Word Association: I say Trump. . .?

June 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Quinnipiac poll done last month had an item that I hadn’t seen before. The poll had the usual Favorable/Unfavorable  questions about Trump, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, and others. (Trump’s 35% Favorable / 58% Unfavorable was best in show.) But Quinnipiac then, in Item #9, asked for more specific reactions.
9. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump? (Numbers are not percentages. Figures show the number of times each response was given. This table reports only words that were mentioned at least five times.)
Here the results. I have sorted them into Favorable and Unfavorable. (Some respondents may have used “president” as a neutral term. After all, even those who think unfavorably of Trump acknowledge that he is in fact the president, and that he is a rich businessman. But I’m going to assume that these all carry positive valences.)


(Click on the chart for a clearer view.)

The sheer numbers – 343 negative to 184 positive – reflect Trump’s unpopularity, of course. But what about the variety? Is this peculiar to Trump? Does he offer so many things to dislike? Or do we just generally have a richer vocabulary of negative adjectives? Is it harder to come up with different ways that we like someone?

Missing Fathers, Missing Jobs

June 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father.”

Thus David Brooks begins a recent column. As usual, Brooks pays close attention to culture, psychology, and the dynamics of relationships while pretty much ignoring structure and economics.
                                                       
Brooks is correct in saying that the reasons men leave have more to do with the man-woman relationship than with the father-child relationship. Since this happens far more frequently among the poor, most people would probably focus on financial factors – lack of income, lack of jobs, lack of education.  Instead, Brooks focuses on the young man’s ideas.

Not David Brooks.

The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.

But while the young father is “ stuck in a formless romantic anarchy,” the mother must necessarily be more realistic. The collision dooms the relationship.

Buried in the rigors of motherhood, the women, meanwhile, take a very practical view of what they need in a man: Will this guy provide the financial stability I need, and if not, can I trade up to someone who will?

The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.

Brooks is working from Doing the Best I Can : Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013), by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson, a study of men in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The authors note the dismal job market the men face. “By the 1970s, when the new-father ideology first came on the scene, the job prospects of those with no credentials beyond a high school diploma, including in Philadelphia and Camden, were already in free fall.”

Fifty years ago, Elliot Liebow surveyed this same territory – Black streetcorner men in Washington, DC – in Tally’s Corner.  Liebow saw that the central problem in marriages was the man’s inability to, as Brooks says, “provide financial stability.” But unlike Brooks, Liebow looked outward at the labor market for the reasons. The basic fact underyling the men’s lives – as husbands, fathers, friends, and lovers – was that the kinds of jobs that these men could get did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family.

Marriage is an occasion of failure. To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted by it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one's reach. where one is continuously tested and challenged and continually found wanting.

Or as Herb Gans, at around the same time, put it in his “Reflections on the Moynihan Report”

The Negro man . . .cannot provide  the economic support that. is a principal male function in American society. As a result, the woman becomes the head of the famly, and the man a marginal appendage who deserts or is rejected by his wife.

While work and income remain central to the problem of absentee fathers, other things may have changed. The man on Tally’s Corner in 1963 was, typically, ambivalent about his children, for the child, like the wife, was a reminder of his failure to live up to the role of breadwinner. The man moving in with someone else’s children was more likely to be affectionate towards them than towards his own biological children.

To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him saying, in effect, “I’m not even trying to be your father so now I can't be blamed for failing to accomplish what rm not trying to do.”

According to Edin and Nelson, a cultural shift at all levels of US society has allowed men to have a different reaction to their children. I hope to take up in a later post.

False Equivalencies and the Distortion of History

June 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you want a good example of false equivalency, look no further than Ross Douthat’s column today (here).

The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s generated segregationist terrorism on the right and a revolutionary underground on the left, but it did not produce much partisan terrorism, violence inspired simply by fear and hatred of the opposition party.


From the balancing of right and left in this sentence, you would never know that level of segregationist violence was several orders of magnitude greater than what the “revolutionary underground” committed. 

Douthat’s claim that segregationist terrorism was not “partisan” is also a bit of a stretch. Douthat’s main point is that until last week’s “attempted massacre of Republicans on a baseball field,” assassinations in the US have not been partisan. The killers may have acted on a political ideology, but they were not affiliated with a party or even a real movement. 

That may be true of a handful of assassinations and attempts directed at prominent elected officials – JFK, Reagan, RFK, and others. The shooters were lone wolves, and saw their targets as individuals rather than as representatives of a political party .

But much political violence, including killings, has been more organized and systematic. In the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the people who were doing the beating were often agents of the government. Those who committed murder, torture, arson, and other forms of terrorism knew that law enforcement was on their side and would do little to prevent or punish them. And their terrorism had a clear political purpose: to preserve White supremacy.

Douthat says that segregationist terror was not “inspired by fear and hatred of the opposition party.” This statement is true only in the very technical sense that there was no opposition party. The  fear and hatred were directed at people who were trying to create an anti-segregationist party or to eventually bend one of the major parties away from White supremacy policies.

The killers of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, and other people who were working for civil rights; the people who burned churches; the sheriffs, the Klansmen, and the others – they were part of a political establishment, some as officials, others as constituents. If Douthat thinks that they are barely worth remembering, he is distorting history. If he thinks that they were were political oddballs and isolates on the order of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, and Squeaky Fromme, he is drawing an egregiously false equivalency.

Did Comey Infer Or Did He Imply?

June 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language prescriptivists – the people who tell us when our choice of words is wrong – are always on the losing side historically. Words come to mean what people use them to mean regardless (or irregardless) of what experts say. But sometimes the fuddy-duddies have a point.

Infer/Imply. These words often appear on lists of terms that people misuse. To imply is to suggest something indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion from the available information. Most of the time, you can figure out from context what the speaker or writer really meant. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two words can be important.

Look at the this sentence in a story today at the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, (here):

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
(The link at “heavily inferred” does not go to a language Website.)


At first, I thought that Comey, using his powers of deduction and the information available at the FBI, had concluded that the special counsel was conducting an obstruction investigation. But no, what the writer meant, I think, was that Comey had implied that the special counsel was investigating possible obstruction of justice. 

The distinction is relevant. As written, the sentence means that Comey didn’t know and was just guessing. But if the writer meant imply rather than infer, it means Comey already knew and was dropping a big hint to the committee and to the world. That’s especially important because the main Republican talking point is that there is no case for obstruction.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe someone will explain why imply doesn’t rhyme with simply.