Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Old Codgers and Bad Memories:G. Will and Me

George Will (who's, if I remember correctly, just a tad younger than I) displays a bad memory in his piece on Obama. He ends with this paragraph, after noting that Obama apologized in Munice, IN:

"In 1929 and 1937, Robert and Helen Lynd published two seminal books of American sociology. They were sympathetic studies of a medium-size manufacturing city they called "Middletown," coping -- reasonably successfully, optimistically and harmoniously -- with life's vicissitudes. "Middletown" was in fact Muncie, Ind".
Well, not quite. From Wikipedia:

"The Lynds did not study the African-American population of Middletown. They justified this because this group only composed 5 percent of the total population. However, modern critics argue that this was a racial oversight conditioned by the era in which the study took place. A similar argument applies to the fact that they didn't study Jews who lived in the city.

Although the Lynds attempted to avoid ideology, theory, or political statements, the focus of their initial study can be construed as an endorsement (however faint) of Progressive Era politics. Also, the study is sometimes accused of being elitist and old-fashioned, as it seems to bemoan the rise of "popular culture" such as films and the fall of farm culture.

Because the study took an anthropological/scientific approach to Middletown society, and because at the time it was the first large-scale attempt to describe a modern town in this manner, some critics claimed that it was inherently condescending and degrading to the town's citizens. First, by treating humans as objects of study, they argued that it was immoral and degrading. Seccondly, they argues the study implied that its denizens were no more advanced than a primitive tribe. The study's approach to religion was specially singled out on this count. For example, in the introduction to the first edition of Middletown in Transition, the Lynds recounted an incident where town leaders placed a copy of the first book in the cornerstone of a building. Several pastors from the town's more fundamentalist congregations angrily argued that the book deserved to be burned rather than praised because of how it described (and, from their perspective, insulted) the town's religious activities.

The second study, in contrast to the first, is extremely political in tone and openly critical of American culture in general. Also, the Lynds made predictions (i.e., on the possibility of a future American dictatorship) that never came to pass.

Furthermore, the second study is accused of "begging the question." Despite its title, there really was no real "conflict" within Middletown during the Great Depression. However, in reading the language of the authors, it becomes increasingly clear that they believed that there should have been class conflict. This is expressed in the frustration employed by the authors - they apparently hoped and expected that such a conflict would break out, and began the study with this preconception. However, this preconception was incorrect.

I think the lesson is it's very easy to come across as elitist when you take an analytic approach to someone/something. The Lynds did this, Obama did this, and so does George Will. Why Will? Because the Middletown books depict a city governed by the old WASP elite, all male, all white, all comfortable--all harmonious because the others were on the outside. It's Reagan's America (Will and Reagan both hail from small city Illinois). Mr. Wills has fond and pleasant memories of this America, so he think's the Lynd's description must also have been rosy. Am I being condescending to him? Yes, of course, perhaps somewhat mitigated by our shared age, race, and sex.

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