No time for a think piece today — I have too many buffalo wings to eat, watery beers to drink, and hours of pre-game coverage to pass before my glazed eyes. But I thought I’d share some worthwhile readings for Super Bowl Sunday.

Trying to decide who to root for? Perhaps the political contributions of team owners will sway you? Broncos lean Right, Seahawks lean slightly Left.

Is the NFL ruining football with an ever-more complex rulebook? Yes. Is it to make more money? Most likely.

Is that shiny new stadium going to help your community? Is it worth public money? Al Jazeera, says no and no. Sociology Lens reviewed the scholarship on the subject back in November.

The Super Bowl is a festival of gendered marketing. What can sociology tells us about that?

We’ve all heard about the concerns about concussions in the NFL (if you haven’t seen Frontline on the subject yet, you must). The Grey Lady’s Frank Bruni has done a great job following this issue and connecting with larger concerns about violence, greed, and bloodlust. But I was also very fond of the introspective contribution by ThickCulture’s own Jose Marichal.

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This is from John Green’s Crash Course series on US History. It gives an account of the rise of modern US conservatism, but I’m not sure how conservatives and libertarians will agree with this account. I think it’s interesting because it’s useful in framing the current ideological divides. The video starts off with Goldwater and segues to Nixon. While many might argue that current conservatism owes its roots to the founders or that the video ignores the 1920s (as evident in some of the YouTube comments), I think that Goldwater and the 1960s represents a good point of departure for modern US conservatism, since it represented a deterioration of the Democratic “solid South” and sets up the current political landscape.

What’s instructive here is how it explains how policy and politics aren’t independent of popular opinion. So, not all of Nixon’s policies are “conservative” (e.g., The EPA), as the Nixonian conservatism was embedded in a particular historical circumstance. While the “Silent Majority” who elected Nixon wasn’t happy with the social direction of the country, there was hardly a wholesale reduction of the federal government to pre-WWI levels.

Going beyond the video, I think that there are three distinct eras in modern conservatism. The rise of Nixon in 1968 (who lost in 1960 to Kennedy in the general election) was a backlash against the counter culture, in all of its manifestations. The rise of Reagan (who lost to Ford in the 1976 primaries) was not only a backlash against Carter, but brought together the anti-Communist stance of Goldwater, a move towards laissez-faire economic policy, and a social conservatism. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” (which didn’t feature a social conservative stance) brought both houses of Congress under control of the GOP, but it signaled a divide: the “country club” Republicans versus the socially conservative populists. While George W. Bush managed to squeak by in 2000 with the help of the Supreme Court, he had a little more breathing room in 2004, winning with a “War on Terror” = “War in Iraq” messaging. He managed to keep together a coalition of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, which fell apart by 2006 and evident in his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

The fragmented state of the GOP is an interesting case because the party cannot contain the ideologies of its factions. Strong leadership may remedy this, but perhaps only to a point. What the conservative factions want and popular opinions on issues such as taxes, deficits, regulation, income inequality, minimum wage, abortion/reproductive rights, guns, entitlements, gay marriage, and immigration create too many possible failpoints for Presidential candidates and legislators.

While 2016 presidential election is a far off on the horizon, I’m not the first to point out that the Republican who wins (since 1968, after the South realigned) had his challenger come from the middle:

  • 1968: Nixon, challenged by Nelson Rockefeller
  • 1972: Nixon, challenged by Pete McCloskey
  • 1980: Reagan, challenged by George Bush
  • 1988: George Bush, challenged by Bob Dole
  • 2000: George W. Bush, challenged by John McCain

I’m not sure what a 2016 “most conservative electable candidate” looks like, but looking at a likely rough primary fight and swing state math, they’re not in an enviable position.



I’m back from Haiti.  It was pretty difficult to post from there with no electricity and one laptop for over 12 people.

Before I get into the meat of the service projects, I just want to post my impressions of being back in Port-au-Prince for the first time in nearly three and a half years.

The traffic in Port-au-Prince is just as congested as it was in the last quarter of 2010.  There were signs of sustainability in solar panels on the tops of the street lampposts.

But the most obvious change was the absence of rubble and numerous buildings in full or partial ruins.  Some of my colleagues in Hands of Light in Action who had been in the capital city during my absence noted the change in an October visit.

The other noticeable change was the lack of tent cities teeming with earthquake survivors rendered homeless by the seismic catastrophe.  The one near the airport was gone.  On a trip to Pétion-Ville, I didn’t see any evidence of the camp in the Place St. Pierre across from the St. Pierre Church.  Apparently the settlement had been cleared in 2011, an occasion marked by some as a milestone in earthquake recovery.

An article in the HuffPost posted last April noted that the number of persons in tent camps had declined by 79 percent.  In the months immediately following the quake, the number of people clustering in these deplorable conditions soared to 1.5 million.  While the International Organization of  Migration issued a report that indicated that yearlong rent subsidies had helped some households to move out of the settlements into more secure housing.  The report said that six percent of the departures from the camps were due to evictions.  It didn’t give a reason for the evictions.

In other cases, violence was used to empty out the camps.  I spent my first night in Haiti with a family who resides in Pétion-Ville.  On waking, I ventured outside to see the familiar blue tarps marking flimsy shelters on a steep hillside.  The displaced, like the poor, are with us still.

After three years, I’m about to embark on another trip to Haiti.  This time I’m allied with a California Lutheran University club SEEdS. (Students for Enlightenment and the Education of Sustainability) for Haiti, headed by Ryan Glatt, an Exercise Science Major from Simi Valley.  In all, 12 students from CLU will be heading to Haiti to do permaculture, and construction projects from Dec. 27 to January 17.  Due to family obligations, I’ll only be spending five days with the projects.

The student club will be working with Hands of Light in Action (HOLIA), a charity  that has responded to disasters in Haiti, Washington, Illinois, and Boulder, Colorado.  HOLIA was founded by Nancy Malone, a physical therapist.

More information is available on the trip in a news story on the CLU website at and in a Maria Sanchez podcast consisting of an interview with Ryan Glatt at

I’m excited about the opportunity to accompany CLU students on a service project of their own creation, rather than recruiting them to travel study courses that I have originated, albeit with a service component.

Good news yesterday out of New Mexico where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of full marriage equality (they previously had only civil unions). On MSNBC, one commentator remarked, “We’re now 17 out of 50 on our way nationwide same-sex marriage” — a reference to the fact that New Mexico is the 17th state to have full marriage equality. But “17 out of 50” is misleading because New Mexico has less than 1% of the U.S. population (rather than the 2% suggested by 1 out of 50). Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that gays and lesbians are evenly distributed across the country. I began to wonder, how many people will actually be affected by the decision***?

I threw together this table, showing the state population sizes, the percentages of residents who identify as as gay or lesbian (according to Gallup’s largest state-by-state study to date), and then by multiplying those together, the estimated numbers of gays and lesbians in each state. Green shading means full marriage equality; yellow means domestic partnerships or civil unions.

As you’ll see, though the news from New Mexico is positive, it represents a very small percentage of the U.S. population. There are only 60,000 gays and lesbians in NM, which is about half of one percent of the national LGBTQ population. To have an impact on millions of gays and lesbians, we would need to see changes in populated rust-belt states like OH, PA, and MI.

Unfortunately, the two states without marriage equality with the largest number of gays and lesbians — FL and TX — seem like too steep a hill to climb politically in the near-future. However, the New Mexico case is telling as the change came through judicial decision rather than legislative action. A so-called “activist court” can produce rapid changes in policy in many places.

***Of course, other people, like children and other family members, can also benefit from same-sex marriage. I’m referring to those who might potentially marry.

Andrew’s insightful post about the Martin/Incognito issue has prompted me to think more deeply about my personal relationship with football. About three weeks ago, I decided to “quit football.” This is a particularly challenging time to do this since Florida State University, my alma-mater, is having it’s most successful season in recent memory and quite possible might make it to the national championship game.

I haven’t entirely been able to articulate the reasons for my decision. I thought for a time it was the CTE head-injury issues plaguing the league. And while that is a big reason why I’m turning my back on the sport, it’s not the whole reason. To say I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance would flatter me too much. I’m a self-identified feminist that on a regular basis is compelled listen to Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die album (I’m particularly hooked on “The What” and “Unbelievable” at the moment.

In truth, I’ve been distancing myself from football for a while. And it’s not because of the Martin/Incognito issue. I’ve seen lots of condemnation about a “hyper-macho” culture in the NFL. But let’s be real, it’s not like the NFL suddenly became hyper-masculine. It has always been this way. What makes it the 800-lb gorilla of sports and culture is it’s projection of an almost unreachable masculinity. An ideal form of masculinity that we can view from a distance.

What’s more, we use it as a currency. We use it to brandish a form of masculine “street-cred” that matters a lot in some places. I grew up outside of Miami in what would be called a “lower-middle class” suburb. There was a whole lot of projection of masculinity. one way to “feel masculine” or to “be masculine” was to throw myself headlong into a love of the Miami Dolphins. That’s not the main reason I threw things across the room when Dan Marino threw a pick or Andra Franklin fumbled on the three yard line, but the fact that a love of football made me “one of the guys” didn’t hurt.

My struggle with turning my back on the sport I worshiped as a kid is likely informed by my place in life. As a middle-aged husband and father of a nine year old girl, I don’t need to tap into the idealized version of masculinity that football presents.

But low testosterone notwithstanding, I think that my decline in interest comes more from the selling of the game than the game itself. The selling of the game has increasingly mirrored they bluster and hyper-masculinity of the game itself. This wasn’t always the case. As an example, watch this CBS’ NFL pre-game show The NFL Today from September 1981.

The presentation seems remarkably muted. But this muted presentation made the game itself the spectacle. But today’s coverage of the NFL almost dwarfs the game itself. ESPN has daily, if not hourly, programming that covers Sunday’s games. The game itself seems to exist simply to provide fodder for the chatter about the game during the week. Check out any “take” by ESPN analysts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. These guys might be outliers of feigned passion and intensity, but they are indicative of a media culture that feels it needs to be as newsworthy as the news they cover. In this way, it seems a lot like standard critiques of the news media’s coverage of American politics.

I’ll always love football. What is appealing about football is the necessity to perform demanding intellectual tasks under intense physical and emotional duress. Reading a coverage, knowing when to ‘break a route” or figuring out who to pick up on a blitz are all the equivalent of brain-teasers happening at 100 miles an hour. Although strength and speed are a must, football is a “smart person’s” game.

But the increasing wall-to-wall coverage, the emphasis on the personalities covering the game rather than the game itself and (most importantly) the increasing evidence that playing football for sustained periods of time can lead to irreversible brain injury, has made the sport feel less mythic, less like an idealized notion of masculinity and more a stylized, exploitative version of its former self. It feels more like a simulacra of masculinity rather than an earnest production of it.

For me, there’s a legitimate societal role for the brand of “toughness” the NFL markets. To often it gets dismissed as a retrograde and archaic view of the world. The problem is not the toughness itself, is the cultural primacy of the toughness and its attachment to specific genders and sexes. As Andrew rightly points out, Brandon Marshall is making an important sociological point about how we talk to boys and girls. We should want them to both cry and “shake it off,” not either/or. But for me, any lesson the NFL could teach boys and girls about toughness is getting muddled by a lack of concern for player safety and an off-putting presentation of the product.

Maybe others have picked up on this, but I’m just getting around to hearing, by way of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall* comment on the Richie Incognito bullying scandal. In a press conference, he sounded a bit like a sociologist as he commented on gender socialization:

“Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking.

While his insight is unsurprising to most sociologists, it might be worth using in class alongside, say, Bill Pollack’s The Boy Code. But I think there’s also a point to be made here about how gender inequality affects us all. Marshall — a professional athlete — embodies hegemonical masculinity and is at the tippy-top of a hierarchy that privileges men and masculine behavior. And, yet, his comment reveals the brutality of that system for even the supposed beneficiaries.

*Despite his eloquence on this issue, Marshall is not necessarily an ideal role model of feminist conduct. He has had a number of run-ins with the law for assault and domestic violence. He was subsequently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and seems to be doing quite well with the treatment. As the Hang Up and Listen hosts mention, one can hear a bit of the language of therapy in his statement, something more NFL players (and people in general) could benefit from.

University of Minnesota Sociology Ph.D. student Tim Ortyl died last week of natural causes related to epilepsy. I didn’t know Tim, but, by all accounts, he was a smart, fun, and kind guy and I know his family, friends, and colleagues will mourn his loss for some time to come. While others will commemorate Tim, as a sociologist and an epileptic myself, I would like to use this space to briefly discuss the lived experience of those with epilepsy.

Not all epilepsy is the same. People ranging from Harriet Tubman to Vladmir Lenin to Prince all have had epilepsy and, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, it affects 2.2 million Americans and 65 million people worldwide. However, “epilepsy” is a social construct and a false binary (i.e., one is “epileptic” or not) that refers to a wide spectrum of conditions. People are diagnosed as “epileptic” when they have had “two or more unprovoked seizures,” but the condition can range from those who have 2-3 seizures in their lifetime to those who have a hundred per day. As The Institute of Medicine writes in a report on the prevalence of epilepsy, “the 2.2 million prevalence estimate is most accurately viewed as approximating a midpoint in a wide potential range of 1.3 million to 2.8 million people with epilepsy.” Personally, I have had fewer than ten seizures in my life and it is “controlled” if I make sure to take a prescription, get adequate sleep, and remember to eat. Others have it much worse.

Depending on their severity of their condition, epileptics – like others with medical issues or disabilities – experience a range of challenges that may make life more difficult. These challenges include regular medical appointments, submitting to a range of unpleasant medical tests, and adjusting to new medications. And, of course, that is the condition for those who are privileged enough to have medical coverage. Many Americans and people in the developing world have to cope with epilepsy without the resources of medical care. In addition to the medical side, depending on state laws*, having a seizure can lead to have one’s driver’s license revoked. Outside of major metropolitan areas with extensive public transportation, not having a driver’s license puts you at a major disadvantage in terms of getting to work, picking up groceries, and performing the basic tasks of everyday life. In two different states, I have experienced having my license revoked. Throughout both experiences, I felt great embarrassment for not feeling like full-fledged adult and guilt for having to ask friends for rides all the time. Even though I knew rationally that I shouldn’t feel that way about something that was beyond my control, I did. Because of the practical and social consequences of a loss of license, some epileptics will choose to fight the ban in court, incurring major legal costs.

Finally, beyond the direct medical and legal consequences of being epileptic, there are significant social challenges. As Erving Goffman noted, physical disabilities always bear stigma. To be at risk of seizure means walking around with a sense of vulnerability to a potential failed public performance. In a society where individual control is so prized, to be as profoundly out of control as one is during a seizure carries with it feelings of shame and humiliation. Even well-intentioned people often deliver up negative social sanctions to epileptics. When I was on the job market in graduate school, one faculty member advised me not to mention my epilepsy to anyone (as if I bring it up a lot!), saying, “You don’t want people picturing you flopping around on the floor in the department.” Later, as a faculty member, (after a sleepless night and forgetting to take my medicine and not eating) I had a seizure while advising a student in my office. While I greatly appreciated the kindness shown by my colleagues and the poor student, the sympathy I received for what felt like a public display of mental and bodily weakness was difficult to accept without feeling diminished by pity. Moreover, I think that physical weakness and vulnerability is particularly difficult for men given social expectations of masculine control and physical strength. Stepping out of a basketball game because of an “aura” (the sense of an oncoming seizure) is not just a failed performance; it is a failure to “power through” and properly perform masculinity.

Because of the stigma associated with epilepsy, as Goffman would predict, nearly all of us who are epileptic actively engage in impression management to try to “save face.” To save face, we keep our condition secret if we can, emphasize that it is “controlled,” make self-deprecating seizure jokes, and try to explain how it is beyond our control. Like all emotion work, managing stigma around epilepsy can be exhausting. For people like me who can hide it for years at a time, it is only occasional work. For other epileptics, impression management is full-time work.

To be sure, these circumstances are common among people with many medical conditions. But the complexity of epilepsy and the challenges it poses to people with it are often unseen and may be affecting those close to us.

*In some states, simply having a seizure triggers the loss of a license. In others, it is only having a seizure despite medication. The driving ban can last from 6-12 months.

On Monday night, Jon Stewart said something I’ve heard a lot of lately: “These people are crazy.” The “these people” in question are the Congressional Republicans who have refused to allocate appropriations or enact a continuing resolution for the 2014 fiscal year until Democrats agree to defund Obamacare. As we all know, the disturbing consequence has been the government shutdown due to get worse next week if the current debt ceiling isn’t raised. Of course, Stewart doesn’t mean that they are literally insane. Like most Lefties who use that term, he means that their ideology is radically outside the mainstream and their tactics are unusual and highly risky. But Republicans rarely use “crazy” to describe Democrats, instead using “dangerous,” “radical,” or “socialist.”

Explaining Conservatives

It seems that the world according to Democrats is more comprehensible to Republicans than vice versa (an assertion supported by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s controversial studies of the moral foundations of political views). So, in recent months, Left-leaning publications, commentators, and academics have begun to ask, What has happened to the Republican Party? Paul Krugman makes a moral claim, arguing that “an almost pathological meanspiritedness” has infected “the soul” of the GOP. Others have written about the radicalization and politicization of institutions of conservative intellectualism like the Heritage Foundation, once a legitimate think tank and now the propaganda wing of the GOP. Some commentators like Slate’s Dave Weigel and the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza have argued that the extremism of the Republican Party stems from gerrymandering that produced disproportionately white, conservative, Christian, low population districts all too willing to elect radical anti-government congressmen. This perspective is certainly supported by a fair amount of empirical evidence showing that most of the partisan polarization of recent years is on the Republican side.

Conservative intellectuals (who tend to be more moderate) have also gotten in on the act of explaining the current crisis by pointing out the weakening of party power and the simmering resentment of “forty years of failure” in overturning the “New Deal-Great Society Leviathan.” As The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes in an usually thoughtful op-ed, “So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today…is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat … it’s a revolt against the long term pattern.”

What Can Sociology Tell Us?

This mad scramble to understand what’s going on in the Republican Party is reflective of the fact that we (perhaps especially sociologists) have done too little to theorize and document the dynamics of the American conservative movement. That is one of the central claims of an outstanding 2011 review by Neil Gross, Thomas Medvetz, and Rupert Russell. Here are three key take-aways from the article that can help us understand current developments:

1) Be careful defining “conservative”: Gross et al. reject three common definitions of conservative. The first sees the conservative movement as a “backlash” against progressivism (“attempting to stuff a rapidly changing American society back into the box of a white, theologically conservative small-town vision of the good”). They argue this definition assumes static definitions of progressive and conservative, which don’t match the historical reality. The second flawed definition is that conservatives are “supporters of free market capitalism” who simply exploit race and religion to secure working class support. Gross et al. claim that this definition gives short shrift to the sincerity of social claims of the conservative movement. A final definition holds that conservatives have different assumptions about human nature (it’s unchanging) and the moral order (there’s objective morality) from progressives. This definition assumes homogeneity and intellectual coherence within the movement.

Instead, they offer this definition: “conservatism is not a fixed category of belief or practice but a collective identity that evolves in the course of struggles…over meaning…” But it is an identity that is organized through social structures like social networks and formal organizations like the Republican Party or Tea Party groups. So, in analyzing the current situation, we must keep in mind that while conservatives tend to share an identity, ideology is not and never has been uniform either within the movement at any given moment or over time.

2) Framing Matters: One the main points of the article is that sociologists have not sufficiently recognized the contributions of conservative intellectuals to the movement. One of the main tasks for conservative intellectuals was to “[carve] out a viable identity for the movement” that would bridge the divide between libertarians (limited government in both fiscal and social issues) and traditionalists (social issue conservatives with free market concerns). Conservative intellectuals addressed this problem by reframing the concept of “elites” in a way that would satisfy both groups of conservatives:

“The danger in America lay not in great concentrations of wealth but in the growth of a political and cultural elite…that was more cosmopolitan than patriotic, soft on communism, driven to favor ill-fated social engineering schemes, and supportive of pernicious social trends like secularization.”

The success of this particular framing of “elites” help us understand how House Republicans would see themselves as taking a stand against elite power, while their liberal opponents also see themselves as standing up for the little guy.

3) Institutionalization Matters: As a movement almost entirely encased in the Republican Party, unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street, the American conservative movement has typically adopted electoral solutions. In other words, they’ve tried to back candidates and take control of the institutions of government. At the same time, seeking to counter “the dominance of liberal elites” in academia, the media, and policy institutes, conservative intellectuals encouraged the business community to help fund a “conservative counter-establishment.” This meant think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and media outlets like Fox News. Today, Occupy has left behind some taglines (e.g., “the 99%”), but the radical wing of the conservative movement has a powerful place in Congress. The institutionalization of conservative views in media and think tanks have shaped the prevailing ideas among the conservative movement constituents, but also helped frame debates more widely. In other words, the effort to institutionalize as succeeded.

Taken together, the American conservative movement should be seen as an ever-changing and heterogeneous movement that has adopted effective framing and has been wildly successful in institutionalizing the movement. In other words, the movement has been anything but “crazy.” Holding aside the question of whether the movement’s ideas or tactics are good for society, they have been successful at doing what all movements aim to do: gain power.

Why is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) more widely known as “Obamacare”? After all, we don’t call Medicare “Johnsoncare” or Social Security “Roosecurity.”

President Obama, who is currently on a traveling charm offensive to promote the ACA, offered a hypothesis yesterday: “Once it’s working really well, I guarantee you they will not call it ‘Obamacare.'” If we extrapolate a bit from his remark, the ACA is more widely known as “Obamacare” because his opponents want to associate the law with the President who is widely loathed on the Right and earns mixed reviews from the general public (though polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans find Obama personally likable). Bad President, bad law, so the thinking goes. Or perhaps the term conjures the image of Obama crossing the country with a stethoscope and kicking down doors, forcing blood pressure readings on us. That is to say, “Obamacare” may generate fears of the worst kind of “nanny state.”

Dr. Obama
But here’s an alternative explanation for the persistence of the term. Consider that his own supporters use the term, no doubt creating love for the law on the Left. Unlike Social Security and Medicare (single-payer systems of direct entitlements), the ACA is actually a complex mixture of taxes and subsidies, public-private exchanges, and regulations on the private insurance industry. In other words, it’s no one thing.

As the time goes on, I suspect “Obamacare” will fall by the wayside and “ACA” is a bit too wonky to stick. But what the popular name will ultimately be depends on what the public (or the political claimsmakers who inform them) see as the marquee feature of the legislative package. I would guess the healthcare exchanges will come to be more important than most believe. So, I’ll lay my odds on “Health Exchange” as the thing currently known as “Obamacare.”