How Culture War Thinks

Why is our public discussion so dominated by rancor and divisiveness?  Why do our politicians increasingly resemble silly children throwing food at each other?  Why do our “news” programs on TV so often consist of people dealing out abuse and accusations?

There are many likely causes of what a recent Pew Research Center study calls rising “political polarization” in American society, but one of them is intellectual, concerning not so much what we think as how we think. Let’s call this phenomenon polarized thinking, and let’s reflect on its dangers by understanding its features.

First, polarized thinking reflects the notion that only some values matter.  What are the basic ethical concerns that human societies appear to value most? The psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind points to six: care for others, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sacredness. American liberals today tend to focus largely on care and fairness, while conservatives usually make more room for the other four.  But polarized thinking goes further. It says that my preferred values are everything and yours are nothing.  It’s like a right-handed person saying not only “I favor my right hand” but also “Left hands are no good.” It’s crude thinking. Try walking around one day using only one hand.

Second, polarized thinking is typically binary thinking, in which everything divides into two mutually hostile forces – left versus right, believers versus secularists, good people like me versus bad people like you. In his book On Human Nature, the scientist Edward O. Wilson suggests that humans are hard-wired “to dichotomize, to classify other human beings into two artificially sharpened categories.”  But this way of thinking should be resisted.  As Wilson says, it’s artificial. It’s simplistic. The world is extravagantly plural, and thinking about it in binary categories just won’t do.

Third, polarized thinking undermines doubt. Many people today appear to view doubt as a weakness. Some religious leaders even suggest that it’s a sin, that doubt will endanger your soul.  But the older I get, and the more I read and think, the more I’ve come to view doubt as my friend. Doubt can keep me honest. Doubt keeps me curious. By always reminding me of what I’m not completely sure I know, doubt can protect me from arrogance and self-righteousness. Yes, truth is objective, but we can only approach it subjectively – we see through a glass darkly. To treat doubt as a friend is to recognize this basic fact of our humanity.

I know there are plenty of people today who’ve already discovered the truth and whose main mission now is explaining it to others, but I seldom find them to be helpful.  Or interesting. I’ll take a good question over a final answer any day.

Fourth, polarized thinking tends to replace the clash of ideas with accusations of bad faith. Instead of focusing on content, we get name-calling and speculations about wrong motives. It’s profoundly anti-intellectual.

From 2008 to 2011 my former teacher Michael Ignatieff was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.  In Fire and Ashes, his book about the experience, he describes how little it mattered what he actually said about the issues. What mattered were the personal attacks levelled against him.  He describes them, correctly in my view, as attempts to deny standing. The charge is not “What you say is wrong” but “You’re so personally flawed that you have no business saying anything.”

Ignatieff, a professor who’s written widely on politics and political theory, was genuinely shocked by the brutality and effectiveness of this procedure. I’ve been in the public debate myself – most controversially on the issue of gay marriage – and when the same thing happened to me, I too was genuinely shocked.  And distressed.

Finally, polarized thinking turns opponents into enemies.  It says not only “I disagree with you” but also “You and I have nothing in common” and “You are a threat to me.”  The result of this transformation is that civic engagement itself becomes pointless and the normal practices of democracy fall into disuse.  Why bother? Why listen to someone from whom you can learn nothing?  Why compromise with those whose only aim is to cause harm?

Here we get to the heart of the matter. There’s a reason why we call it “culture war” and why one of the most frequently used words in politics today is “fight.”  It’s harsh and aggressive and intended to be so.  It works well enough in times of actual war. But it’s no way for citizens to treat one another.  It’s no way to participate in civil society. It’s no way to run a democracy.

This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.

How Does the Right Brain Run Free? A Response to Adam Bellow’s Proposal

The prominent editor and publisher Adam Bellow has a big idea. He wants to bring together a new generation of conservative artists and story-tellers to challenge liberalism’s dominance of American literature and popular culture. Toward that end, he wants to build a national network of institutions, credentialing activities, and funding streams to produce conservative-themed art and entertainment. With Liberty Island, his new online gathering-place for conservative creators, and his ambitious manifesto (“Let Your Right Brain Run Free”) recently published in National Review, Bellow is prepared to lead the charge to, as he puts it, “carry the culture war into the field of popular culture.”


I know and respect Adam Bellow. And I agree with him that part of the shallowness of U.S. popular culture today is that it’s so often a jukebox for liberal clichés.  But I believe that his new idea is misguided, for two reasons. 


The first is that Adam’s main goal – creating art specifically to influence politics – is wrongly conceived. Good art frequently deepens our political views, much to our advantage, but marshalling political zeal to create politically-themed art is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. It’s hoping to achieve through politics what can only be achieved apart from politics. Intellectually it’s pretending, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling put it, that “the recalcitrant stuff of life” with which the artist must wrestle can somehow be rendered into “pellets of intellection or crystallizations of thought, precise and completed, and defined by their coherence and procedural recommendations.”  Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.  


Or at least, that’s what the artists I admire seem to believe.

William Faulkner said that “the only thing worth writing about” is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” There it is again: the disorderly, unruly stuff of life. Faulkner’s engagement with it was nearly the opposite of political labeling and advocacy. Can one imagine Faulkner going to his desk each day hoping ultimately to make clearer why people should vote this way, or join that cause, or believe in this political ideal?  I can’t. 


To me, the greatest American song-writer of recent generations is Bob Dylan. His philosophical and political views infuse much of his work, including some of his most famous songs. But as he’s made abundantly clear to anyone who’ll listen, he detests the idea that his music is linked to a political agenda. Which is one reason why, in the opinion of many critics, his music means so much to our culture, including our politics. It’s an irony, isn’t it? 


In his writings, the literary scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis points to what we can call the principle of indirection. Some things we want we can’t get directly. We want to be happy, but happiness is both highly elusive and usually the fruit of other pursuits, such as duty, excellence in one’s vocation, and loyalty to family and friends. We want art that promotes our politics, but art is larger than politics and usually can’t be achieved through political mobilization. If we aim only at the thing, we miss the thing.


The second reason why Adam’s project is wrong-headed is that, even to the degree that it succeeds, it will likely do more harm than good to American civil society.


Adam seeks to create a new American subculture defined by its commitment to conservative-themed arts and entertainment. Alas, similar segmentations have already occurred in other domains of American life. Conservatives can already get all their non-fiction from conservative book imprints such as Sentinel, all their news from conservative news outlets such as Fox, and all their expertise from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.


One result, admittedly, is a larger number of conservative authors, personalities, and analysts. But the larger result for the subculture (and today’s liberal subculture has the same problem) is life in the echo chamber. All you hear are things you already believe. Genuine questioning – the essential requirement for the life of the mind – gets replaced by the clarification of orthodoxy, or what communists used to call the party line. Genuine engagement with opponents – the essential requirement for democratic civil society – gets replaced by denunciations in absentia of scoundrels out to ruin the country and idiots too dumb to walk in from the rain. Simplifications rule. The intellect stagnates. Anger is in the saddle. Polarization increases.  


To me, even the name of Adam’s enterprise, Liberty Island, reflects this way of conceiving the world. Conservatives, you are an isolated minority, surrounded on all sides by dullards and enemies. Move away from this foreign land. Relocate to our conservative island, where everything is good and where you’ll only find other people just like you. And you’ll really love the entertainment!


This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.  

New Casinos: “Jobs” Have Almost Nothing To Do With It

Whenever it comes to defending casinos and pushing for more of them, the theme of “jobs” is invariably front and center. In New York, which recently legalized casinos, the main political action committee promoting casinos was called “New York Jobs Now” and Governor Cuomo’s favorite pro-casino argument was that they “promote job creation.” In Massachusetts, where voters this fall will decide whether to repeal the pro-casino law passed by the legislature in 2011, by far the loudest message coming from the casino lobby is jobs, jobs, jobs.

The argument is highly misleading. To see why, let’s start with Economics 101.

If I open a business that employs people, I’m “creating jobs,” but does that prove that I’m helping the economy? Of course not. Economics 101 teaches that the question is not “Do people work here?” but rather “Does this activity contribute to economic growth?” And current economic research clearly suggests that casinos do not help the economy.

The reason why isn’t hard to understand. What expands the economy is producing things of value, and casinos produce nothing of value. If I open a donut stand, I’m producing donuts. If I build a tire factory, I’m producing tires. The only thing a casino produces is people losing their money. The economic impact is similar to throwing your money onto the street so that someone else can pick it up – it’s redistributing wealth without creating it.

But it gets worse, because what casinos do isn’t neutral, either ethically or economically. Casinos prey upon people’s weaknesses in order to separate them from their money. Slot machines and other casino games are forms of fraud, similar to loan-sharking, false advertising, and price-gouging.

Economists have much to say about the economic impact of businesses that cheat and exploit people, and it’s the opposite of what the casino lobby says.  If I start a loan-sharking business in your town, it’s true that I’m “creating jobs.” I’m also creating jobs if I open a brothel or turn an abandoned building into a crack house. But would any of this help the economy? Of course not. Such activities typically drag a community down, economically and in other ways. Bad ethics usually lead to bad economic outcomes.

Want the numbers?  In Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits, generally viewed as the definitive study of the topic, Earl Grinols estimates that every dollar of economic gain from casinos is off-set by three dollars of economic loss. If you like that ratio, you may want to consider playing slot machines twice a week as a way to improve your personal finances.

Why do casino advocates center their public argument on “jobs, jobs, jobs” when the argument is so obviously misleading?  There are three reasons.

The first is economic illiteracy. Many people, including many in public life, do not understand the difference between counting “new” jobs and assessing an activity’s overall economic impact.

Second, the argument gains undeserved ground because the economic gains from casinos flow to specific and well-organized groups – casino owners, casino employees, and state governments – while the losses, although greater than the gains, are much more widely diffused. Which wheel is more likely to squeak loudly and get the grease – the influential few who’ll gain a lot, or the general public who’ll pay through the nose over time?

Finally, I’ve learned from personal experience that casino lobbyists will say nearly anything to avoid discussing the actual reasons for casinos. That’s why even the act of publicly engaging their talking-points about “jobs” drives people like me nuts, because once the cameras are turned off and the public has been fed its pabulum, none of the inside players even remotely believe that “jobs” are what this debate is really about.

Rest assured that, in the real world, casino owners are not philanthropists seeking to provide you with employment. They are predators seeking to take your money in exchange for nothing by enticing you to played rigged games of chance in which they always win and you always lose.

It’s the same with the politicians who legalize and promote casinos. You can be confident that they aren’t doing it to spread economic sunshine. They’re doing it because they see in casinos a big sign made specifically for them that says “Free Money.” A few decades ago, when casinos were run by mobsters, they regularly gave suitcases filled with cash to the politicians who protected them.  The same thing happens today, except that the pay-offs are legal and are called taxes.  But the process is the same and so are the ethics. And “jobs” have almost nothing to do with any of it.

This article appeared originally in the Deseret News.


American Power and Iraq

The current crisis in Iraq is so messy, and all of its likely outcomes so tragic, that it’s hard to know what or even how to think about it. So let’s start with first principles, to get some grounding.

Pacifism says that all use of force is wrong.  Realism says that force is justified if it advances your interests. And the Abrahamic religions, which have helped to shape international law in these matters, say that the use of force must be governed by clear ethical rules that are accessible to all.

I believe in this third approach, often called the just war tradition. I admire pacifism, but cannot accept it.  Realism strikes me as a weak conceptual framework, ultimately powerless to stand up to the idea that what I selfishly want will be good for everyone – too unsuspecting of what St. Augustine called the effects of sin on the intellect. So it seems that we’re stuck with trying to think through the right and wrong reasons for the use of force.

Shortly after 9/11, I was one of 60 co-authors of What We’re Fighting For: A Letter from America, in which we cited just war principles to defend the use of military force against the murderers of September 11 and those who assisted them. The letter generated a worldwide reaction, most of it highly critical of us, including a “Letter to the American People” purportedly from Osama bin Laden and almost certainly from al-Qai’da. At the same time, what ultimately resulted from these exchanges were face-to-face meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders which continue to this day in the form of a “Shared Values Initiative” sponsored by IAV and the Sultanate of Oman.

In late 2002, the decision facing America was whether to invade Iraq. I was one of 9 co-authors of Pre-Emption, Iraq, and Just War, in which we cited the very same just war principles to oppose the about-to-be-launched U.S. attack on Iraq. The Bush Administration at the time was advocating a doctrine called “pre-emption,” which says that it’s acceptable to attack your enemy before he has a chance to attack you. Just war principles largely preclude any such notion (although some pro-invasion writers turned intellectual somersaults trying to suggest otherwise) and we said so in our statement.

Looking back, I think our reasoning holds up. Many of the assertions offered to justify attacking Iraq – the Iraqi regime is linked to al-Qai’da, the regime has weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be erroneous. And that’s precisely why just war theory guards so strongly against the notion of pre-emption – when war fever is running high and when you’re predicting the future, it’s easy to get basic facts wrong. Indeed, it’s common. Here is arguably the main reason why the just war tradition says “I can attack my attackers” but refuses to say “I can attack those I believe will attack me in the future.”

Which brings us to today. After more than a decade of U.S.-led war, after thousands of deaths and billions spent on the Iraqi government and military, Iraq is now tearing itself apart via a Sunni versus Shia sectarian war. There is slim reason to believe that the various Iraqi factions have ever been, or will soon be, willing to share power, which is the only basis for the nation’s survival with some modicum of justice. Finally, al-Qai’da and its offshoots – the very people who were said to be involved in Iraq in 2002, but weren’t – are now very active indeed in Iraq. The word “failure” seems barely adequate as a description of the policies that have produced these results.

Perhaps if our forces had acted differently, or stayed longer, the results would have been better. Perhaps the U.S. should have used, or should now consider using, targeted military force in neighboring Syria, where al-Qai’da and its kin for years have created havoc that is now spilling over into Iraq.

Perhaps. But for me the main moral of this story is the importance of restraint. We didn’t understand Iraq in 2002 and we don’t seem to understand it much better now. We’ve made some heavy footprints there, but the idea that U.S. power can decisively influence Iraqi sectarianism seems from the beginning to have been largely a fantasy. The current crisis seems likely to end very badly, and it’s hard to see how anything that our military could reasonably do in the coming weeks and months would be likely make things better.

The article appeared  on 6/27/14 in the Deseret News.

Fathers Are Hardwired to Connect, But More Are Disconnected from Families

Here is the good news: on Father’s Day 2014, fathers and their distinct contributions to children and society were celebrated far and wide, from self-proclaimed fatherhood nut David Blankenhorn to Johnson & Johnson’s brilliant short film, “Distinctly Dad,” featuring Yale child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, who ends the video by saying “One of the most difficult things for fathers to realize is how irreplaceable they are.” (The Johnson & Johnson film has almost 1 million YouTube views.)

And there is a lot to celebrate about fathers, as shown by two research documents co-sponsored by IAV: the new research summary, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us from the Inside Out, and the edited series of original essays, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.


It starts even before birth, when men may experience a surge in the hormone prolactin, which is the same hormone that helps mothers make milk.

Then, right before birth, he may experience a surge in cortisol, which is a stress hormone that some researchers believe focuses new dads on their expectant babies. Finally, after birth, there is a drop in testosterone. This is significant because lower testosterone is associated with more responsive parenting. But these changes seem to be dependent on the father’s contact with the mother and children. As Ross Parke explains in his chapter in Gender and Parenthood, one study showed that whereas women’s hormonal levels were closely linked with time before birth, men’s hormonal levels were linked with their partner’s hormonal levels. Moreover, fathers who have more experience with babies have lower testosterone levels and higher prolactin levels than first-time fathers.

In other words, so long as men hang around their mates and children, men’s bodies are wired to connect with their kids.

We also know that fathers are capable of providing the kind of parental care—scholars call it “authoritative parenting”—that is associated with the best outcomes for children. Authoritative parenting describes the powerful mix of affection, involvement, structure, and clear and consistent discipline that research suggests is associated with positive psychological and social outcomes for children. Authoritative parenting is contrasted with permissive, authoritarian, and neglectful styles of parenting.

Psychologist Ross Parke and colleagues conducted studies in which they watched fathers interact with their newborns. Their finding? Fathers “touched, looked [at], vocalized, rocked, and kissed their newborns” just as much as mothers did. Fathers were also just as responsive to infants’ behaviors and verbal cues.

But for all the ways in which mothers and fathers can parent similarly, numerous studies also suggest that fathers engage their children in distinctive ways. For instance, one Israeli study of eighty first-time-parent couples found similarly high levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin in both mothers and fathers when the child was six weeks old and then six months old. But there was one difference: whereas women with the highest oxytocin levels demonstrated “affectionate parenting behaviors,” men with the highest levels were most likely to demonstrate “stimulatory parenting behaviors.”m-d-studies

Numerous studies show that dads engage their children with a morephysical, playful, and challenging style than mothers do. And again, we’ve learned that fathers’ style of engagement can be beneficial for children. One striking finding is that fathers who engage their kids in lots of positive play have children who score highest levels popularity with peers. Another is that toddlers are more likely to engage in new activities, interact with strangers, and develop a sense of independence at the urging of fathers than their mothers. As Kyle Pruett put it, “We’ve come to understand that fathers don’t mother and mothers don’t father. Fathers can’t really be replaced, in full, especially by somebody who doesn’t feel like a father.”

To put it another way, the more science reveals, the better we understand how fathers are biologically primed for parenthood, and how children may benefit from their fathers’ distinct parenting style.

But now for the bad news. For all the promising research about fatherhood, a new research analysis shows that 70 percent of fathers without a college education have had a child outside of marriage. Among fathers with at least a four-year college degree, it’s only 24 percent. This is troubling because, according to the Fragile Families study, 61 percent of parents who were unmarried at the time of their child’s birth were no longer romantically involved five years later.

In other words, while better-educated parents fret about too much involvement and structure in their children’s lives—see the debate on helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting—less-educated parents struggle to keep their families intact. Just as the biological sciences are revealing how fathers are hardwired to connect, more less-educated fathers are becoming disconnected from fatherhood. Just as we are learning about the benefits of “partnership parenting,” many fathers and mothers feel that partnership parenting is out of reach.

When it comes to fathers and children, there is a connectedness gap: children from better-educated families enjoy strong bonds, while children with less educated fathers do not.

m-d-strongThis is vitally important because, as the Mother Bodies, Father Bodies, report notes, we know that disrupted connections between fathers and children may have important consequences for children. The report points to a study by psychologist Bruce Ellis and colleagues, which found that only 5 percent of teenage girls became pregnant if they were raised in a home with their father. By contrast, 10 percent of teenage girls became pregnant if their father left when they were school-age, and a stunning 35 percent of teenage girls became pregnant if their father left before they turned six. Moreover, they point to another study of more than 1,000 families found that children with fathers who are actively engaged in their children’s lives perform much better in school than do children with less-involved fathers.

For Americans concerned about declining social mobility, a focus on connecting parents—and especially fathers—to their children is a promising starting point, as Brookings scholar Richard Reeves points out. There is broad agreement that children do better when they enjoy good relationships with their parents. Moreover, married fathers typically enjoy a closer relationship with their children than do unmarried fathers. Thus, we should raise awareness among the poor and working class about the biological changes that involved fathers can experience, the benefits of authoritative parenting, and the power of partnership parenting.

We should not settle for a two-tiered society in which the children of better-educated fathers enjoy the advantages of close connections to fathers, even as the children of less-educated fathers wonder where dad is and who mom’s next partner might be.

David Lapp is an Affiliate Scholar at IAV, and co-director of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.

Becoming a Father

Let’s start with the obvious:  Becoming a father changes a man’s outlook.  It focuses his attention.  It typically encourages him to work harder and think more about the future.  It tends to make him less selfish.  He’ll tend to spend less time staying out late, tomcatting around with his buddies, and more time trying to be a regular citizen and a good guy.  Many studies have documented these changes.

Becoming a father also changes a man’s body. Both the sexual bond with the mother and the conception of the child appear to reduce a man’s testosterone levels, which makes him more cooperative and less ornery and aggressive (see above). According to a new study, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us from the Inside Out, by my colleagues Kathleen Kline and W. Bradford Wilcox, a fascinating cluster of brain and hormonal changes, all of them pro-social, appear to help shape and guide men’s transition to fatherhood. Some of them occur before the child is born! Everyone knows that becoming a mother changes a woman’s body.  But who knew that becoming father also changes a man at the biological level?

Third, becoming father changes a man’s society. There are many individual exceptions, of course, but married fathers tend to be more likely to contribute positively to society and less likely to hurt others and themselves.  Even taking into account what researchers call selection effects – the fact that while married fatherhood makes men behave better, it’s also true that better-behaved men are more likely to become married fathers – many careful studies have found that in-the-home, bonded-with-the-mother fathers do significantly more than other men when it comes to helping society and staying out of trouble.  For starters, their own children, compared to children from one-parent or stepfamily homes, do better in school, get into less trouble, and lead happier lives.

Consider the problem of teen pregnancy. Numerous studies find that a father in the home is more important that nearly any other factor – more important than race, income,  neighborhood quality, or mother’s educational status – when it comes to the girl’s avoidance of teen pregnancy and early sexual activity. Why?  Partly because of the father’s outlook:  He wants to protect his daughter. And partly because of his body:  A father’s pheromones – chemical substances secreted by the body that serve as stimuli to others – seem to slow down the onset of puberty in his daughter. Who knew? It’s probably impossible in this case to disentangle the social from the biological dimensions: the two seem to sway together, like elegant dancers.

Finally, becoming a father changes a man’s relationship to the eternal. True fatherhood – not the act of insemination alone, but the way of living – links me as a man to what the great psychologist Erik Erikson called generativity, the sense that I’m a part of new life and therefore part of the ongoing renewal of the world.  In this way, fatherhood makes life meaningful. It can connect a man to the transcendent, helping him to recognize and respond to some of life’s most important questions.  Why am I here?  Do I matter?  What if anything will I leave behind?  For me and for most men, burdened with frailties and shortcomings, becoming a father is as close as we’re likely to get to participating with God in creation.

American fatherhood is currently splitting into two.  If you’re growing up today in upscale America – if both of your parents graduated from a four-year college – the odds are strongly in your favor that your father lives with you, is married to your mother, and is highly motivated to help you succeed and thrive. But if you’re in the 70 percent of America that is not upscale, the odds of you having such a father in your life are strongly against you and getting worse all the time.

The U.S. today is a place of growing inequality and, for so many, diminishing opportunity. We’re becoming two societies, separate and unequal.  And the great dividing line between the haves and have-nots today is not the color of your skin, or where you live, or the language of your parents, or the God you worship.  It’s whether you have a hands-on, married-to-your-mother father.

That’s why, for Father’s Day 2014, we honor American fatherhood not only by marveling at its meaning and honoring its presence, but also by looking at the many places and hearts in our society where it so desperately needs to be, but isn’t.

 This article appeared originally in the Deseret News

Fatherhood from the Inside Out

A sexual act can make one a progenitor, but becoming a  father is a much more primal and layered process. The natural and social sciences are teaching us that transformation into fatherhood is almost “contagious,” in that you “catch it” from spending time with your mate and child.

Men’s biology is hardwired to assume the responsibilities and develop the capacities to nurture, respond, guide and protect their children. We explore this in our new report, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies:  How Parenthood Changes Us from the Inside Out.  For instance, the science shows that as new fathers spend time with their mates and children, they typically experience hormonal changes that biologically prepare them for parenthood. Human and animal fathers can experience a cascade of hormonal changes in cortisol, estrogen, testosterone and prolactin even before the child is born.

The changes that take place in men and women when they become fathers and mothers are similar, but asymmetrical. Unlike the dramatic whirlwind that begins at conception, when it seems that the Great Mother emerges from the depths to take charge of a woman’s body, psyche and identity, the changes that take place in dads are more subtle. On the outside, men often look the same, but as the changes of fatherhood grow within them, they become more focused on their families, and less distracted by external attractions. Additional adjustments in the bonding and nurturing hormones continue to take place as fathers care for their offspring, even affecting the very circuitry of the brain.

Fathers and mothers can both parent well. Thankfully, nature builds a good bit of redundancy into the system.  In most modern families, both fathers and mothers contribute financial support and share domestic chores and childcare, albeit in different proportions. Still, males and females also tend to parent somewhat differently and there is a certain synergy in that.  Fathers tend to have a more physical, stimulatory approach to their children that encourages them to engage the world.  (Think of the father roughhousing with or tossing his toddler into the air.) Mothers more than fathers focus on supporting, soothing, and helping a child to feel safe in the world.

The combination of both styles seems to benefit children across a range of emotional, health, and life achievement outcomes. As a psychiatrist and sociologist, we see the particular benefits of a father’s firm presence especially in the teen years, when the risk taking, novelty-seeking inclinations of adolescence combine with surges in sexual drive and physical strength. Girls living in households that include their fathers are less likely to engage in early sexual activity or become teen parents and boys are less likely to be involved with violence or get into trouble with the law. The quality, closeness and active involvement of an adolescent’s father seems to protect against depression in both boys and girls.

Our report finds that the contributions that fathers and mothers make together to their children are, depending on the outcome, additive, redundant, and unique. They do some of the same good stuff, some extra, and some special. They also tend to shift in their parenting roles throughout the family life cycle as they respond to their changing children’s needs, the economic requirements they face, and their own preferences. There is not one snapshot that captures the way in which fathers and mothers parent together. You have to watch the full-length feature film to sense the richness and the varied roles they take in their children’s lives.

But one near constant is that mothers tend to be the gatekeepers to children’s relationship with their fathers: mothers who welcome and encourage fathers into their children’s lives are more likely to encourage fathers to be engaged dads. So it is especially important that mothers appreciate and welcome dad’s involvement.  The quality of a father’s relationship with his child is often colored by the quality of his relationship with the child’s mother.

Indeed, the one institution that predicts more than any other whether a child will have two committed parents is marriage. And most adults long for a long term enduring relationship with a spouse. It is just that combination of commitment, mutual respect, sex, physical tenderness and affection between two parents that seems to cement strong families and set the stage for optimal outcomes for children

So the growing marriage gap—between more educated parents whose children have married fathers in the households and less educated parents whose children often do not—represents an obstacle for children’s wellbeing. At this time when we celebrate the importance of fathers in children’s lives, let us also work towards renewing the capacity and opportunity for men and women across all educational and social classes to form and maintain the long term enduring relationships in marriage that provide the firmest foundations for their children to flourish.

Kathleen Kovner Kline is the chief medical officer of the Consortium, a community behavioral health agency in Philadelphia, and an affiliate faculty member of  the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.  W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the director of the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. They are co-editors of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Coming Out and Looking Inside: An Interview with Two Guys Named Glenn Loury

Listen to the Podcast – Part 1
Listen to the Podcast – Part 2

Glenn Loury, Sr., is a big, warm and fiercely intelligent man. His son, Glen Loury, Jr.– in all important respects – is just exactly the same. If you want to spend some fruitful minutes exploring the fraught landscape of sexual identity, class division, racial reality, and generational conflict in America, you have come to the right place.

Glenn Loury, Sr. has been a lot of places. He has claimed territory both conservative and liberal, cooly academic and passionately partisan; he has been on the right side of history and the wrong side of the law. He was one of the first articulate voices to point our attention to the shame of mass incarceration – predominantly impacting generations of black men – in an age of growing inequality and insecurity. A religious man, he looks for the truth, even when it leads him to doubt.

Glenn Loury, Jr. is his son. Glenn is gay. Spend a day with Glenn, Jr., and this token of identity might never surface. It’s not the first thing that grabs the attention. Rather, one notes the same ‘trademark’ warmth and precision, the same power of observation that drives his father and sustains the conversation in the direction it need to go. The same ability to question oneself and think a new thought makes him all the more attractive.

Part 1 of this rich conversation tells the story of a son’s coming out and a father’s journey inside, along the fault lines of identity in America today.

Part 2 examines differing views of marriage equality and what we can do going forward to understand and strengthen marriage for all who seek it.


It’s Summer Camp Time … Should Your Youth Go?

This summer approximately 11 million children and adults will attend camp.

Does going to camp matter?

Last year I interviewed Kenda Creasy Dean who would argue the answer to that question is YES! A professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, her writing has informed my work as a youth pastor, and I became better acquainted with her during my work on Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? In our conversation, we discussed the arc of her work, paying special attention to the contemporary challenge to be a church that engages the hearts of young people with the hope and faith of the Gospel.

The Hope of Youth Ministry – Listen to the Podcast
Kenda Creasy Dean and Amy Ziettlow

Most pastors and youth workers first meet Creasy Dean through her popular book, Almost Christian, one of several books that reported on the first wave of analysis coming from the National Youth and Religion Survey. Lead investigator of that project, sociologist Christian Smith, coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” (with Melinda Lindquist Denton in Soul Searching) to describe the current state of faith for today’s teenager. Creasy Dean translated this phrase as: “God is nice and God wants you to be nice.” She explained:

“I remember talking to one young woman, telling me about growing up in the church and how much she loved it, how she’d been in the church every waking moment since she was born. But when it came time for her to describe what she thought about God, about Jesus, about the church in the world, she had no language to talk about it whatsoever. I think about that interview again and again…”

This interview stuck with Creasy Dean because it resonated with the superficial responses of many teenagers in the survey. She saw this lack of language for faithful purpose pointing to a generational ennui and an absence of a moral universe guiding the lives of young people.

Here is where camp enters the picture.

In her recent, book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, co-authored with theologian Andrew Root, she writes about camp’s power to create liminal or in-between space where foundational questions about God and our purpose can be explored safely. Beneath the surface of swimming, study, Capture the Flag, and bonfires eschatological work is being done. She writes:

“The liminal character of camps reminds young people that they are momentarily suspended between daily life and eternal promises, and that their time in this place is…temporary. The Christian camp, retreat, or conference is less an experience than a pilgrimage. These youth travel together, literally or figuratively, toward a holy destination: life in God.”

Creasy Dean reflects on her own experience of attending summer camp and concludes:

“I came home from camp and realized it was far less important that I believe in Jesus but that Jesus believes in me—I came home with a renewed sense of purpose.”

This final quote reinforces the most important piece of going to summer camp: coming home. Rabbi Daniel Greyber served as Executive Director of Camp Ramah in California for many years and he writes in Faith Unravels about the sacred task of speaking to campers the morning that they leave camp.

“The whole reason you come to camp…is to leave….We love taking care of you and see in you the possibility and hope for everything that can be made good in the world. But. If you were to stay here at camp, something great will have been lost. A great potential unfilled…you will bring goodness into a broken world sorely in need.”

We send our young people to camp so that they come home changed for the good, for the sake of bringing good into the world.

What are you waiting for? Register for camp now!

Gambling Addiction and Society: Time to Think Anew

In recent decades, two trends have shaped our understanding of gambling’s relationship to the larger society.

The first is gambling’s entry into the mainstream. No longer confined to the desert towns of Nevada and the beach town of Atlantic City, legalized gambling – featuring its main institution, the casino, and its main device, the slot machine – is widely popular and spreading rapidly across the country.

The second trend is that research on problem gambling has become largely organized and funded by the gambling industry itself. For a comparison, imagine an America in which most research on cigarette smoking is commissioned and funded by tobacco companies.

These trends have helped to transform our overall view of gambling. Indeed, today’s paradigm is a radical departure from previous understandings. Even the venerable word “gambling,” which suggested a social problem, has been largely replaced by “gaming,” which suggests a harmless form of entertainment that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Well – says our current paradigm – almost everyone. Today’s dominant understanding also stipulates that a small fraction of Americans – about one percent, we are frequently told – suffer from addiction to gambling. The paradigm concedes that persons harmed by this disease require active assistance, which today’s “gaming” industry, through its indirect funding of treatment programs and direct funding of research, willingly provides.

The purpose of IAV’s July 24-25 symposium in Boca Raton, Florida, on “Gambling Addiction and Society” is to question this dominant paradigm at the root level.  We will do so by bringing together leading scholars to raise basic questions in a context of open, interdisciplinary exchange.

Please join us!

The Silver Tsunami Meets the Honor Commandment

“Honor your father and mother that your days
may be long…”
Does this commandment apply to your family?

As 76 million Baby Boomers approach old age, the coming “Silver Tsunami” will change how we think about the elderly, illness, and the end of life. The Baby Boomers’ high rates of divorce, remarriage, and single parenthood, their decreased birthrate, and their geographic mobility signal profound changes in the traditional elder care script. What role will the Honor Commandment play in this care?

Elizabeth Marquardt and I (now joined by Naomi Cahn) have engaged in a three-year project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at the Institute for American Values, to study how the grown children of Baby Boomers have transitioned into the role of family caregiver for aging and dying parents, stepparents, or ex-stepparents. We interviewed respondents aged 28 to 49 years old who had played an integral role in caring for their now deceased parent or stepparent. Our sample reflected current Baby Boomer family demographics: one-third of the parents were still married to their first spouse at the time of their death, one-third were single parents (many as a result of divorce), and one-third had separated from their first spouse or partner and remarried since having kids. Towards the end of our two-hour, qualitative interviews, we asked the Honor Commandment question that opened this article.

What did we learn? First, we were surprised to learn that all grown children feel that the commandment still applies to them, although its expression was tempered by the quality or length of their relationship with the parent or stepparent. Second, respondents interpreted broadly the means and methods for living both the spirit and the letter of the precept. Interpretations ranged in intensity, from day-to-day care or constant presence at a hospital bedside, to financial contributions that may or may not be connected to hands-on care, to more distant expressions, such as phone calls or attendance at a memorial service.

The grown children of Baby Boomers feel that the Honor Commandment still applies to them.

The family of Robert Gutierrez,* a Baby Boomer father who died at age 69 from complications after elective surgery, serves as a good example. According to the daughters we interviewed, Gutierrez had not been a model parent. They described him as emotionally volatile and often absent from their childhood life for months at a time, cycling through three marriages after the divorce from their mother. Two of his daughters, Jackie and Heather, struggled to determine how best to honor him when he needed their support in the final years of his life.

Heather served as the primary caregiver and surrogate decision-maker. She explained their caregiving arrangement: “He lived in a little RV out the back door. I would always go and take care of him, clean his trailer. We’d cook and bring him food. I’d wash his clothes, you know, I took care of him.”

She drove him to medical appointments and eventually arranged for home health services to manage his medications and help him with bathing and dressing. Then, he heard about a new surgery that could help calm tremors in his hands stemming from nerve damage. Despite her vocal opposition to this elective surgery, Heather honored his wishes. On the day of his death, Heather found herself alone at his bedside:

I stayed there for a few minutes with him. Then I was asked to leave so that they could prepare him. They asked me where I wanted him, and I told them he was going to be cremated. Then I walked out, stood in the hall and cried. By myself.

When asked about how the Honor Commandment applied to her family, Heather explained,

I’ve honored my father. I did when nobody else would. He was an ornery old man. He told me twice in my life that he loved me. I’m sure he did, but he just never showed it the same way we’re accustomed to showing it, you know? He was a hard man, but I believe I honored him without a shadow of a doubt. I respected him.

In contrast to Heather, who provided daily care, Gutierrez’s oldest daughter, Jackie, was more detached. She felt pressure to play a similar caretaking role as her sister, but decided she could not do so: she lived several states away, she felt emotionally distant due to past conflicts with her father, and she faced the demands of her own job and family (a husband and four young children). She offered emotional support to Heather via phone calls and emails and attended the memorial service. She relinquished any rights to a financial inheritance as a way to honor the sacrifices made by her siblings to care for her dad and settle his estate. When asked about how the Honor Commandment applied to her family, Jackie explained,

I tried to figure my terms to carry on a relationship with him that doesn’t transgress against me and dishonor me, but at the same time maintains an appropriate relationship that you can carve out of a family that has the kind of history that we had. I do owe him something. He’s my father and, you know, biologically that’s a pretty important role and spiritually the Bible didn’t have a caveat about, ‘Well, honor your father and mother unless they were a real jerk.’

The other two siblings were not interviewed but, according to the two sisters, they too played a role in honoring their father in sickness and after his death. Their brother, Timothy, provided financial support to pay for the home health services and sitters, and their long estranged sister, Miranda, came to the funeral and stayed for several months to help settle Gutierrez’s estate.

Adults express their sense of obligation to their parents through emotional, physical, and financial support.

The Gutierrez family reflects what many respondents told us. They felt they owed something to their parent as they aged, and they expressed that sense of obligation through emotional, physical, and financial support. They did so without incentives beyond their own character and encouragement from each other. In reflecting on their experiences, Naomi Cahn and I have focused our attention on policy reforms that could support those who freely undertake the obligations of the Honor Commandment, rather than those policies that threaten to punish grown children who do not provide care and financial support (about half the states have filial responsibility laws).

Examples of possible reforms include changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA) and associated state laws, many of which could have benefitted the adults we interviewed, including the Gutierrez family. Currently, the FMLA allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave from work for medical reasons related to the worker, a spouse, child, or parent.

First, a paid family and medical leave would have benefitted not only Heather, who took vacation leave from her job and worked flexible hours to accommodate her father’s sudden health emergencies and doctor’s visits, but also her siblings, who could have seriously considered taking time to assist her with the day-to-day care responsibilities if their time was compensated.

Second, we recommend expanding the definition of eligible relationships to include stepparents, ex-stepparents, and grandparents. Based on the sentiments shared in the Gutierrez family interviews, the four siblings will not provide care to several ex-stepfamily members unless they can do so without taking a major financial hit. In addition to expanding the list of kin, those eligible for FMLA-protected leave might even be expanded to include anyone legally serving as medical power of attorney for an individual who is incapacitated. This expansion could help protect other parents like Mr. Gutierrez whose estranged family members could leave a caregiving vacuum. Concerned friends or church members might be willing to step into a caregiving role if their jobs were protected.

Reforming the Family and Medical Leave Act is just one potential way to encourage individuals to live the Honor Commandment by caring not only for their mothers and fathers but also for the expanded number of kin within families, neighborhoods, friendships, and faith communities. The good news is that the Honor Commandment is still respected, but much work needs to be done to make living it out more feasible for more families.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents. This piece presents themes reported fully in “Honor Your Father, Mother, Stepmother, Stepfather, Mother’s Partner…Reciprocity and Gender in 21st Century Elder Care and Law,” by Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, presented at the Religion, Feminism, and Law conference held March 20-21, 2014, at St. Thomas University.

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, where she currently leads a Lilly Endowed study of Gen X caregiving and grieving titled, Homeward Bound: Aging, Death, and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation. She is ordained in the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and most recently served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge.

This article first appeared on Family Studies, the blog for the Institute for Family Studies.

Charles Murray – A Tip of the Hat

Since the publication of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in 2012, even his most vociferous critics are taking Charles Murray seriously. It is no secret that people have strong feelings about his work, one way or another, though one suspects his oeuvre is not always read widely or deeply as a whole.

And though delightful, Murray’s recent foray into dispensing grandfatherly wisdom, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, will hardly convince those who are not already willing to listen to its unfashionable point of view.

Coming Apart, on the other hand, helped to crystalize a full-throated national debate about inequality, beyond mere hand wringing, daring to suggest that there are profound non-economic as well as economic forces at play. In the last chapters, Murray reviews three decades of research and writing. His previous projects, though focused and self-contained, look more and more prescient and evocative. They build a solid case for a data rich approach of asking and answering classical questions of social analysis and policymaking.

For those who do appreciate this achievement, as well as for those who have a different take, I invite you to listen to David’s conversation with Charles about marriage, “Can Marriage Be Saved?” David begins with a deft review of the broad impact of Charles’ writings, and ends by pressing for real answers and for his own candid evaluation of what it all means.

There are some pretty interesting insights here about intellectual indebtedness, following arguments where they lead, true “liberal” principles, the need for solutions, the role of faith in human accomplishment, and the future of social science – not to mention a whole lot on the topic of the day, marriage and marriage equality.

Most of all, though I admit it is a mighty cliché, you will encounter a couple of guys who really care.  For those who think Charles Murray is about a narrow sociological reductionism, think again. To those who think David Blankenhorn has tossed overboard essential social – even theological – capital, think again.

It is often hard to see where the clash of conflicted self-interested argument finally gets us. Do we want to win debates or change minds? Does all this talk strengthen the ties that bind?

In this conversation there is – to salute the Stephen Colbert shtick that one can only hope will be reappear on “Late Night” –  a “tip of the hat” to the “majesty of social science” and a “wag of the finger” to “what we have always known.”

Can marriage be saved? If, as Charles Murray eloquently says right here, marriage is central to human happiness, we will find a way. Here are two guys who are trying to get to work on that, starting today. I hope you will take a listen, and join them.

The World According to Larry Mead

Just over a year ago, to compliment the publication of “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” we began producing a live video and audio conversation series that quickly became simply “Conversations with David Blankenhorn.” While focusing on the struggle to make marriage “achievable for all who desire it, especially the forgotten 60 percent” – which above all bringing new light to the twin issues of marriage equality and increasing inequality in America – we put together a series I think notable for its breadth of view, engagement of the contested points, and generous spirit for what remains to be resolved in our hearts and minds as a nation on these subjects

David’s rich connections and many years of labor in the area were evident. Religious thinkers, policy wonks, public intellectuals, and friends met along the way living the issues before debating them, all became essential to the conversation. You simply won’t find in one place such a fair presentation and penetrating analysis of the interlocking issues that define the place of marriage in civil society today.

If I had to choose one of these conversations to focus on – to pick as my absolute favorite and recommend to others if they could listen to just one – it would be David’s engagement with NYU’s Larry Mead. You just have to listen to it; it’s that good. It is not that you haven’t heard these talking points before. It is they way they are taken up and reflected in the light by two expert and compassionate minds. Here is an example of why, as Aristotle famously claimed, friendship is grounded in respect for shared goals and values. These two colleagues take on the most difficult tangle of problems – poverty, welfare to work, single motherhood, race, effective social incentives, the role of stigma, policy that reinstates the real costs of divorce, the role marriage equality can play in strengthening marriage, determined to go wherever data and practical concern might lead.

I love this conversation because it is a brilliant and entertaining example of why arguments need to be sustained over time and why experts in different fields need to speak question and challenge each other.

I love this conversation because it shows the creative importance of changing one’s mind, especially in our poll driven public square.

I love this conversation because, as a pastor in active ministry for over thirty years who thought he had heard every argument about marriage and marriage equality ever made, I learned a great deal. I took notes. I felt called, not just to a new perspective, but to a new responsibility, over and above those detailed by my tribe and constituency. I felt invited into a constructive conversation among citizens.

Like I said. You owe it to yourself to set aside an hour right now and have a listen. The question of the hour is in the title: Is The Marriage Gap Driving Inequality? Enjoy!

“Can One Parent Bring Up a Child as Well as Two Together?”

According to a new story and poll in the Wall Street Journal,  about 41 percent of Americans living in rural areas, and 58 percent in urban areas (and about 80 percent of Americans are urban), believe that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two together.”

Good grief.  Do most Americans also believe that a person with one hand can type just as well as a person with two?

I’m tempted to quibble with the question’s wording.  The problem is that word  “can.”  Can a one-handed person become a great baseball player?   The answer is yes.  (Look up Jim Abbott, the great pro pitcher.)  Can a basketball team with two players beat a team with five?   Yes.  One year I saw a middle school team with two players who were so amazing that I think they could’ve won nearly every game that season all by themselves, just the two of them playing against the other team’s five.

But of course the question isn’t simply can something happen.  What we also want to know is how likely it is that one parent will do just as well as two.  What are the probabilities?

I’m also tempted to give credit to Americans who don’t want to give offense when speaking about such matters.  Most Americans (and count me among them) have no interest in pointing an accusing finger at single parents, as if  they are being singled out for blame.  So let’s give these parents the benefit of the doubt and tell whoever’s asking that, sure, one parent can be just as effective as two.

But although I’d like for these considerations to explain away my concerns, I don’t think they do.  Americans were asked a reasonably clear question about family structure, and they gave their answer.

The answer depresses me.  Because if there is anything we know from the weight of social science evidence, anything we know from cross-cultural investigations of human family functioning, anything we know from nearly every field about what helps the child to thrive, it is this:  The unit of one parent and a child is sociologically incomplete.  All kinds of things can happen, and do happen, but the empirically valid generalization is that the human child does best with a mother and a father who love her and the human parent does best with a caring mate.

My Visit to the Golden Moon Casino

My colleague Amy Ziettlow’s new report, Seniors in Casino Land: Tough Luck for Older Americans, reminds me of meeting Callie Adamson. She’s in her 70s.  She lives in Macon, Mississippi, about 60 miles away from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where my mother and I met her at the casino not long ago.  We were all three sitting in front of a row slot machines, and I was watching her watch me, as my mother and I were playing, or at least trying to, and she was sitting quietly in front of a nearby machine, not playing, waiting for her daughter, it turns out, who also lives in Macon, and who had come with her that morning to the casino.  She told us that she and one or both of her two daughters come to casino about twice a month.

It was about 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, and the huge, dark-with-flashing-lights casino was busy – lots of people, lots of noises.  Mrs. Adamson is African American. She is overweight and has a bad knee that makes walking a bit difficult.  She has thin gray hair and a kind, smooth, discerning face.

I ask her, with the usual southern deference and indirection, does she know how to play this machine I’m sitting in front of?  She says she does, and moves over to sit by me. She shows me how to play.  To get started, the machine will take either your card or cash. (“Oh yes, they all take cash!” she says with a laugh.)  I put in a ten dollar bill and sure enough the machine gobbles it up.

She says, how much do you want to bet?  I say, let’s bet the most we can with each spin.  She shows me the buttons I need to press.  I make a mistake or two at first, but after several spins, I’ve got it, and in about 90 seconds the ten dollars is gone.  I put in another ten dollars and keep going, as she watches with interest, making sure I don’t mess up. On one spin, the lights start going crazy, the machine goes ping ping ping, I have won what seem to be a lot of credits, amounting, the machine finally says, to about $32.00.

“Quit now!” my mother says.  I decide to keep playing.  I’m suddenly feeling lucky, like things are going my way for the moment.  About three minutes later, all the money is gone and I have nothing. I put in another ten dollars. This time my mother presses the buttons.  The money is gone in about two minutes. We look a bit dejected.  Our new acquaintance is friendly but dispassionate, watching us and watching her words.

After some casual conversation, with none of us playing the machines, she says to me, well, if I’m being honest, when I was first watching you, I thought you were a preacher.  I knew you were with your mother (she smiles at my mother) and I thought, this man is a preacher. You can just tell, if someone is preacher, and it just seemed like you were.  I knew you didn’t know what you were doing with that machine, she says with a laugh.

Are you having some luck today, I ask?  No.  She’s lost $100 today at the slots, and that is it for her today.  (She says she never plays the table games and doesn’t even know how to play them.)  That’s why she’s been sitting, not playing any more, waiting for her daughter to come find her.  (Her bad knee makes walking hard.)

I ask her, why do you like going to the casino?  She says, well, sometimes you get lucky.  She says one time she won a thousand dollars on one spin.

She then says going to the casino is something to do.  About all she does in Macon is go to church, and maybe visit friends every so often. But that’s about it.  There isn’t much to do in Macon, and so she and her daughters enjoy making the trip to the casino.  They go about twice a month.

She tells us with a smile that people go to casino to “pay the light bill.”  I wanted to ask what she meant by that, but I didn’t. I thought about it afterwards, and still do.  Did she mean that she goes to the casino hoping to win enough money to pay her light bill?  Or was she speaking more poetically?  Like going to the casino, for her, was paying for something unstated and bright that she wanted, or needed?  I never figured it out to my satisfaction. Maybe she was just saying that she puts money into the slot machines, hoping for them to light up.

She is certainly aware that “paying the light bill” in this way is costly.  Sometimes you get lucky, but most times you don’t. Almost everyone ends up losing more than they win.  She knows this.

She also believes that all the machines are basically the same in terms of how they work and your chances of winning – although she knows people who strongly believe otherwise.  But she does point out that the different machines have different names, which interest her, as well as their own specific sounds and patterns of play. Double Diamond, Lobster Mania, Indian Princess, African Diamond, Kingpin Bowling, and Texas Tea are some of the names of slot machines we saw that day.

By the time we parted company we were friends and all felt good about having had the chance to meet one another.

The casino is the hub of a giant gleaming modernist high-rise complex.  In that part of very poor, spare, run-down Mississippi, this monstrous white creation looks a space ship from a 1950s sci-fi movie that has landed in the middle of nowhere.  It’s called the Golden Moon Casino and Resort. It’s owed by the Choctaw Indians and is officially located in Choctaw, Mississippi – Choctaw being, essentially, that part of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, that is owned by the tribe.

The casino is open 24/7. It has several restaurants (buffet style seems to be the most popular) and some shops.  It has lots of ATM machines, in case the players need money.  Ashtrays are everywhere (even in toilet stalls) and a great many of the players are smoking.  The soft drinks and iced tea in small cups are self-serve and free.  The casino’s ads describe the casino as “Vegas with Sweet Tea!”

There a few table games, but the vast majority of the casino’s floor space is devoted to its 3,100 slot machines.  The clientele is racially mixed, largely female, and largely older.  The first person I saw, when I walked onto the floor and was letting my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, was an older white woman in a wheel chair.

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