October 21, 2006


Goat Rope is pleased to offer another contribution on ancient Greece by alpine goat and historian Corneilus Agrippa.

Cornelius is the Goat Rope Farm Dean of Classical and Alchemistical Studies. You can view his commentary from last weekend in the archives.

This series is part of Goat Rope's ongoing efforts to elevate the level of popular discourse and promote greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed by the animals writing for Goat Rope are not necessarily those of the Goat Rope staff. But they might be.


OK. Greek tragedy is cool and it's all because of goats. Tragedy comes from the Greek words for goat song.

Which reminds me. I wrote a song the other day. Like to hear it? Here it is:


Pretty awesome, huh? That was like a tragedy or something.

Alright, so like Greek tragedy was like a combination rock concert, superbowl, and religious festival. Except the religion was cool. You guys ought to try that some time.

The big gig was in Athens during the spring festival of Dionysus, god of wine. How come you guys don't have gods like that anymore?

It was an all-day contest between three poets who each produced a series of three tragedies and a funny satyr play. As I said last week, satyrs are part goat, baby!

Everybody came and then they voted on a winner. Usually the theme was from one of the myths but sometimes they tried to use more current things.

At first they think tragedies were just a chorus singing. Then they added one actor who talked to the chorus, then they a few more. And that's how you guys got television and the dorky movies you watch today.

What happened to you guys anyway? You used to be a lot cooler.


October 20, 2006


This rooster, the famous Dr. Denny Dimwit, thinks all rebels should be locked up in the interests of the market.

This is the fifth and final post in a series about conformity, rebellion and the American dream. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the previous posts.

These are dark days for rebels. The Powers that Be--particularly the economic arrangements of the world economy--seem too powerful to challenge in any meaningful way. Some have called this sense of powerlessness the TINA Syndrome (for There Is No Alternative).

Part of the problem as well is that some previous attempts to radically remake the world haven't turned out very well. It's a sad fact that during most periods of human history revolutions have been impossible--and on the rare occasions they were possible the remedy has often been worse than the disease. (Think Stalinism.)

And rebellion has often been ineffective where it hasn't been homicidal.

If there's a way to rehabilitate rebellion in a world that desperately needs it, maybe the path is to combine it with a sense of limits and moderation.

It is not given to people to remake the human condition or write the wrongs of the past. But with skill, intelligence and luck, we can, when conditions are right, make specific gains and reduce some of the unnecessary sufferings of the present. That's all, but that's also enough.

Albert Camus, who (literally) wrote the book on rebellion (The Rebel), recommended this approach:

Moderation is not the opposite of rebellion. Rebellion in itself is moderation, and it demands, defends, and re-creates it throughout history and its eternal disturbances.

Camus thought we should look at history as neither a road to utopia nor a dead end of despair. Rather, "It is only an opportunity that must be rendered fruitful by a vigilant rebellion."


October 19, 2006


Caption: This BIG hen would like to live a life of crime, but she's not quick enough.

This is the fourth of five posts on conformity, rebellion and the American dream. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to earlier posts.

To recap briefly, there is a disconnection between the goal of wealth or material success and the means for getting there. Sociologist Robert Merton argued that this gap between the goal and the means causes serious social strains that people cope with in different ways.

The coping strategies he identified were conformity (accepting the goal and legal means), innovation (accepting the goal but using illegitimate means to achieve it), ritualism (giving up on the goal but going through the motions anyway), retreatism (giving up on both); and rebellion (rejecting both and trying to change the system to make it more just).

When I teach Merton's theory, students have no trouble coming up with examples from real life for most of these.

They may identify themselves as conformists by working and going to school. They know of innovators like drug dealers who seek success illegally. They know (and sometimes admit to resembling) ritualists or people who work every day without thought of "success"). And they know retreatists or stoners who have just given up.

But most don't know any rebels and have never been exposed to the idea of rebellion. The whole idea of trying to change the overall economic structure is a pretty alien.

To a degree, this is to be expected. Any social order can appear as natural and inevitable to people who live under it and get used to it. But for many today the power of corporate globalization is such that unconditional surrender is the only option.

And it is hard to get excited about alternatives when, to use Benjamin Barber's terms, the only challenger to the bloodless McWorld of global capitalism is the bloodthirsty Jihad of tribalism and fundamentalism.

Still, this eclipse of a search for alternatives is pretty sad. Many if not most of the advances humanity has made over the centuries were due to the rebels, even though the rewards of rebellion are often on the order of crucifixion.

The list of rebellion's accomplishments includes abolishing slavery (mostly); gaining women's rights (kind of); abolishing child labor and the worst abuses of cut-throat capitalism (for a while in some places).

The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass summed up the rebel's creed pretty well:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Next time: middle-range rebellion.


October 18, 2006


Caption: The little white hen goes to work every day but has given up on striking it rich. She's a ritualist.

This is the third post in a series about conformity, rebellion and "the American Dream." If this is your first visit to Goat Rope, please scroll down to the two earlier entries.

As noted in earlier posts, there is a pretty big disconnection between the popular American goal of wealth or material success and means for getting there.

According to the late great sociologist Robert Merton, people have different ways of dealing with the strain this situation creates. Here are five approaches he identified:

Conformity: People coping this way accept the goal of "success" and use legitimate means of trying to get there. To quote Dylan, they "Get dressed, get bless, try to be a success."

Innovation. This is a good example of jargon. What Merton calls innovation would be called crime by most people. It involves accepting the goal of getting rich but using illegitimate/illegal ways of going about it. This approach often occurs when legitimate ways of gaining success are not available.

Ritualism. This would describe people who have given up on the goal of "success" but keep going through the motions of conformity, showing up for work every day but seeking satisfaction in other aspects of life.

Retreatism. This approach rejects both the goals and the means for getting there and doesn't bother trying. In El Cabrero's beloved home town, these are the guys who sit on the old bank steps and drink Milwaukee's Best whenever they can get it. In Springsteen's words, "They don't work and they don't get paid."

Finally, and most rare these days, is the approach of rebellion, which, in Merton's words

leads people to envisage and seek to bring into being a new, that is to say, a greatly modified social structure. It presupposes alienation from reigning goals and standards...In our society, organized movements for rebellion aim to introduce a social structure in which the cultural standards of success would be sharply modified and provision would be made for a closer correspondence between merit, effort, and reward.

Here's the interesting thing. When I teach this theory in sociology classes, students have no trouble identifying people who use all but one of these strategies.

Next time: where have all the rebels gone?


October 17, 2006


Caption: This rooster has given up on the rat race. He's a retreatist.

This is the second post in a series about conformity, rebellion and the American dream.

As the late great sociologist Robert Merton noted in the 1930s, there is a built-in strain in American life. From the earliest days of the Republic, America was seen by many as a land of opportunity where people of lowly origins could rise to the pinnacle of material success through their own efforts (being white and male was usually a plus).

As he put it,

The symbolism of a commoner rising to the estate of economic royalty is woven deep in the texture of the American culture pattern, finding what is perhaps its ultimate expression in the words of one who knew whereof he spoke, Andrew Carnegie: "Be a king in your dreams. Say to yourself, 'My place is at the top.'"

People are taught from an early age "not to be a quitter," that "there is no such word as 'fail,'" etc.

The goal of success as wealth and status is alive and well. The problem is that there is no clear way of achieving it and most people never get there. Many of the few at the top of the "economic royalty" pile were born there. Many who work hard their whole lives wind up impoverished. Many keep going through the motions but live what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation."

And, as noted in an earlier post, social mobility is now actually higher in many parts of "old" Europe than it is in the U.S.

This gap between the goal and the means for achieving it is demoralizing and leads to anomie (a sense of normlessness), instability, social strain, and a tendency towards deviant behavior.

Next time: coping with the strain.


October 16, 2006


Caption: Warning: this rooster may be deviant.

Every so often, El Cabrero teaches an evening sociology class somewhere far from the campus of his beloved alma mater.

Most of the students are non-traditional, working on a degree while balancing family and work.

Perusers of Goat Rope will perhaps not be surprised to find that one of these offering is "Deviance and Social Control" (with emphasis on the former). Deviance is a huge topic and can include everything from serial killers to political dissidents.

There are lots of interesting theories about deviance but one of the most interesting was developed by the late great Robert Merton, who was a professor at Columbia for many years and died in 2003.

Merton made many contributions to the social sciences. He was famous for calling for and developing what he called "theories of the middle range," which bridge the gap between studies of minute empirical details and grand theories that try to explain life, the universe and everything.

His theory of deviance was first published in a 1938 article titled "Social Structure and Anomie" and is still very influential. In simple terms, it has to do with the "American Dream" of material success and the difficulties of actually trying to achieve it.

That will be the subject of the next post.