Saturday, July 29, 2023

BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory): How Our Social Identities Affect Our Perceptions

In a study back in the 1970s, researchers found that people are more likely to wear team paraphernalia after “their” team wins than win it loses. Known as BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory), it is a benign and somewhat humorous example of how our social identities impact how we think of ourselves. Decades of research (see references below) has found that our sense of who we are and feelings of self-worth are due, in part, to our group and organizational affiliations. It isn’t only our accomplishments that drive our sense of self; it’s also the accomplishments of the groups with which we affiliate. Our membership in these groups impacts our perceived status in this world and our self-esteem.

Notably, researchers have found that we typically evaluate members of our group better than we do out-group members. Early studies focused on how this phenomenon impacted prejudice, but in recent years studies have examined how it drives political polarization (Mason, 2018; Bail, 2021) and lone-wolf terrorism (Sageman, 2017). Nationalism, or at least its more pernicious manifestations, can also reflect this (see the cartoon above).

Which group membership is salient at a particular time depends on the situation. However, researchers have found it’s easy to “trigger” (activate) a social identity. Consider this quote from Lev Golinkin, a Ukrainian writer living in the U.S.:
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who denies that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, is waging far more than a physical war: He, like his predecessors in the Kremlin, is working to erase the very concept of Ukraine from existence. With each new report of a Russian bombing, I find myself becoming more Ukrainian, seizing the identity that first the Soviet Union—and now Russia—has long fought to suppress.” (“The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased”)
In my previous post on social media and political polarization, I note that Chris Bail has found that social media offers us platforms that we can use to “enhance” our self-esteem, which we cannot obtain solely on our own. People who troll others on social media don’t do it to change the minds of others but to impress those within their online “communities,” regardless of how small or large they are.

Documenting this phenomenon doesn’t solve problems such as prejudice, terrorism, or political polarization. However, the more we know about it, the less likely we will succumb to it mindlessly.


Bail, Christopher A. 2021. Breaking the Social Media Prisim: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cialdini, Robert B., Richard J. Borden, Avril Thorne, Marcus Randall Walker, Stephen Freeman, and Lloyd Reynolds Sloan. 1976. “Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34:366-75.

Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Kevin P., Marilynn B. Brewer, and Nathan L. Arbuckle. 2009. “Social Identity Complexity: Its Correlates and Antecedents.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 12(1):79-94. doi: 10.1177/1368430208098778

Sageman, Marc. 2017. Misunderstanding Terrorism. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sherif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif. 1988. The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Tajfel, Henri. 1970. “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” Scientific American 223(5):96-103.

Tajfel, Henri, and John C. Turner. 1982. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.” Pp. 7-24 in Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by S. Worchel and W. G. Austin. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Social Media and Political Polarization

In a recent paper about the QAnon conversation on Twitter (“A Network Analysis of Twitter’s Crackdown on the QAnon Conversation”), Dan Cunningham and I concluded social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc. could adjust their algorithms to expose users to multiple points of view and potentially form ties with those who don’t share their opinions. As an illustration, we relate the story of Ashley Vanderbilt, who, after the November 2020 election, spent much of her time consuming QAnon-related social media. By “inauguration day, she was convinced that if… Joe Biden took office, the United States would literally turn into a communist country” (O’Sullivan 2021). This occurred because she kept clicking on videos suggested by TikTok:
It’s there, she says, that she was first introduced to QAnon… She mostly followed entertainment accounts on the platform, but as the election neared she began interacting with pro-Trump and anti-Biden TikTok videos. Soon, she says, TikTok’s “For You” page, an algorithmically determined feed in the app that suggests videos a user might like, was showing her video after video of conspiracy theories. (O’Sullivan 2021)
We assumed that many people who are active on social media have become “trapped” in echo chambers that reinforce and radicalize their views. Thus, exposing people to alternative viewpoints helps them step outside their echo chambers, which leads them to moderate their views.

Our argument has an intuitive logic, but research by Chris Bail of Duke University and the head of the “Polarization Lab” challenges this line of thinking. Specifically, he and his collaborators have found that exposing people to alternative viewpoints has the opposite effect. When people step outside their echo chambers, they experience it as an “attack upon their identity” (“Breaking the Social Media Prism,” p. 31). He tells the story of Patty, a moderate-to-progressive Democrat:
Patty did not focus on the moderate messages retweeted by center-right Twitter accounts. Rather, she was captivated by the uncivil or ad hominem attacks on Democrats by several of the more extreme conservatives [that were] retweeted. The worst of these attacks were previously obscured by her echo chamber, but now Patty was experiencing the full scale of partisan warfare for the first time… Patty came to realize that there was a war going on, and she had to choose a side (pp. 31-32).
Bail relates similar stories of political conservatives whose views became more radicalized when exposed to retweets from moderate and liberal Democrats. He notes, “For both types of people, stepping outside the echo chamber was not creating a better competition of ideas, but a vicious competition of identities” (p. 39).

He contends social media platforms offer us an outlet that we can use to “enhance” our sense of who we are. Decades of research has found that membership in social groups (e.g., political parties, faith communities) can enhance our self-esteem, which we cannot obtain solely on our own. This is “often driven by the process of drawing boundaries between ourselves and others we deem to be less capable, honest, or moral. The sense of superiority that we derive from categorizing people into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ fulfills our intrinsic need for status” (p. 49).

Bail and his colleagues found that those who engage in extreme online behavior (i.e., “trolls”) don’t do it to change the minds of others, but to impress people within their online “communities,” regardless of how small or large they are. The people most likely to troll others are those who feel “marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their off-line lives” (p. 66):
Social media offer such social outcasts another path. Even if the fame extremists generate has little significance beyond small groups of other outcasts, the research my colleagues and I conducted suggests that social media give extremists a sense of purpose, community, and—most importantly—self-worth” (pp. 66-67)
If you’re wondering, they document examples of this for people on both sides of the political spectrum—in other words, this isn’t just a conservative or liberal thing. Bail and his colleagues also found that
  • Online extremism tends to drive moderates offline or convinces them the rewards of posting their opinions online are less than the cost. People who post right-of-center or left-of-center opinions are often attacked and/or harassed by extremists. And not all of these attacks come from people on the other side of the political spectrum. Moderates are often attacked by extremists from their own side for not being sufficiently conservative or liberal (p. 79).
  • Thus, while social media provides extremists “with a sense of status they lack in their everyday lives,” for moderates, “the opposite is often true.” Discussing politics online simply isn’t worth it (p. 77).
  • Most people online don’t discuss politics online. For example, “Across all tweets from U.S. adults, just 13% focused on national politics.” And those who do “are mostly extremists” (p. 82).
  • The relative absence of moderate views on online discussions has led to what is knowns as “false polarization,” which is “the tendency for people to overestimate the amount of ideological differences between themselves and people from other political parties” (p. 75).
  • The “partisan perception gap—that is, the extent to which people exaggerated the ideological extremism from the other party—was significantly greater among those who used social media to get their news” (p. 76).
  • Research has found that issue polarization is not as great as social polarization. That is, people are not as far apart on particular issues as many of us assume we are (e.g., see “Uncivil Agreement” and “The American left and right loathe each other and agree on a lot”).
  • Although stepping outside of our echo chambers (for those of us who are in them) can push us toward more positions, how we respond to alternative views is a function of the “distance” between them and our preexisting ideas. If they are within “our latitude of acceptance (a range of attitudes about a given issue that an individual finds acceptable or reasonable even if they don’t agree with them a priori), then people will be more motivated to engage with the viewpoint and perhaps even move closer to it” (p. 108)
Based on their findings, Bail and his colleagues argue that moderate voices are crucial for keeping online discussions more civil (less polarizing). After all, most Americans embrace moderate views, although, as we saw above, false polarization keeps most Americans from seeing this. Thus, they have concluded that we need social media platforms where moderates feel welcome, and extremists are not rewarded for their abusive behavior.

To this end, they conducted an experiment to see if they could create a social media platform that encouraged less polarizing online discussions. They created a mobile app called DiscussIt, where two people could discuss issues anonymously. For the experiment, they recruited 1,200 Republicans and Democrats, who were assigned a particular topic to discuss and then (unbeknownst to them) matched with someone from the opposing party. Bail et al. were encouraged by the results:
The results of the experiment make me cautiously optimistic about the power of anonymity. People who used DiscussIt exhibited significantly lower levels of polarization after using it for just a short time. Many people expressed fewer negative attitudes toward the other party or subscribed less strongly to stereotypes about them. Many others expressed more moderate views about the political issues they discussed or social policies designed to address them… Most surprising to me, however, is that an overwhelming majority of people told us they enjoyed using our social media platform, even though they had no incentive to do so… Several users even asked how much the app would cost when it is released to the public (p. 125).
Presently, social media platforms like DiscussIt are unavailable, but we can still take constructive steps toward making social media less polarizing:
  • Don’t attack, harass, or troll people who disagree with your views. We can’t control what others do, but we can control what we do. If you can’t say it civilly, don’t say it. You won’t change anyone’s mind behaving like a jerk.
  • Don’t “Like,” retweet, or even comment on extremist online comments. Most are posted by people seeking attention and status. Deny them that satisfaction.
  • Patronize social media platforms where polarizing discussions are few and far between. This could encourage other platforms to follow suit (clearly, a long-term strategy).
  • If you do engage in a political discussion with someone online, choose someone who appears to be within your “latitude of acceptance” (and vice versa). If you do, you might find yourself in the midst of a constructive (and civil) conversation.
Finally, pay Chris Bail’s “Polarization Lab” a visit. Better yet, read his book. It includes a number of suggestions for making social media more constructive and civil. It isn’t cheap since it is published by an academic press (Princeton). However, used copies can be found, and your local library should be able to track down a copy.

Articles and Books Cited:

Christopher A. Bail. 2021. Breaking the Social Media Prisim: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Daniel Cunningham and Sean F. Everton. 2022. “A Network Analysis of Twitter’s Crackdown on the QAnon Conversation.” Journal of Social Structure 23:4-27.

The Economist. 2023. The Economist. “The American left and right loathe each other and agree on a lot.”

Lilliana Mason. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

25 Christmas Movies for the Holiday Season

Here's my annual post of Christmas movies worth watching this holiday season. Not all are technically "Christmas" movies, but in some way they're related to the Christmas season. As always, I've updated the list a bit from last year.

1. The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

Dejected by his efforts to raise money to build a cathedral, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) beseeches heaven for guidance, and is visited immediately by an angel Dudley (Cary Grant). Henry, as a good theological liberal, is skeptical and then becomes annoyed when Dudley wins the attentions of Henry's long-suffering wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley falls for Julia, but in the end Julia tells him it's time for him to go. Dudley leaves, all memory of him is erased, and later that night at the Christmas Eve service when Henry delivers his sermon, Dudley watches from the street. If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade as The Preacher's Wife starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in 1996. 

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is right up there) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and  the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Amen.

3. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. Scott is (was) such a great actor. When he (Ebenezer Scrooge) yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. And, the supporting cast is quite good. David Warner (who once upon a time played a reporter in "The Omen") is an excellent Bob Cratchit, as is Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit (Note: two of York's children played two of the Cratchit children). And I really like Roger Rees as Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Finally, Angela Pleasence and Edward Woodward are excellent as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are, of course, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Jonathan Winters' reading of Dickens's book is also quite good.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet)

While recovering in a hospital, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) grows familiar with the "Diary of a Housewife" column written by Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Jeff's nurse arranges with Elizabeth's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), for Jeff to spend the holiday at Elizabeth's Connecticut farm with her husband and child. However, the column's a sham. Facing a career-ending scandal, not only for herself but for her editor, Elizabeth is forced to comply. In desperation, she agrees to marry her friend, John, who has a farm in Connecticut. She also enlists the help of her uncle, a chef, who's been giving her the recipes for her column. Elizabeth and John plan to be married immediately by Judge Crowthers, but Jefferson arrives, interrupting the ceremony, and it's love at first sight between Elizabeth and Jefferson. To complicate things, Jefferson has a fiancée, but that isn't as straightforward as it seems either.

5. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in the minority.

6. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). The movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas sit poorly with their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora learn that Blair coming home for Christmas (with her fiancé), and they have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks to the true meaning of Christmas.

7. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie. In fact, there's a debate as to whether it really is (see "Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). I obviously fall on the side of those who think it it. It takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis as NY city police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."; Yippee ki-yay...").

8. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" (see #18 and #20 below).

9. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't survive, and when the movie begins (13 years later), Cage is a successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't moved to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and convinces her not to leave for Paris to take a new job.

10. The Family Stone (Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson)

This tells the story about a Christmas gathering of the Stone family when the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his very uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him to introduce her to his family, as well as propose to her with his grandmother's wedding ring. Parker's reception by Mulroney's family -- played by Diane Keaton (mom, who is dying), Craig T. Nelson (dad), Rachel McAdams (younger sister), Elizabeth Reaser (older sister), Luke Wilson (younger brother), and Tyrone Giordano (youngest brother) - is chilly, to say the least. So chilly, in fact, that Parker begs her sister (Claire Danes) to join her. Mulroney ends up falling for Danes (and vice versa), Wilson for Parker (and vice versa), and McAdams for her ex-boyfriend (and vice versa) played by Paul Schneider. Chaos ensues, poignancy follows, and although it was greeted with mixed reviews, it has become a holiday favorite for many.

11. Hallmark Christmas Movies (Various)

There isn't one Hallmark Christmas movie, of course. There are hundreds. A new one premiers every weekend beginning in October. And almost without exception, they're corny and predictable. They're almost always a love story, and one or other of the (future) couple has sworn off Christmas because of some bad experience (e.g., divorce, death in the family). Moreover, you can pretty much count on them breaking up with about 15 minutes to go (usually due to some sort of lack of communication) and then getting back together with only a few seconds left on the clock (before the next movie starts). However, in a world that seems hell-bent on becoming more polarized, I (and evidently several others) can do with a corny (cue the next movie on the list...).

12. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

Definitely one our family's holiday favorites. This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "Ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. I believe Wallach should've at least received a best supporting actor nomination for his role, but this isn't the type of movie that actors and actresses win awards for. One of the biggest surprises is the revelation that Jack Black actually can act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

13. Home Alone (Macaulay Culkin, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Robert Blossom)

When adjusted for inflation, Home Alone is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two highly incompetent burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), whom he continues to foil with numerous booby-traps. The rest of his family doesn't realize they left him behind until they are mid-flight to Paris and then struggle to find a flight back (all her booked). Kevin also ends up befriending Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who is rumored to have murdered his family. Like many holiday favorites, it received a mixed reception from critics, but many consider it one of the best Christmas films of all time.

14. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast. There are now three Grinch movies, one with "real people" directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Cary in 2000, and a 2018 computer-animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role.

15. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his  wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Stewart was one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

16. Last Christmas (Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson)

Most critics disliked this 2019 movie, which is very loosely inspired by Wham's song of the same name, but it's light-hearted (so to speak) with a somewhat surprising twist at the end, which makes it a little different from the typical Christmas movie fare. Emilia Clarke plays Kate, who is a singer who supports herself working as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop. We also eventually learn that she recently received a heart transplant from which she hasn't mentally recovered. She, in fact, appears to be careening through life with something of a death wish. One day, while at work she notices Henry Golding (Tom) outside the shop, whom she gets eventually falls for, but it's never entirely clear whether he feels the same. Nevertheless, he has a positive affect on her, and she slowly gets her life back in order. She stops drinking, having one-night stands, and restores her ties with her mom (Emma Thompson), dad, and sister. Like most Christmas movies, it's ultimately a story about redemption, in this case, Kate's, and the effect this has others. Michelle Yeoh plays "Santa," the owner of the Christmas shop where Kate works (she also played Henry Golding's mother in Crazy Rich Asians, was a Bond girl (Tomorrow Never Dies), and starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

17. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

18. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

19. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (OHMSS) is a "Christmas film" of the way that "Die Hard" is (see above): It involves a battle between good and evil, it's set at Christmas (or quite a bit of it is), it includes Christmas songs, and it even throws in a little bit of redemption. It also involves a chase scene through a Swiss village celebrating the holiday and includes some of the skiing scenes ever. Recently, in an article in which The Economist considers whether "Die Hard" is really a Christmas movie, the author makes the case for considering OHMSS as one ("Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). OHMSS is, of course, the only movie in which George Lazenby plays James Bond. He was chosen after Sean Connery retired from the role after "You Only Live Twice," although Connery changed his mind and came back to play Bond in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Although OHMSS was a commercial success, its reception was mixed. The film's reputation has improved greatly over time, however. The director Christopher Nolan named it as his favorite Bond movie, and it has slowly moved its way up the "all-time Bond film lists" ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "50 Years Later, This Bond Film Should Finally Get Its Due"). It's no wonder. OHMSS contains some of the best action scenes of the series (which are similar to those of the more recent Bourne movies), Lazenby plays a capable Bond, Diana Rigg's excellent as his love interest and future (and only) wife, and Telly Savalas's "Blofeld" is by far the best of all the Bond films (although Christoph Waltz's portrayal in Spectre is a close second). It also follows the original novel much more closely than the other Bond films. It's definitely worth a watch.

20. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

21. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After this, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

22. Spirited (Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita 
Mani, Tracy Morgan, Patrick Page)

A retelling, of sorts, of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Will Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, Sunita Mani the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Tracy Morgan the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Patrick Page plays Jacob Marley, their leader. Along with a team of afterlife spirits, the foursome seeks to find and redeem one new human soul every Christmas. This year's target is Clint Briggs, an "unredeemable" soul, who is played by Ryan Reynolds; Octavia Spencer is his assistant, who excels at oppo-research. It is a musical (Marley hates it when Ferrell or anyone else breaks into song), and while Ferrell and Reynolds won't win any awards for their singing, there are a few numbers performed by the cast ("Good Afternoon!") that are actually quite fun.

23. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is  a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

And here's a couple more that appear on several lists:

24. Holiday (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant)

Holiday is a 1938 American romantic comedy that is a remake of the 1930 film of the same name. It tells the story of Jonathan "Johnny" Case (Cary Grant), a self-made man who's worked all his life and is about to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), whom he met while on holiday in Lake Placid. He actually knows very little about her and is surprised to learn she's from an extremely wealthy family, the youngest daughter of banker Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). Assured that Johnny is a worthy suitor, Edward approves of the pairing. But, as Johnny's wanderlust surfaces -- he is more interested in traveling than in business -- Edward starts to have doubts. Johnny also begins to wonder if he might not be a better match for Linda (Katharine Hepburn), Julia's outspoken younger sister, with whom he has much more in common.

25. Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh)

Seasonal clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) catches Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) in a fraudulent shopping scheme during the busy Christmas rush. But when he discovers that Ennis is a war widow and single mother, he decides not to turn her in. His supervisor takes notice and fires him. Mason befriends Connie and her young son, Timmy, and complicates her plans to marry boring nice guy Carl Davis (like Meg Ryan's fiancé in Sleepless in Seattle). The movie is based on the story Christmas Gift by John Weaver, which was also the film's working title. Set during the Christmas season, the film was not well received on its initial release. However, Turner Classic Movies airing the film over Christmas has led to it becoming a minor holiday classic. A made-for-television remake was produced in 1996.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Return of the Strong Gods (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part IX)

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, a predominantly Roman Catholic journal. Previously, he was a theology and ethics professor at Creighton University. A theological and political conservative, Reno believes that the recent rise of nationalism is a reaction to “the post-war consensus,” the quest for what Karl Popper called the “open society” where there are no transcendent truths but only private interests. Reno claims people are rejecting the open society's “weak gods” and are seeking a return of the strong ones.
By “strong gods,” I do not mean Thor and the other residents of the Old Norse Valhalla. The strong gods are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies. They can be timeless. Truth is a strong god because it beckons us to the matrimony of assent. They can be traditional. King and country, insofar as they still arouse men’s patriotic ardor, are strong gods. The strong gods can take the forms of modern ideologies and charismatic leaders. The strong gods can be beneficent. Our constitutional piety treats the American Founding as a strong god worthy of our devotion. And they can be destructive. In the twentieth century, militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism brought ruin… I take it for granted that these strong gods must be resisted. (p. xxiv)
Reno’s critique and description of the post-war consensus with its visions of an open society are not too different from the technocratic liberalism that Michael Sandel laments ("The Tyranny of Merit"). And Reno notes that we can find open society intellectuals on both political left and right:
  • Karl Popper
  • Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
  • Friedrich Hayek
  • Milton Friedman
  • William Buckley
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Albert Camus
  • Jacques Derrida
According to Reno, open society intellectuals fear the strong gods because they believe they will inevitably lead to horrors like the Holocaust, something we should want to avoid. But Reno disagrees. He does not think that the strong gods inevitably lead to the rise of destructive ideologies that folks like Popper, Hayek, and Friedman fear. Moreover, he thinks the return of the strong gods is unavoidable. A desire for the strong gods is part of our DNA. “The sacralizing impulse in public life is inevitable. Our social consensus always reaches for transcendent legitimacy” (p. 136). As such, he argues that we should embrace religious nationalism because it gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging:
The strong god of the nation draws us out of our “little worlds.” Our shared loves—love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and our heroes—raise us to a higher vantage point. We see our private interest as part of a larger whole, the “we” that calls upon our freedom to serve the body politic with intelligence and loyalty. As Aristotle recognized, this loyalty is intrinsically fulfilling, for it satisfies the human desire for transcendence (p. 155).
Thus, instead of embracing the “globalist utopianism” of the open society, we should seek to cultivate the healthiest kind of strong gods while resisting those that lead to “militarism, totalitarian regimes, and vicious racial segregation” (p. 147). Only by attending “to the strong gods who come from above and animate the best of our traditions” will we be able to turn away from “the dark gods that rise up from below” (p. 162).

I think Reno is partially correct. As the political scientist Paul Miller puts it: “we cannot escape some kind of overarching story of who ‘we’ are, a story that gives us meaning, purpose, and direction” (p. 230). To pretend that most people are not attracted to transcendent stories only creates a vacuum that someone or something will fill.

I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College (not to mention Bob Dylan's 1979 “Gotta Serve Somebody”):
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 
If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth… 
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they plant you... 
Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. 
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 
And so on. (pp. 98-111)
I'd add religious nationalism to Wallace’s list. If we worship our nation, we’ll be eaten alive. Nationalism is the identity politics of the majority tribe, so there’ll always be minority tribes who hold a different vision for our country. As such, we'll constantly be on our guard and looking for ways to suppress them and their vision while promoting ours (and giving others the power to do both). That doesn't sound like a recipe for fulfilling life, not for those in the majority or in the minority. It also doesn't sound very Christian.

Previous Posts

Paul D. Miller. 2022. The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

R. R. Reno. 2021. Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West. Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway.

Michael J. Sandel. 2020. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Tyranny of Merit (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part VIII)

It’s been almost a year since I last explored why so many Christians voted for Trump. As I’ve already documented, there is some evidence that factors such as education, income, and cosmopolitanism may have been a factor. However, these may mask a deeper malaise, what Michael Sandel refers to as the “tyranny of merit,” or perhaps better, the “politics of humiliation.”
It is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it only as an economic complaint… the election of Donald Trump… was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind… these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem. (pp. 17, 18)
Sandel locates these grievances in what he calls the technocratic conception of the public good and its corresponding meritocratic ethic. The former is “bound up with a faith in… the… belief that market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good.” (pp. 19-20). Market-driven globalization has generated increasing inequality and devalued national identities. Those who benefit from it have “valorized cosmopolitan identities as a progressive, enlightened alternative to the narrow parochial ways of protectionism, tribalism, and conflict.” (p. 20). Sandel argues that by 2016, the Democratic Party had become the party of technocratic liberalism, which reflects more the interests of professional elites than blue-collar and middle-class voters.

Sandel contends that technocratic liberalism frequently employs a “rhetoric of rising” that holds that people “who work hard and play by the rules” should rise as far as “their talents will take them.” He notes that political elites on both the right and left invoke this phrase. Obama was particularly fond of using “you can make it if you try,” a line he employed more than 140 times in his speeches and public statements.

The problem is that not everyone can make it, not even those who try and do play by the rules. Economic mobility in the United States isn’t what it was 60 years ago. Consider, for example, the following graphs. The first (from “Our World in Data”) plots income inequality in the U.S from 1939 to 2021. As it shows, economic inequality began to increase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The second graph (from “Opportunity Insights”) plots mobility rates by birth cohort. Specifically, the y-axis represents the percentage of children who make more than their parents, and the x-axis indicates the year someone was born. It clearly shows that the dream that children born in America will have a higher standard of living than their parents has become less and less likely. Technocratic liberalism isn’t all that many believe it’s cracked up to be.

The meritocratic ethic that accompanies technocratic liberalism implicitly holds that those endowed with the gifts our market society rewards deserve more esteem than those who do not possess such talents.  This has had harmful consequences: 
Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified…

Meritocratic hubris leads winners to “inhale too deeply of their success… It is the smug conviction… that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs too. This attitude is the moral companion of technocratic politics” (p. 25)
We see evidence of this in the language used to describe those who have not made it: “trailer trash,” “flyover states,” “those who cling to guns and religion,” “deplorables.” It also appears in the media. One study found that television shows portray blue-collar dads as stupid, impotent, and the butt of jokes - think Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson. By contrast, they portray upper-middle class and professional dads favorably. Facts like these have led Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, to criticize and lament what she calls “the class-cluelessness” of progressives. (p. 202).

Think what you want of Donald Trump, but he intuitively tapped into the sense of humiliation felt by many Americans. He appears to have been more aware of the malaise sweeping much of middle America than those of us who believe we have their best interest at heart. It’s difficult to tease out whether the politics of humiliation has disproportionately affected theologically conservative Christians (at least, I have yet to locate relevant data). Still, if it has, we shouldn’t be surprised that they hitched their future to the candidate who at least acknowledged their sense of humiliation.

Previous Posts

Michael J. Sandel. 2020. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Patriot Churches

Back in 2018, Ken Peters, pastor of Covenant Church in Spokane, Washington, and members of his church began holding monthly worship services outside of the local Planned Parenthood. They called themselves, The Church at Planned Parenthood (TCAPP). Two years later, he and wife founded the Patriot Church movement, which unapologetically fuses Christian faith and American politics. The movement describes itself as “a spiritually active, governmentally engaged and grassroots effort designed to take back our communities from tyranny.” It believes that demonic forces are attacking “the cultural and religious fabric that makes the USA so special.” As such, it argues that Christians are called by God “to resist [this] tyranny wherever it exists.”

The first church was founded near Knoxville, Tennessee (where Peters is pastor) in 2020. Another soon followed in Virginia, and his former church in Spokane also signed on. Another church in Washington (Moses Lake) joined in 2021, and two more are set to open in 2022 (in Texas and Florida).

Although the number of churches is small, the movement is part of a loose network of individuals, churches, and organizations that believe the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and are called to restore the U.S. to its Christian roots ("The Appeal of Christian Nationalism"). The movement appears to be largely driven by Peters's energy and influence. Only time will tell whether it can survive without it.

I recently was invited to write a short essay on the movement for the World Religions and Spirituality Project. You can find the essay here:

Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Twelve Days of Christmas Begin Today (or Tomorrow)

The 12 Days of Christmas begin today. That's right. They are not the 12 days prior to (and including) Christmas Day. Rather, they are 12 days running from either December 25th to January 5th or from December 26th to January 6th, depending to which tradition one follows. Either way, the 12 days take us to Epiphany (January 6th), which commemorates the Wise Men presenting their gifts to the infant Jesus, who may have been as old as 2-years when they finally track him down. That is why the Wise Men shouldn't appear in Nativity scenes until Epiphany, but, of course, many people have taken them down by then.

When most of us think about "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, we usually think of the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but's fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "strongly discouraged" in England (1558-1829): 

  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God 
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God 
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God 
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13) 
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation 
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes 
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments 
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples 
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly take on the song's origins (but far less entertaining), see the Wikipedia article.

BTW: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days -- one for the first day, three (1 + 2) for the second, six (1 + 2 + 3) for the third, and so on -- you get 364, which is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas.