Sometimes I Feel Like . . . a Muddledness Child

May 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Molly Worthen* is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates.  It’s a tyranny without a tyrant (sorry, Obama haters; you can’t pin this one on him). Instead, it’s like the Yeerks in the Animorphs books my son used to read – worm-like aliens that slip in through a human’s ear, wrap themselves around his brain, and take over his thought. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:

“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.

Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees..

“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. (I almost always dislike the phrase “in terms of,” but in this case, it is apt. I am talking about words.) The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend  when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.

In an earlier post (here) I reported that “needs to” began its rise in the late 1970s. “I feel like” is more recent, says Worthen, going back only a decade or two.** But Worthen finds it more insidious. “I feel like” defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel.

Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who is calmer about the whole thing. People know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that your are not speaking about your actual emotions.

The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ”

Worthen disagrees.  “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”

“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:

We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.

*Worthen’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is here.

** Update, May 3: Philip Cohen ran “I feel like” through Google nGrams, as did Mark Liberman at Language Log, and found that, like “needs to” the phrase “I feel like” began its rise in the late 1970s.

Happy Birthday, Duke

April 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Edward Kennedy Ellington, born April 29, 1899.  His work – its quality, quantity, and diversity – is one of the treasures of American music. And he wrote most of it while working full-time as CEO of a touring band. Here is a 1940 recording of “Cottontail” – “modern jazz before there was ever such a term,” according to David Rickert (here)

One early morning years ago, I was driving to work, feeling not especially cheerful about, well, everything. The radio was on – WBGO – and the DJ played this recording, and suddenly the fog lifted. I especially like the saxophone section chorus that starts shortly after the 2:00 mark.

There’s also Ben Webster’s famous solo on the second chorus – “one of Webster's best solos, and also one of the greatest ever recorded,” says Rickert ,adding that it’s a great example of a solo telling a story. But for the full story, listen to the lyric by Jon Hendricks –  Beatrix Potter meets Duke Ellington. It begins,
Way back in my childhood
I heard a story so true
’Bout a funny bunny
Stealing some boo from a garden he knew.
(Hendricks wrote it in around 1960 – it’s on LHR’s 1962 album (listen here). But “boo” is a 1940s term for what we now call weed. )

How the Other 47% Lives

April 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember the 47% – those Americans whose income was so low that they were not required to pay any income tax? Mitt Romney talked about them when four years ago he was running for president. They are generally a concern among conservatives, who have identified them variously as “dependent,” “irresponsible,” “takers,” “lucky duckies,” and probably other unflattering names. 

That number, 47%,  cropped up again about a year ago when the Federal Reserve issued the results of a survey on household economic well-being (here). The Fed asked people what they would do if faced with an unexpected emergency costing $400. Only 53% of Americans said that they had enough cash hand or that they could pay it off on their next month’s credit card bill. The other 47% would have to sell something or go into debt. And some said that they would just be unable to find the money.

The Fed’s question is hardly hypothetical. Nearly a quarter of the households reported at least one financial hardship in the past year. Medical and job setbacks accounted for over half of these.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The Fed survey found that even among people earning $40,000 - $100,000, only slightly more than half (56%) could deal with a $400 crisis with either cash on hand or one-month credit card debt. Those with lower incomes, especially Blacks and Hispanics, fare even worse. Only 23% and 31% respectively could handle a $400 setback.

It’s possible that Obamacare will reduce the financial burden of medical emergencies. The survey was done in 2014 before the full effects of Obamacare were felt. Still, even among those with insurance and incomes in the middle category reported foregoing some medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it.

There’s a quote I’ve come across a few times in discussions about these kinds of uncertainties. “I’m just one illness, or one job, or one divorce away from poverty.” I’m not sure who said it – probably many people. The point is that it’s not only the poor whose economic position is precarious. But financial worry and need can be matters of shame, especially for those who seem to be solidly middle class. It’s not something anyone wants to talk about frankly.

Neal Gabler comes out of the financial-fear closet in a recent article in The Atlantic. I remember seeing Gabler on TV in the 1980s as half of the team that replaced Siskel and Ebert chatting about new movies on PBS. I figured he was doing all right. But no. He has not been living extravagantly, but with an income at about the US median, he too has to struggle.

I know what it is like to have liens slapped on me and to have my bank account levied by creditors. I know what it is like to be down to my last $5—literally—while I wait for a paycheck to arrive, and I know what it is like to subsist for days on a diet of eggs. I know what it is like to dread going to the mailbox, because there will always be new bills to pay but seldom a check with which to pay them. I know what it is like to have to tell my daughter that I didn’t know if I would be able to pay for her wedding; it all depended on whether something good happened. And I know what it is like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil.

Gabler has social capital (friends, family), and perhaps cultural capital, that he can, in an emergency, convert to financial capital. Most of the others in the 47% are not so lucky.

 UPDATE, April26:  Scott Winship has a critique of Gabler’s article and of the Fed data.  His article is online at National Review (here). Winship is the Walter B. Wriston fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank (Walter Wriston was the CEO of Citicorp from 1967 to 1984), and he scoffs at the notion that nearly half of us would be hard pressed to deal with a $400 setback. He parses the language of the Fed’s questionnaire (saying how you would cover the $400 is not the same as saying whether you could cover it). And besides, lots of people don’t save that $400 because of the multitude of people and institutions they have at their back:
“various forms of private insurance, a more general insurance system is constituted by 401(k) loans and distributions, home equity, credit cards, the public safety net and social insurance, bankruptcy courts, legally mandated emergency-room care, marriage, family, and friends.”
No right-wing critique of the economic hardship (and the hardship isn’t really that hard or widespread, according to Winship) would be complete without reference to individual virtue, and Winship comes through for the team:
“If too few people have $400 in emergency funds, it might mean that the economy is doing poorly by them. But it might also mean that too few of us have internalized the virtue of thrift.”
He also hints that in his heart of hearts he believes that the impact of the economy on individuals is less important than the impact of individual virtue on the economy.
“We should want to both promote responsible choices and have an effective economy; we cannot simply presume that more economic growth would promote thrift. The reverse could very well be true.”

Reality Trumping Satire

April 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to do political satire when reality keeps catching up with you. I don’t know who first made this observation – Mort Sahl, maybe. Tom Lehrer said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the issue of the The New Yorker that came out earlier this week, all the cartoons were about Donald Trump. Roz Chast imagined the Trump campaign saying that the Trump we’ve been seeing for the last months or perhaps years was just an act.

Two days ago, Trump’s campaign manager announced that the Trump’s performance as a candidate was just what the Chast said – all a big put-on.

Speaking at a private meeting of Republican Party leaders, Paul Manafort, who was recently hired as Trump’s campaign chief, acknowledged the billionaire businessman has been  “projecting an image” in order to energize voters in the primary election campaign.

 “When he’s out on the stage, when he’s talking about the kinds of things he’s talking about on the stump, he's projecting an image that's for that purpose,” Manafort said. [source]

The it gets really meta. Roz Chast’s cartoon on page 49 anticipated the reality. Then later in the magazine, on page 88 Robert Leighton’s cartoon anticipates the anticipation.

Of course, the best example of the reality-overtaking-satire problem remains the Onion headline a day or two before the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush.