You’ve got to check out the Google Ngram Viewer.  It allows you to tabulate, in the form of a graph, the number of times a word or phrase is mentioned in the vast number of titles in Google Books, from 1500-2000.   Those periods of time are statistically evened out, so that the far greater number of titles available in the last few decades does not overwhelm the relatively fewer number of titles in earlier centuries.

This allows users to explore trends in the history of ideas, language, and culture.  For example, go to the linked site and type in “Christ.” (Note the decline.)  “Boredom.”  (Was no one bored until the modern era?)  Do a comparison by typing in two terms:  Try “reason” and “culture.”  (Notice how “culture” hardly existed as a concept until a few decades ago, but now it has passed “reason,” which had its heyday just after the Enlightenment, as we would expect.  This might make us wonder how long “culture” will last.)

At the site read “About Google Books NGram Viewer” to see what all else it will do.  (It can be narrowed down in some very useful ways.)

Play around with it and post your discoveries here.


Social capital

We’re in Oklahoma for the Christmas holidays, traveling around visiting relatives and revisiting the places of our past.  Part of it has me feeling melancholy, as I see beloved locations rich with memory falling into neglect, disrepair, and decay.

My wife, who has been studying the social sciences, introduced me to a term that helps me understand what I am seeing:  Social capital.  This refers to what builds up a sense of community, relationships with neighbors, and social networks.   The small towns whose residents have stopped painting their houses, with rusty junkyards on mainstreet, with empty storefronts with broken windows–these have lost their social capital.  Yes, it’s a problem of economic capital too, the loss of jobs and the deprivations of poverty, but the loss of social capital too inhibits the rebuilding of economic capital.

This happens in big cities too.  I notice a decline of social capital in Tulsa and Norman, with things looking and  feeling run-down.  (I could be wrong, since we weren’t there for long.)  And yet, Oklahoma City seems to be growing in social capital.  The new NBA team, the Thunder, which is having lots of success, has created civic pride.  Then there is Bricktown, a re-development of an old warehouse district that is now an entertainment hot spot, with music clubs, restaurants, night spots, and even a river walk.  But what seemed most telling to me is that the overpasses and sound screens along the highways are being decorated with Native American-style buffalo and shields and abstract designs.

And even some of the small towns, equally poor as the others, are building social capital.  For example, Vinita, where I grew up, has a remarkable number of houses and stores with Christmas decorations.   Even the most humble abodes and neighborhoods are adorned with lights and yard art and nativity scenes.   This is a sign, my wife observed, of social capital.

How else might this concept be applied?  For example, in churches?

HT:  Jackie

Gays in the military, in history

The Senate struck down the  “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing gays to serve openly in the military.  Unlike gay marriage, this is not unprecedented.  In fact, the Greeks sometimes purposefully cultivated homosexual attachments in military units in order to build unit cohesion.   This happened among the Spartans.  The most famous example, though, was the elite fighting force known as the Theban Band, a.k.a., the Sacred Band of Thebes:

Plutarch records that the Sacred Band was made up of male couples, the rationale being that lovers could fight more fiercely and cohesively than strangers with no ardent bonds. According to Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas[2], the inspiration for the Band’s formation came from Plato’s Symposium, wherein the character Phaedrus remarks,

“And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?”

The Sacred Band originally was formed of hand-picked men who were couples, each lover and beloved selected from the ranks of the existing Theban citizen-army. The pairs consisted of the older “heníochoi”, or charioteers, and the younger “parabátai”, or companions, all housed and trained at the city’s expense in order to fight as hoplites.  During their early engagements, they were dispersed by Gorgidas throughout the front ranks of the Theban army in an attempt to bolster morale.

via Sacred Band of Thebes – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

This, of course, is not the kind of unit cohesion our forces try to cultivate today.   The soldiers in these arrangements would live in homosexual relationships during their military commitment, but then afterwards they would usually get married and live normal heterosexual lives.

There is apparently a cultural component, at least in some cases, to homosexual behavior.  I’m not denying that some people seem to have some sort of innate same-sex attraction.  Still, it might help to study homosexuality in the ancient world, which was rampant–contrary to those who think the Biblical authors did not know anything about the subject–and yet it was also fluid–contrary to those who insist that homosexuality is always a fixed condition–with people going back and forth from homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Americans have gotten pessimistic

Engrained in the American character, it seemed, was optimism.  Liberals believe in progress and Conservatives believe in Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.”  Now, though, we are seeing something very different:

Americans are deeply pessimistic about the state of the country and its future, according to a series of new national polls, a negativity that puts politicians in a difficult place as they try to woo voters and keep hold on office.

In the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 63 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction, the highest number in President Obama’s term to date. A similar 67 percent said the country was headed off on the wrong track in a Washington Post/ABC News survey released earlier this week.

New Pew data paints an even darker picture of Americans’ views about our current standing — particularly in regards the economy. Nearly nine in ten Americans say the current economic conditions are either “fair” or “poor” and there is an overwhelming sense that we as a country are losing ground.

Fully 67 percent of the sample said the country was “losing ground” on the budget deficit — today’s expected House vote on the tax cut compromise won’t help there — while 64 percent say ground is being lost on “cost of living”. Two thirds (63 percent) said the country is losing ground on the “availability of good-paying jobs” and 58 percent said the same about the “rich-poor gap”.

The numbers are startling and make clear the challenge before President Obama — or any politician — hoping to convince people that better days are indeed ahead.

via The Fix – America the pessimistic.

So, are you pessimistic, or have you found some grounds for optimism?  Might this new pessimistic phase be healthy for Americans?  Or the contrary?  And what does Christianity have to say about this?

Saying grace

The Religious News Service reports on a study about how many Americans have a prayer of thanksgiving before meals:

These days, 44 percent of Americans report saying grace or a similar blessing almost every day before eating; 46 percent almost never say it, leaving just a statistical sliver in between, Putnam and Campbell report in their recently published book, “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us.”

“We are hard-pressed to think of many other behaviors that are so common among one half the population and rare among the other half—maybe carrying a purse,” Putnam and Campbell write.

Yet unlike wearing a purse, grace is often a private act: a quiet prayer around a kitchen table, a quick thanks in a crowded restaurant, or a bowed head before a bowl of soup.

“Saying grace is a very personalized form of religious expression,” Campbell said in an interview. “It’s something you do in your home, with your family.”

The privacy of saying grace—it’s not often shouted from rooftops—makes it a better measure of religious commitment than asking people if they go to church, Campbell said. Giving thanks for food isn’t generally said or done to impress the neighbors.

But the private prayer has strong connections to public positions, especially political ones, according to Putnam and Campbell. “Indeed, few things about a person correspond as tightly to partisanship as grace saying,” the scholars write in “American Grace.”

The more often you say grace, the more likely you are to identify with the Republican Party, Putnam and Campbell report. By turns, of course, the less you say grace, the more likely you are to identify with Democrats, the scholars said.

But there is one big exception to the prayer-politics connection. Eighty-five percent of African Americans report saying grace daily, a far higher rate than even Mormons, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, the runners-up in grace-saying. The rate for evangelicals, for instance, is 58 percent. Yet, blacks remain stalwarts in the Democratic Party.

via Comment on “How, or if, you give thanks speaks volumes”.

Only 58% of evangelicals pray before they eat?  So 42% do not?  That sounds odd.  I wonder in what sense the non-prayers are evangelical.  I also don’t understand the correlation between Republicanism and saying grace.  Aren’t Republicans supposed to be the big money materialists?  Have Democrats really become that secularist?  It doesn’t surprise me that African Americans pray so much. But why do you think all of this is?

By the way, some time ago I sort of complained about the ubiquitous Lutheran table prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. . . .”  I’m over that.  Now I think it’s a good prayer, and we’ve started to use it.  It’s especially fitting for Advent!

Saying thanks before meals is a good way to cultivate the consciousness of vocation.  In thanking God, as the source of our daily bread, we recognize that He works through the farmers, the bakers, the hands that prepared the meal, and everyone else involved in the vast network of mutual interdependence that is vocation.

The proletariat votes Republican

Statistical slicing and dicing of the election results shows what I had been saying:  Blue-collar workers, who used to be Democrat’s base, are now overwhelmingly voting Republican.  Higher income folks are voting for the Democrats.  These class dynamics, of course, fly in the face of leftist political theory.

Democrats remained strong in areas with the party’s core of minorities and higher-educated whites. But movement of white working-class voters away from the party is a concern for Democrats, especially because of President Obama’s traditional weakness with those voters.

Republicans’ success with the blue-collar vote and the high enthusiasm of the tea party gives it a fired-up base headed into 2012. But in a presidential election with higher turnout, the party might have trouble winning a majority with those voters alone. It certainly can’t rely on that bloc to carry the party into the future.

Democrats largely held on to their high share of the vote in the country’s densest places. The party captured 54 percent in counties with populations of more than 500,000 people, compared with only 49 percent in 1994. In smaller counties, Democrats’ share of the vote slid to 39 percent this year from 43 percent in 1994.

Much of the reason for the Democrats’ decline in less-dense areas can be attributed to the party’s trouble attracting white, working-class voters. Exit polls showed that Democrats lost white voters without a college degree – one way to measure blue-collar voters – by almost 30 percentage points in House races.

via Political divide between coasts and Midwest deepening, midterm election analysis shows.

The article, which is putting the best construction on everything for the Democrats, says that the Republican dominance among low income white people will not last long, since that demographic is shrinking.  I don’t know.  With the current economy, that number may just skyrocket.

And it doesn’t look like the Democrats will try to win back their base as long as they give off the classist vibe, the sense that all of those uneducated voters, those ignorant white trash rednecks, just don’t belong among their betters.