Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Native Sons of Northborough, Part One

I grew up in Northborough, Massachusetts. It's a small, suburban town where little extraordinary happens--trust me, I lived with the town's police chief for twenty years. Northborough also doesn't have the rich history that other Massachusetts towns/cities do--Henry Walden Thoreau didn't build a cabin within town limits, John Adams didn't own a farm there, and James Naismith didn't throw a ball through into a Northborough peach basket. But, there are a more than a few individuals who were either born in Northborough or who lived there for substantial periods whose ties to Northborough should be celebrated, and William Francis Allen (1830-1889) is one of them.

Allen was an educator whose career seems fairly uninspiring: he spent 8 years as an assistant principal at a high school and 22 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While years of academic service are highly admirable (at least from my admittedly biased perspective), there are many other denizens of Northborough who have gone on to careers in academia; why does William Francis Allen deserve to be honored more than any of these other individuals?

Allen deserves our approbation--at least in part--because he made modern gospel music possible. In 1867, he published Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of the lyrics and melodies that slaves sang as they worked on southern plantations. To make a long story short, modern gospel music is descended from--or at least heavily influenced by--slave melodies like the ones Allen transcribed. His collection was the first of its kind and prompted other individuals to supplement his musical collection with songs of their own. Slave songs really took off nationally in the 1870s, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers--a group of 8 poor African Americans--toured the northeast singing harmonized versions of these songs to sold out crowds, eventually earning enough money on a European tour to found Fisk University. (If you're interested in a little more information on the history and origins of gospel music, my 1,000 word essay on the subject can be found here.)

I love gospel music--I love singing it and I love listening to it--and I love the fact that it was made possible, in no small part by a native son of Northborough. All hail William Francis Allen--especially if you're Algonquin High School. Shouldn't one of the songs he transcribed be sung in at least one concert each year? I'm only sad that I didn't discover this information last year, when ARHS could have put on a special concert for the 140th anniversary of Slave Songs. Oh well--there's always 2017!

PS-I ran across this information in no small part because Congress has named September Gospel Music Heritage Month. They did so largely because of lobbying by the Gospel Music Channel. Now, I'm fine with honoring a musical tradition that is uniquely American--but I'd like to honor gospel music because it is of intrinsic value, not because a Gospel Music Heritage Month is worth some specific sum of money to a corporation. Remember Robert Reich's warning in Supercapitalism that corporations had hijacked Washington? Next thing you know the Quaker Oats company will be lobbying for an official recognition of December as Quaker Heritage Month and asking us to buy their oats as an official means of expressing our appreciation for William Penn and other important Quakers in American history. Gag me--and get corporate money out of Washington!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Keep Your Religion Close And Your Friends Closer

My mother always told me to "choose my friends wisely," a piece of advice that I suspect most parents pass on. But did she--do you--realize how important those friends were? Did she know that choosing the right friends may have been more important than--or at least the same thing as--choosing the right religion?

Rodney Stark's The Rise of Mormonism (2004) is a book explaining why, "If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith;" to put that statement in perspective, Stark considers Islam the last religion to "become a major world faith" and we know how important that religious movement is today. Stark is not Mormon; his interest in the church is that of a sociologist who wants to know what has made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints successful in attracting and retaining converts at a growth rate of 40% per decade (no, that's not a typo). In truth, his book is less about Mormonism per se than it is about discovering general principles that underly successful religious movements--and one of the principles that Stark has discovered reveals exactly what is is that makes individuals convert (switch religious traditions, say from Hinduism to Christianity) or reaffiliate (switch religious affiliations within a larger tradition, say from Prebyterianism to Episcopalianism).

Ask any convert to a new religion why he (or she) converted, and he will tell you that he made the change for doctrinal and/or spiritual reasons. Converts might cite doctrinal concerns such as infant baptism or the restriction of pristhood authority to men as a reason to change religious affiliations; they might narrate a spiritual experience that prompted them to change faiths. But Stark--who spent a significant chunk of time watching individuals move from ignorance of a faith to interest in a faith to conversion in a faith--argues that neither spiritual nor docrtinal concerns are the primary factors of conversion:

"Yes, after people have joined a new religious movement and have fully learned its doctrines and forms of worship, they emphasize the centrality of belief in their conversion. But having observed these same people before and during their conversions, [study co-author] Lofland and I knew better. It was the social connection that led to their conversions, or, as we put it, 'conversion was coming to accept the opinions of one's friends [or relatives]'" (23).

All of this is not to say that individuals who change faiths do not experience a spiritual epiphany or appreciate the new doctrinal tradition they have joined--only that their social connections have made that epiphany or doctrinal appreciation possible. What does this mean? It means that my mom knew what she was talking about when she told me to choose my friends wisely. According to Stark,

"Subsequent studies have shown that, in fact, interpersonal ties, or social capital, are the primary factor in conversion; my more recent work on this phenomenon is based on the proposition that when an individual's attachments to a member or members of another religion outweigh his or her attachments to nonmembers, conversion will occur" (23).

To illustrate Stark's argument in the terms of real life, let me tell a brief story.

As previously mentioned in this forum, my wife and I are ward missionaries, which basically means that we have the responsibility to visit members whose testmionies need a boost or who require some other form of service as directed by the bishop or ward mission leader. Recently my bishop forwarded an email to me from a concerned father in Utah, whose returned missionary son is attending a college here in Raleigh, and who lives in our ward boundaries. This son (we'll call him Peter) had recently informed his parents that he had renounced the church and his (formerly strong) testimony. His father suspected that this decision was the result of influence exercised by a girlfriend with strong anti-Mormon sentiments, and Stark would agree.

Peter is far from all of his (presumably LDS) friends and family that he has in Utah--in other words, he is severely lacking in social capital. This being the case, he has acquired new social capital in the form of his girlfriend and her (likewise anti-Mormon) friends and family. Peter's revelation to his parents that he has lost his testimony has been spurred, I would argue, by the fact that his social capital here in Raleigh has recently begun to overshadow the social capital he left behind in Utah. Now--Peter's father has urged him to read the Book of Mormon, and Peter has agreed to do so--but Stark would argue (I think) that the doctrines of the Book of Mormon are irrelevant unless Peter decides to trade in his anti-Mormon friends for some Mormon friends.

This is where Alana and I come in. Our job is to provide Peter with ready-made social capital--though this will only work if he chooses to make us his friends--and help him regain his testimony.

Peter's father thinks we are the "right friends," largely because we share the beliefs that he wishes to inculcate in his son; he intuits the need for social capital as a prerequisite for Peter's reconversion and subsequent retention.

In many ways, what I am saying is nothing new--Stark's emphasis on social relations as the engine that drives spiritual change is only revelatory inasmuch as it changes the degree to which we appreciate the impact of social relationships.

Few of us, I think, would have guessed that friendships were the primary force driving religious change. We might still disagree with Stark's assertion that social relationships cause change; but his research makes it clear that, at the very least, social relationships precede religious change.

So choose your friends wisely!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Most Important Book I've Ever Read

I read books for a living. It's not a very good living...but that's another story. Still--I am paid to read, so I don't throw around words like "MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I'VE EVER READ" without some serious consideration. Those words need a qualifier, of course; I should have said that Supercapitalism is the "most important book I've ever read not written by God," but the title seemed snappier and more weighty without the qualifier. Even with the qualifier this is a heavy statement. To emphasize the importance of this book in another way: I don't think you should be allowed to vote if you haven't read this book. I don't want to disenfranchise anyone, but I don't want you voting unless you understand what Robert B. Reich has to say either. (Incidentally, Reich's book strives to remain non-partisan, and he skewers both parties regularly. Supercapitalism isn't politics as usual; it's a striking illumination of the nation's largest problem.) If you don't agree with him, that's another matter, but willful ignorance is a woeful excuse.

If all of this hasn't whetted your curiosity sufficiently, at least read my admittedly reductive attempt at summarizing Reich's main points.

Summary of Supercapitalism

1) America is no longer a society based on democratic capitalism.

"Since the late 1970s, a fundamental change has occurred in democratic capitalism in America [...] Capitalism has triumphed, and not simply as an ideology. [...] Democratic capitalism has been replaced by supercapitalism." (50)

2) The forces of capitalism and the sheer amount of money invested in big business has wrested decisions that used to be made by citizens into the hands of investors and consumers. In other words, our dollars are currently voting more effectively than our ballots. For example, even though most Americans might agree that Wal-Mart's practices as an employer are distasteful and in need of alteration, we continue to shop at Wal-Mart, voting with our dollars for practices that we would never vote for if they were actually on a ballot.

"If most people are of two minds about supercapitalism, why does the consumer-investor side almost always win out? The answer is that markets have become hugely efficient at responding to individual desires for better deals, but are quite bad at responding to [civic] goals we would like to achieve together. While Wal-Mart and Wall Street aggregate consumer and investor demands into formidable power blocs, the institutions that used to aggregate citizen values have declined. [...] no longer do local voluntary associations [National Legion, etc.] have much effect on legislators; no longer do regulatory agencies with broad reach define the public interest" (126)

3) Washington politics and legislation are the product of business, even when the laws debated seem to be about issues. Although lobbyists for various business interests are driving the agenda on Capitol Hill for both parties, legislation is presented to the public as though it were a question of morality or efficiency without disclosing the real interests driving policy. For example:

"In October 2006, Congress passed legislation barring credit card payments for Internet betting--which as a practical matter placed a ban on all online gambling. The ostensible purpose of the legislation was to reduce the public's vulnerability to what is considered an immoral or addictive activity. But the initiative was actually spearheaded by gambling casinos--of whcih there are more than nine hundred in the United States--which saw the huge growth in online gambling as a potential threat to their profits but wanted their own operations to remain unrestricted. [...] It seems doubtful that the legislation will have any effect on the amount of gambling Americans engage in. That was a subterfuge. Its real purpose was to increase the profits on certain kinds of gambling, thereby reducing profits associated with other kinds." (149-50).

4) Because citizen voices no longer carry the day in Washington, they frequently try to force companies to act virtuously and in the interest of citizens by publicly shaming them or boycotting them, but this is ineffective, whereas the interests of consumers/investors are vigorously guarded by companies.

"As an investor, I know exactly how to express my displeasure with Microsoft or any other company. I simply sell off shares of its stock. It's exactly what I do as a consumer to express displeasure in a company--just stop dealing with it and go to a competitor that offers a better deal. Wall Street and Wal-Mart have enhanced my power in both regards by giving me an easy means of aggregating my preferences with those of others." (166)

As a citizen, "Vivid displays of corporate goodness can mask problems a democracy should grapple with--would grapple with--if the public understaood their true dimensions. And because public attention spans are short, such temporary displays can preempt permanent solutions. [...] In light of rumblings from the Federal Communications Commission and from conservative legislators concerned about sex and violence cable companies were pumping out to their subscribers, cable operators in early 2006 announced plans to offer packages of family-friendly channels so parents could shield their children. 'There's no need for legislation now,' said Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, after being reassured of the cable companies' plans. 'We have to give it a chance to work.' But cable companies had made similar promises before that had never been fulfilled. Presumably, cable companies will continue to pump out sex and violence until Congress or the FCC stops them, because sex and violence make money." (190-91).

5) Legislators who publicly shame companies without passing legislation to prevent future shameful behavior may seem like they're serving the public interest, but they are really protecting the companies they shame, because public outrage potentially restricting bad behavior will soon fade, but legislation would actually force change.

"When B[ritish] P[etroleum]'s carelessness on the North Slope led to the temporary shut-down of the nation's largest oilfield, in August 2006, Congress demanded BP executives appear in person to be held accountable. At the ensuing hearing, members from both sides of the aisl accused the executives of crass negligence. [...] Committee members then grilled the BP executives about why the company had failed for as long as fourteen years to do the sort of internal inspection and maintenance on its pipelines that was performed every two weeks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, into which the BP pipelines feed. The BP executives solemnly promised to be more careful in the future. But neither the members of Congress nor the BP executives focused on the most pertinent fact: Frequent inspections of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline were required by law, but no similar inspections were required on feeder pipelines such as those owned by BP. If the panel was serious about getting BP to change its ways it would have introduced legislation to close this loophole. [...] The panel did not introduce such legislation because the hearings were for show." (196-97)

End of Summary

Now, the most important point here is that these are not isolated cases but illustrations of a larger truth: Washington no longer legislates for the social good; it legislates for the corporate good. While this is good for you and me as consumers and investors, it is bad for you and me as citizens. Whether you agree or disagree with the legislation banning online gambling or other legislation is irrelevant. The point is that we're not really making these decisions--lobbyists and gobs of corporate money are making them for us, because enough money can (almost) always buy public opinion, especially when the money runs through Congressional coffers--but we should be.

To give you an idea of how solidly Supercapitalism is in place, let me borrow from some of Barrack Obama's speech when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President. Describing the American dream, he said: "It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road."

Now here's the problem with that promise--it places governmental responsibilities toward the social body (American job growth, labor benefits) on corporate entities. I'm not interested in advancing partisan politics or in trying to criticize Obama (Reich was an economic advisor to Clinton, so advocating his book certainly isn't pushing Republican rhetoric), and I'm sure that McCain has said something similar (just not in a speech that I've heard, and I haven't gone searching)--but when a major political candidate can say on national television that businesses should perform what we have traditionally thought of as the responsibilities of government without a major outcry, you can be sure that supercapitalism has replaced democratic capitalism. Businesses have no responsibilities except to make money for investors and to satisfy consumers. If we, as citizens wish businesses to act virtuously, then we must force them to do it with legislation--they will not voluntarily change their ways unless behaving virtuously will improve the bottom line. It is the responsibility of government to make sure that businesses act virtuously so that we will experience greater social well-being.

Reich has numerous suggestions of how we might make Washington more responsive to our desires as citizens and to restore some sense of balance between democracy and capitalism, but if you care enough to work towards those goals, you'll read the book. At the very least, I hope that this small summary of "THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I'VE EVER READ" shows you what is wrong with Washington and hints at how we might fix it. I personally hope that you will prioritize the removal of business from politics as you evaluate presidential candidates this fall--whether that means voting for Obama, McCain or some nobody third party candidate, because I can't think of a single issue more important than this one.

I don't customarily encourage you to forward things that I write, lest I appear overly enthralled with my own self-importance, but I do think that this message is something every person (and especially every voter) needs to get loud and clear--so forward it if you think fit.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On Inter/In/Dependence

Three weeks ago or so, my wife and I were made ward missionaries. As this is a calling in which Alana and I will have to jointly leave the house and our two (very) small children, our bishop was very hesitant to extend such a calling--but we were excited, and it has already been a wonderful blessing. Wanting to engage right away, we jointly agreed that one of us would prepare a backup gospel principles lesson each week, just in case the regular teacher happened to be absent without providing for a backup (which he had been occasionally, or so we'd heard).

Well--that very first week, the regular teacher was absent, and I got to hear Alana give the best lesson on service that I have ever had the privilege to attend. As part of that lesson, she taught about the importance of learning to accept service as well as give it, something that readers of this blog will know is a lesson we have learned this summer. In describing the process of learning to be served, Alana explained that most of us recognize a natural progression in our lives from being dependent to being independent. Every teenager understands the importance of this progression and tries to accelerate the process--usually reaching for independence before they are ready for it. This was no big news.

But the Beautiful Mrs. Hutchins' next point was an absolute bombshell. She pointed out that most of us view independence as the desired endpoint in our physical/emotional/spiritual maturation but that the real pinnacle of progress is a state of interdependence. Now, stop and think about that. We are all quite eager to move from dependent to independent--but how many of us are then eager to be interdependent?

I teach a class in college writing where group work is paramount. For the last third of my class, each group of 4-5 students turns in one assignment, and every student in that group receives the same grade. Most students hate this. They hate being dependent in any way on the contributions of another individual; they want total control in their own hands.

But I'm fairly certain that one of the main purposes in our mortal probation is learning to embrace a state of interdependence. Quick--who is the individual that most desires independence and autonomy? If you answered Satan, award yourself two points. Satan wanted all of the control in his own hands; he didn't want to depend on anyone, not even the Father.

Now, I'm not trying to shy away from a great American tradition in the Declaration of Independence--but I think the founding fathers would agree that they were more than happy to depend on France's military aid in the Revolutionary War. No one in that Second Continental Congress would have dreamed of rejecting France's proffered aid in the name of being strictly and completely independent.

Nor am I suggesting that Alana revealed some novel truth in extolling the virtues of interdependence. I think that most of us realize this in a limited sense--we all agree that we need divine succor and aid in our lives and none of us feel that we should be ashamed of accepting help from our Heavenly Father or Savior. Quite frequently, however, I think we feel that being dependent on another mortal is degrading or demeaning, that we have somehow slipped from an ideal state of independence. Fooey. This is our pride speaking, and as President Ezra Taft Benson stated, "The central feature of pride is enmity--enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen." None of us would make enmity or even pride an end goal or virtue--but that is what we do when we strive for absolute independence.

Willingly becoming interdependent involves meekness, humility and faith in your fellowman; I am convinced that interdependence is the key quality of a Zion community. If Zion is to be a society of physical and spiritual equals (and if you don't think it will be, read 4th Nephi 1:17-18 and D&C 78:5-6) and we are all unequals before arriving in Zion (and we are--the United States and the world in general are moving towards ever greater income disparities, and I would venture to say that this is true in the Church as well, if to a lesser extent), then the only way to make Zion a community of equals is to willingly become interdependent, to accept the freely given gifts of those who are your superiors in both physical and spiritual things without pride-induced shame.

We tend to think of the progression from dependence to independence as an isolated event, a single moment of change that takes place in our teens. In reality, this progression is like a set of stairs stair, where we step from dependence to independence to interdependence line and precept upon precept. Until I heard Alana's lesson, I hadn't even considered that there was a higher place to put my foot. Now I know--thanks, love.