Category Archives: History

Economics of Matching

A canonical problem in graph theory is that of matching – pairing people (or nodes) based on mutual preference. The classic example of this – framed, unfortunately, in a cis-heteronormative way – is known as the marriage problem. Assuming knowledge of the whole population, men have a ranked-order list of appropriate female partners and women similarly make a ranked-order list of appropriate male partners. The question then, is can we, as an all-knowing mathematician, make a matching in which no non-matched (opposite sex) pair would prefer to be with each other than with the partners they are matched with?

The mathematical solution to “stable marriage matching” is elegant, and worth at some point a post of its own. But for the moment, I was recently struck by the economic implications of this problem. That is, I had always considered it from the vantage point of the all-knowing observer, with the implicit understanding that such scope of vision is what makes the solution possible.

Roth’s 2008 article, What have we learned from market design?, brings a new perspective to the market failures that can result from the lack of such global coordination. Because it’s such an interesting story, I include below a long excerpt describing the history of today’s residency-matching program for medical school graduates:

The first job American doctors take after graduating from medical school is called a residency. These jobs are a big part of hospitals’ labor force, a critical part of physicians’ graduate education, and a substantial influence on their future careers. From 1900 to 1945, one way that hospitals competed for new residents was to try to hire residents earlier than other hospitals. This moved the date of appointment earlier, first slowly and then quickly, until by 1945 residents were sometimes being hired almost two years before they would graduate from medical school and begin work.

When I studied this in Roth (1984) it was the first market in which I had seen this kind of “unraveling” of appointment dates, but today we know that unraveling is a common and costly form of market failure. What we see when we study markets in the process of unraveling is that offers not only become increasingly early, but also become dispersed in time and of increasingly short duration. So not only are decisions being made early (before uncertainty is resolved about workers’ preferences or abilities), but also quickly, with applicants having to respond to offers before they can learn what other offers might be forthcoming. Efforts to prevent unraveling are venerable, for example Roth and Xing (1994) quote Salzman (1931) on laws in various English market from the 13th century concerning “forestalling” a market by transacting before goods could be offered in the market.

In 1945, American medical schools agreed not to release information about students before a specified date. This helped control the date of the market, but a new problem emerged: hospitals found that if some of the first offers they made were rejected after a period of deliberation, the candidates to whom they wished to make their next offers had often already accepted other positions. This led hospitals to make exploding offers to which candidates had to reply immediately, before they could learn what other offers might be available, and led to a chaotic market that shortened in duration from year to year, and resulted not only in missed agreements but also in broken ones. This kind of congestion also has since been seen in other markets, and in the extreme form it took in the American medical market by the late 1940’s, it also constitutes a form of market failure (cf. Roth and Xing 1997, and Avery, Jolls, Roth, and Posner 2007 for detailed accounts of congestion in labor markets in psychology and law). Faced with a market that was working very badly, the various American medical associations (of hospitals, students, and schools) agreed to employ a centralized clearinghouse to coordinate the market. After students had applied to residency programs and been interviewed, instead of having hospitals make individual offers to which students had to respond immediately, students and residency programs would instead be invited to submit rank order lists to indicate their preferences. That is, hospitals (residency programs) would rank the students they had interviewed, students would rank the hospitals (residency programs) they had interviewed, and a centralized clearinghouse — a matching mechanism — would be employed to produce a matching from the preference lists. Today this centralized clearinghouse is called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).

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On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

 

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Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

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Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict

At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.

Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.

We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a  “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.

Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.

Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.

When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.

Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.

But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.

The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.

Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.

“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”

That is why we resist.

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A Lesson from the West Area Computers

I really want to read Hidden Figures, the new book by Margot Lee Shetterly which chronicles “the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race.” If you aren’t as excited about this book as I am, it highlights the work and experiences of the West Area Computers – a group of black, female mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley from 1943 through 1958.

I haven’t gotten a chance to yet, but I was particularly struck by one incident I heard on the podcast Science Friday and which I found recounted in the Smithsonian Magazine:

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

I love this story.

Not because it has a hopeful message about how determination always wins – but because it serves as a reminder of the effort and risk people of color face every day just in interacting with their environment.

The West Computers were tremendously good at their jobs and were respected by their white, male, colleagues. I imagine many of these colleagues considered themselves open-minded, even radical for the day, for valuing the talent of their black colleagues.

When I hear the story about how Mann removed the “Colored Computers” sign every day, I don’t just hear a story of the valiant strength of one woman.

I hear a story of white silence.

I hear a story about how other people didn’t complain about the sign. I imagine they barely even noticed the sign. It didn’t effect them and never weighed upon their world.

John Glenn reportedly refused to fly unless West Area Computer Katherine Johnson verified the calculations first – such respect he had for her work.

And yet it never crossed anyone’s mind that a “Colored Computers” sign might not be appropriate.

That’s just the way the world was then.

And that makes me wonder – what don’t I see?

To me, this story is a reminder that people of color experience the world differently than I do – because people like me constructed the world I experience. There must be so many things every day that just slip passed my notice, no matter how open minded or progressive I’d like to be.

It’s easy too look back at the 1940’s and see that a “Colored” sign is racist. What’s hard is to look at the world today and to see that sign’s modern day equivalent.

 

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Family Migration

My mother is big genealogy enthusiast. Her enthusiasm, however, is unmatched by many in our family. I mean, we’re glad someone‘s doing the research, but we don’t seem to get that same spark of awe which for her is so inherent to the process.

So she wrote this thing, exploring what we learn from genealogy; the individual effects of the great sweeps of history.

I share it here with permission.

***

Much of what we can know of our ancestors has to be suppositioned by our knowledge of history and prevalent customs of their times.  The lives of most of these people did not make a big splash.  Many were illiterate and, as a result, did not leave much documentation of their experiences.  Life was frequently short due to lack of medical discoveries that are so much a part of our current lives.  But I would suspect that they lived more in the moment than we do now.  So much was out of their control, they had little choice but to focus on the things that were occurring, leaving the rest in the hands of God. Given the difficulties of sustaining life, as an aggregate, what they accomplished was remarkable.

Each era had its own agenda, but the commonalities remained the same for several hundred years of our country’s history. People married young, reproduced prolifically, and attempted to provide for their children.  Many of the accomplishments were a result of this drive. Starting with the Pilgrims and the indentured servants of the South, our ancestors were seeking an environment that would provide opportunities to build lives for themselves and their progeny.  The hardships they endured were more than many of us could even consider, but the conditions that existed in their current lives spurred them forward. Whether it was religious convictions or abject poverty, they all made the leap.  They got on a boat with little real knowledge of what they would meet and forged our future. The heroes are the many people who will never appear on a family tree because they died in the process of trying to reach this goal.  It was the sheer numbers of people who would make this attempt that made our ancestors successful. It created a movement that would be reproduced in 1700’s and the 1800’s and would populate this country with Europeans.

Family life could have many variables, but the notion of childhood is very recent idea. Children were loved and cherished, but expected to participate in sustaining livelihood from a very early age. Frequently their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, were nothing but children themselves. Many people had multiple marriages due to the loss of a spouse. You could not remain unmarried once you had begun family building. It was impossible to continue the care of your children and the growth of your farm without two adults, and, in many cases, young adults to keep up the work. The family home would be small and bursting with people.  Every space would be a bedroom at night.  This caused the older children at a young age to look to new options. Friends and relatives who had moved further west would encourage these young people to join them.  Single men and women would be told that there were many marriageable people waiting to find mates.  Young couples would frequently be intermarried with sisters or brothers of a specific family with the thought that when they emigrated they would remain together. The reality of this westward movement was the disintegration of the original family unit.

Communication would be difficult. In this era of cell phones and e-mail, it is hard to imagine the absolute impossibility of keeping in touch.  Frequently, several siblings would end up in the same location over time.  The first arrivals would help their siblings establish themselves, and then they set to the task of recreating a new network of relations. The ones left at home were usually so young that they had little feeling for their older siblings.  If the family was large enough, another move would be made by the younger children resulting in a separate conglomeration in a new location. Frequently an aged parent would die in the home of a child in the second migration.

There were, of course, some people who remained in the same location generation after generation.  When you reconstruct the families through genealogy, they are our cousins.  Our ancestors were the ones on the move.

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Architecture of the Christian Science Center Plaza

For the last year, I’ve been working in a building on the Christian Science Center Plaza in Boston. I get a lot of questions about this building and the plaza’s architecture, but I never knew the answers. So – I set out to find out.

The plaza is home to the Mother Church of The First Church of Christ, Scientist – more commonly known as Christian Scientists. The broad topic of Christian Science is too much to cover in this post, the church was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1866 when, as their website describes, a critical injury caused her to understand her faith in a new way.

The oldest building on the plaza is the original Mother Church. The Romanesque Revival-style building was built in 1894 and was followed in 1906 by the Mother Church Extension, arguably one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston.

The building I work in, the Brutalist-style Administration Building tower, constructed in 1972 and now leased to office and academic tenants, is not.

The whole complex was designated a Boston Landmark in 2011.

The Boston Landmarks Commission, which made that designation, was kind enough to release a detailed public report on the features that make the plaza a notable landmark.

The complex contains six buildings – three original buildings, constructed in 1894, 1906, and 1937; and three newer buildings, constructed in the late 20th century along with the plaza that unifies them all.

The 1906 Mother Church Extension is perhaps the most interesting architecturally, described by the Commission as a “cathedral-scale, Byzantine and Renaissance Revival-style church.”

According to the Commission, the building I work in measures “approximately 183 feet long by 86 feet wide” and is “a 26-story office building, with an additional story below ground. The structure rises 355 feet from a rectangular footprint.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the plaza is the Reflecting Pool, constructed during the 1970s expansion. The Reflecting Pool “measures approximately 690 feet long by 100 feet wide by 26 inches deep, bordered by an infinity edge of curved, polished Minnesota red granite.” Interestingly:

The Reflecting Pool was designed to be functional as well as aesthetic. Although the initial intent was that the Reflecting Pool also serve as the cooling system for the complex, it seems that this function was never implemented with any success. Based on early memos, correspondence, and discussions with facilities staff, it appears that some cooling system use was tried for a portion of one early season and then discontinued as impractical. When the cooling towers were installed at the fifth floor of the Publishing House Building in the early 1970s, the Reflecting Pool water connections for HVAC cooling were eliminated.

 

 

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Freedom, Choice, and Civic Life

I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightful At the Existentialist Café, something of an existentialist study of the existentialist movement. The book follows the life, times, and beliefs of some of the 20th century’s most prominent existentialists, the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, his protégé Martin Heidegger, and continuing through the great French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Along the way we meet many of their friends and colleagues – notable philosophers in their own right – whose lives are integral to Bakewell’s study but whose stories are not the focus of this particular work: Edith Stein, Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, and many others.

I’m familiar with the famous works of these philosophers, but beyond a passing familiarity with the most prominent relationships and various author’s historical contexts, I hadn’t previously appreciated the deep, interconnected network of personal and philosophical relationships. The waves of history that brought these great philosophers together and ultimately tore them apart.

Phenomenology, which formed a basis for later existentialist thought, seeks to describe things as they are, as they present themselves. In this way, Bakewell’s book can be seen as a phenomenological study of generations of thinkers desperately exploring “how we can be free and behave well in a complicated world.” A world that saw two world wars, a massive calculated genocide, a showdown of super powers, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As someone interested in civil society, I see this question not simply as an individual one: how can I be free and behave well – but as a collective one: how can we all get along while wrestling with the challenges of being free and behaving well in a complicated world.

The story of the existentialist movement is one of carousing nights, passionate debates, and conversations at cafés. It’s a story of drinking, dancing, and sucking the very marrow out of life. It’s a story of being free.

But it’s also a story of fault and discord. Of unforgivable sins and spiteful fallings out. It a story of individuals struggling with the burden of what it means to be free: of trying to make the right choices and often making the wrong ones. Of people searching for what they stand for in difficult times – and breaking from those who disagree.

It’s a story of love and betrayal. Of betrayal and love.

The most notable villain in this story is Heidegger, whose Nazi activities make him still a controversial figure today. Elected rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi party and was responsible for carrying out Reich law, including firing all Jewish professors and stripping emeritus faculty – such as his friend and former mentor Husserl – of their privileges. Heidegger’s personal notebooks from that time were published in 2014, revealing “philosophical thoughts alternating with Nazi-flavoured anti-Semitic remarks…Heidegger was a Nazi, at least for a while, and not out of convenience, but by conviction.”

Heidegger’s Nazism is topic much larger than this post, but needless to say, he fell out with his Jewish friends and colleagues. He rarely spoke with Husserl. In letters he tried to assure Hannah Arendt – for whom Heidegger had formerly been a lover – and mutual friend Karl Jaspers that he was not really a Nazi, but eventually they broke ties with him.

Edith Stein, who’d been a student of Husserl’s shortly before Heidegger, had converted to Christianity and joined a convent long before the war. She was detained, imprisoned , and murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

But beyond the staggering actions of Heidegger, the story of existentialism tells of many more every day betrayals.

Emmanuel Levinas, another of Husserl’s students at a time of devotion to Heidegger, acted very much like a 23 year-old in 1929 following a debate between the magnetic Heidegger and old guard philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer’s wife, Toni, walked in on Heidegger’s students “satirically reenacting the debate.” Levinas played Cassirer, “dusting his hair with white talc and twirling it into a high quiff like an ice cream cone. Toni Cassirer did not find him funny. Years later, Levinas wished he had apologized to her for his irreverence.” Levinas – who was also Jewish – lost his love for Heidegger soon after.

Meanwhile, a tight-knit group of existentialists was forming in France. Simone de Beauvoir and her childhood friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty met Jean-Paul Sartre and his childhood friend Raymond Aron. Beauvoir and Sartre quickly became lovers and remained primary partners for the rest of their lives.  In a Parisan café, under the burden of German occupation, the pair met Albert Camus. Hungarian scholar Arthur Koestler also joined their circle.

And as the dark days of the war faded, there was a golden time of love, friendships, and good natured but passionate debates.

But such times were short lived. Intellectually attracted to communism, but dismayed by fascist actions, the existentialists found themselves pulled in different directions. Was the promising vision of communism worth holding on to given the actions taken in its name? Were the actions of fascist states forgivable given the great good given as reason? Capitalism was deeply flawed and the U.S. had its own sins – so was siding with them really any better?

It was dark, dramatic times.

Koestler threw a wine glass at Sartre and got into a scuffle with Camus. Aron moderated a panel where he allowed Sartre to be verbally ganged up on. Camus wrote pointed pieces attacking the  position of Sartre, who took no pause in firing back. Sartre attacked his old friend Merleau-Ponty, and they similarly fell out.

After the wine-glass incident, Koestler ran into Sartre and Beauvoir on the street – from a second hand account of Koestler’s point of view, Koestler suggested the three get together for lunch. “Koestler, you know that we disagree,” Beauvoir reportedly responded, “There no longer seems any point in our meeting.”

This is the fundamental question of civic life.

Can people who disagree so vehemently  about such high stakes things continue to coexist in a civic sense? If not, the alternative is to avoid such matter – to stick to safe topics like the weather.

But that is a basic betrayal of civic duty. It may maintain friendships, but at the cost of moral questioning and action. Perhaps small topics are best to avoid – but when the big things are at stake – with the nature of the state and the future of the global world hang in the balance, simply not discussing these topics is not an option.

Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Koestler, and Aron had to take a stand. Their views, voices, and actions mattered. But they found their divergences unmanageable – they could not be friends.

This poses a tremendous challenge to the basic premise of civic life: that each of our voices matter, and that we all must find ways to productive share and debate our views.

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Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5

It was 1858 in San Fransisco, California. Gold had been discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill just ten years before. Initial planning for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was underway, and Congress had recently authorized funding for any company which could ensure stage coach delivery of mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days.

Following San Fransisco’s first great fire of 1849 and a series of destructive fires in the early 1850s, the booming port town formed a volunteer Fire Department and, in 1858, installed its first fire hydrants.

As one San Fransisco museum describes, “The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community.  None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.”

While the volunteers put pride aside when a fire was particularly serious, individual fire companies were notoriously competitive, always seeking to put “firs water” on a fire – a competition which “led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.”

Following the alarm bells one afternoon, the poorly under-manned Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 was falling behind, much to the mockery of rivals Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3. A fifteen year old child from a locally prestigious family saw the Knickerbocker’s plight while walking home from school. The teen immediately jumped into action, helping to man the fire truck’s ropes and shouting, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”

The teen was no man. She was Lillie Coit, who continued to play an important role to Company No. 5 and San Fransisco firefighters for the rest of her life.

As a woman, she never officially occupied the same role as her male counterparts. She was elected an “honorary” member of the Knickerbockers in 1863 and is commonly referred to as the “patroness” of San Fransisco’s volunteer fire companies. But throughout her youth, she played an active role in the company – always dashing off at the sound of the alarm and otherwise engaging in activities unseemly for a young lady of her standing.

As an adult she was known for having a number of shocking habits such as wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and gambling. Stories say she often dressed as man in order to participate in the latter activity. And she always remained involved and supportive of her beloved fire company.

Upon her death in 1929, Coit left one-third of her fortune to San Fransisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”

In 1933, those funds were used to build the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, which stands 64 m tower atop Telegraph Hill. A notable sight along a city’s skyline. And while the story is said to be apocryphal, one can’t help notice the similarity between the tower’s design and the popular story: that in honor of the remarkable Lillie Coit, the tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose.

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Democracy of Manners

Listening to an interview with historian Nancy Isenberg, author of the new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I was struck by Isenberg’s reference to the United States as a “democracy of manners” – an idea, she says, which came from an Australian writer.

“We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different,” Isenberg argues. Our democracy is all about manners; success is all in the performance. I highly doubt this is a unique American phenomenon, but in building off Isenberg I will keep this post in the American context.

From Andrew Jackson to the current presumptive Republican nominee, populist candidates have been successful by showing themselves able to play the part of a poor, white American – to eat the right foods, to say the right things with the right mannerisms. These are the candidates you want to have a beer with.

Importantly, the actual background of these candidates is not particularly relevant. Jackson did grow up in rural Appalachia, but more recent populists have come from among the upper tiers of society. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the act.

Embracing a democracy of manners is a failure of genuine democracy. It encourages citizens divest their civic responsibilities to actors who can merely play the part of representing them.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isenberg’s book, but I get the impression this democracy of manners is a core challenge which creates a self-perpetuating cycle along several dimensions. In dismissing the fundamental human value of the white poor, white elites create a class they can scapegoat for all of society’s ills. Obvert racism among white poor allows upper classes to pretend as though racism only exists among the uneducated poor. It creates a class who will protect themselves by tearing down any other groups poised to breach elite power.

And, through the democracy of manners, it creates a class that will continually vote against their own self-interest, supporting candidates who look like them and talk like them, but who ultimately serve elite interests.

 

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