By Tom Cushing
Compositional Amenities, Fear-mongering, Fox and the FutureUploaded: Sep 8, 2015
Are the so-called culture wars overblown ? trumped-up by media moguls and others who substitute ratings and attention for substance and meaning? I think they are.
That conclusion may seem at odds with recent events like the recalcitrant Kentucky county clerk who provoked a media storm by steadfastly refusing to keep faith with her oath of office. Her subsequent jailing (now rescinded) for contempt-of-court fed the irrational persecution complexes of other evangelicals -- in this overwhelmingly Christian country. Fortunately, we are also a land that has deeply committed itself to the separation of church and state.
Lost in the Kentucky festivities and the assumed implication that there's a serious movement afoot is the salient fact that there are 3,143 counties in this country -- many of which are in states that did not recognize same-sex marriage until the Supremes ruled in June. A few have been slow to comply, but only in Rowan County has there been a direct nose-thumbing at the legitimate rights thus finally established. That's a timely compliance rate of some 99.9%, and ought to be recognized and celebrated as a symbol of Americans' respect for the rule of law.
But why is there any outcry, at all? Here's where the wonderfully academic concept of "compositional amenities" kicks-in. I first saw it in a column last week, but it apparently was coined as part of a series of papers describing resistance to various policies. It is defined as "the comfort of a common cultural identity and minimized cultural conflict." Put another way, it's the sense of ease that comes of knowing your surroundings, and that they are homogenized and unchanging.
Certainly, there is value in shared customs and traditions. They provide a sense of continuity that is celebrated primarily by those who have grown-up in and benefitted from certainty and sameness ? think of Tevye's rant in Fiddler on the Roof (Tradition!). Younger citizens generally may be more inclined to reject such certainty for the excitement and creativity of growth and novelty. Compositional amenities are why we humans celebrate sameness, in both its positive (inter-generational ties) and negative aspects (bias against 'others' who are unfamiliar to us).
A 2009 study of immigration and trade policy found that there was greater resistance to the former than the latter ? even where the likely impacts in terms of jobs and wages were identical. The economists then examined that resistance to seek its source: they found that more of the concern related to compositional amenities than to conventional economic impacts (wages, taxes, spending). They also found that the former were much more highly concentrated among less well-educated subjects.
And that, in turn, brings us to the issue emphases among the campaigns for the GOP nomination in 2016. The first debate contained overwhelming preoccupation with fear issues: immigration, terror, defense, ISIS and perceived loss of religious liberty. Largely or wholly absent were conversations about humankind's dire, defining challenge of global warming, race relations or income inequality, or issues of primary concern to younger voters ? like, say, crushing student loan debt. As such, the candidates were playing to their base ? the compositional amenities crowd -- and ignoring issues of far greater substance on the merits or to the polity as a whole.
Further, if you want to understand candidate Trump's success to-date* on the trail, it is clear that he has consciously tapped-into that deep vein of fear among a limited subset of voters ? older Americans who see the inevitable changing of the guard away from their familiar circumstances, less-well-educated citizens who may perceive themselves as having limited capacity to change and adapt, and even the neo-Nazis who have perpetually opposed The Unfamiliar denominated as groups afflicted with "otherness."
In a sense, Mr. Trump has taken a page from the vaunted Fox News playbook. That network has raised fear-mongering to a high art, with story-after-story about some/any new or unfamiliar phenomenon, partaken-of by unfamiliar faces and hues -- and why each is wrong, scorn-worthy and ultimately unAmerican. Their best demographic? Seniors.
The real questions here are 1 ? is this compositional amenities concern anything new, and 2 --will it carry the day in the next elections and beyond? I think both answers are 'no.'
We tend to forget that there has been vehement resistance to 'otherness' throughout US history, as each new immigrant group sought to slam the door behind it. Despite the hopeful poetic invocation on the Statue of Liberty, each unfamiliar wave of newcomers has had to shoulder its way into the American mainstream.
Whether it's The Irish, The Italians, The Poles, or religious minorities like Catholics and Jews in Protestant America, each was initially excluded, and suspected of threatening the status quo. Eventually, each was generally able to add its own flavors into the American stew. But there were rear-guard actions against every one of them, from entrenched insiders ? to the point that "religion " and "national origin" were written-in to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect their legitimate interests in unbiased treatment.
In an important way, those groups had it easier than groups who were more observably 'other' ? e.g., Japanese Americans interned during World War 2, and Chinese subjected to exclusion acts passed in Washington and in our fair California during an earlier era. And currently, folks who are observably different in complexion or dress or custom probably absorb the most enmity.
It may also be true that current newcomers do not so much seek to disappear or assimilate into the mainstream, as to stake their claim to the American Promise on their own terms of language or custom. Media's 24-hour scrutiny may also lead to coverage of fringey events, and ascription of them to whole groups of people who look similar. That said, I think the current disquiet is more of an American theme than an aberration. I expect it to recede, and sometimes to rear its ugly head when an issue gets demagogued.
As to the second question above, sooner or later demographics are destiny, and this country's population trends are inevitable. The GOP can enjoy temporary reprieves based on the absence of campaign finance rules, and of voter restriction shenanigans, but change IS gonna come.
Americans are also a generally fair-minded, forward-looking and courageous bunch. Over time, we were self-selected for those traits. Eventually, I believe they will over-balance our fears, despite the best efforts of those who would stoke them for their own purposes. Courage and optimism have always prevailed ? may it ever be so around here.
* Mr. Trump has been quoted as saying "? if there's a rhyme and a reason, people can figure you out -- once they can figure you out, you're in big trouble." As such, I believe he has written his campaign's eventual epitaph. His haranguing, substance-free style of personal attacks on anyone who discomfits him will wear thin the more he's exposed and the better he's known; he'll have to ride that one-trick pony into oblivion.