Dumbing Down The SOTU


State of The Union Speeches Reading Levels from SocProf on Vimeo.

The interactive graphic from the Guardian is here. The Flesch-Kincaid reading level measurement is here.

The real question is why this is happening, especially considering the fact that Americans are more educated now than they were in the days of Washington or Madison. One suggestion might be that the SOTU is now a TV spectacle, written by communication specialists, not for an educated audience. Early SOTU were probably heard and read only by a few. The spectacle dimension directly alters the content.

40 Years

Via The Economist, this is why the only “pro-life” position is to be pro-choice, that blue line below:

Also note that the abortion trend was upward before Roe (I wonder if the graph includes back-alley abortions, if not, then the pre-Roe level of abortion would be higher, invalidating somewhat the claim that Roe increased abortion rates. Roe might have instead increased legal abortion rates), went higher after Roe for about a decade, then plateaued in the early 80s, followed by a slow but steady decline.

Let anti-choice advocates argue against the blue line.

The Visual Du Jour – Where The Brown Shirts Are

Here is an interesting data visualization from Der Spiegel, on the rise of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the German far-right party.

As you can see from the map and the post title, I don’t think the choice of brown dots as color scheme is random. It is a rather simple data visualization but it clearly shows the areas of greater influence of the NPD, as measured through voting rates. It shows rather clearly where the NPD has gotten some popularity (i.e.: the former East Germany).

That being said, I am not a big fan of dots because they make proportions / rates hard to tell. I know there is the legend on the left but once you start working on the map, can you really tell, beyond the areas of greater aggregations, exact percentages (when those are not given in the textual notations on the side?).

And if the brown is designed to underline some political ugliness, it succeeds.

It is a bit of a shame though that the article does not provide any explanation for this. Maybe the reasons are obvious to Germans, but I got this as part of the international, English-language edition, and not all readers (including me) may be aware of the subtleties of German party politics. Although I was aware that the former DDR is now the hotbed of far-right politics (for reasons of downward mobility, economic dislocations, and precarization), but I was hoping for more.

Book Review – To Free A Family

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

Paging Alberto Cairo

Now that I’m taking this MOOC course on data visualization, by Alberto Cairo, I’m paying a lot more attention to all the different infographics around (and I’m starting a visualization tag / category). Of course, with the election, infographics have abounded and they are of high interest to social scientists like me.

Take a look at this beauty (click on the image for a larger view):

It is a amazing representation of voting patterns at three points in time (2004, 2008 and 2012) by demographic categories. Starting with the first U-turn arrow, at the top, you can see that the majority of the electorate voted Bush in 2004, then Obama in 2008, then Obama again, but to a lesser extent, in 2012, hence the U-turn. And the same goes for all the different categories as you work your way down the graphic. You can clearly see which categories are solidly on one side or the other and which one go back and forth and in which direction. For instance, if you look at religion, the Jewish vote in not in play. It is solidly on the democratic side. However, if you look at the catholic vote, you see the shift from Republican to Democrat. By age, the younger voters are solidly democratic whole the 65+ are solidly Republican with the 30-44 category having shifted. Note the suburban U-turn from Republican, to Democratic, back to Republican.

The trend is overall rather clear: there was a great shift in favor of the Democrats from 2004 to 2008, with some mitigating in 2012 but still solidly on the Democratic side, so, the headline is accurate. I like that the background color is unobtrusive. The arrows are still clearly visible against the background. There is quite a lot of text inside the graphic itself. I think the designers anticipated that they were doing something relatively new and unusual and readers might initially look at that infographic and go “how the heck do I make sense of this?”, so, the inside copy is useful but not too big, nor too small.

It is also nice that the percentage of margin of victory is repeated at the bottom because, if you look at this on a small screen, you will quickly lose sight of the top of the infographic.

Even though it is not interactive, there is still a lot to explore and it clearly exposes the trends. I like it a lot.

And While We’re On The Subject of Race…

Fabio Rojas has this visual to share comparing voting intents for Obama between 2008 and 2012:

Rojas argues that Obama could well lose the popular vote but it would be mostly because of the South, concluding:

“You’ll hear all kinds of post-hoc explanations of the election outcome in November. But they’re probably wrong unless they start with the fact that the South really, really, really hates Obama more than the rest of the country for some inexplicable reason.”

That is a bit snide, though, no? Yes, this would fit the rise in prejudiced thinking that I was blogging about this morning but I still have questions though that this visual does not answer.

1. Yes, obviously, the change between 2008 and 2012 is clear. However, was 2008 unusual and could 2012 not be a return to “normal” for the South? After all, Democratic presidential candidates have had issues with southern votes ever since the late 60s. In that case, it would not be so much that the South really, really, really, dislikes Obama in 2012 but that they disliked the Democratic candidate less than usual in 2008.

2. Is it fair to jump to the conclusion that Rojas jumps to right away? Might any other factor be involved beyond race?

3. How to explain the not-as-dramatic but still significant drop in the East? (Which goes back to my possible “the South was unusual in 2008” above)

4. From what voter demographic comes the drop? Is it all white? If the 2008 turnout for African Americans was higher than usual, is there some African Americans drop in voting intention? In which case, it might be less a case of hate than disillusion.

Personally, I like my #1 best. I remember, a few years back, witnessing a lot of discussion from the Democratic side of the spectrum arguing in favor of whistling past Dixie precisely because the South seemed like an impossible nut to crack, but the 2008 election was unusual. Having the graph limited to 2 date points does not clarify that.

The Visual Du Jour – Objective Commentators

Everyone and their brothers have blogged / tweeted / facebooked about this (via Miss Representation):

This is, of course, part of a whole pattern of ignoring privilege and treating dominant category as the neutral default along with the institutional paucity of women in discourse-shaping organizations, such as the media and think tanks. There is the assumption individuals belonging to minority categories (women, racial and ethnic minorities but the same could be said about class) can be reduced to that identity when they express opinions on issues relevant to their category. On the other hand, whites and men are never subjected to these reductionist judgments. Their position is one assumed to be objective. Therefore, tv programmers and producers see no irony in booking a lot of men on shows to discuss women’s issues.

And then, of course, when it comes to the “serious” issues (gender issues, for instance, as often dismissed as cultural as if there were not serious socioeconomic and political implications things like reproductive rights and structural inequalities), then, naturally, panels will be full of upper-class white men opining as if they occupied a panoptical position that entitled them to a 360 degree view that no other people can have because other non-privileged categories of people have gender / class / race blinders.

Alain Accardo on Les Indignés

French sociologist Alain Accardo has penned an interesting essay on the social movement that has spread all over Europe, starting in Spain with Los Indignados, Les Indignés en France, or the whole Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere. For him, analysis of the movement has either focused on the emotional aspects (hence the reference to indignation) or the aspects that most puzzled the media (no clearly designated leaders, no clear platform, etc.). Of course, the sources of said indignation are rooted in a variety of motives, from the most micro (personal unemployment or precarization) to more macro aspects (action / inaction of the government, austerity programs, breakdown of the welfare state to the view of global financial capitalism as a rigged game).

But Accardo adopts a critical stance with the very label of “indignados” or “indignés” (outraged would be an approximate translation) because, rather than capture a political project, it remains at the level psychological or moral state, leaving the door open to a variety of interpretations. The label of “indignados”  is a soft empirical category turned into a pseudo-concept (much like “hipsters”). Such categories are better at designating commercial / advertising targets based on a vaguely defined personality trait where the norm / average is impossible to capture objectively. Such is the case for indignation.

As important as such a psychological or moral state may be, as it is a necessary ingredient to social movements trying to effect systemic change, if such movements stay at that level, governments do not have much to fear. Moral outrage is no substitute, for Accardo, for a lack of doctrine, program, organizational structures, common perspectives and analysis, leaders. And it does not look like this will change. For now, it is more cathartic collective behavior than actual social movement.

Participants may see these things as strengths or, at least, the price to pay to avoid stigmatization and co-optation by traditional political organizations (such as political parties and labor unions). As justified as this rejection, hostility or distrust of the political establishment may be (and, for Accardo, they are), they deprive the collective of the necessary structuring for social mobilization to turn collective behavior into an “ephemeral happening”, as Accardo puts it. The fact that the leftist establishment (especially in Europe) has failed does not mean one can do without any organization or structuring. There is a world of difference between an activist and a soldier, between mass behavior and revolutionary armies. The history of class struggles shows that they are less about flash mobs and fair atmospheres and that there is always a hardening stage where amateurs are quick to leave the field (the dismantling of the camps and the US David pepper spraying aggression partly illustrate this), or, as it is the 21st century, are quick to play concern trolls.

It would not be the first time that we see short-lived eruptions of rebellion, certainly helped by social media technologies but these technologies play mostly the part of amplifying and rapidly propagating emotions, more than anything else. And so, the movement can only persist if it remains vague and undefined as any effort to define and circumscribe it would lead to its dismantling as major differences between the participants would emerge. Indeed, the movement managed to pull together every shade of political left (understood in a very broad sense), from those mostly concerned about unemployment and financial regulations to those who want more radical systemic transformations. And so, the nebulous nature of the movement is both its strength and its weakness, a very fragile equilibrium.

At the same time, Accardo is not satisfied with the idea that this informal movement emerged on the ashes of the establishment left and the legitimation crisis. For him, the rise of the indignados movement is a good illustration of the way the middle classes struggles have been shaped by forty years of neoliberalism. It does not mean that all the participants are from the middle classes but from people who have largely grown up in post-industrial societies, where levels of education are higher and where “middle class” has become fetishized and a hegemonic cultural category as the class that was entitled to reap the benefits of late capitalism (through higher education and investment in ICT skills) and was therefore invested in its maintenance and adaptation. This category has relegated to the back of the bus the struggles of industrial, blue-collar working classes and the wage workers (those that identified the most with labor unions and, in Europe, the traditional constituencies of the communist parties). And so, this petty bourgeoisie was ideologically convinced by the new spirit of capitalism of its right to hedonistic consumerism and individualism.

This ethos of the middle class, present in the Occupy / indignados movement is one that was socialized with the ideology of breaking sclerotic old modes of organization / production / politics. And as analyses of the financial collapse have shown, elite schools and universities have furnished classes of highly educated people to the maintenance of the system, either in government or on Wall Street. This ethos is reformist and has benefited social-democratic parties all over Europe. In the US, I would argue that this has translated into a rejection of the political in favor of the technocratic (or also called pragmatic) as the proper mode of governance, beyond ideology. The promotion of the technocrat has also been at the core of the ideological construction of the EU as neoliberal entity. This is an argument often mentioned regarding the supposed pragmatism of the Obama administration.

So, the Occupy / indignados movement, for Accardo, is more bricolage than stable political force that could potentially shake the political ground in the US/Euro countries. There are no indications that a potential structuring of radical social force advocating for the global commons, or a more equal distribution of resources or for full democratic governance. It is not a revolutionary movement. At it stands, the dominant ideological climate is a mish-mash of equivocal ideas and sentiments having more to do with being able to participate in the system (get rid of the cheaters and the rigging of the game rather than the game itself).

At the same time, should the Euro crisis deepen (“should”??), the European middle-class may have to give up the double game it has always played (staying on the fence when it came to class struggle, getting the most out of the system by affiliating with upper classes, and distinguishing itself from the working class while engaging with intermittent alliances with it). Faced with precarization and downward mobility, is emulating / serve / imitate the wealthy still a viable social project? As social stratification distribution become more hourglass-shaped, are the middle the classes still “middle”? I think the triumph of right-wing parties in the Euro countries in crisis shows that this is not happening. The media are also working hard to redirect attention to scapegoats (immigrants and minorities, for instance) away from class struggles. The relationships of domination that have characterized class conscience in Europe have not shifted.

As Accardo concludes, the middle classes have certainly been, at different times, a source of social progress. But more often than not, they are also historically, the best defenders of the system against which they might rebel with indignation every once in a while. For Accardo then, it remains to be seen whether this time is different.

Nostalgic Past or Dystopian Future: Both Imaginary, Both Toxic

This poster from the French National Front (a fascist political party) is a perfect illustration of using visual elements to convey political messages based on racism, nostalgia for a reconstructed past, as well as a dystopian future (if people vote the wrong way!). Of course, both images are themselves, well, imaginary: this is a past that never really existed and a future that is by no means certain or necessary. But the Manichean message is strong.

So, we’re supposed to choose: the France on the left is that of burning banlieues (set on fire by “these people”… the re-islamicized youth) with darkened silhouettes (never humanize one’s stigmatized out-group, never give them a face, always present them as threatening masses or gangs) that obviously have been destroying card in front of a more or less typical housing project somewhere in a working class suburbs. The France on the left is also that of the despairing homeless, no jobs, no hopes, a few dirty-looking possessions. The whole image looks like it was part of the movie The Road with its burning and/or ashen landscapes.

And then, on the right, is the ideal, imaginary, nostalgic France… oh so very white, heterosexual, at peace, where old-timers can do their shopping at the local market, under the sun. Of course, in this France, everybody lives in a small, semi-rural town, with bucolic background (although the scale is wrong in the composition of the different elements… probably photoshopped… a very shoddy job at that). The market is a local, small-scale one, vive le commerce de proximité! And the little shops and commerces, so dear to Pierre Poujade‘s heart. The place is colorful with blooming flowers, clean air, no car traffic, no poverty, and no dark-skinned people.

And the whole thing is not presented as a question but as an injunction: choose your France. And these are the only two options. The roaming immigrant bands of Rue Barbare or the peaceful France, with its français de souche. Apparently, it’s either one or the other.

It is pretty obvious that this is playing on fear: fear of immigration, of social chaos, of a social order that no longer keeps things under control. It is the image of a population that fears anything coming from the outside, whether it is immigrant populations or globalization that destroys local flavors (even though the local imagery used here is generic to the point of being a complete cliché). It is a fetishism of the local where everything is controllable and under control.

And the ideal France on the right (haha) is a patriarchal France where a man can take his woman outside without fear of violence from dark-skinned hordes, sit on a bench with his arm, paternalistically, around her shoulder, as opposed to the hopeless, and lonely bum on the left.

My Life As A Feminist – You Can’t Have Serious Discussions With The Ladiez

Or at least, that is what transpired from British PM’s behavior (along with the raucous laughter from his MP colleagues):

I should note that this is not a first from David Cameron. Obviously, the serious men can’t have serious conversations with the silly little ladies.

That being said: nice way to avoid answering the question.

Donatella Della Porta on The Failure of Minimalist (Neoliberal) Democracy

Your must-read of the day from one of the most important sociologists of social movements:

“Neoliberalism is a political doctrine that brings with it a minimalist vision of the public and democracy, as Colin Crouch demonstrates so well in his Post-Democracy. It envisages the reduction of political intervention to correcting the market (with consequent liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation), an elitist concept of citizen participation (electoral only, and therefore occasional and potentially distorted) and an increased influence of lobbies and powerful interests.

The evident crisis in this liberal concept and practice of democracy is however accompanied by the (re)emergence of diverse concepts and practices of democracy, elaborated and practiced, among others, by social movements. In today’s Europe, they are opposing a neoliberal solution to the financial crisis, accused of further depressing consumption and thereby quashing any prospect for growth – whether sustainable or not.

Austerity measures in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have been met with long-lasting mass protests, which partly took the more traditional form of general strikes and trade union demonstrations, contesting the drastic cuts to social and labour rights.

But another type of protest has also emerged, not opposed to the former, but certainly different and more directly concerned with democracy: the criticism to democracy as it is now, and the elaboration of possible alternatives. “Democracia real ya!” was the main slogan of the Spanish indignados protesters that occupied the Placa del Sol in Madrid, the Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona and hundreds of squares in the rest of the country from 15 May 2011, calling for different social and economic policies and indeed greater citizen participation in their formulation and implementation. Before such a mobilisation in Spain, at the end of 2008 and start of 2009, self-convened citizens in Iceland had demanded the resignation of the government and its delegates in the Central Bank and in the financial authority. In Portugal, a demonstration arranged via facebook in March 2011 brought more than 200,000 young people to the streets. The indignados protests, in turn, inspired similar mobilisations in Greece, where opposition to austerity measures had already been expressed in occasionally violent forms.”

Which, of course all point to the much-debated crisis of legitimation:

“The indignados’ discourse on democracy is articulate and complex, taking up some of the principal criticisms of the ever-decreasing quality of representative democracies, but also some of the main proposals inspired by other democratic qualities beyond electoral representation. These proposals resonate with (more traditional) participatory visions, but also with new deliberative conceptions that underline the importance of creating multiple public spaces, egalitarian but plural.

Above all, they criticise the ever more evident shortcomings of representative democracies, mirroring a declining trust in the ability of parties to channel emerging demands in the political system. Beginning with Iceland, moving forcefully to Spain and Portugal, indignation is addressed towards corruption in the political class, seen in bribes (the dismissal of corrupt people from institutions is called for), as well as in the privileges granted to lobbies and in the close connection between public institutions and economic (and often financial) power. It is to this corruption – that is the corruption of democracy – that much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, and the inability to manage it, is attributed.”

Indeed, part of this crisis is the fact that the “there is no alternative” view has contaminated most mainstream left-wing party in Europe (the US democratic party is not left-wing, so, it was there all along, in a softer form than its Republican counterpart) and therefore, excluding extremist parties, there dominant parties have subscribed to the neoliberal view of minimalist democracy, so, they cannot be seen as offering an alternative to right-wing parties and their austerity programs and power-to-the-lobbies politics. After all, it is a socialist government that is implementing austerity in Greece.

This crisis of legitimation is also mixed with the alter-globalization meme against globalization from the top, through major transnational institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, summarized as the global democratic deficit.

So, according to Della Porta, what are the alternatives?

“But there is also another vision of democracy, the one which normative theory has recently defined as deliberative democracy, and which the global justice movement has elaborated and diffused through the social forums as consensus democracy. This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados that occupy city squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of ‘normal citizens’. It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts) to speak (and to be respected) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation on themes that range from conditions of distress to concrete solutions to specific problems, from proposals on common goods to the formation of collective solidarity and emerging identities.

This prefiguration of deliberative democracy follows a vision that is profoundly different from that which legitimates representative democracy, founded on the principle of majority decision making. Here, democratic quality is in fact measured in terms of the possibility of elaborating ideas within discursive, open and public arenas, where citizens play an active role in identifying problems, but also in elaborating possible solutions. It is the opposite of accepting a ‘democracy of the prince’, where the professionals elected to govern must on no account be disturbed, at least until fresh elections are held. But it is also the opposite of a ‘democracy of experts’, legitimised by output, on which European institutions have long relied.”

Yes, but let’s not forget that there is one major function that the state never gives up in its minimalist state: repression. So, any real challenge to the system will not be met with warm welcome and the propagandistic push-bakc will be massive (as it is in the UK after the riots) in order to generate a backlash against the movements.

Book Review – The Last Gunfight

I read Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West because of Lance Mannion’s review of it and you should all just and read it now because, truthfully, there is nothing I can add to it. Lance covers all the main points that need covering.

Considering the number of films and TV series made about the gunfight at the OK Corral, there is no doubt that this event has a special place in American mythology, including especially the hero figure of Wyatt Earp. And like any myth, these representations have a tenuous relationship with what actually happened. These events have been told and retold over the decades and the narrative has been reshaped to gain a social meaning and moral narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains in the context of the Western. And FSM knows that “the West” as mythical, imaginary construct holds an important place in American lore and the way Americans see themselves and how they imagine real men should behave. The Western genre has long been an important part of Hollywood production and has contributed to the cultural reconstruction of the West. That is, until the 1970s when a few directors started to question the Western mythology (think Sergio Leone or Samuel Fuller) and the hero types, such as those constructed by John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (who carried it into his presidency).

This is why most classical Westerns have bored me silly and I have stayed away from the genre. Not that they are all bad but because they all mostly still follow “the code” and respect the mythology.

But I picked the book (and by that, I mean, I downloaded the Kindle edition) because, based on Lance’s review, it looked like Guinn had done two things I live for: debunking and embedding. Debunking refers to peeling off the layers of mythology and look for as much historical evidence as possible as to what actually happened. The book is indeed heavily sourced and Guinn is pretty honest about the relative reliability of some of these sources (including, not entirely surprisingly, Wyatt Earp himself). The embedding part, which is what the book is really about, is to re-position the gunfight (which did happen in Tombstone, but not at the OK Corral) in social, economic, political and historical contexts.

But the book does not consist entirely of giving us the macro picture of “what it was like in those days” but there is also a lot micro details, having to do with the way business was done in a frontier mine town (which is what Tombstone was), how different types of social actors interacted with each other, how lawmen did their business and dealt with criminality, such as it was defined then. And what of the things that comes off clearly is that shootout is the product of a series of interactive mistakes and misinterpretations. Over a period of the few hours preceding the gunfight, every interaction that could possibly go wrong or be misunderstood in an escalating way unfolded exactly like that. Erving Goffman would have had a field day analyzing the materials provided by Guinn.

At the same time, there is indeed a larger context and the gunfight was the culmination of several social dynamics. One such dynamic had to do with the fact that several of the main characters involved in the events were political rivals. The Earps (it is interesting that the mythology has positioned Wyatt as the hero as the book shows his brother, Virgil, to be the best man of the bunch of Earp brothers) had hitched their potential social mobility and economic fortunes to being competent lawmen who would gain acceptance into higher social classes and the elites of the different towns in which they worked before coming to Tombstone. The Republicanism was connected to such upward mobility prospects.

On the other side were the Democrats (including more competent social climber Johnny Behan, the county sheriff), mostly ranchers, ranch workers, many of them migrants from the Confederate states (especially Texas) who still had not digested the defeat of the Civil War. These rangers (including the Clantons and McLaurys who died at the gunfight) also were in business with cowboys (“cowboys”, in those days, was an insult… see? Mythological reconstruction), cattle rustlers who made forays into Mexico to steal cattle, bring it to friendly ranchers to be fattened up before sale (with the ranchers getting their cut of the proceeds). Funny how that bit of economic extraction is not often mentioned when discussing relationships between US and Mexico.

In any event, things had been brewing for some time between the complicit ranchers and cowboys, supported by their Democratic allies such as Behan, and the Republican establishment which the Earps were trying to join. The gunfight represents the culmination of this political dynamic. The larger context, of course, is the development of the Southwest, the negotiation of the roles of the different layers of government (federal / state / county / local). Needless to say, the Democratic ranchers were not keen on submitting to state authority and paying taxes (a lucrative position for a county sheriff whose job it was to collect them, keeping 10% for himself) while Republicans in town thought solid law and order would be good for business and development.

One of the constantly fluctuating dynamic shown in the book is the negotiation between the different layers of authority regarding how much law enforcement there should be. Too much and trail hands would not come and spend their money in town at the end of the trail. Not enough and chaos would follow. Either would be bad for business. So, lawmen had to walk that fine political line and make ad hoc determinations as to when to arrest, when to just club a drunkard over the head and put him in jail for the night and send him home in the morning. And Virgil Earp, the town chief of police was pretty good at it, except on one day where he misjudged the situation.

And that is another thing that is largely a myth about the West: the myth of the main street gunfight between two men (like the classical introduction to the long-running Gunsmoke, located in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp officiated for a while). Those hardly ever happened. Gunfights were much more rare than they are represented in movies and TV series. Actually, many cities had gun bans on the books.

What is true though is the West, both as myth and reality, was a patriarchy through and through: the common law wives, the horrific lives of the prostitutes officiating in saloons, bars and hotels and the Earps were no noble gentlemen in that respect. They had common law wives who would never be accepted by the higher society (precisely because they were not officially married, or former prostitutes) therefore, the Earps kept them more or less hidden away so as not to interfere with their (failed) attempts at social climbing.

So,  the book re-embeds these men’s stories in their proper historical, social and political contexts, but it not a dry book. It is actually a pretty entertaining read and a page-turner where any reader will learn a lot about a little part of the way this country was developed. What it also shows is that the history of the frontier is NOT that of courageous pioneers going it alone in the wilderness. By the time settlers showed up, the army had pacified the areas from Native Americans, there were laws on land allocation, with the farmers and miners (which means assayers and other occupations related to extraction), businesses would also show up at the same time to provide supplies or entertainment for trail crews. It was not just men on their own. They had families, which meant schools and women’s clubs. And, of course, governance… and taxes.

The next step is then to question why the myth of the West was reconstructed the way it was and why so many hold onto that myth.