.

Just like the words iconic and genius have lost much meaning and impact through overuse, there is a strong possibility Peak Quarter has already been reached.

Perhaps Waterford has the right shape in mind with a Viking triangle.

ps The Titanic Experience in Belfast is very much worth a visit.

A first hand account of being in the eye of an online shame hurricane – “Shame Storm”, Helen Andrews |

At First Things, a highly thought-provoking essay by Helen Andrews on online shaming, and specifically her own experience.

One of the most repellent features of online and social media discourse, for me, is the endless moral one-upmanship. Even in what now seem the far off days when I I haunted the OneTouchFootball forums, online shaming and self-righteousness seemed far more intense and focused than the real world equivalent. Of course, anyone who thinks these phenomena didn’t happen pre-Internet is massively deluded,  but the sheer speed and reach of online shaming is something else. The most notorious example probably being Justine Sacco:

Actually, a better candidate for original victim is Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers before getting on a plane to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was during the Christmas holidays when news is always slow, so a Gawker post about the tweet quickly went viral. People around the world were soon enjoying the suspense of knowing Sacco was on a plane with no Internet access and no way to know that she had become an object of global ridicule

Not only that, but she lost her job. As far as I can make out, the practice of online shaming transcends political and  sociological categories. There doesn’t seem to be an online grouping or community immune. As is always the way, there is at least an element of ingroup/outgroup definition, with the Bad People being outcast from the Good People. This René Girard quote springs to mind:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>“All are drawn unwittingly into the structure of violent reciprocity -which they always think they are outside of- because they all initially come from the outside and mistake this positional and temporary advantage for a permanent and fundamental superiority.” <br><br>~René Girard</p>&mdash; René Girard Quotes (@Renegirard1923) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Renegirard1923/status/1031302568113328128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 19, 2018</a></blockquote>

And while I’m at it, here’s another germane quote, from Gil Bailie discussing Girard: 

The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy drives the process toward ever more desperate gesticulations of authenticity which in fact amount to an open declaration of its opposite. On the social level, the end result is a spiritual alienation from oneself and from a healthy social matrix, an alienation from which relief is often enough sought in crude and ultimately violent forms of social solidarity.


Someone tweeted that Andrews is conflating people who can justifiably be described as victims of this online shame culture with others who deserved opprobium , the question being in the latter group how many deserve the longer term impact of the shaming (I am paraphrasing and can’t right now find the original) While there may be some merit in this, I can’t help the point is more the dynamics and sheer vitriol unleashed, regardless of cause. Based on a few seconds of video, a tweet, or a brief news report we indulge a perennial human habit of shaming our neighbours.

Some highlights from Andrews’ essay:

There is a celebrity fashion blog called Go Fug Yourself that specializes—or specialized back in 2011, the one and only time I visited the site—in unflattering paparazzi shots and red carpet disasters. The odd thing about Go Fug Yourself, I discovered, was that all its nastiest posts featured the same tic. After unloading whatever brutal snark she had for Jennifer Lawrence or whomever, the writer would always include the same disclaimer: A celebrity has one job, and that’s to look glamorous, so if you can’t manage the one thing you owe us in exchange for all the money and fame, then find another line of work, and until then lay off the cheeseburgers and hire a decent stylist. This dime-store Joan Rivers can’t think she’s fooling anyone, I thought as I scrolled through the archives to see if every post really included this lame moral alibi. Her motivation has nothing to do with celebrities falling short of their duty to the public. She’s making fun of ugliness for the same reason anyone does: It stimulates our lizard brains.

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. ­

In Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday’s memoir of his years as a PR consultant, he describes a roundtable meeting at the Huffington Post where the editors discussed how a certain big company should have handled its recent PR crisis. The editors offered the usual bromides: “Transparency is critical.” “Be proactive.” “Get out in front of it.” Holiday replied, “None of you know what you’re talking about.” The old rules don’t apply in the free-for-all world of online journalism, and they especially don’t work when the figure at the center of the controversy is one lonely individual. If a client came to him because he was being called a racist or sexist on Twitter, Holiday says (pardon the vulgarity), “I would tell him to bend over and take it. And then I’d apologize. I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.”

When I was debating whether or not to write this essay, which, after all, revisits an unpleasant incident that has long been at least semi-­dormant, if not quite forgotten, I saw a headline in the New York Times: “His Body Was Behind the Wheel a Week Before It Was Discovered.” The man, Geoffrey Corbis, had committed suicide in a parked car in the East Village. Only his name wasn’t really Geoffrey Corbis, the Times explained. He had been born Geoffrey Weglarz. He changed it after an incident in 2013 at a McDonald’s near his home in Connecticut, when he threw a sandwich at a pregnant server who had given him the wrong order. Newspaper coverage of this funny local fracas did not mention Weglarz’s recent divorce or long-term unemployment after leaving his job as a computer programmer at Dell. He couldn’t find work with the McDonald’s story at the top of his Google results, hence the attempt at a fresh start as Geoffrey Corbis.

All this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin’s The Mower – we should be kind while there is still time:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time

Tim Miller on the Bush funeral and “the sad truth of public theatre”

At his blog Truth and Silence, Tim Miller has a post on the funeral of George H W Bush and what it reveals about the media and our culture..

We have a funny view of politicians. Someone once said that politics is the only profession in which every says they would prefer an amateur to a professional (it was phrased a lot more fluently than that)

As mentioned before I have been reading quite a bit of Edwin Friedman lately. It has provoked a lot of thought for me about leadership, responsibility, and the recurrent patterns of our relationships. It struck me how much is projected onto leaders. Personally, I have always felt I would vote for someone who announced “Public administration is complex and challenging. I don’t have all the answers. Also, there are lots of things I and any government cannot possibly control. I have principles, relevant experience, and will respectfully listen to expertise and respectfully listen to concerns and  complaints – but won’t promise blind obedience to experts or that I can solve every problem.”

Would such a candidate get any, or many votes? Would a political party with a platform of “we don’t know the exact answers, but we will do our best” get anywhere? It seems too trite to load onto politicians the freight of taking the brunt of the decline in influence of organised religion – although I have a feeling they may identify with this post on clergy burnout, for similar reasons.  

Leaders tend to be the landing place of many projections. And when disappointed, the electorate are unforgiving. To give one of many examples, it is reasonably safe to say that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are the most despised politicians of the recent past in Britain and Ireland respectively – yet both were the most successful electoral performers of the last twenty years.  Of course, both are despised for very specific things, but some of the intensity is surely due to the rage of our own self-projections proving fallible.

Behind the scenes it does seem most politicians are hard-working strivers trying to do their best and navigate the various competing interests (which, of course, includes you and me and our own interests)

Anyhow, Tim Miller captures this better than I am. Here are some bits I especially liked:

Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?

No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.

That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not.


…Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.







“I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.”

I came across this quote by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys via The Frailest Thing blog – the concept of the “ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres” reminded me of “the unbridled onward rush into the abyss” of this post:

I could spend a lot of time posting quotes and reflections on the time pressure of modernity – so much so all my time could be eaten away….:

A further weighty obstacle to the realization of any ethical life project lies in the way individuals are increasingly caught in an ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres (‘subsystems’) in which they participate: work, family, (school and sports activities of children), church, credit systems (i.e., loan payment due dates), energy systems (utility bills), communications systems (Internet and cell phone bills), etc. The requirement of synchronizing and managing this complicated mesh of imperatives places one under the imperious control of a systematically induced ‘urgency of the fixed-term’ (Luhmann). In practice, the surprising—and ethically disastrous—result is that individuals’ reflective value and preference orderings are not (and tendentially cannot) be reflected in their actions. As Luhmann explains, ‘the division of time and value judgments can no longer be separated. The priority of deadlines flips over into a primacy of deadlines, into an evaluative choiceworthiness that is not in line with the rest of the values that one otherwise professes …. Tasks that are always at a disadvantage must in the end be devalued and ranked as less important in order to reconcile fate and meaning. Thus a restructuring of the order of values can result simply from time problems.’

People compelled to continually defer the activities they value most in order to meet an endless and multiplying stream of pressing deadlines inevitably become haunted by the feeling expressed in the trenchant bon mot of Ödön von Horváth cited by Rosa: ‘I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.’

Monday Monster Movie – Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla

Once there was a simple, ordinary story of a simple, ordinary monster called Godzilla. This simple story explored, in a simple way, how a simple monster could simply attack a simple modern city. Some chose to read into this simple, universal fable all sorts of complex stuff about atomic bombs and whatnot, but Godzilla remains as simple as Three Blind Mice or Citizen Kane.

Over the years, however, layers of complexity have been added to this simple structure. The plot summary states of this 2002 masterwork states:

“After the appearance of a new Godzilla, the Japanese government builds a robotic Godzilla from the bones of the original monster that attacked Tokyo in 1954 to stop the beast.”

Such simple words, yet such a subtle tapestry is woven involving the clash between nature and technology, the nature of parenthood and of political authority, and the limits of a Godzilla shaped cyborg. Drawing on intellectual influences as diverse as Foucault, Thomas Carlyle, Virgina Woolf, Increase Mather, TS Eliot, Kate Chopin, Saul Bellow, Carl Schmitt, Caryl Churchill, Dr Dre, Dr Johnson, Peregrine Worsthorne, Norman Wisdom, Ray Harryhausen, Max Brod, Yasanuri Kawabata, Wendy Cope, Whit Stillmann, Penelope Spheeris and Rod Hull, the movie encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist of the early 21st Century.