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Thursday, August 9, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

I’m not the only person these days who wonders if American society is becoming one big dysfunctional family. Or to what degree is it really “one” anymore. “One Nation Under God, Indivisible”? There sure seem to be a lot of divisions these days. Some pundits even talk about the coming of a “New Civil War” or a “Soft Civil War”.

They don’t anticipate another territorial shooting war led by a modern Robert E. Lee or William Tecumseh Sherman, but they do see increasing social and economic polarization that could cause large-scale disruptions in interstate trade, citizen mobility, cultural interchange, and political cooperation between regions and through other ways of dividing people. Today’s version of Bull Run, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Seven Days and Shiloh may be fought largely on-line, given how important the internet and social media has become to so many areas of daily life. America today has quite a number of ways in which people seem to be dividing into “them versus us” groups. Of course, the big divisor seems to be political beliefs and philosophies (progressives versus conservatives, etc.), but in some ways, it even appears that men and women are preparing for battle!

For instance, we now have a cable TV series that picks up where #MeToo leaves off, i.e. about a female terrorist movement that kills men (i.e. Dietland, which I have been watching this summer). In the original American Civil War, the battles were between the same two governments. In a 21st Century version, the combatants will be different for most every major battle.

In the decades leading up to the original Civil War, American society was increasingly fragmented over the issue of slavery, and by the political process that would determine how this terrible moral, social and economic question would be resolved (e.g., local choice versus a national determination). And during this time (and for several decades following the end of the Civil War), America was involved in another “hot war” in which the rights and social and economic roles of other indigent humans living on our soil were being determined, i.e. the “Indian Wars”.

It seems pretty clear that by 1830, America was becoming more and more divided over these important issues. In the end, we could not find a non-bloody way to resolve them. America was set back significantly by the economic costs of the Civil War and to a lesser degree the Indian Wars, and the social and moral costs of those conflicts are still being paid today. A “new civil war” could similarly cost the United States much opportunity for economic growth and increments to the well being of its population, and thus weaken our nation at a time when our global leadership status is increasingly challenged by China, Iran, Russia, and other rival nations. But is it really happening?

We live in an age of technology and science, and people versed in those cultures are drawn towards numbers. In modern times, we like to quantify things as much as possible, boil things down to figures for purposes of comparison and analysis. So, can we measure the forces and trends that may or may not be undermining the social, economic and political forces that hold a nation and a people together? Can we get an index number (or maybe a series of indexes) that track how we are doing over time, that can identify what is working and give us warnings when things seem to be getting out of hand?

I guess that I am looking for some sort of “official” or widely recognized and respected way of measuring harmony, social cohesion, and political cooperation in the US over time. Right now, I don’t think that any such indexing process is being attempted. However, in searching around on the web, I did find a number of related attempts to quantify things like this in other nations and regions of the world. Various researchers and commissions have come up with ways of melding a variety of socio-economic statistics into a “harmony index” or a “cohesion monitor”. Each of these attempted indexes are a bit different, each seems to have slightly different goals. For instance, a group of thinkers and leaders worked with political scientist Daniel A. Bell (not to be confused with the late, great sociologist and author Daniel Bell) of the Center for International and Comparative Political Theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing to come up with a national harmony index for various nations of the world.

Bell’s index considers focuses on human wellbeing by examining four types of relationships: those within families, between citizens, between countries, and between humans and nature. According to Bell, “The HI measures the extent of peaceful order and respect for diversity within each relationship.” This is interesting, but Dr. Bell’s index seems to focus on individual well being, whereas I am wondering more about “the health of the nation” as an ongoing institution. And the results of the Harmony Index seem a bit surprising – e.g., “The US is penalised because of its large ecological footprint, but it is a surprisingly harmonious society internally; Brazil, in contrast, did well on harmony with nature but poorly on harmony in society.” I agree that our nation has a significant “ecological footprint”, but I am writing here because our society seems anything but harmonious these days.

Another interesting index is used officially by the African nation of Kenya, in a fashion closer to what I have in mind here. The Kenyan government appointed a National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and tasked it with deriving a “cohesion index” intended to address and reduce inter-ethnic conflicts. The Commission was created following an election crisis in 2008. I do not know the details about this index, but it appears to me that it reflects an attempt to identify “levels of concord and dischord” between powerful factions within Kenya, especially those involving ethnicity and tribalism; cooperation and antagonism amidst these factions can significantly impact the strength and authority of the government along with other social and economic institutions in that nation.

The idea of a “cohesion index” could be used for good purposes by a progressive government, but it could also be an instrument of oppression in the wrong hands. I have to wonder about the intent of an effort by the Chinese government to derive and use a “rural social harmony index. This index is based on six criteria related to the definitions put forth by China’s ruling party of a “harmonious society” according to the official news agency Xinhua; they include “democracy, justice, honesty, vitality, stability and harmony between humans and nature”.

My question is, why just a “rural” index? Why not a nationwide index, or a series of comparative regional indices? And can we trust what the autocratic Chinese Communist Party thinks is necessary for “harmony”? It looks to me (pure speculation, of course) as though the Chinese leaders are keeping a close eye on their far western provinces, where there are significant Muslim populations that are having problems with the central government. There are reports of re-education classes for anyone suspected of Islamic activism. Having a “harmony index” for these areas would fit well with a repressive central government trying to justify its heavy-handed tactics. The first “rural harmony score” was reported to be 59.25 on a scale of 100. Hmm, back in my school days, a 59 score would be a “D”, i.e. not a total failure but needs much improvement.

There is also a European Union cohesion monitor. This is “an index of the 28 member states of the European Union describing their readiness for joint action and cooperation through a measurement of the individual ties between Europeans and structural connections between societies at large.” Somehow I feel a little bit better about this index, but obviously there are a lot of British folk and some others on the continent who lately have talking against the EU and criticizing it for being “repressive”. (Case in point, the Brexit movement in Great Britain). A “cohesion monitor” will not make them feel any better.

There have been other more innocent attempts at measuring national unity trends, mostly by academic actors that (hopefully) aren’t grinding an axe for the rich and powerful. E.g., the Scanlon Foundation has been mapping social cohesion in Australia recently. According to the Australian goverment’s Institute of Family Studies,

Migration is a key focus of the research. The report “Mapping social cohesion” notes that positive attitudes towards rates of immigration have remained relatively stable over time. When comparing results from 2007 and 2017, the proportion of respondents reporting that the number of immigrants accepted into Australia was “about right” or “too low” has remained consistent at 56% and 53% respectively. However, it was also found that reported experiences of discrimination on the basis of skin colour, ethnic origin or religion have more than doubled from 9% in 2007 to 20% in 2017. Furthermore, while the majority of survey respondents (85%) were supportive of multiculturalism, the report also identified a relatively high level of negative opinion towards Muslims relative to other faith groups.

Hmmm, so there is also some government involvement or at least interest in that one. A more purely academic study was performed by the independent Bertelsmann Stiftung research foundation in Germany, comparing social cohesion against major nations. According to Bertelsmann, “Social cohesion is defined as the special quality how members of a community live and work together. A cohesive society is characterized by resilient social relationships, a positive emotional connectedness between its members and the community and a pronounced focus on the common good.”

The Bertelsmann study is focused heavily on economic and technology factors (not surprising for a German organization); they found that “the three most important socio-economic factors associated with social cohesion are national wealth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), a country’s income gap as measured by the Gini coefficient, and its level of development towards a modern information society as measured by [a] Knowledge Index.” So how did the major western nations do?

Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have the highest levels of social cohesion, followed by Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, according to the Social Cohesion Radar, a study released today by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. The study, which examines 34 countries in the EU and the OECD, also concludes that Lithuania, Latvia and the southeast European countries of Bulgaria, Greece and Romania suffer from low social cohesion . . . Most of Western Europe—Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Spain—feature above-average to average social cohesion. Most of Western Europe—Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Spain—feature above-average to average social cohesion.

So . . . should we have an authoritative, ongoing (and hopefully independent) unified tracking index of political and social cohesion here in the USA? Right now I don’t believe that there is one. But political and social discord and polarization continue to be hot topics right now, and getting some numbers could help the discussion about this. For example, a recent Atlantic Magazine article reports that some ongoing research on political partisanship by the Pew Foundation indicates that in 1994, the members of the two major American political parties were only 15 percentage points apart in terms of agreement on major issues. Now they are an average of 36 points apart. The political gap is much larger than the differences on these issues between the opinions of men and women, of black and white Americans, and of other divisions in society.

A nice qualitative summary of the current status of American “fragmentation” by sociologist Gary Marx (not related to Karl, let’s hope) was published by MIT recently. Dr. Marx makes the point that both too much and too little cohesion amidst the American populace can be bad. It’s one of those “Golden mean” things, the porridge that you want to be “just right”. I.e.,

The individual [in the 1950s] was seen to be overly responsive to the group and unduly timid. In the 1960s, many idealistic and optimistic young persons heard John F. Kennedy’s charge to “ask not what your country-can do-for you, but what can you do for your country?” But in recent years these concerns have rarely been heard. They have been replaced by what is in some ways an opposite concern over the pronounced differences and indifferences in contemporary society. Worry over the tyranny of community has been replaced by worry over whether or not there is any community to begin with, or what kind of community it is.

I will close my thoughts on socio-political cohesion (or lack thereof) by citing a recent case-in-point. I.e., the controversy over New York Times writer Sarah Jeong and her long list of anti-white comments left on social media over a five year period (mostly on Twitter). Ms. Jeong is a 30 year old woman who was born in South Korea from a native Korean family, but lived most of her life in the USA. She is highly educated, having an undergrad degree from U.C. Berkley and a law degree from Harvard. The New York Times recently hired her and appointed her to their editorial board, and the conservative opponents of the Times scoured the internet for material about or written by Ms. Jeong. And they hit what for them would be considered “paydirt”. I.e., a cache of social media comments disparaging white people in general, and white men in particular (one comment honed in on old white males — ouch, that includes me!).

So obviously, the conservative media set out on a campaign to embarrass the Times and Ms. Jeong for her rather negative opinions that were based around race, and the liberal media set out to defend both Jeong and the Times (which refused to fire Jeong) on the grounds that when the oppressed speak words that would ensure condemnation as racist if used by white people about non-white people, they cannot be seen or condemned as racist since they are the victims, not the oppressors. The claim is that when white people say racist things, it is a call to action that often precedes oppressive and violent actions; whereas when non-white people refer to whites in seemingly racist tones, it is an understandable reaction and coping strategy, and does not amount to a call to violence.

OK, I am not going to try to resolve that situation! But I would like to offer a comment by British journalist Daniel Hannan recently posted in the Washington Examiner. Mr. Hannan (yes, another white male) makes the following point about the “social cohesion” situation in the USA today:

If l’affaire Jeong has taught us one thing, it’s that the people who claim most vociferously to be anti-racist are . . . obsessed with race, seeing almost everything through the prism of ethnicity . . . The alt-right look down upon certain groups on genetic grounds, and now notice that the “woke Left” does the same thing. We are dealing not with two opposed attitudes, but with two expressions of the same attitude — an attitude, incidentally, that flies in the face of a mountain of evidence that differences within racial groups outweigh differences between them, thus sustaining the common-sense view that we are all primarily individuals.

Yes, race has always been a weak spot in the social adhesive that binds many millions of people into the American nation. But it seems as though racial awareness is hitting peak levels these days, in an antagonistic fashion. (And yes, I know that Sarah Jeong and the NY Times cannot take the blame for this, I realize that this situation has been deteriorating for several years now, and appears to have become much worse since the political rise of Donald Trump). I have no quick and easy solution for this, but I do think that a fair and reliable measurement index for social and political cohesion (or lack thereof) could help us to better appreciate “the state of our nation”, and hopefully inspire solutions before things start to get really ugly.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:17 pm      

  1. Jim, This is just a random series of tho’ts re the things you mention in your post. So do not expect a well-thought-out comment here. I wonder how such things as “harmony, social cohesion, and [even] political cohesion” can be reduced to numbers, no matter how enthralled our present times may be with numbers. It seems to me that there are far too many emotional and psychological aspects included in those concepts, especially in harmony and social cohesion, to be able to reduce them to numbers. On the other hand I may be missing something.

    I find I cannot quite agree with you about worrying about a civil war (“soft” or “new”) occurring due to present day happenings. I find these times much like the 1960s when I was in my 30s. I remember the 1960s quite well, I think. I would agree that these times are different from the 1960s in that the 1960s were more “national” and these times are more “global”. Thus, the whole world is affected now when in the 1960s it seemed to be “only” our nation involved. But to make a long story short, I feel we as a nation managed to get through the 1960s and even the 1970s and come out the other end OK; we can do the same now.

    Some of the same things are coming up again, although in a larger way than they did in the 1960s—and I note again nation versus world as probably the reason. For instance, the Black/White issue is one I can see being repeated. Now we are “adding” the male/female issue. It’s hard to decide about the “religious” issue because in the 1960s many Black people adopted the Muslim religion (although I sometimes wondered if it was anything close to the Muslim religion that Muslim countries practice). The problem of the Black/White issue was a very long and difficult one that was not entirely solved but did have a lot of improvement from previous times.

    It seems that today our government is sadly negligent of areas we as a nation should be helping, e.g., the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, the hurricane hitting Puerto Rico, the fires in California, the random violence in too many places in the world. Sadly, the government is not jumping in and offering help to its own people, to say nothing of helping other countries. Here I would say that the violence that was so evident in the 1960s was more “local” in our nation while today’s violence is more global and its effects are more global. It occurred to me today that in 1960 the news would have taken longer to be known through the world; today it’s known almost instantly through the entire world.

    What I do find an interesting development these days is that, while the government (particularly in the U.S.) may have little concern with disasters within our own country, to say nothing of disasters in other countries, I am thoroughly impressed with the response of the people to such disasters. It seems what the gov’t does not or will not do to help in various catastrophes, ordinary people willingly take over and help in ways that are surprisingly selfless and worthy of medals of honor, however they may be expressed in various situations.

    I do realize that you are speaking about governments rather than small groups helping other small groups. But I tend to think that when it comes to our own country, trying to get our government to have some concern other than that of what seems to be only that of the leader of our country, is a lost cause. I also tend to think that such ignoring by the government is HELPING social cohesion in that it unites people in smaller groups to band together and help their fellow people. I have also been surprised that in some cases the “small” groups are surprisingly “large” in that they respond to larger areas than one might ordinarily think they would. This is again fueled by social media.

    As to the “negative opinion” held by many people toward Muslims and even other groups, it occurs to me that every, single group that has immigrated to our country has had to experience a period of time when they were, to put it mildly, not well received. I think here of (and I likely do not have these in any order nor do I mention enough groups) Italians (often known disrespectfully as WOPs—“without papers”), the Irish who had to endure a lot of disrespect and lack of social acceptance, the Chinese who were only accepted as workers on building railroads throughout the country, many often dying in the process. Today it’s the Mexicans and the people from various Central American countries, to say nothing of the Muslims from various countries who are not accepted socially.

    It seems to me if we follow the same path from previous times, we (as a global “we”) will come eventually to accept these groups in our own U.S. country and other nations will accept these groups in their countries.

    I think it is often forgotten that when the Pilgrims came over here, they were looking for various freedoms for THEMSELVES but not necessarily for others who might want to come here also. So while we often think that our country has been very accepting of peoples from other countries, I think we are not seeing the situation clearly; it took over 200 years to get where we are now; we may need to give this “upset” in these days more time to come to a sense of acceptance of others.

    Further, that is to say nothing of the acceptance of women as equal to men, something which I do not think can be claimed to have been fully accepted even today.

    What may be needed is time to absorb changes, both local and global; time to let things settle down, and we will come out the other end of this crisis without a civil war. I think basically this whole issue is bigger than a civil war in our country; it involves the entire world. And while there is always the chance that the head of some country may do something catastrophic that would affect the world, I’d say we come at that point to a place where they say “there are no atheists in foxholes” and begin some good thoughts to spread throughout the world that will aid in bringing peace. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 14, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

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