Does social media actually depress people? A new study says yes — sort of.

For some time now, we’ve been hearing the contention made that social media causes people to become angry or depressed.

One aspect of this phenomenon, the argument goes, is the “politicization” of social media — most recently exhibited in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Another aspect is the notion that since so many people engage in never-ending “happy talk” on social media — presenting their activities and their lives as a constant stream of oh-so-fabulous experiences — it’s only natural that those who encounter those social posts invariably become depressed when comparing them to their own dreary lives that come up wanting.

But much of this line of thought has been mere conjecture, awaiting analysis by social scientists.

One other question I’ve had in my mind is one of causation:  Even if you believe that social media contributes to feelings of depression and/or anger, is using social media what makes people feel depressed … or are people who are prone to depression or anger the very people who are more likely to use social media in the first place?

Recently, we’ve begun to see some research work that is pointing to the causation — and the finding that social media does actually contribute to negative mental health for some users of social media.

One such study appeared in the February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Titled “Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being:  A Longitudinal Study,” the paper presents findings from three sets of data collected from ~5,200 subjects in Gallup’s Social Network panel.

The researchers — Drs. Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis — studied the relationships between Facebook activity over time with self-reported measures such as physical health, mental health and overall life satisfaction. There were other, more objective measures that were part of the analysis as well, such as weight and BMI information.

The study detected a correlation between increased Facebook activity and negative impacts on the well-being of the research subjects.  ore specifically, certain users who practiced the following social media behaviors more often (within one standard deviation) …

  • Liking social posts
  • Following links on Facebook
  • Updating their own social status frequently

… showed a decrease of 5% to 8% of a standard deviation in their emotional well-being.

As it turns out, the same correlation also applied when tracking people who migrated from light to moderate Facebook usage; these individuals were prone to suffer negative mental health impacts similar to the subjects who gravitated from moderate to heavy Facebook usage.

The Shakya/Christakis study presented several hypotheses seeking to explain the findings, including:

  • Social media usage comes at the expense of “real world,” face-to-face interactions.
  • Social media usage undermines self-esteem by triggering users to compare their own lives with the carefully constructed pictures presented by their social media contacts.

But what about that? It could be argued that heavy social media users are spending a good deal more time engaged in an activity which by definition is a pretty sedentary one.  Might the decreased physical activity of heavy social media users have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, too?

We won’t know anything much more definitive until the Shakya/Christakis study can be replicated in another longitudinal research study. However, it’s often quite difficult to replicate such findings in subsequent research, where results can be affected by how the questions are asked, how random the sample really is, and so forth.

I’m sure there are many social scientists who are itching to settle these fundamental questions about social media, but we might be waiting a bit longer; these research endeavors aren’t as tidy a process as one might think.

Quick-change artistry: Masculinity goes from “alpha-male” to “alta-male” inside of a generation.

Alpha-male: Venezuelan actor Alejandro Nones
Alpha-male: Venezuelan/Mexican actor Alejandro Nones

Many people contend that changes in society are driven by many influences – not least movies and music. Certainly, the popular arts reflect the current culture, but they also drive its evolution.

This view was underscored recently in the results of field research conducted by a British- and Singapore-based survey firm Join the Dots for Dennis Publishing, which has just launched Coach, a magazine in the U.K.

The magazine’s audience consists of men who are committed to lifestyles that make themselves “healthier, fitter and happier.”

The research aimed to figure out what are today’s characteristics of being “male.” An in-depth qualitative focus group session with men aged 22 to 60 helped establish the set of questions that was then administered in a quantitative survey of ~1,000 respondents (including some women as well as men) between the ages of 25 and 54 years old.  The survey sample represented a diverse mix of family status, sexual preferences, incomes, professions and interests.

The survey questions focused on the habits and aspirations of men … and the results showed how far we’ve come from the heydays of the “alpha-male” barely 25 years ago.

The researchers contrasted good and not-go-good alpha-male stereotypes (self-absorbed … unwilling or unable to talk about insecurities or vulnerabilities) with a new persona they dubbed the “alta-male.”

The alta-male is a man who values work/life balance and finds personal fulfillment as much in self-improvement as in material wealth.

Additionally, the alta-male tends to reject male role models from earlier generations, instead opting to establish their own identity based on a myriad of diverse influences.

Of course, it’s one thing to aspire to these goals and quite another to actually attain them. The study found that two-thirds of the respondents are finding it difficult to achieve the satisfactory work/life balance they desire.

On the other hand, alta-males tend to be more adaptable, and they’re willing to embrace uncertainty more than the alpha-males of yore.

Even more strongly, alta-males are seekers of experiences, which they value over “mere money” – despite recognizing that it takes money to partake in many such life experiences.

More of an alta-male: American businessman Phillip Nones

Perhaps most surprising, the study found little difference in perspectives between older and younger male respondents.

It turns out that older men are just as likely to have an “alta-male” attitude towards life.  So clearly, the culture has been rubbing off on them, too.

From my own personal standpoint (as someone whose been around the track quite a few times over the decades), I sense a similar shift in my own personal perspectives as well.

What about the rest of you?

Inked in stone: One societal trend that’s going off the charts.

ttWhat’s one of the biggest societal trends in America nowadays? Believe it or not, it’s the rapidly growing popularity of tattoos.

Once the province of just a slim slice of the American population, today we’re smack in the middle of dramatic changes in attitudes about tattoos.

Let’s begin with figures published by the Harris Poll recently, based on its survey or more than 4,000 American conducted in late 2015. That survey finds that nearly one in three Americans age 18 or older have at least one tattoo (29%, to be exact).

Not only did that percentage surprise me, but also the increase that represents over a similar Harris Poll conducted just four years ago. In that survey, ~21% reported having a tattoo … which means that the nearly 40% more people have tattoos today than in 2010.

Pretty amazing, I thought.  And the surprises don’t stop there, either. Of those people who are tattooed, more than two-thirds report that they have more than one tattoo.

What isn’t surprising at all is that the tattoo craze is most prevalent among younger Americans:

  • Millennials: ~47% report having at least one tattoo
  • GenX: ~36%
  • Baby Boomers: ~13%
  • Matures: ~10%

There are also some locational differences, with rural and urban Americans somewhat more likely to be tattooed than those people who reside in suburbia:

  • Rural folks: ~35% have at least one tattoo
  • Urban dwellers: ~33%
  • Suburbanites: ~25%

[There’s no discernible difference at all between people of differing partisan/political philosophies, according to Harris.]

With such a big increase in tattooing, the next question is, what’s behind the trend? For clues, we can see how respondents described what their tattoo(s) mean to them personally:

  • Makes me feel more sexy: ~33% of tattooed Americans cited
  • Makes me feel more attractive: ~32%
  • Makes me feel more non-conformist/rebellious: ~27%
  • Makes me feel more spiritual: ~20%

[Far smaller percentages felt that their tattoo(s) made them feel more intelligent, more employable, more respected or more healthy.]

But what about regrets? Are there people who wish they hadn’t taken the plunge?  The Harris survey found that approximately one in four respondents do feel at least some regrets about having a tattoo.  The reasons why are varied — yet all pretty obvious:

  • Personality changes … doesn’t fit my present lifestyle
  • The tattoo includes someone’s name I’m no longer with
  • The tattoo was poorly done … doesn’t look professional
  • The tattoo is no longer meaningful to me
  • I was too young when I got the tattoo

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to conclude that tattoos are a generational thing. Those of us north of age 50 don’t have any tattoos — and likely will never get one.

But for the younger generations, not only have tattoos gone “mainstream,” for many they’re a decidedly aspirational thing.  And that, of course, means ever widening acceptance of tattoos along with encountering more of them than ever before.

Comments … thoughts anyone?

“Social Media Stress Syndrome”: Real or Fake?

Social Media Stress SyndromeThere’s no denying the benefits of social media in enabling people to make new friendships, reconnect with old acquaintances, and nurture existing relationships.

Facebook and other social platforms make it easier than ever to maintain “in the moment” connections with people the world over. 

Speaking for myself, my immediate relatives who live in foreign lands seem so much closer because of social media.

Plus, thanks to social media, I’ve met other relatives from several different countries for the very first time.  This would never have happened in the pre-Facebook era.

But there are downsides to social media, too – and I’ve written about them on this blog on occasion; for example, whether social media is a platform for narcissists.

Other negative consequences of social media have been noted by numerous observers of consumer online behaviors, including Canadian digital marketing company Mediative’s Senior Vice President and online marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

In a recently published column by Hotchkiss headlined “The Stress of Hyper-Success,” he posits that self-regard and personal perspectives of “success” are relative.  Here’s a critical passage from what he writes:

“We can only judge it [success] by looking at others.  This creates a problem, because increasingly, we’re looking at extreme outliers as our baseline for expectations.”

Hotchkiss’ contention is that social media engenders feelings of stress in many people that would not occur otherwise.

Pinterest is a example.  A recent survey of ~7,000 U.S. mothers conducted by Today.com found that ~42% of respondents suffer from this social media-induced stress; it’s the notion that they can’t live up to the ideal suggested by the images of domestic bliss posted on the female-dominated Pinterest social network.

Facebook causes a similar reaction in many; Hotchkiss reports on a survey showing that one-third of Facebook users “feel worse” after visiting the site.

It may not be hard to figure out why, either, as visitors are often confronted with too-good-to-be-true photo galleries chronicling friends’ lavish vacations, social gatherings, over-the-top wedding ceremonies, etc.

Social Media EnvyIt’s only natural for people to focus their attention on the “extraordinary” posts of this type … and to discount the humdrum posts focusing on the mundane aspects of daily life. 

Just like in the national or local news, people tend to focus on personal news items that are exceptional – the activities that are set far apart from the average.

Wall Street Journal report Meghan McBride Kelly has come up with a pretty interesting way to address social media stress:  She quit Facebook earlier this year after a nine-year run.  McBride contends that “Aristotle wouldn’t ‘friend’ you on Facebook,” writing:

“Aristotle wrote that friendship involves a degree of love.  If we were to ask ourselves whether all of our Facebook friends were those we loved, we’d certainly answer that they’re not.  These days, we devote equal if not more time to tracking the people we have had very limited interaction with than to those whom we truly love.”

Likewise, Hotchkiss tries to head us off at the social media pass:

“Somewhere, a resetting of expectations is required before we self-destruct because of hyper-competitiveness in trying to reach an unreachable goal.  To end on a gratuitous pop culture quote, courtesy of Sheryl Crow:  ‘It’s not having what you want.  It’s wanting what you got.”

What are your thoughts about “social media stress disorder”?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Is Charlie LeDuff’s Book the Final Word on Detroit and its Social Pathologies?

Abandoned Apartment Building in Detroit, MI
Abandoned apartment building in Detroit.

I’ve blogged before about the city of Detroit, surely our country’s “Exhibit A” when it comes to chronicling urban decline.

The saga of Detroit’s recent history is pretty widely known, thanks to a bevy of articles in news magazines, lurid photo essays by prominent “ruin porn” photographers like Camilo José Vergara, and books by author Ze’ev Chafets and others.

Detroit: An American Autopsy, a book by Charlie LeDuffBut the most recent volume, Detroit: An American Autopsy, authored by journalist and reporter Charlie LeDuff and released earlier this year, is perhaps the most impactful of these — which makes it required reading.

That’s because not only is this book the most contemporary one on the subject – with up-to-the-minute references to the city’s most recent governmental follies – but also because the author happens to be a Detroit native.

In my view, Charlie LeDuff is one of the most fascinating reporters in the news industry today, with a background that is hardly common for journalists.

Prior to joining the staff at the Detroit News in 2008, LeDuff’s reporting career included more than a decade at the New York Times, along with a stint as a writer for an Alaskan trade publication. His reporting has taken him all over the country and the world, including the war theater in Iraq.

So LeDuff approaches his topic with all the insights of a seasoned reporter – yet he is not the dispassionate observer. After all, Detroit is his hometown. And throughout the pages of the book, you can distinctly feel the anger, the despair, and the grief the author feels about his city.

Indeed, the saga of Detroit “hits home” in many personal ways for Charlie LeDuff. Consider these points:

  • Witnessing the 1967 race rioting mere blocks from their family home in West Detroit, LeDuff’s parents, like so many other middle-class residents, choose safety for their children, moving out of the city in a matter of days following.
  • LeDuff’s mother’s florist shop, located on Jefferson Boulevard on the east side of town, is broken into multiple times – with a final act of vandalism forcing her to move to a suburban location. (The site of her former shop is now a pile of rubble.)
  • Battling chemical dependency, LeDuff’s only sister is sucked into a life on the streets, becoming a prostitute and dying one evening while leaving a dive bar on the city’s far west side.
  • LeDuff’s three brothers become casualties of Michigan’s worsening business climate, bouncing from one dead-end job to the next – each one a step lower on the economic ladder as meaningful employment for high school-educated workers dries up.
  • LeDuff’s niece, barely 20 years old, dies from a heroin overdose.

The author may have been drawn back to Detroit because of the pull of family. But what he discovers is an urban environment that has a corrosive effect on all who come into contact with it. Although he moves his wife and young daughter to a suburban enclave just outside the city limits, LeDuff finds that no one is immune to its negative effects.

In the pages of his book, LeDuff reports on the unscrupulousness and/or incompetence of entire classes of Detroiters: politicians, government bureaucrats, street hustlers, business leaders (the car company executives come in for particular opprobrium) – and even the artist community.

But the author is also quick to point out that most Detroiters are simply attempting to survive in an urban environment that is so dysfunctional, so stress-inducing, that civil behavior is nearly impossible to practice.

During his time at the Detroit News, Charlie LeDuff would pen many columns exposing the squalor and corruption he witnessed in his city. For that, he received many an irate phone message or e-mail missive lobbed his way, criticizing him for failing to spotlight the “good” attributes of Detroit.

In his book LeDuff has this to say to those people:

“[They] complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music …? What about the good things?

It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them … There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”

Charlie LeDuff is now a reporter for WJBK, the Fox affiliate TV station in Detroit. He took over for Brad Edwards, another newsman whose hard-hitting-yet-poignant stories of a city on the edge of the abyss have moved many and made both reporters so respected – even loved — by the public.

It’s a journalist’s duty to report the news, of course. But sometimes he or she can attempt to do more. I have no doubt that Charlie LeDuff felt a certain sense of “mission” when he returned to his hometown.

But traces of any significant progress are hard to find, five years on. After a string of corrupt mayors, Detroit elected the affable but ultimately unsuccessful ex-NBA player and businessman Dave Bing to the office.

Today, not only have city operations been turned over to a state-appointed administrator, Mayor Bing announced this past week that he will not be running for reelection. And so it goes …

LeDuff evokes this sense of “no hope left, writ small” as he describes the family scene at the burial of his 20-year-old niece:

“[I] looked up at the old people around the grave and considered the great turmoil of human history that they represented. My mother, her ties to the Native people of the Great Lakes and the drifting whiskered French settlers. My stepfather, whose people emigrated from the port of Danzig, the long-disputed city claimed by both the Germans the Poles, which ignited World War II. My niece’s other grandparents, hill folk who hailed from Appalachia and traced their heritage back to the Lowlands of Scotland and the warrior William Wallace.

People from all corners of the earth who came to Detroit to work in its factories and make it one of the most significant cities of history.

I looked up over the grave and surveyed the heaving sobs of my nieces and the strained faces of my brothers. Jimmy looking for work. Frankie on the verge of losing his house. Billy in the screw factory. Somehow, the city of promise had become a scrap yard of dreams.”

Yet then … LeDuff adds this glimmer of light:

“But fighters do what they do best when they’ve been staggered. They get off their knees and they fight some more.”

The question is, how much longer can Detroit go on fighting?

Is Social Media a Platform for Narcissists?

Narcissism on social mediaOver time, I’ve been seeing more articles and blog posts cropping up that broach the topic of social media and narcissism.  Here’s just one of the latest examples.

The issue boils down to this:

  • Do social media platforms cause people to become narcissistic?
  • Or is social media merely a conduit by which people who already possess narcissistic tendencies get to indulge in “self-referential behavior” on steroids?

One could probably start at the very beginning:  Is Mark Zuckerberg a narcissist?”    (Don’t answer that question!)

My own view is somewhat conflicted.  I see evidence of some people who cheerfully relish the bullhorn – and attention – that social media appears to give them.

But social media can be deceiving in that a “personal environment” can be built that seems like the whole world is watching and listening – but in reality it’s just a constructed edifice more akin to a Potemkin village.

How many people are actually reading anyone’s Twitter posts?    (Don’t answer that question!)

But I can also see clear evidence of some of the more “Type B” people I know who have made quite an impact on social media by virtue of some very impressive contributions – written information, videos, photography, etc.

In those cases, social media has been a way to extend influence well beyond a small circle of friends or colleagues – and far more than could ever be possible before.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on this topic and what have you observed?  Please share them here if you’re so inclined.

(Don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of narcissism!)

Volunteerism: Is it a Mormon and Midwestern Thing?

Volunteerism in AmericaDuring my adult life I’ve lived in all four regions of the United States. Each of them has its distinct positive aspects (along with a few not-so-positive ones).

Of course, these differences are part of what makes living in America so interesting.

One regional difference I’ve noticed is a greater predilection for volunteerism among people who live in the Midwest and Western regions. 

That anecdotal observation on my part has now been confirmed by the results of a consumer survey conducted in late 2012 by New York-based Scarborough Research.

In broad terms, Scarborough found that approximately 27% of American adults reported having participated in some form of volunteer activities over the previous year.

That percentage breaks down further by demographic age clusters as follows:

  • All Adults: ~27% have volunteered during the past year
  • Baby Boomers (age 45-64): ~34%
  • Gen Xers (age 30-44): ~27%
  • Millennials (age 18-29): ~20%
  • Silent Generation (age 65+): ~18%

Looking more closely at the 27% of respondents who volunteers, the Scarborough research revealed that, while volunteerism is found throughout the United States, certain urban markets have a distinctly larger proportion of their population so involved.

And when you look at the list – and Scarborough studied more than 85 local markets – you’re hard-pressed to find any of them located east of the Mississippi River. Instead, the list is completely skewed towards the Midwest and West:

  • Salt Lake City, UT: ~42% of adults have volunteered during the past 12 months
  • Des Moines, IA: ~34%
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN: ~34%
  • Portland, OR: ~34%
  • Grand Rapids, MI: ~33%
  • San Francisco, CA: ~33%
  • Seattle, WA: ~33%
  • Green Bay, WI: ~32%

Which urban markets are at the bottom of Scarborough’s list? All of them are located in coastal states:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: ~22% of adults have volunteered
  • Las Vegas, NV: ~22%
  • New Orleans, LA: ~22%
  • Bakersfield, CA: ~21%
  • El Paso, TX: ~21%
  • Harlington, TX: ~20%
  • Miami, FL: ~20%
  • Providence, RI: ~20%

Scarborough also found that those who volunteer their time tend to be more generous with their financial support:

  • They are ~84% more likely to have contributed to an arts or cultural organization within the past year
  • ~61% more likely to contribute to an environmental organization
  • ~60% more likely to financially support a social care, welfare or political organization
  • ~57% more likely to have contributed to a religious organization

More details on the Scarborough Research findings, including stats for more than 85 local markets, can be found here.

United States … or United Nations? Author Colin Woodard reminds us that “who we are now” is “where we were when.”

"American Nations," a book by Colin Woodard.
In his book “American Nations,” Colin Woodard divides the continent into 11 distinct territories.

It’s tempting to think about the United States as a pretty monolithic country and culture. Certainly, if you listen to the views of Continental Europeans or people from the Middle East, it seems that’s how many around the world view us.

But the reality is far more complex. Speaking as someone who has lived in all four major regions of the U.S. — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — I’ve experienced first-hand a variety of different regional “quirks.”

And now we have an interesting book that really delves into the phenomenon of America’s distinct regions. In his book American Nations, published in 2011 and now available in paperback, journalist and author Colin Woodard takes us on an interesting regional tour of the continent.

Woodard counts no fewer than eleven “nations within a nation.” And as he defines them, they’re actually spread throughout the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico.

What exactly are these “nations within a nation” and how did they come to be?  They’re the result of early settlers, later migration patterns, and deep-seated cultural affinities that, while somewhat mitigated in recent years, are still surprisingly resilient even after 150 or 200 years.

The one “nation” on Woodard’s map that may characterize what many people think of as “America” is one he calls “Yankeedom.”

“Yankeedom nation” stretches from New England and Upstate New York to the Midwest, encompassing Northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to Woodard, this region’s character and social culture stem from the utopian communities founded by Puritans and the later immigrants from Scandinavia. In “Yankeedom nation,” intellectual achievement is valued along with an abiding belief in public institutions’ ability to improve and even perfect society.

Understanding these attributes makes it easier to see how the Grange Movement, Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party and even RomneyCare came into being here rather than in some other part of the United States.

The polar opposite of Yankeedom may well be “Greater Appalachia nation,” a region on Woodard’s map that stretches from Southwestern Pennsylvania west and south to encompass nearly the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee along with vast swatches of contiguous states.

Also referred to as “The Borderlands,” this “nation” also includes areas we don’t usually associate with Appalachia such as the Ozarks, Oklahoma, Central Texas and even a bit of Eastern New Mexico.

What ties this sprawling “nation” together? The eastern portions of the region were settled not by English planters, merchants or Puritans, but by Scots-Irish immigrants who brought with them a fighting spirit along with a sense of fierce independence and suspicion of central governments.

They and their descendents later migrated to the western regions, bringing their cultural predilections with them. Think of John McCain’s fighting spirit – whose ancestors settled in Mississippi from further east – and you have a flavor of the abiding characteristics of this region.

The great observer of American politics, Michael Barone, has written about Greater Appalachia nation’s antipathy to the social and governmental policies of the current administration in Washington, DC. He notes that even as President Obama has won the White House twice with relative ease, he’s actually fared worse with voters in the Borderlands region when compared to the unsuccessful efforts of John Kerry and Al Gore, losing every county in the states of West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma and carrying precious few anywhere else.

American Nations, by Colin Woodard.Woodard’s book delves into a great deal of rich regional history in order to reveal to us how these and the other “nations” came to be. It’s a fascinating volume that will surely spark some of your own thoughts and perceptions of “America” – in whole and in part.

If you have some personal observations or experiences that illustrate the regional differences in the country, please share them in the comment section below.  As for myself, I’m a person who was born in the “Tidewater nation” and who has relatives in the “Deep South nation.” When attending high school in the Twin Cities (smack in the heart of “Yankeedom nation”), I found it interesting how clueless my otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable and well-traveled schoolmates were about anything to do with the Deep South.

In particular, Mississippi and Alabama were always being mixed up in their minds.

And of the ~50 people who graduated from my high school class, consider these stats: While easily three-fourths of our grads chose to attend college or university out of state … nearly 90% of the class stayed in Woodard’s “Yankeedom nation.”

A coincidence? I think not.

[By the way, I was one of the ~10% who elected to attend college in another “nation,” a decision I never regretted.]

Observations on the Newtown Tragedy and its Larger Societal Implications

Shady Hook School, Newtown, CTI’m going to take a step away from the usual focus of my blog posts to address the larger cultural factors that really need to be on everyone’s radar screen as we “process” the horrific actions in Newtown, CT. The school massacre has left a community reeling and I’m sure many are re-examining their thinking about what this all means in the “larger context” of our society and culture.

A good friend of mine I’ve known since college, Wesley Green, is someone whose opinion I value highly. He’s been a “media person” for decades and always has interesting observations to share about the “bigger meaning” of events as they occur.

Wes sent me his observations about Newtown, meant for my eyes only, but I found them thought-provoking and compelling enough to want to share with my blog audience. With his permission, here is what Wes shared with me:

We all wonder how something like this could happen …

The natural disposition of humans is to be compassionate and outward looking. We are by nature people of community—predisposed to love and take care of each other. But … when afflicted by a psychological or neurological injury, humans lurch towards some form of narcissism.

Common in small children whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, narcissism re-emerges, sometimes with a vengeance, in adults as an unconscious reaction to neurological/psychological disequilibrium. As far as I can tell, all mental illness is accompanied by some form of narcissism in that one’s capacity for empathy is somehow impaired.

How narcissistic tendencies are enabled …

The modern world unfortunately gives people novel opportunities to indulge any narcissistic tendencies. Video games allow people to be the heroes of their own virtual worlds – worlds in which they have power and prestige.

Websites, including social sites, also allow people to feel more … consequential.

But I think the most insidious modern innovation remains television. Not only does TV blur the lines between fantasy and reality, it can actually turn fantasy into reality.

Why TV may be a linchpin …

More than any other media, television has the power to take “nobodies” and transform them into “somebodies” almost overnight. We see it on American Idol, The X-Factor, and a host of reality TV shows (Jersey Shore, anyone?). So much celebrity is doled out, it becomes an achievable goal to many – including people with weapons.

TV also has power no other media have to legitimize formerly illegitimate behavior. The Brady Bunch did more than people realize to legitimize blended families. Years later, shows like Modern Family and Glee helped change our attitudes about gays.

But … there is a flip side: Behaviors once considered not just off-limits but barbaric also have gained some legitimacy when those behaviors are seen to bring global attention to a “worthy” cause and thus advance it. For years now, violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks have been scripted to maximize broadcast exposure.

It doesn’t take much imagination for a narcissist to connect dots and suffuse his/her own personal fantasies with the same import. “Round-the-clock international newsfeeds” and “deadly impulses” make for a combustible mixture.

Newtown TragedySo, what does this mean?

It seems to me that the problem isn’t that these “suburban terrorists” see too much violence on television and in the news. It’s that they yearn to see themselves on television and in the news.

While they may have an impulse to vent their rage, what they really covet is the immortality that comes with a leading role in some sort of Götterdämmerung—in prime time.

Regulating automatic weapons may help, but when glory beckons a twisted ego, I suspect that ego will find a way to answer the call.

Alas, ironically, as we become increasingly connected to each other through technology, we’re being forced to put up new barricades to protect ourselves from those who want to use that “connectedness” to advertise their own perverse agendas and/or raise their own humiliatingly low profiles.

Is it something particular about America and our culture?

It’s too pat a response to contend that more restrictive gun control laws are all that stand in the way of solving the problems of mass shooting in the United States. I think that answer is deceptively easy – and insufficient.

The more I think about this, I suspect there may be one more important ingredient in the toxic brew: the central place of “aspiration” in the American psyche.

In the U.S., self-worth is largely defined by achievement. We are what we manage to accomplish in life. (Not so much in most other countries/cultures. At least, not historically.) All of us — except African-Americans and Native Americans — are descended from people who came here chasing dreams.

Even today, we measure ourselves by milestones along similar personal journeys. In fact, so important is “accomplishment” in our culture that we now have a website that purports to be able to quantify it: Klout.

It is instructive, I think, that all the young gunmen who have perpetrated these awful acts are males of European or Asian descent. They come out of middle-class, strongly aspirational cultures. It leaves one to wonder if the same ethos that drives innovation in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial activity coast to coast also factors heavily into the narcissistic fantasies of disturbed young men. Mass murder is simply the shadow side of headline personal success: headline personal failure.

Remember this line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman:

“I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have — to come out Number One man.”

Interesting, no?

When you understand the strong impulse middle-class Americans have to make a splash in life — our fascination with the BIG statement … and then factor in the disorientation of mental illness and the opportunities for really big statements afforded by the modern media, maybe the questions “Why in America?” and “Why these middle-class young men?” begin to answer themselves a little more easily.

What’s ahead?

It’s chilling to contemplate, but the future may look a lot like this:

We’ll increasingly live in gated communities.
 We’ll increasingly shop in malls with airport-like security.
 We’ll increasingly worship behind doors outfitted with metal detectors.
 We’ll increasingly send our kids to schools that look like Fort Knox.
 Our physical connectedness will dissipate even as our virtual connectedness expands.

A horrific thought. What’s worse, I suspect there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it – gun control regulations or no.

In addition to Wesley’s observations above, I’d be interested in your own views about Newtown and what it says about our society and culture. Please share your thoughts below if you feel so inclined.

Immigration Nation: Northern Lights Edition

Hovsjo Estate, Sodertalje, Sweden
The “road to wherever” is paved with good intentions: Hovsjo Estate, Sweden.

As an adjunct to my recent blog post recounting the views of my expat brother, Nelson Nones, on immigration policy and its impact on national identity, here’s another interesting missive – this time from Sweden where my brother is currently working on a long-term consulting job.

What he writes is a cautionary tale on how not to deal with the tide of foreign nationals flooding in …

Background

I’m staying in Södertälje, a town of about 65,000 people located 22 miles southwest of Stockholm. Although Södertälje is today considered part of the greater Stockholm area, albeit on the fringe, it is an old factory town.

I’m here because Astra AB, which merged with Zeneca Group of the United Kingdom to form pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca, was founded here in 1919. Today AstraZeneca has two manufacturing sites in Södertälje, one of which is the largest tableting plant in the world.

One bit of trivia you’ll find out here: It’s the hometown of tennis star Björn Borg.

As most people know, Sweden is a very socialist market economy. The Swedes I know tell me that the only real difference between the Right (mainly represented by the “Moderate Party”) and Left (mainly represented by the “Swedish Social Democratic Party” which is Sweden’s largest political party) is their position on whether (Left) or not (Right) the government should run state-owned enterprises.

Sweden has a very generous public welfare system financed by the second-highest tax regime in the world, after Denmark. Personal income tax starts at 29%, but anyone earning over ~US$ 52,000 per year will pay between 49% and 60%.

Throw in the 25% value added tax (VAT) which is similar to sales tax in America, and you’ll get an idea of just how high the taxes are here.

Sweden is Europe’s fifth-largest country by area (not counting European Russia) but its population is only 9.5 million, so it is Europe’s third most sparsely populated country, after Norway and Finland (again, not counting European Russia and also excluding Iceland). Sweden is also relatively poorly endowed with natural resources.  For example, neighboring Norway has large North Sea oil reserves, but Sweden has none.

Recognizing this, the Swedish government aggressively pursued a policy of promoting large-scale industrial development after World War II, and this is one reason why Sweden has so many large industrial companies today. They include AstraZeneca, Volvo, Ericsson, Scania (also headquartered in Södertälje), Skanska, Saab and Alfa Laval.

To build these industries Sweden needed workers – lots of them. So it entered into a trade agreement with other Northern European countries back in 1952 which established a common labor market and free movement across borders. As a result, Sweden successfully attracted a large number of immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s from countries such as Finland, Germany, and even the Baltic States.

Another piece of important background information concerns greater Stockholm’s development since World War II. Unlike most big American cities, very few people in the Stockholm area (including Södertälje) live in single-family detached homes. Most of them live in apartments that were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s as part of Sweden’s Million Programme to build 1 million new dwellings in 10 years (for more information, see the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Programme).

One of the main motivations of the Million Programme was to build affordable housing for the immigrant workers recruited to fuel Sweden’s industrial growth, and quite a few of those houses were built in Södertälje because it was already a well-established factory town.

To give an idea of how prevalent this sort of housing is, I had dinner recently with one of AstraZeneca’s senior executives and his family at their home, which is a flat in a small development on the outskirts of Södertälje consisting of two-story apartment blocks, four flats per block. It’s a beautiful home, but it still is … a flat.

How It Went Wrong

Partly because of its liberal immigration policy over the years, Sweden is also one of the world’s most accommodating countries for political refugees.  In recent years, many of them have come from the Middle East; specifically Christian Iraqis and Assyrians facing religious persecution, and also Muslims.

A very large number of these refugees settled in Södertälje. Today, approximately 40% of Södertälje’s population is foreign-born and, outside of Iraq, Södertälje is the largest enclave of Iraqis in the world.

Why Södertälje? Local opinions differ, but from what I can piece together it appears that:

  • Although Sweden’s industrial development policy proved very successful at first, employment in large industries is now in decline. As one example, AstraZeneca shut down its R&D center in Södertälje earlier this year in order to cut costs and consolidate R&D activities in the United Kingdom. (Previously, the Södertälje R&D center employed ~1,000 people.) Sweden’s automotive industries, especially Saab, have been hit hard by the global recession. It doesn’t help that Sweden is a very high-cost manufacturing locale today, so the country has lost many of the competitive advantages it possessed in prior years. As in America, industries have attempted to reduce high labor costs through automation, further reducing local employment.
  • Södertälje’s residential vacancy rate surged as job losses mounted and people moved away to find work elsewhere.
  • The Swedish government pays 100% of the housing cost for political refugees, who typically are unemployable because they lack the necessary language and/or job skills.
  • Södertälje is a convenient place to house these refugees, because vacant flats are readily available at (relatively) low cost, and because the town is on Stockholm’s urban fringe where the new arrivals are least likely to disrupt the area’s social fabric.

One of the Södertälje neighborhoods where the refugee population lives is Hovsjö (a tongue-twister pronounced something like “hoe-joo”). It was a Million Programme project put up between 1971 and 1975.

Unlike American ghetto neighborhoods, this one is on the far fringes of Södertälje, on top of a hill in the middle of a huge pine forest, and adjacent to a stunningly beautiful lake. It has 2,200 apartments, mostly in high-rise buildings, and is home to over 5,000 people.

You can view a documentary of Hovsjö at http://frankaschberg.com/sets/hovsjo/1296 and I can confirm from having driven up there once, just to see it, that the images paint an accurate picture.

Is this what comes to mind when one thinks of Sweden?  Most likely not!  With the help of Google Translate, shown below is a 2008 news article that says it all (you can find the original, in Swedish, here: http://lt.se/nyheter/1.47788-rasistdad-mot-nya-minoriteter-i-hovsjo).

New Racist Minorities in Hovsjö

“There are families who are prisoners in their own homes.”  Hovsjö Muslims, newly arrived refugees and people who stand out, are all becoming victims of harassment in Hovsjö. “I do not know why they harass me,” says Louris Kalo.

Hovsjö has become calmer for most people. But for a minority, it has become a living hell. Arriving refugees – especially Muslims – are particularly vulnerable.

“The problem must be taken seriously by politicians. There are families who are prisoners in their own homes, who take their children to kindergarten and then lock themselves inside out of fear,” says Hovsjö police chief Niclas Johansson.

One victim, who is neither Muslim nor Iraqi, is hairdresser Louris Kalo. She is Syrian but from Syria, not Turkey. “I do not know why they harass me, but the police and Securitas [the private security company] have been really kind to follow me home.”

For some reason, perhaps because she is a single woman and supports herself, she is met by taunts and she has repeatedly been forced to lock herself in her apartment after over 30 youths threw eggs at her salon and wrote bad words on the door. “Most of Hovsjö’s families are good and I do not want to move from here. But for the sake of the young people, I hope their parents do something about it before it is too late.”

Politicians know that in the past, Muslims were targeted by Christian immigrant groups. Now, however, even Iraqi Christians suffer hate crimes.

According to Mayor Anders Lago, the basic problem is that Södertälje is forced to accept too many applicants, creating segregated areas. “Södertälje has no agreement to accept any refugees at all. All those who come here do so because they have chosen to live here. But Sodertalje cannot shoulder this burden alone, so we want the government’s help to repeal the law that currently allows refugees to decide for themselves where they want to stay.”

Other news accounts point to a rising tide of violence between Christians and Muslims in Hovsjö, particularly between gangs of unemployed youths. All of the bad blood between Christians and Muslims is simply spreading over from the Middle East to bucolic Sweden.

[You can read more about Hovsjö’s litany of woe (in English) here: http://www.thelocal.se/tag/hovsj%F6.]

Hovsjö is not alone. There are at least two other areas that are nearly as bad in Södertälje, one of which is right up the hill from the house where I had my recent dinner (and I witnessed quite a bit of police activity then).

My dinner hosts, who are the stereotypically Swedish family and very nice people to boot, spent much of our evening together deploring the present situation in Södertälje.

I might add that, like most Swedes, they don’t mind paying high taxes, but they bitterly resent seeing their tax money given away to “hooligans,” as they would say.

The Moral of the Story

If you’re going to open the door to immigrants and refugees, then:

  • Don’t put the new arrivals on the dole.
  • Make sure they’re able to earn their own living after they arrive – not by offering “make work” jobs, but through the cumulative effects of fiscal and economic policies that stimulate domestic demand for workers having the skills, knowledge and abilities that the new arrivals possess.
  • Remove whatever incentives might cause the new arrivals to crowd into ghettoes (like the Mexican border zone in the U.S., or the dreary estates of Södertälje).  As an example of an alternative approach, America’s immigration policy in the 19th century was to give away rural (and widely dispersed) homesteads to immigrants.
  • Focus on attracting immigrants for economic or educational reasons, not on refugees for humanitarian reasons.  This may sound harsh, but it’s not as cruel as the social dysfunction (and even mayhem) that exists in places like Hovsjö. 

As people say, “The road to h*ll is paved with good intentions.”  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and reaction to what Nelson is reporting from “bucolic Sweden.”  Could it be that the grass is not actually greener …?