Why Do Good People Resent Science? (What's Wonder, Not Politics, Got To Do With It?)

Most Americans really appreciate science, yet many also have reservations about it, complex feelings that go well beyond the well-known protests on the left and right against evolution, vaccines, GMOs, and so on.  We'll never understand these complicated, ambivalent attitudes toward science if we just settle for the usual wagging of fingers, either/or formulations, and ritualistic laments about the ignorance of the other side. Instead, I want to look at a less discussed feature, the state of wonder in America, and see what it has to do with some of these reservations about science.

To start, here are some survey figures that put the issue in perspective. According to one of the best public-opinion surveys, about 90% of Americans say that science “is essential for improving the quality of human lives," yet in that same survey fully 50% of respondents say that science has “created as many problems for society as it has solutions” (VCU Survey). That's astounding: half the country thinks that science is creating problems. You can't just dismiss half the population as a fringe group of hard-core Creationists or New Agers who reject science out of hand. In fact, many of these same people also feel that science is improving the quality of life, so clearly there’s a complex ambivalence here, one that transcends religion, politics, class, and education. It also transcends the current moment, which is why virtually the same survey results have been obtained for years.

To understand current attitudes toward science that can only be flagged by quantitative surveys, we have to look below the surface and go back in time. In particular, I suggest looking at images of science in enduringly popular blockbuster movies, since the ones that stand the test of time usually play upon some sort of hidden, major cultural tension or ambivalence. With that in mind, I want to say a few things about Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the marine biologist in Jaws.

The Jaws movie is a good test case because it has been extremely popular ever since it came out in 1975, and Hooper is an interesting, complex character. Rather than a twisted scientist in the mold of Dr. Strangelove, Hooper is portrayed as an ethical and likable person, using his knowledge to save the island of Amity. Best of all for our purposes, Hooper is a scientist filled with a sense of wonder, as you can tell from the way he's astounded by "Jaws" and admiringly refers to sharks as “a miracle of evolution.” So how could anyone resent a scientist like Hooper?

The first clue is Hooper’s obsession with measurement. He’s constantly trying to measure the exact physical dimensions of the sharks in the film, talking about bite radiuses, proportions, and scale. These remarks might seem trivial until you remember that Hooper doesn’t just study sharks, he also kills them. He fully embraces the mission to destroy “Jaws," and, in the end, it’s his air tank that gets the job done. What does that death symbolize, more broadly?

I argue that Hooper embodies a popular view of scientists as killers of mystery. In this view, scientists kill off our sense of wonder and awe at the unexplained. Nothing gets spared from science's relentless measurements and thorough investigations and explanations. The more science has progressed, the more people have longed for mysteries and enigmas, a few last holdouts from science's crushing dominance, like miracle cures, "lost tribes," and, yes, sharks in the deep sea, one of the enduring mysteries of the world. The scientists aren't bad people, they're just too good at what they do. Most people appreciate their discoveries and technologies, but wish they would leave more to the imagination. It's like the paparazzi: we want them to uncover celebrity secrets, but then resent them when they get too good at it. Our imagination longs for sharks, celebrities, and other mysteries that haven't been measured to death.

If you’re like most people who identify with the scientists, you will probably object that science actually increases wonder by opening up new questions for investigation. Personally, I agree, and, since you have sought out and read this analysis, I’m guessing you do, too. That’s fine, we’re people too, but as hard as it is, we need to recognize that millions of people don’t view science the same way. In fact, in certain unguarded moments, like while walking in the woods or listening to a Bach concerto or throwing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, you, too, might be holding onto some cherished mystery, a last refuge from science. You might even indulge the feeling that those mysteries touch the deepest parts of your soul.

Whatever it takes, I just hope more people will recognize that a longing for wonder factors into reservations about science. Maybe doing so will create more understanding of others and ourselves.

That’s probably the biggest difference between today and 1975. Back in the 70s, when Jaws first came out, it was still possible to imagine a fisherman, scientist, and police chief riding in the same boat, in pursuit of the same goal, despite their differences. These days, they’d probably get separate boats and cut each other off before they even got out of the harbor.

We're really in trouble when we can no longer recognize each other’s humanity and mutual interest in both science and mystery.  

More Reading:
If you want a free, online copy of the book chapter (with bibliographic references) that this post distills, go to Academia.edu

For a shorter, complementary interpretation of the final shark explosion in Jaws as symbolic of the  Hiroshima bomb, see my post on WWII. Joining these two posts, I would say Hooper is like Oppenheimer and the other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, fascinated with the scientific challenge of creating the atomic bomb, but not fully grasping the grisly deaths it would unleash. 

In terms of awe and magic, you might also like my essay on throwing coins in fountains.

What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?

This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and culture.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.

Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

For anyone who knows WWII history, it's obvious that Quint is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. It's less obvious that Quint is creating an unconscious equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says about sharks"he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ‘ya, doesn't seem to be livin'"could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine, 1941. Flickr, Marion Doss.

Shark fin. Flickr, Anita363.

Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows viewersthe ones who unconsciously get such war symbolismto reflect on some of the most vexing, confusing aspects of "the Good War."

In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was fully justified, whereas in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. In a related generational shift, people today are apparently less likely to be disturbed by a doll's eyes or uncannily-realistic robot face than earlier generations were. Even those older Americans who felt that dropping the bomb was necessary may have later come to believe that Americans lost the moral high ground when we killed thousands of women and children, violating a basic moral ideal that had been in place throughout our entire history as a nation. Many Americans don't like to talk about these ethical problemsbut most do like watching this movie and rooting for the destruction of a shark that was hellbent on killing us, including our children.
Hiroshima bomb cloud, U.S. government photo.

Jaws ending.

Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create confusing, disturbing oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, abstract concepts and real beings, death and life. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you; WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.

Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier Rasmus say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
Unfortunately, such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases and the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, but I would hope that such prejudices are being left behind by now.

Jaws, on the other hand, isn't going away as long as viewers continue to be stirred up by the blurry lines between life and death.

Further Reading:
For a different angle on shark symbolism, see my post asking, Why do good people resent Hooper and scientists like him?

Here's my co-authored full book  chapter on "Jaws," with more about stereotypes, life/death symbolism, and anthropologists as killers.

For more on Quint and many others' feelings of revulsion and confusion at dolls' eyes and similarly uncanny, hybrid phenomena, see research on the "uncanny valley in reactions to humanoid robots and "creepy dolls." And for the research cited above on contemporary reactions to uncannily human robot faces, see this short article.

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.

3 Ways “Big Short” Movie Downplays Banker Fraud

"The Big Short" might seem like a thorough critique of Wall Street, but compared with what investment bankers actually did in the build-up to the Financial Crisis, it feels more like a public relations coup for Wall Street, a gift with a bow on it. I don’t like saying this because the movie does many things beautifully—it’s so well acted and written that it’s now the most influential movie we’ve ever had on the Financial Crisis—and I’m a huge fan of Michael Lewis, who wrote the book that the movie is based on, as well as other masterpieces like Liar's Poker and Moneyball. But this movie perpetuates such disturbing misunderstandings of Wall Street fraud that I feel compelled to point out three major problems.

1) The Movie Depicts Bankers As Merely Clueless, Not Frauds.

For roughly the first half of the movie, we are led to believe the bankers only made one rather innocent mistake: they naively believed the mortgage industry would keep going strong, as it had for decades. Bankers at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere laugh at oddball traders like Dr. Burry (Christian Bale) who want to bet against their mortgage securities. In this telling, the bankers just couldn’t see what was coming. They were out of touch, but not crooks. We only get to know one banker who could see the crash coming, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), but he was an exception that proved the movie's rule of banker naivety. He tells the crew for Mark Baum (Steve Carell) that nobody at the banks is paying attention to the worsening mortgages, that they're all asleep at the wheel. When he tries to sound the alarm at his own bank, they dismiss him with insults like“Chicken Little” and “Bubble Boy.”

This depiction of clueless bankers is an outrageous lie of omission, a failure to recognize the proven, legal fact that investment bankers committed systematic acts of fraud that led to the meltdown in 2008. The movie doesn't show that bankers knowingly lied to investors about the rising default rates and debased loan standards on the mortgages inside the bundles they were selling. And these lies weren't a matter of banker naivety, they were illegal acts of financial fraud, like a company advertising that their juice boxes contain 20% "real juice" when they actually contain no juice at all, just water and carcinogens.

The massive, systematic fraud committed by Wall Street banks has been proven over and over again by historic Justice Department settlements for billions of dollars. Just search terms like “bank settlement financial crisis,” and you’ll find loads of articles, such as this one in the Wall Street Journal about the 2014 settlement with Bank of America. The title of the press release for that settlement sums it up: "Bank of America to Pay $16.65 Billion in Historic Justice Department Settlement for Financial Fraud Leading up to and During the Financial Crisis." The settlement showed that Bank of America lied to investors about the quality of the mortgages they were buying, the same fraud shown in the "$13 Billion Global Settlement with JP Morgan for Misleading Investors About Securities Containing Toxic Mortgages," and the one in which "Citigroup acknowledged it was aware that 'significant percentages' of sample loans did not comply with underwriting guidelines but the bank pooled them into securities anyway."

Unfortunately, though, "The Big Short" only shows oblivious, pleasant bankers at the point of sale who think Burry is crazy, which is like showing friendly car salespeople who haven't talked to the automaker's engineers or middle managers, so they don't realize what defects are inside the cars they're selling and how likely they are to blow up on impact. What a gift to Wall Street.

Moreover, the movie doesn't show how the banks’ fraud played a crucial role in the Crisis. If the banks had not continued to lie to investors about the debased lending standards used on these bundles of mortgages, the investors could have prevented the Crisis by slowing down on their purchases of mortgage securities in 2005-2007, before everything spun out of control in 2008. That’s what they call market discipline, and it was the best chance to prevent the crashnot a guarantee, but a chance. As the film rightly stresses, the government regulators, ratings agencies, and press were ignorant or co-opted, so they were not going to be any help. Yet investors, the last hope, didn't put on the brakes partly because they were given a fake picture of what they were buying—and lucky for Wall Street, the film doesn’t delve into this cause of the Crisis, not even in a cut-away scene with a celebrity.

Obviously the second half of the movie is somewhat different. Main characters throw out many angry accusations about the market prices for bonds being rigged, and together with the long scenes in Vegas, there's an overall feeling that the banks are up to no good. However, even here, the movie is garbled. Our wise guide and host throughout the story, Gosling, repeats what he said in the first half of the film, that the bankers’ problem is stupidity, not fraud. “Yes, some shady shit is going down,” he tells Carell’s angry group,” but trust me, it’s fueled by stupidity.” In a memorable line, Gosling flat out rejects the possibility of identifying fraud when he scoffs, “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife's brother arrested.”The movie doesn't go on to refute this self-serving, defeatist view; it doesn't show that, no, actually, you can tell when these banks committed fraud, and here's how they did it.

A "Vox" reviewer was therefore right to conclude that the movie's "ultimate villain isn't 'the government' or 'the evil bankers.' No, its ultimate villain is the combination of incompetence and stupidity..." As Ben Hallman of the "Huffington Post" noted, “the loaded word 'fraud’ is tossed out without adequately explaining what…was actually criminal. …[T]he movie does not stretch to show how bankers were purposely misleading clients.” These and other commentators have understood exactly what the screenwriters intended. Co-screenwriter Charles Randolph stated that after doing some reading and talking with a few friends in finance, he concluded that the bankers were clueless, that "no one had any understanding of the real underlying product." The screenwriters did some great work, but it's a shame they got suckered in by this notion of clueless bankers.

2) Bank Fraud Never Gets Embodied in a Central Character

This movie has many compelling characters played by fantastic actors—yet we never get one central character who puts a face on banker fraud. We get a few suggestive, fleeting characters, such as the smug guy that Steve Carell talks to in the restaurant at the Vegas convention, but there is no ongoing, central character shown knowingly lying to an actual investor, or even just someone high up in a bank taking in huge bonuses and fees from clear investor fraud. Director and Co-Screenplay Writer Adam McKay agrees that he never put a human face on banker fraud, but he sees that as a virtuous move, whereas I see it as an egregious omission and missed opportunity to get audiences to understand what went wrong. At least we agree on one thing: this lack of a human face for banker fraud helps explain why McKay's friends in finance loved this movie. As McKay told Terry Gross in a radio interview, “My financial advisor loved the movie. He really loved the movie. I have a cousin who’s in private equities, too, and he’s in private equities, and I had a little conversation with him before I saw it. I go…you know, this movie is not actually targeting bankers. …So we really went out of our way with the movie never to point the finger at any one individual; we really believe it’s a systemic issue. So, so far all the banking and finance people in my life have really enjoyed the movie.”*

Sure, why wouldn’t finance people love this movie? They can safely assume that it will be hard for most of the public to comprehend or focus their anger on an abstract “systemic issue” with no compelling characterization on screen. On top of that, the bankers get to imagine they're Ryan Gosling…

3) Bankers in This Film Are Handsome, Appealing, and Powerful.

Ryan Gosling’s character, the only banker who gets developed into a full character, is not just handsome and smart, he's powerful, decisive, and omniscient. In a major deviation from the book, Gosling’s character becomes our all-knowing narrator and guide through this other world. He can see into the past and the future, with voice-overs and direct addresses to the camera telling us the meaning of what just happened on screen or is about to happen. Sure, he's smug and profit-oriented, but, at a gut level, most viewers won't feel that Gosling's charactera handsome, all-knowing guy who wants to take us under his wingis the villain.

Of course, ultimately viewer reactions will vary, and unconscious feelings about a character are the hardest to identify. But my sense, based on what viewers are saying online, is that rather than seeing Gosling as the villain, the majority come away with continued confusion about what exactly the bankers did wrong, or a vague sense that they’re just too powerful and aggressive and something doesn’t seem right. This bothers me because this movie is one of the only chances we have at getting a wide public to truly understand what Wall Street did wrong.

I'm not asking for a fundamentally different film. Exposing banker fraud would have easily and squarely fit within this film's chosen narrative structure: namely, a story about outsider investors fighting against Wall Street bankers. For example, the film could have dramatized the sections in Michael Lewis's book on Wall Street's role in housing scams going back to the 1990s, as well as the evidence of fraud in the Financial Crisis that Lewis didn't have access to when he published his book in 2010. In fact, adding one nasty, compelling banker who knowingly engaged in investor fraud (instead of or alongside Gosling's character) would have enhanced the story by providing a concrete force for these underdogs to rail against. It would have allowed audiences to root for a classic bad-vs.-good guy story, and to know what exactly made the bad guys bad. At the very least, adding just one more cut-away scene or written epilogue would have gone a long way toward clearing up the movie's obfuscation about banker fraud.


Fun Reading: More Sources Proving Banker Fraud on Mortgage Securities
If you've only got time to read one journalist report about just how much the banks knew they were committing fraud, check out this magazine article about a whistle blower at JP Morgan Chase who witnessed repeated dishonesty and debasing of quality control in the mortgage securities being bundled and sold to investors.

But if you've got more time, check out this comprehensive book on the Crisis by financial reporters Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, who write: “After the crisis of 2008, a common refrain arose that no one saw it coming. But that was never true. State attorneys general had filed lawsuits [against subprime lenders]. Housing advocates had continually beat the tom-toms.” An executive at one bank, Lehman Brothers, wrote a memo in 1995 describing mortgage company Famco as a “sweat shop” specializing in “high-pressure sales for people who are in a weak state.” Yet just three years later Lehman Brothers sold millions of mortgage-backed-securities for Famco. McLean and Nocera sum up as follows: Did Wall Street know what was going on? You bet it did.”.


*In a separate interview for Variety, McKay clearly states that he believes there was corruption at all levels, but he doesn't include lying to investors in his three different examples of fraud, or comment on how he tried to convey all this in the movie.

What's the Cultural Meaning of the Slide in Baseball? (Peter Wogan)

Sports are like religious rituals: they reflect and instill cultural beliefs and practices. For example, the 24-second shot clock in basketball clearly reflects the fast pace of our era. So what about the slide in baseball? How does it resonate with contemporary American culture?

I think sliding reflects American ambivalence about social authority. Baseball players dress up in formal clothes, as if they're going to church or courtand then they throw themselves in the dirt.

That's the tension at the heart of both baseball and American society: respect vs. disdain for authority. Respect the rules, but kill the ump. Get dressed up, but throw yourself in the mud. Sliding is controlled social rebellion.

This social symbolism becomes more obvious when you think about the formality of the baseball uniform: white pants, a belt, a shirt with buttons all the way up the front. The impracticality of this uniform, and its extreme formality by comparison with most other sports uniforms, throws into relief baseball's social meaning.  
Flickr, Ewen and Donabel.

Most other sports won't even permit you to wear a belt (draw strings hold up pants just fine, actually better than most belts), yet baseball requires a belt. And as Paul Lukas noted on ESPN, "Once you stop and think about it...a button-front format doesn't make much sense for a sports uniform. For starters, a button-up shirt is more awkward to move around in, plus it's more formal, less sporty. That's why you wear a button-front shirt to work and some sort of pullover (T-shirt, sweatshirt, tank top, whatever) at home and on the weekend." Lukas also notes that button-up designs lead to weird problems like billowing and unaligned lettering on the front of jerseys, yet despite these problems and the viability of good alternatives, such as pull-overs, zippers, or laces, the major leagues have almost always used buttoned jerseys since the 19th century.

I would add that the persistence of formal uniforms and sliding in baseball can't be due to mere tradition. Over the years, baseball has made plenty of innovations, from the advent of batting helmets and night games to adjusting the pitcher's mound height and so on; yet the baseball uniform never lost its basic formality, and players never stopped sliding. If getting dirty in nice clothes hadn't felt rightif it hadn't continued to resonate with American ambivalence about authoritysliding probably would have been phased out a long time ago. 

Instead, sliding in a uniform still feels so right that it's hard to imagine baseball without it. As Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics once said, "If my uniform doesn't get dirty, I haven't done anything in the baseball game" (quoted in Diamonds Forever, W.P. Kinsella editor, p. 121).
In fact, the slide was a novelty when first introduced in the mid-1800s and many people opposed it, arguing that players should be allowed to overrun every base rather than sliding. This is how the crowd reacted to one of the first recorded slides, during an 1859 game in Portland, Maine: "the feat fairly astonished the natives, who at first roared with laughter, but Chandler scored the run, and they then woke up to the fact that a large, new and valuable 'wrinkle' had been handed out to them" (quoted in Peter Morris's excellent book, A Game of Inches: The Stories That Shaped Baseball, p. 265).

This early phase in baseball history reminds us that there are alternative ways to reach the bases without sliding, just as basketball could be played without a shot clock. Not every sports rule or practice has social significance, but it seems fair to say sliding does.

Related Posts about Baseball:
All posts about baseball, including posts on the foul ballthe catch and sharingfeeling good in crowds, and basketball vs. baseball.

All posts about Field of Dreams (and baseball), including posts on ALS, moonlight, and Jackie Robinson.

10-Second Video of a Little League Player Stealing 2nd Base While the Pitcher's Not Looking:

Comparing Basketball, Baseball, and the Civil War: George Carlin Revisited

Updating his famous riff on "Baseball and Football," here's what I imagine comedian George Carlin might have said about the differences between...

                                BASEBALL vs. BASKETBALL

The baseball uniform looks like a formal outfit, something you wear to church. 
The basketball uniform looks like a bathing suit, something you wear to the pool.

Baseball looks like a battlefield, with a few soldiers trying to pass through enemy territory. 
Basketball looks like a dance floor, with couples trying to decide who they should dance with next.

Baseball is played outdoors, on green grass.
Basketball is played indoors, on a beige hardwood floor.

In short, baseball comes out of 19th-century pastoral America. Basketball comes out of 20th-century office culture: fast-paced, lots of teamwork and immediate, visible rewards, all played out under florescent lights and clean indoor spaces. Baseball is slow and formal. Basketball is fast and informal. And both are great.


Not as Funny, but Baseball Is Connected to War:
George Carlin played up baseball's contrast with football for comic effect, but I think he knew that baseball actually had a violent side as well. He probably would have agreed with the former MLB Commissioner who said baseball consists of a man standing on a hill throwing a rock at a man below him holding a club (Giamatti, A Great and Glorious Game, p. 58).

In other words, baseball is as much rooted in war as footballit's just a different kind of war. Baseball's underlying combat structure is not World War II's "long bombs" and "aerial assaults," which Carlin rightly correlates with football, nor is it club warfare, which Commissioner Giamatti compares with baseball. Instead, baseball resembles and re-enacts the basic combat structure of the  American Civil War: standing out in the open while the enemy fires on you and you try to return fire and get closer to them.

Baseball's roots in the Civil War are not a coincidence or mere historical curiosity. It was during this traumatic war and its aftermath that baseball became America's "national game," as soldiers from far-flung states with idle time in camp spread enthusiasm for the game and standardized its rules of play. (See, for example, the sections on the spread of Civil War battlefield signals to baseball's sign system in The Hidden Language of Baseball, p. 24-34, and George Kirsch's entire book about the interweaving of baseball, the Civil War, and patriotism, Baseball in Blue and Gray.)
Painting by Otto Boetticher, "Union Prisoners [playing baseball] at Salisbury, N.C."

Moreover, I would argue that the specific combat style of the Civil Warline infantryprovided a subtle model for baseball, giving it special meaning at that time. The central challenge for a soldier in the Civil War was to have the courage to stand on the field while someone shot at him from close range, and that's the same challenge faced today by a batter who has to stand in place while a pitcher throws a hard, fast projectile at him or her.

Civil War Reenactment

And baseball still revolves around the primary emotion stirred up by the Civil War: longing for home. The single most popular song for soldiers on both sides was "Home, Sweet Home," and soldiers constantly talked in their letters about wanting to go home (Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History). Yet most were afraid to return home and lose their honor. Standing at the plate, a batter today embodies the central dilemma of the Civil War: the attempt to "balance the competing demands of a love of home and a desire for honor" (Matt, p. 77).

Even after the war, the feelings of homesickness turned into nostalgia, a longing for a home that could never be fully recovered. During the late 1800s, this sense of nostalgia rose as American society got roiled by urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and other social changes. Not coincidentally, baseball, a game that is all about trying to go home, continued to rise in popularity during this same period.

So when you play, watch, and enjoy baseball today, you're essentially re-enacting the Civil War and turning it into ritual, play, and art. Of course, very few people today are literally thinking of the Civil War when they watch or play baseball. Times change, and symbols get redeployed. Yet baseball still has the essential structure of the Civil Warline warfare and homesicknessat its core.

Even if you don't know anything about baseball's historical origins, you still understand the courage and honor it takes to stand up to a fastball thrown inches away from your body. And you know what it's like to want to get off the battlefield and go home. As George Carlin said, "I just want to go home! I hope I'll be safe at home!"

Related posts:

5 Reasons Why "Twilight" is So Popular

Reasons for the Popularity of the Twilight Saga that You Might Not Have Heard Before:

1) Ambivalence about Red Meat
In recent years there’s been growing discomfort in the Western world about eating red meat, particularly among young girls who object to the blood and killing...yet the overwhelming majority still eat red meat. The image of the Cullens, “vegetarian vampires” who struggle with their urges to drink human blood, plays upon these ambivalent feelings about meat (not to mention sexuality).

2) Bring Back the Wolf
Let’s not forget Jacob…and environmentalism. As anthropologist Lee Drummond notes, Americans’ relationships with animals has become polarized, caught between extremes of household pets and distant predators like the wolf, mostly known through mass media and environmental campaigns. Twilight’s cute werewolf, Jacob, directly addresses this schism.

(Wikipedia, "Gray Wolf")

3) And the Blood
Twilight confronts another paradox: blood is pervasive, from wars to menstruation, yet it’s usually carefully hidden from view in contemporary American society. As Drummond argues, blood in Twilight thereby addresses fundamental issues about male and female, life and death, gender and sexuality.

4) Multi-ethnic Unions
It’s not a coincidence that both Edward and Bella are exceedingly pale (i.e., "white"), while Jacob, the other side of the love triangle, has a darker complexion and is Native American. As anthropologist John McCreery notes, the film is dealing with the appeal, realities, and complexities of multi-ethnic unions in contemporary society.

5) All the Usual Reasons Vampires are Cool
Vampires have what many humans want: power, beauty, wealth, mystery, sex appeal, immortality, boundary-crossing abilities, etc. Twilight partakes of a long line of vampire stories, as well as previous fashions like “heroin chic,” as John McCreery notes.

Usual caveats: These 5 explanations don’t apply to everyone, nor cover all the many possible reasons for Twilight’s appeal. They're just something to think about.

Join the Discussion:
These ideas, among many others, have emerged from an exploratory, sky’s-the-limit discussion about Twilight that has been going on since March, 2014 at the Open Anthropology Cooperative, led by Lee Drummond as a driving force. Lee and the others welcome new voices, so please consider joining. You can read specific posts at the links below and sign up to join the discussion here.

I also recommend Lee Drummond’s book American Dreamtime, where he provides superb anthropological analyses of movies like E.T., Star Wars, and Jaws (full text on Center for Peripheral Studies website).

Credits, Links, and Elaborations:

 1) Declining Red-Meat Consumption
For example, one study showed a 39% decline in American consumption of red meat from 2009-2012; another study showed that young females in Australia and the U.K. are 3 times as likely as males to be vegetarian; and one of the main reasons young females gave for being vegetarian is that they don’t like ingesting blood (posted by me on Open Anthropology Cooperative, “From the Center for Peripheral Studies, After Lance....” direct link on p. 69).

2) Wolves
Lee Drummond wrote:
In a world where our experience with farm animals has dwindled to next to nothing, we readily consume hours of documentaries and talking-head accounts about the lives of physically distant animals such as major predators.  The wolf in particular is without doubt the most stigmatized of animals – bestial man-eater, ally of demons, stalker of Little Red Riding Hood.  And yet, Bella’s only other significant alliance in Forks is with Jacob, wolf-boy, werewolf.  Could it be that the rehabilitation of the wolf – a major hot button issue today – is accomplished in Twilight through a love affair? (OAC, p. 66).

3) Blood
Lee Drummond wrote:
Our lives are awash with blood, blood from animal slaughter, from our endless wars, from street crime and other gun violence, from menstruation, childbirth, and abortion.  Yet it is all ever so carefully hidden.  Bella personifies that need to hide blood from view; she is terrified of it, faints at the sight of it.  And yet she wants, with every fiber of her being, to become one whose entire existence is predicated on human blood.  In aspiring to become a vampire, she bridges two disparate and seemingly irreconcilable identities of life-giver and life-taker…. (OAC, p. 70).

4) Multi-ethnic Unions
John McCreery wrote:
As Danah Boyd points out in It's Complicated, racial and ethnic divisions in behaviour may still be prevalent; but in any major metropolitan area, which is where the majority of Americans now live, multiethnic or multiracial couples are becoming commonplace (OAC, p. 78).

5) Other Reasons
These are touched on at various points in the OAC Forum, and developed at greater length in various websites and the vast scholarly literature on vampires.