Monday, March 23, 2009

Culture of poverty

“If you think you’re at a disadvantage (however justified or unjustified that belief may be), you internalize your status, such that your low expectations become as durable an obstacle as the discrimination you might be facing. This is why people (of any race and social class) turn down assistance: The simple belief that help is futile can be a powerful deterrent to social change.

“What [sociologist William Julius] Wilson argues may sound obvious and even a bit like Psychology 101, but there is a deeper motivation to his writing. Wilson appreciates [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan for shedding light on ghetto poverty. But by focusing on the capacity of the poor to act rationally and thoughtfully, Wilson wants us to get off the victimhood bandwagon that followed Moynihan. In his view, neither defending the victim nor blaming the victim is very helpful in moving us forward.

“Moynihan was also not altogether hopeful that black family patterns - which he traced to a legacy of slavery - might change, although, to be fair, his report was not intended as a primer on poverty-alleviation strategy. Wilson’s history is more recent, and his optimism is apparent: Three generations of black ghetto dwellers have been relying on welfare and sporadic work and doing so in isolation from the mainstream. It is folly to believe that some distinctive behavior, values or outlooks have not arisen as a consequence. Whereas Moynihan seemed at pains to point out ‘pathology’ in the black community, in Wilson’s work, the recognition functions almost like confession: Let us face the truth, so that we may finally bring forth change.”

- Sudhir Venkatesh, writing on “How To Understand the Culture of Poverty,” on March 16 at Slate

For the ladies

“It’s official: The best chick flicks are for dudes. And ‘I Love You, Man’ has perfected the art. Like its main character, Peter (the deliriously lovable Paul Rudd), it’s a guy’s movie that shows a surprising understanding of women. It certainly respects them more than the likes of ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ and ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic.’ While girly movies paint women as desperate creatures with a universally pathological shoe obsession, ‘Man’ loves its ladies.

“Sure, they’re caricatured a bit for comedic effect - and certainly the central bromance is more finely rendered than the women surrounding it. But at least the script finds fresh angles on female characters: That hilarious speakerphone conversation that sends up women’s intimate knowledge of their friends’ sex lives … shows genuine insight into what ‘Sex and the City‘ has done for girls’ night exchanges, for better or worse.”

- Jennifer Armstrong, writing on “Snap Judgment” on March 21 at Entertainment Weekly

National songs

“Opera, because it is sung, is tied together with nationalism in ways that are almost impossible to disentangle. Czechs take all sorts of pride in ‘The Bartered Bride’ just as Danes do in ‘Maskerade.’ The mere fact that [conductor Valery] Gergiev has sought to perform so many of the operas of Prokoviev and Shostakovich is surely due to the words as well as the music. It does not follow that Gergiev’s position on the Russian war with Georgia was the right one. But it does follow that there is nothing sinister about loving one’s country when one wants to bring its greatest cultural achievements to the attention of the world.

“There are times when a musician will engage himself with a reprehensible regime as Richard Strauss did when in 1933 he accepted the position of president of the State Music Bureau under the Nazis. (He resigned in 1935.) Yet if I opted never to listen to Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs,’ I would only be punishing myself. And nothing done by Gergiev has come even close to that. He may be overextended and not everything he does is a success, but this is a man who deserves praise for his accomplishments, not insinuations that hold so little water.”

- Alan Wolfe, writing on “The Politics of Opera” on March 16 at his eponymous New Republic blog

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