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Monday, July 13, 2020

The Pandemic and the Social Capital of Local Neighborhoods

While biking on local trails early in the pandemic, I mused that people seemed "nicer" and hoped that one of the pandemic's long-term benefits that it would help bring Americans together after years of political polarization ("People Seem Nicer"). Unfortunately, some of our leaders (one in particular) have used the pandemic to divide us even more than we were before. Still, I have hope. I have hope because anecdotal evidence suggests that "social capital" may be on the rise in many of our local neighborhoods. If so, this could signal a reversal of several decades of decline, at least according to the political scientist Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone").

What's social capital? It is generally thought to be the quantity and quality of resources that we can access through our various social networks. By social networks I do not mean social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, but rather the connections we share with our friends, family, co-workers, and so on (Note: the analysis of social networks dates back at least to the 1930s, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye -- see Freeman 2004). Social capital is generally seen as a function of the number of ties (i.e., connections) we have with others AND the level of trust present in those ties. Put differently, the more ties of trust that we have (and continue to invest in), the greater our social capital.

Many scholars believe that social capital is positively associated with a number of instrumental and expressive rewards (e.g., higher paying jobs, better mental health), increased participation in various types of collective action (e.g., voting, volunteering, charitable giving), and the functioning of democratic institutions. It is also positively associated with healthy neighborhoods:
Consider a neighborhood with high social capital. In that neighborhood, the neighbors know each other, talk to each other often, and trust each other. In that neighborhood, a mother might feel comfortable letting her child walk alone to a nearby park. In a neighborhood with lower social capital, where the neighbors do not know or trust one another, the mother would either have to walk with her child to the park or hire someone to do it for her. (Pamela Paxton, 1999, p. 89)
So why do I think social capital may be on the rise in local neighborhoods around the country? Well, our own neighborhood has begun holding "social distancing" gatherings (which really should be called "physical distance gatherings"), such as movie nights where we play a movie on an outdoor screen and neighbors gather by households to watch. And when I mention this to others, many say their neighborhoods are doing similar things. And such activities typically increase the number of social interactions and level of trust between neighbors, thereby increasing not only the social capital of people within our neighborhood but the social capital of our neighborhood itself.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is only that. We can't know that such activities are systematically happening across the U.S. (and the world) without better data, which we won't have for a few years. However, if it is happening, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge from this pandemic with resources that we can use to "rebuild" the U.S. from the bottom (neighborhood) up into a less polarizing society. We can only hope.

References:

Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Sociology 105(1):88-127.

________. 2002. "Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship." American Sociological Review 67(2):254-77.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

This Is Not Over: Unfortunately Some Are Acting Like It Is

Be careful out there. This isn't over. Unfortunately, some are acting like it is. People are flocking to beaches, resorts, restaurants, and in some states, bars, movie theaters, and theme parks, without taking any precautions, behaving like they did prior to the pandemic. Add to this the George Floyd protests where although a lot of the protestors are wearing masks, not all are. However, coronavirus cases and (more importantly) hospitalizations are increasing in several states. Some of these increases are traceable to early reopenings; others to the virus working its way into areas of the country that had been relatively untouched up to this point (for an excellent analysis, see "The new coronavirus spikes, explained").

I doubt that our elected officials have the stomach to shut things down again, so it's us to help keep everyone safe. So, wear your mask in public spaces (it's to protect others, not you). Practice social distancing (it's to protect you AND others). Don't stay indoors for an extended period (except your residence, of course), especially if its crowded. Wash your hands. Exercise. And... be nice to others. It may not always feel like it, but we're all in this together.

Updated: June 13th

Friday, June 5, 2020

What Would Happen if President Trump Washed Colin Kaepernick's Feet?

This picture of Fred Rogers washing the feet of François Clemmons, who played "Officer Clemons" on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," was recently posted on Facebook by Brian Brister (whom I don't know) along with commentary that appears below. When I saw and read the post, I couldn't help but wonder what the effect would be if President Trump washed Colin  Kaepernick's feet.

~~~~

In August 1968, the country was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. four months earlier, and the race riots that followed on its heels. Nightly news showed burning cities, radicals and reactionaries snarling at each other across the cultural divide.

A brand new children’s show out of Pittsburgh, which had gone national the previous year, took a different approach. Fred Rogers had met François Clemmons at a church service after hearing him sing, and asked him to join the show. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood introduced Officer Clemmons, a black police officer who was a kindly, responsible authority figure, kept his neighborhood safe, and was Mr. Roger’s equal, colleague and neighbor.

A year later in 1969 when black Americans were still prevented from swimming alongside whites, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to join him and cool his feet in a plastic wading pool, breaking a well-known color barrier. And there they were, brown feet and white feet, side by side in the water, silently, contemplatively, without comment. The episode culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ feet. Most young kids were probably unaware of the real weight the episode carried, its scriptural overtones, but the image of a white man tending to the needs of a black man was seared in their minds nonetheless.

Twenty five years later, when François Clemmons retired, his last scene on the show revisited that same wading pool, this time reminiscing. Officer Clemmons asked Mr. Rogers what he’d been thinking during their silent interlude a quarter century before. Fred Rogers’ answer was that he’d been thinking of the many ways people say “I love you.”

In a world screaming out for tolerance, acceptance, kindness, and love - choose to be a Fred Rogers - because if more people could find a way to love others the way he did, without barriers, this world would be a much better place...

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Statement of Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen is a retired United States Navy admiral, who served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1, 2007, to September 30, 2011.

I Cannot Remain Silent

Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.

Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.

There was little good in the stunt.

While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.

As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.

We must, as citizens, address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community. We must, as citizens, support and defend the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard. The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.

I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.

Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.

Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so.

We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarized; too many military missions have become politicized.

This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Statement of General James Mattis

General James Mattis is a retired United States Marine Corps general who served as the 26th US Secretary of Defense from January 2017 through January 2019.

In Union There Is Strength

I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.

Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.

From: "James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution"

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Ranking the Star Wars Movies

While sheltering in place, my daughter Tara and I worked our way through a couple of film series: First, Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts (10 films); second, Star Wars (11 films). While watching the latter, I became interested in how others thought of the movies. My favorite's always been the original Star Wars, "A New Hope," although many favor the second, "The Empire Strikes Back." Personally, I prefer "Rogue One" and "The Force Awakens" over it, and I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel to "Solo" although I'm in the minority on that count. I averaged the rankings of the 11 movies according to Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Meta Critic:
1. A New Hope (Episode IV)
1. The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
3. The Force Awakens (Episode VII)
4. The Last Jedi (Episode VIII)
5. Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
6. Rogue One (Episode III.2)
7. Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
8. Solo (Episode III.1)
9. The Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
10. The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX)
11. The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Unsurprisingly, "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" rank at the top (and, in fact, are tied). It probably isn't too surprising that "The Force Awakens" is ranked so high. It was well received when released in 2015. It is somewhat surprising, however, that "The Last Jedi" ranks fourth. It was fairly polarizing when released in 2017. In fact, I read somewhere it is the most polarizing of the Star Wars movies. I'm fairly certain its initial rankings were a lot lower than they are now, which makes me think that the "The Rise of Skywalker" will climb in the rankings over the next couple of years. Sorry to those who envisioned a different ending, but it's better than "The Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith."

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Why We Should Wait to Open Our Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques

A little over a week ago, President Trump told states to lift shelter-in-place orders that prohibit faith communities from gathering in large numbers. As a response, the United Church of Christ issued a statement urging churches to wait until all safety concerns have been addressed ("Should Churches Return to Worship in Their Sanctuaries?").

Pastors and lay people have weighed in as well. Charles Weidman, a member of First Congregational Church of San Jose, had this to say in an (unpublished) letter to the editor to the (San Jose) Mercury News:
On Friday, May 22, Donald Trump demanded that states lift shelter-in-place orders which prohibit large groups from gathering in churches, synagogues, and mosques. He stated he would overrule states which do not comply with his demands (a power he does not have). 
In seeking to appear as a religious champion, he instead demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of these religions’ fundamental principles. Our faith calls us to care for one another, to ensure the safety of the sick and the vulnerable. We are, therefore, temporarily sacrificing meeting and worshipping together in large groups, because doing so helps to preserve the health of our church family and our surrounding community. 
Mr. Trump’s declaration that houses of worship are “essential” ignores faith teachings. Worship is essential. Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams throughout the nation have creatively developed ways to gather worshippers remotely. Exercising faith and prayer does not depend on a building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi understands this, demonstrating her devout faith by praying daily, even for Mr. Trump (see Matthew 5:44).  
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump does not practice any religion; he seeks only to exploit religion to support his own, selfish, political needs.
Then there's this from Rod Kennedy, pastor at a Baptist Church in Ottawa, Kansas:
President Trump: 
On behalf of my Baptist congregation I want to thank you for your concern for houses of worship. We respectfully decline your suggestion that we re-open. The First Amendment, religious freedom, separation of church and state - all that constitutes our right to ignore you. 
I’m not drinking bleach, taking suspect drugs, or buying your demagoguery. We will let you know when our church decides to re-open. After all, we are a free, independent Baptist congregation and government interference irritates our Baptist gumption. 
When churches do re-open we would be happy to SEE YOU IN CHURCH EVERY Sunday. It might help you find some divine wisdom. 
If you want to help, wear a mask, stop being divisive, make sure voting will be easy in November, and stop mocking, threatening, and demeaning others. It’s not a religious practice.
Thankfully, this past week the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services. As Charles points out in his letter to the editor, it seems that some people are confusing "church" with a building. It's not. Faith is much more than where people meet. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be able to meet, but it isn't worth putting peoples' lives at risk to do so.