Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Culture / Society (page 1 of 67)

Dunkirk and different forms of heroism

My family and I saw Dunkirk late last week, and I spent the next couple days turning it over in my head. It is, of course, a really great movie, as you would expect from Nolan, and one that does a certain amount of time-bending and bobbing and weaving with narrative. The performances are terrific, and the end of the film is just wonderfully bold.

But Dunkirk also defies virtually every wartime movie convention. There’s no movie reel explication, no character has their backstory detailed in conversations over rations or a bottle of wine found in an abandoned farmhouse, the politicians and generals are completely absent; all that’s left is people, many of whom look pretty similar (uniforms and haircuts will do that), trying to escape the machinery of war.

And, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out in her essay “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks,”* trying to help each other escape the machinery of war:

the emotional heart of the event has nothing to do with battle – give or take a bit of dogfighting – and everything to do with generosity; unarmed sailors saving strangers for no better reason than that they needed to be saved…. Up close, all you can see in a thousand small boats, defenceless against the skies, is what Thatcher dismissed as the “soft virtues”: humility, gentleness, sympathy. Of her “vigorous virtues” – self-sufficiency, independence, rectitude – almost none.

Indeed, that is the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship. The mood of postwar Britain was the one that built the NHS, created social housing and signed up to the UN refugee convention. If anything is ever learned from bloodshed, and it would be better if we didn’t have to learn it repeatedly, it’s that there is no fit memorial to those who gave their lives but near infinite generosity between those who didn’t.

This reminds me a lot of Harry Leslie Smith’s writing about the legacy of World War II, and how at fantastic cost his generation built a postwar world that was not only peaceful, but incomparably fairer, more secure, and more prosperous for everyone, most especially people who had grown up poor during the Depression (as he had). Dunkirk, unlike most war movies, isn’t mainly about action and killing; it’s mainly about saving people. Even the dogfights are about shooting down German planes that otherwise would strafe and bomb British soldiers and ships, which makes it more like the action on the ground.

It also reminds me of some reading I’ve been doing on heroism, and how to think about it. In a series of essays (this one on “The Banality of Heroism,” is easily accessible), Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that people who act heroically voluntarily risk life and limb, or reputation or honor (as whistleblowers and reformers do); that they often have to actively navigate and overcome obstacles to undertake those acts; that they do so without expectation of reward, or even much expectation that their acts will be remembered. Heroism isn’t just something you exhibit on the battlefield or fighting criminals; it’s a quality people exhibit when standing up for justice, or opposing popular but wrong points of view, or rescuing stranded soldiers and allies.

So you go into Dunkirk expecting military heroism, and witness a very different sort: that kind of heroism exhibited by the first responders in the World Trade Center who risked life and limb to help people get out, or the heroism of people who help rescue strangers during an earthquake or flash flood. But better than most movies, Dunkirk makes the case that both varieties of heroism deserve our respect.

* (Of course, “It’s not what Nigel Farage thinks” is one of those lines that typesetters would be able to set in their sleep; they wouldn’t even need to think about where in their trays they’d need to reach for the correct letters, they’d done it so often.)

Do kids’ over scheduled lives crowd out grandparents?

My son was at a rugby tournament today (a Sunday), at a field that was a couple hours’ drive. So when I came across this piece by Louis M. Profeta I took notice:

Some years back, I wrote a piece that went viral, “Your Kid and My Kid Are Not Playing in the Pros,” and I got more than a thousand e-mails about the article. Most were supportive, some not, but what I was completely unprepared for was the correspondence I received from grandparents. For the most part, they were all absolutely heartbreaking. The central theme was that they did not know their grandchildren because travel sports had robbed them of weekends and Sunday night dinners and countless other opportunities to interact. Going to their baseball games in the middle of the summer — or sitting in a loud gym — was just not a bonding experience for them; it was physically exhausting. Besides, you can’t talk about rationing sugar during the war, or marching on the mall, or sitting through the Watergate hearings between timeouts. It doesn’t work like that, that’s not enough.

I’ve had plenty of Saturdays or Sundays where I was in the car for hours with kids, but the piece makes me wonder to what degree overscheduling kids’ lives comes at the expense of extended family. In these very highly scheduled lives, do we deepen horizontal connections with teams and interest groups but unintentionally weaken connections between generations?

“To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete”

Dylan Hernandez has an excellent piece in the New York Times about class and the SATs. Hernandez grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a working-class family, and talks about spending time in a summer program at Phillips Exeter.

His classmates that summer were in the main from families that were far better-off, and were “impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles,” as well as “truly interesting people.” But he was surprised to find that they were also serious SAT grinds:

The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete….

Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.

As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.

This seems to me a pretty accurate reflection of the way advantage and merit work in America today: most kids from advantaged backgrounds work hard to leverage the benefits of their upbringing; but they still enjoy those advantages.

How “weak parties and strong partisanship” brought us 2016

Political scientist Julia Azari has an essay on Vox explaining the rise of Trump in terms of “weak parties and strong partisanship:”

The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong…. it is a particularly dangerous combination [because] parties can’t control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Why is this a very bad combination? It encourages polarization between parties, and a heightened sense that people who belong to other parties, and the candidates they support, are evil. It creates an environment in which partisan voters can be mobilized to vote against the opposition even if they have strong reservations about their own candidate. It means that the apparatus of a political party can more easily fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s major principles, but succeeds in appealing to its rank and file.

And it also makes moderation much less likely in governing. Compromise with the other party seen as weakness, but each side is less likely to have things that the other wants or needs. As ideological purity becomes more important, it becomes more dangerous for politicians to engage in bipartisan deals, or to be seen as wavering or uncertain in their ideological commitment. And partisanship undermines institutions. As Azari puts it, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments,” or for “courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies” to be seen as trustworthy when citizens are inclined to “view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

And of course the bad news here is that the structural forces that gave rise to Trump are either not going to go away if he loses, or will overwhelm to GOP and Washington if he wins. One is hard pressed to imagine a cabinet consisting of his most ardent supporters and apologists serving as a balance against his authoritarian tendencies; and Capitol Hill hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage so far either.

Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

A thought on Jonah Lehrer’s new book, redemption, and writing

So Jonah Lehrer has a new book coming out, and there’s some snark around it. Lehrer has admitted that he cut corners, self-plagiarized, and made stuff up, but lots of people don’t feel so forgiving:

The clearest expression of this “not convinced” view is Gawker, who explains that “Notorious Fabulist Jonah Lehrer Wants to Apologize (So You’ll Buy His Book).” Given Gawker’s recent legal troubles, I would say that they’re maybe not the best publication to be criticizing others for being fabulists; but I think that they’re being way too cynical. But even if Gawker were (a little) correct, I have to wonder: this is really wrong?

It seems to me that a system that allows people to admit their mistakes, explain how they’re making amends, and submit to greater degrees of public scrutiny in exchange for an opportunity to recover their reputations and livelihoods, is… pretty fucking just. Isn’t this the way things are supposed to work?

Lehrer isn’t seeking PR by any means necessary, or trying to turn his notoriety into a calling-card. I don’t think he’s playing by the Kardashian (or Farrah Abraham) playbook: he calculates that it’s better for him to talk about his previous misdeeds because for the time being at least they’re unavoidable, and at this stage in order to rebuild his credibility it’s necessary to be clear about the steps he’s taking to assure that he’s not making stuff up. Nor did he go the Boris Johnson route, playing the charming self-deprecating buffoon as he slides away from charges. I get the sense that he wants to put this phase behind him, not use it to sell more t-shirts.

We need avenues for rehabilitation, because people make mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily cost them their lives;  otherwise we have no incentive to do anything other than double down, or pull a Trump-like Ponzi scheme with the truth. With Donald Trump, there’s an eternal danger that his latest outrage will make you forget the last 20 terrible things he’s said— and Trump knows that and is counting on you to do exactly that. Unless he’s playing some serious eleven-dimensional chess, it doesn’t seem to me that Lehrer is trying to distract your from future misdeeds by addressing his previous ones, nor is he one of those psychopaths who feels the need to cheat people to prove his own intelligence.

Of course, you can question whether Lehrer’s success is deserved. Fame is weird and fickle and profoundly un-meritocratic. There are tons of great, thoughtful books that never find an audience, and plenty of wise people who get crowded out by louder or more telegenic figures.

And ultimately, my instinct is that Lehrer is a serious writer, and wants to be a serious person. He certainly can write with flair and style; he seems to me to take the craft seriously. You don’t write as much as he has without being driven, and that’s an impulse that should be channeled for good, not disparaged.

Personally, from what I’ve heard about the latest book, I’m not sure it’s that compelling a project, but that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily: after he got out of jail, Robert Downey Jr. did a stint on television, rebuilding his reputation before going on to Iron Man. Maybe that’ll happen with Lehrer. Just so long as he doesn’t compete with me.

On Stephen Curry and racial assumptions

When I root for [Stephen] Curry’s success, I am not interested in affirming the supposed superiority of the light complexioned. I reject the notion that identifying with Steph more than LeBron constitutes aligning one’s self with whiteness. Instead, I relish Curry’s rise because of its potential to illustrate that blackness contains multitudes. He has fallen into a strange place in the American racial cosmos. Too easily accepted by white people to be fully embraced by black people, Curry also represents a rare case of white folks being wrong about a black guy in ways that exalt rather than diminish him.

That LeBron James was able to overcome the odds and become the best basketball player of his generation is an objectively tremendous feat, but his story is also a familiar one. In many ways, he’s a composite of black stereotypes: born to a teenage mother, raised without a father in the inner city, surpassingly strong and fast with surreal hops. The reality is that his success is as much a consequence of his legendary work ethic and shrewd decision-making as his unprecedented mix of skill, size, and agility. Nevertheless, he’s seen as a passive beneficiary of a genetic lottery, a once-in-a-generation physical specimen who merely had to lace up shoes to actualize his predestined dominance….

[T]he durable misconception that Steph’s all-world handle and historic shooting ability come solely from tireless toil in the gym is refreshing, as tall tales go. It’s a rare instance of black athletic excellence being appreciated as a reward for diligence, sacrifice, and commitment rather than the abundance of fast-twitch muscles. It’s a step in the right direction for American culture that a black superstar can be celebrated as a super striver and not just a happy accident.

Source: Stephen Curry is challenging the worst, most durable stereotypes about black athletes.

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority”

We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy. It could also discourage hiring practices that arbitrarily and counterproductively weed out the less-well-IQ’ed. This might even redound to employers’ benefit: Whatever advantages high intelligence confers on employees, it doesn’t necessarily make for more effective, better employees. Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.

When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. At the time, the world he imagined, in which intelligence fully determined who thrived and who languished, was understood to be predatory, pathological, far-fetched. Today, however, we’ve almost finished installing such a system, and we have embraced the idea of a meritocracy with few reservations, even treating it as virtuous. That can’t be right. Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.

Source: The Disadvantages of Being Stupid – The Atlantic

Tim Wu on the “sofalarity”

I missed this in when it first came out in 2014:

In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”

We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”

The Oji-Cree… no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times…. But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances….

If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts. (Tim Wu, “As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?”)

Indigenous People in Video Games

The Raven and the Light starts with a car crash. It ends with an almost dream-like ascent to a state of transcendence, narrated by the myth the title describes—a Northwest folk tale. Everything in between thrusts the player into a world that for some will be foreign, but for North America’s indigenous population, is and has long been painfully real.

Your character in this horror game (mostly unseen and unheard throughout) explores a fictional residential school called Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students….

Not many video games would dare venture into a subject as touchy as Canada’s dark history of residential schooling and the damage that it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of indigenous students…. The purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce this history. And it does this with a story that is both fictional and not. Its invented details (characters and places) might not be real, but the horror of the experience is. To wit, it uses fictional horror to teach its players about the experience of a real-life terror.

Source: The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games

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