Thursday, June 29, 2006

There's no Organization in Organization

Leading up to when I began college as well as during my first weeks there, I got it in my head that I would need to stay organized. I made several trips to Cost Plus World Market to buy items that I expected would help in this effort: collapsible boxes, a couple of baskets, wall-hanging containers. I lacked only one thing: knowing what I was trying to organize. As I sit here today, with those same items I purchased four years ago doing nothing but cluttering up my already cluttered bedroom, I am forced to acknowledge the futility of trying to get organized by focusing on the meta-organizational aspect of organization. That is, rather than spend so much time worrying about how I would stay organized at the beginning of college before even being disorganized, I should have just waited until stuff became vaguely disorganized and then began my efforts at staying organized.

As mundane as it seems, I think my shopping spree at the beginning of my college career and the over-preparedness and arguable misplacement of priorities it evidenced can be a metaphor for the mistakes that one makes in all types of organizing, be it people, things, or time. Rather than worry too much about how one might organize, rather than spend too much time on the existential aspects of putting things away, rather than buying too many containers or file cabinets or folders, or in human terms, rather than forming too many task forces or calling too many meetings, the most efficient, organized way to do something may be to it.

And, in that vein, I should really clean my room.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Amen, James Wolcott. Amen.

There are no Blue States or Red States, only Purple States

Analysis by abstraction has turned into an ordinary habit of thought. It governs not only the newspaper graphics and all the studies of everything under the sun, but also the stock market, conversation, political debate, advertising, the Olympics, education, literary criticism--nothing has escaped it.-Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence

David Brooks sounds an awful lot like novelist Sinclair Lewis when describing what he calls the "Sprinkler City," located in "the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new-style American dream." Problem is, Brooks purports to write non-fiction.

Brooks has indeed carved out a niche as a pop sociologist who makes jabs at an elite "blue state" culture filled with "NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing" while suggesting that such blue staters are in turn woefully out-of-touch with how red staters enjoy life, with "QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting." To help illustrate the stark contrasts he sees between red state and blue state culture, Brooks took a trip to Franklin County, Pennsylvania, soon after the 2000 election was decided in favor of Bush and around the time that pundits were opining on a cultural divide that was magically delineated by the squiggly boundaries of states.

Funnily enough, Brooks himself is the blue American he describes. A resident in the Democratic Montgomery County in Maryland, among the country's upper middle class, a writer for the New York Times editorial page, and a frequent contributor to NPR, Brooks' own life must be pretty free of the "meatloaf platters" that he claims is the standard entree in typical "red" county restaurants--perhaps a satisfying midday repast for the red-blooded hunter who hasn't shot any buffalo that morning or the antsy housewife who has had enough Susanne Somers for the day.

Or maybe Brooks doesn't have much of an idea of what he is talking about. That is what was suggested by Sasha Issenberg back in an April 2004 article in PhillyMag. According to Issenberg, Brooks' socio-cultural analysis is self-contradicting and misguided. As Issenberg explains, Brooks "takes [contemporary sociological] findings and, regardless of origin, applies to them what one might call the Brooks Consumer Taste Fallacy, which suggests that people are best understood by where they shop and what they buy." Issenberg points out that although
"there are salient cultural divides in the United States and, in fact, different values and practices among residents of Montgomery and Franklin counties..consumerr life is the place where they are most rapidly converging." Indeed, one could just as easily sip a Sulawesi blend coffee at a Starbucks in Montgomery County as they could in the Starbucks in the Borough of Chambersburg in Franklin County.

The reason I even bring up Brooks is because it is he and his colleagues who insist on defining their version of our nation on the pages of their mainstream newspapers and journals. (Also, Brooks has recently proven himself a hyperbolic fool in his most recent Times column). As Issenberg demonstrates by disproving much of what Brooks described in his visit to Franklin County, Brooks may well be seeing what he wants to see. So often in their demographic analysis of the Democratic party, public figures like John Kerry and Howard Dean, and in their depiction of the American people, the Washington-based media are quick to apply a simplistic divide that paints every Democrat as a Barbara Streisand and every Republican as a Joe Q. Taxpayer.

The sad part is, some in the Democratic party are complicit in this portrayal. In particular, many Democrats in D.C. have fallen into the media's trap of equating being outspoken with appearing too liberal, and thus too "blue." If Democrats are outspoken, they become the latte-sipping, hybrid-driving, New York Times-reading caricature that America supposedly doesn't want...except that lattes are available all over the place, hybrids are becoming increasingly popular, and plenty a Democrat has become disgusted with the NYT. My suggestion to Democrats who want to lead our party to victory in November: don't listen to what the people in D.C. say they know about flyover country too much, unless they're familiar with places like Franklin County, Pennsylvania (and David Brooks doesn't count).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Millenials? Validity of Generational Generalization

An article in the recent issue of the Northwestern Magazine describes the current demographic of young people (bounded by the years 1982-2000) as comprising a generation called the Millenials (unfortunately, this article is not currently online). Just as Generation X before us and the Baby Boomers before them, we supposedly share in certain traits, behaviors, and lifestyle that define us as a generation. Accordingly, there is something about us that makes us millenial: we are driven, multi-tasking, rules-oriented, self-motivated individuals. At the same time, our parents "coddle" us non-stop, from writing our college application essays to driving us to and from many activities to doing our laundry and cleaning our rooms. When we go to college, we talk with them multiple times a day and rely on them to buy us the latest high-tech item. Current six-to-twenty-four year-olds, does this sound like you?

To be honest, I am suspicious of generational labeling. Sure, there are certain things that unite many of us, and I think people whose demographics are quite similar (i.e. age, race, class, education) have experienced a general similarity in lifestyle. Of course, all of the aged 6-24 year olds in the United States have not experienced the same lifestyle; in fact, the growing gap between rich and poor has, as John Edwards has pointed out, created two Americas. The Millenial generation that the NU magazine describes is mostly comprised of the rich half of America (though, of course, a lot less than half of Americans are rich).

The other thing that I personally resent about being lumped in this generation is that I couldn't really identify with those described in the article. I don't get a mere 4-5 hours of sleep per night, I don't think one needs to over-committ themselves during college to get a job (and most people who are over-committed usually do a bad job at their various positions because they don't have enough time), I don't play video games while watching TV while reading while writing a paper while talking on my cell phone. I didn't need constant parental reminders to do my homework (which can be seen as nerdiness, but I like to think of it as just being independent), and I was pretty familiar with some of the most unthankful of chores while growing up (not that I didn't complain while completing them). Nevertheless, many people in this Millenial demographic (I think it's more a demographic than it is a generation) didn't have to do many chores as children (they had maids and parents), did get help with college essays, did do well on standardized tests like the SATs (after taking classes to prepare for them), do take up multiple activities, and are law-abiding, rules-oriented individuals who tend to get jobs in lucrative but unexciting industries like banking and consulting after college.

Still, I don't think it very useful to publish articles that write of a generation as if it were some sort of a phenomenon that came from a star one night down to earth and spread across an age group. Rather, I think whatever circumstances and behaviors a certain demographic--or generation--has in common is the result of many variables coming together--values, societal norms, income distribution, politics--that influence the way in which we think, act, and live our lives.