A failure of institutions ctd.

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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37 Responses

  1. gregiank says:

    Actually Sam’s comment came off as classic concern trolling. Sorn’s post was all about being opened up to wider possibilities, to more choices. Of course some traditional communities struggle with that, but the issue is people having choices as in freedom to be who they want. There is a strong part of the modern liberal tradition, that in general social conservatives hate, which tears down traditional roles to give people who have been held down more choices. Think gays, women, etc.

    Its really not news to people in poor and beaten down communities that there are pathologies that keep people down. What, in my experience, they object to, is distant people treating them like losers and telling them its all their fault they are down. Especially when it assumes vast cultural superiority and that there are no other systematic factors at play.Report

    • Sam M in reply to gregiank says:


      For the life of me, I can’t quite figure out what concern trolling really means. But if my comment was a classic form of it, I guess at least it’s a classic.

      As for this: “they exist in a sort of cultural purgatory.” I hardly think so. These places all have cultures. We just don’t like what they produce, or at least not all of it. They have a language, they have a history, they very often have their own art. To say that they are between cultures seems hugely dismissive of what’s actually there. And what’s there is not nothing.

      As for whether Sorn’s comment was about more options and wider possibilities, I refer you to this from ED’s post: “the economic poverty is somewhat symptomatic of a deeper cultural poverty, a poverty of hope but also a poverty of meaningful institutions.”

      So. In this telling there is a “deep cultural poverty” and a “poverty of meaningful institutions.” By poverty, I would presume this to mean a lack or a shortage? To be sought elsewhere?

      I am not being pedantic here. Rather, I think that we are in a real pinch. If we argue that there is a lack of culture and lack of institutions, we are making a very dismissive argument about these places. And an incorrect one. Yeah, OK, so the American ghetto has spawned a lot of crappy stuff. But it has also given us jazz and hip-hop and some really profound literature, etc.

      So there is culture there, but also in some ways a perverse one which in many ways we want people to leave. (Gang culture is not a lack of culture or a void. It’s a really crappy, destructive culture, but a culture nontheless.)

      I guess the optimistic answer is to say that we should keep the good and discard the bad, Let’s keep the jazz and lose the violence. But I think this is pretty pollyannish. Cultures are too intertwined. Jazz didn’t evolve in the suburbs for a reason. And apart from a few enclaves like academia and other artsy fartsy places, it hasn’t survived. Yeah, you can point to some fans here and there, but Pittsburgh’s jazz scene ain’t what it used to be. And neither is your city’s.

      And then further down the line we start asking whether bubblegum country is really country, or whether 50-Cent is really gangsta, or whether Green Day counts as punk. And then we have people really believing that David Allen Coe taught Charles Manson to play guitar, and thinking it matters, then getting all worked up because some pretty new country singer didn’t really live a country life, but singing along with Johnny Cash about prisons he’s never really been in.

      All of which is a long way to say that I don’t really think that a “poverty of culture” exists. Even in the suburbs. Even at Hot Topic. And especially in the trailer park. And whether we like it or not, when we take kids out of those cultures to show them what a “culture of success” looks like, we are saying something about the place they are from and the people they know.

      I think it’s something that needs said. But… we need to be aware of what we are doing.Report

      • greginak in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, In one sense I see Sorn’s post and desire as an embodiment of Freedom. The kind of Freedom America offers: to be who and what you want free of aristocracy, tradition or class. All of these things exist of course here but for many people he had a road away from the prison many people find in poverty. America is at its best when people can live teh life they want even though that comes at a price for people who strongly value tradition.

        In reference to povery i’ll talk about the struggling communities i know best. The Alaska Native villages in AK have a lot of simlarties to the rez’s. In many of those place the grandparent’s generation was stripped of their language and forcibley educated in white school. They lost their culture and way of life against their will. That led to dysfunction through violence, crime and substance abuse. that generation gave birth to a kids who they had difficulty parenting, difficulty teaching them a culture to grow up in since theirs had been mangled and they were not at home in the white culture and had few options. Their towns were poor with few jobs but many drunks. their were broken families scared by arrests, suicide, alcohol and no life path that kept their tradition. That is the Alaska version of a culture of poverty. There are few successful avenues for success and many roads to despair. Every family has been wounded and scared. I have never met an Alaska Native who did not see and want to fix the problems in their community. Never.

        The dynamic is a bit different in other places due to local cultures, natural resources and number of generations of poverty. People do want to keep the good parts and get rid of bad. Well who doesn’t, that sounds like a good idea to me. It is most often the people in those communities who want change, who want opportunity, who want a ladder up and are well aware of the cultural problems facing their community. If the change in culture to promote success is solely driven by outsiders then failure is the only option. If the community is part of the change then there is far more hope for success.Report

        • Sam M in reply to greginak says:


          I agree with you here. All I am saying is that “a culture of poverty” is not the same thing as a “poverty of culture.” So in gettng people out of such places, really what we are saying is, “Here’s a new culture for you to learn, whether it;s in college, the military, or wherever else.”

          And if someone every asks, “Why is it I have to learn a new culture?”

          The honest, but to me rather uncomfortable answer is, “Because the culture you know right now really sucks.”

          That’s not to say it doesn’t suck for a reason, or that the sucking isn’t based on past transgressions that can include everything from racism to Manifest Destiny to resource extraction to historical accident. There really are reasons for these places to be the way they are, and for the people living there to be living the way they are.

          But that doesn’t make it any more comfortable for me, because once you take this step… I dunno. It just weirds me out.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, “concern trolling” means “someone might, in theory, care about the things you’re pretending to care about but since you’re obviously not that person, I don’t have to deal with your arguments”.

        Come on, dude. You’re either with us or with them. Why would you use any of your energies attacking us unless you were on the other side?Report

  2. silentbeep says:

    You may find the diavlog between Amy Wax and Adam Serwer about culture and poverty somewhat intriguing. Have you seen it? Her insistence that what poor black people need to do is to just basically get their shit together, was a marvel to behold (was it more nuanced that that? No, not really).


  3. E.D. Kain says:

    Sam, I know you care about these things. I think we see things a bit differently here. I’m not advocating we brainwash or program anyone to despise or lose their former culture. I’m saying there is a deficit of meaningful institutions in these places. You say they have their own language – but in many of these places, the language is hanging by a thread. The culture is hanging by a thread, drowning in poverty. What I’m saying is that somehow choices to exit this poverty need to be provided and/or within these cultures there needs to be an effort to rebuild institutions. That’s happening to some degree with the Navajo language, but I think it’s fairly unique in that regard.Report

    • Sam M in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      @E.D. Kain,

      I get your point. But in many cases, nothing is hanging by a thread. What’s there is incredibly robust. We just happen not to like it. Inner city gang culture, which I mentioned before, is a good example. And the language forms that have emerged in such places are equally robust, only the languages these people have learned does not serve them well in cubicle life. But we wnt these people to live cubicle life, so we tell them that to move on, they need to learn a new language. Which entails explaining that their old culture is junk.

      It is not brainwashing. It’s true. To get along in the cubicle or the boardroom, you need to stop talking that way and start talking another way.

      It sounds like imperialism. Because it kind of is. Standard, middle-class english is a language empire in the USA. So if my kid starts talking like kids from the trailer park, which he will, I’ll need to intervene. That’s just the way it is.

      I am part of the machine. Of the empire. I think it’s a good empire and welcome people from the ghetto and the trailer park and the rez to sign on. And I think the fact that they bring new elements to the table makes things a lot more vobrant and interesting. But it’s important for us not to fool ourselves. We are telling people their cultures suck. Because quite often, they do. Not all cultures are created equal.

      But like I said, let’s at least be honest about what’s going on. I am not saying you are NOT being honest. But I think it’s something that needs to be said. Sure, we can talk about how nice it is that a guy from the reservation can join the Marines and build a middle-class life for himmself and his family.

      But clearly, one of the things we really like about this story is that he put a boot in the face of a very robust and very problematic reservation culture.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, Maybe so. But I think you can achieve cultural revitalization without welcoming anyone to the cubicle. You can stop targeting the inner city disproportionately with the absurd war on drugs just to name one thing. But also you can allow Wal*Mart to set up in the food deserts in many inner cities. You can provide better public transportation.Report

      • greginak in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, If people in some community are just fine with their life there really isn’t much of a problem. In the examples we have been discussing, its the people on the Rez or in areas of harsh inner city poverty, the people there are screaming for change. They are seeing their kids die or get thrown in jail for life or mired in addiction.

        I don’t think its true you have to come to the conclusion a culture sucks to see it has problems. In many cases the problems result from other people, generally white imperialists, coming in trying to change everything ( Native Americans). As Eric pointed out winding down the drug war would be a start towards fixing many of the problems in inner city areas.

        I think you are correct that there is a difference between a “culture of poverty” and “poverty of culture.” But that doesn’t change the other points. People can have strong cultures that have parts that unhealthy or are the result of traumatic events. Culture is not a take it all or leave it all proposition. People don’t need to learn to work in a cubicle unless they want to. There are all sorts of jobs out there. What they need is access to jobs.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, Sam, for what it’s worth, I see what you’re saying here and, on a non-ideological level, I feel that it manifests a robust sense of reality.

        On a personal level, of course, I cannot separate this from the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing (seriously: Read that poem again. Kipling bit the bullet) and that makes me quiver.

        But, dude.

        I see what you’re saying. It ain’t inaccurate.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:


          I think the inability to separate it from ‘White Man’s Burden’ is *exactly* what Sam is saying.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Kolohe, er, I phrased that badly.

          The problem is not that I can’t separate such things but that I am exceptionally good at making arguments that, this time, I actually *HAVE*. So, of course, we’re just teaching these other, lesser, cultures how to better maximize their short, middle, and long-term interests.

          It’s nothing like what happened in the movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. This time, we’re the good guys.Report

      • MFarmer in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M,
        It’s not a matter of telling them what to do, it’s a matter of whether they want to do it, and if they do, then there are certain realities to which they need to adjust. I was one of those “theys” who needed to adjust to reality — It was a different experience, but the same principle. Reality is, and I had the hoice to fight it or adjust to it. I doubt the whole world of business would have adjusted to accomodate my lifestyle and attitude.Report

  4. Sam M says:

    I agree with you about the War on Drugs. But let’s think it through. Let’s say we do end it and we were right and it corrects a whole bunch of things that were wrong. Well, what will also happen is that you will have effectivly dismantled a gargantuan, perhaps defining aspect of inner city life. Lives built–economically, aesthetically, socially–around turf wars and black-market intrigue. It would be like Pittsburgh without steel mills. That culture, as it were, would live on as nostalgia, as a memory, but it would cease to exist.

    That is, if you take all the gang kids, send them to Phillips Exeter Academy and convince them all to join the local Rotary after they take a job at an insurance company, they CAN’T effectively steer that old culture again. All they can do is talk about the good old days. Or the bad old days, depending on how they remember it.

    It doesn’t matter what kind of jobs they take. If they abandon their culture of poverty, which we all hope they will do, those cultures will die. Even the good parts. That’s too bad,I guess, but it’s how it is. And honestly, I think it’s a good trade.

    In other words… go imperialism!Report

    • greginak in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M, The point is trying to get rid of the bad stuff ( gangs, drug abuse, violence) while keeping the stuff people like ( religion, family,etc) One don’t have to get rid of everything or nothing. In fact it is the good parts of culture that usually help to get rid of the bad stuff. Here is AK there is strong push for Alaska Natives to learn their native languages, learn about there cultural heritage and focus on their responsibility to their communities as a way of defeating the cycles of violence and drug abuse.Report

      • Sam M in reply to greginak says:


        You say you want to get rid of the bad stuff but keep the things people like. But can you? Check out thise bizarrely timely article in yesterday’s New York Times. It’s about the culture of poverty:


        I think it makes many of the points I am trying to make. namely, the good and the bad are simply too enmeshed to toss some things but keep others.

        Look, I am from a blue-collar place. Not so long ago, we had safe streets and family dinners and guys being able top support a family of six in their mid-20s. Those jobs left, but now they might actually be coming back. So will it be a return to Mayberry? I don’t think so.

        Fact of the matter is, there was more to it than jobs. There was a lack of information and geographic mobility. A certain sense of skepticism about the outside world. There was also, crucially, a large supply of women who either wanted to stay home to raise the kids, or were sufficiently browbeaten into doing so anyway.

        You can’t have dad leaving for work with a lunchpail, returning home to a wholesome dinner unless someone is there to make it.

        But it’s good that women have more options. It’s good that the intellectual kids feel like they can apply to Harvard.

        Up until the 1980s, there was one fall sport: football. That sucked for people who didn’t like football. They played anyway, mostly. And there were good things about that! Everyobdy knew everybody. There were no real class distinctions in who played what. Etc. It was a culture built by… limits. But when those limits went away, so did all the good things about them, and there’s no getting that back in the bottle. Ever.

        To pick what you want about, say, inner city culture. Be it the language or the religion or anything else, it is in large part a reaction to those larger outside forces of poverty and other limitations. Remove that poverty as a limitation and, Poof!

        Again, I am not saying that poverty is good, or that we should perpetuate it in order to satisfy our taste for authentic local culture. But to paraphrase Shumpeter, the gales of creation are, in fact, destructive.Report

  5. greginak says:

    @jaybird- “The problem is not that I can’t separate such things but that I am exceptionally good at making arguments that, this time, I actually *HAVE*. So, of course, we’re just teaching these other, lesser, cultures how to better maximize their short, middle, and long-term interests.

    It’s nothing like what happened in the movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. This time, we’re the good guys.”

    I’m not really sure what you are claiming to be good at here. My first read was that you are good at using well chosen historical events to consistently cast aspersions on every current idea, assume bad faith or at least ignorance by others and always deal in generalities. You are good at that. Reading that back it sounds harsher then i meant it. However I just don’t see how it advances any argument. Here is Ak there is big push to cut down the horrific rate of FAS in Native communities. Natives are more then happy to get help from us white folk. It seems beyond silly to call groups working together voluntarily and with the downtrodden group specifically asking for help as some imperialism or White Man’s Burden. In fact when some of those kind of arguments are made they often prove far to much. It is true plenty of well meaning white guys tried to change other peoples way of life almost always to their eventual detriment. Is it a concern yes, but i seems like we need to think deeper then generic insults. But does that really mean every action done by westerners or whites is automatically imperialism? Why are we forever prisoners of the mistakes made in the past? Does the specific context in each situation matter? Is real life more complex then simplistic ideology?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

      @greginak, I am not assuming bad faith on the part of the people who want to improve the lives of those in benighted cultures.

      I’m assuming that they have the absolute best of intentions.

      The problem is that when the best-laid plans go aft agley, the problem is always that those little people didn’t appreciate the help we were trying to give them. They suffer from a false consciousness. They have adopted a culture of failure. And so on and so forth.

      There’s never any humility when it comes to planning the things that might be achieved, there’s never any self-reflection when it comes to methods, and there’s never any historical memory when it comes to trying something that may have failed the last time it was tried.

      It’s all about fucking intentions and people pointing out how, no, seriously. They have the best of them.

      I’m not a huge fan of intentions, myself.Report

      • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, There is really so much more to this that you didn’t even address. Can there be no situation where people can help each other? Does actual context and specifics ever matter? Frankly i don’t how to keep arguments so general as to never discuss actaul situations. Humility yes, but it seems you are suggesting history is everything, a permanent prison that forever defines all our actions, even while you won’t discuss any possibly specific.

        Intentions are nice and all, but there is really a lot more. You don’t have to go to far into any rez to have people tell you substance abuse is real problem or into harsh inner city areas to hear that gangs and drugs are killing them. What are the intentions of people who say “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, just don’t ask me for a dime” or “your kind of people are just worthless” or ” sorry can’t help, people decades ago people F’d things up, so sorry, get well soon”. But , but those poor people say, how about a health clinic or a drug rehab, “no , no , free market will take care of it, besides what about my intentions and how this will affect me.”

        Anybodies intentions can be criticized or mocked. Easy stuff. How about looking at what people do and how they do it?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

          @greginak, Help each other? Against the will of the party being helped?

          Do you honestly see no moral issues at work here?

          Instead of looking at the history of Colonialism, you keep pointing to the wonderful works we might be able to create and see their failure to be created as a cost.

          I am just looking at the stuff we have screwed up (see, for example, the history of Colonialism) and seeing that as the most likely outcome of any new attempts.

          (And, honestly, an end to the drug war will do far, far more good for any number of communities than any number of well-intentioned bureaucrats with the latest and greatest translations of Kipling.)Report

  6. Lyle says:

    Did anyone see Angela Merkels comment that multiculturalism has not worked in Germany. Now you will learn german and become a german and you will like it! Visas will not be renewed if you don’t. France is going to do this next you will adopt French culture or you will not be allowed to stay. We have seen to many countries including Belgium where multiculturalism ends up threating the survival of the state. Yes elements of the immigrants culture will be adopted if they seem like a good idea to the majority but if you want to live in our country you will live like us or go home!Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Lyle says:

      @Lyle, worth noting here is that the multiculturalism in question, between the Flemish and Walloons, is nothing new to Belgium (nor is the existence of conflict). It’s not about tons of foreigners coming into the country unable to speak the native language generations later, as Merkel is talking about and as some Americans fear. It’s more like Quebec and Canada.Report

    • greginak in reply to Lyle says:

      @Lyle, The Euro countries were mostly born of one ethnicity that can trace its roots for hundreds or a thousand plus years. Their experience of cultural homogeneity is far different then ours. Also, and this is really pretty obvious, most of the Euro countries have no tradition or practice of truly integrating immigrants as we have had. Simple their experience if MC is far different then ours.

      You do know that the issue in Belgium has sqaut to do with immagration but with two ethnic and language groups who both can claim to be “true” Belgians with long histories of living and not getting along in the same country. Doesn’t really seem to even remotely apply to our situation.

      My ex lives in The Netherlands. To get her long term visa she had to learn Dutch. But you know what else. All the Dutch speak English. And she can live her life however she wants, she does not have to about Dutch culture. Also in every French or German couple i have ever met at least one, if not both, peeopel speaks english. Almost all young peopel in those countries speaks english. Nobody living in those countries is forced to about any culture. Merkel is not going to forcing Turk immigrants to start eating spatezle or wearing lederhosen if they live in Bavaria.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    To what extent are the members of a particular culture allowed to say “we don’t want to be changed by you”?

    Does it matter if the people who want to change it have the best of intentions?Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Jaybird says:

      To any extent possible. They shouldn’t be forced to change.Report

    • Sam M in reply to Jaybird says:


      I think the question becomes even more complex than that. Almost any culture has people who want to leave it and join others. We can make it possible, even encourage it… but then what?

      Take someone from inner city culture. And by this, I think it’s clear that people generally mean “black culture.” We can send some of those kids to a magnet school, or give them vouchers, or whatever. All with an eye toward teaching them the language or the culture os success. “Success being defined by the in-crowd, but what can you do?”

      Now, some people firmly entrenched and invested in that inner city culture will resist efforts to leave it, and will criticize aspiring emigrants from it as “acting white,” etc.

      So… how to respond to that reaction? Say it’s not so? Say we are not asking people to leave their culture and adopt a new one? OK. But we are, aren’t we? yes, sure, we can take a bunch of immigrants in America and pretty soon salsa s the number one condiment over ketchup, so the wider culture will move a bit to accomodate the immigrants and adopt the best of what they bring to the table. But generally, you learn to speak the language and you learn the social norms and you get a white-collar job and we call that success. As much as we praise diversity, successful people don’t talk that way. Successful people don’t live there. Succesful people wear this and not that.

      There’s room for a little individuality, and we are better than most at accepting differences, but largely… if you want to get ahead you do your best to look like us and act like us. And when we talk about helping people adopt a culture of success, that’s what we mean.Report

  8. greginak says:

    @jaybird- cuthulu on crutch. I stated in a least a couple of posts, and gave examples, of situations where IT IS NOT people helping others against their forking will. You are applying your chosen history to every situation irregardless of context. Can you even contemplate a situation where it is not the powerful helping other against their will? I’m guessing not. Would any example i could ever give of people in differing groups that have sad history working together as partners to solve a problem ever matter to you?

    Humility is a great thing. People who believe strongly in things need it very much.Report