Whose History Is This Anyway

May 24, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Karl Oliver’s Facebook post went viral, and not in a way he wanted. Oliver is the Mississippi state legislator who went on record with his views about Lousiana governor Mitch Landrieu for removing that statue of Robert E. Lee and other monuments to the Confederacy.



Of course it’s “LYNCHED!” that’s providing  Oliver his fifteen minutes of Internet fame. Oliver later apologized: “I acknowledge the word ‘lynched’ was wrong. I am very sorry. . .   I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart.”  In other words, he didn’t want to see anyone actually lynched. He just put the word in all caps because at the time it seemed like le mot juste. As indeed it was. It perfectly expressed his thoughts and sentiments.

But the full racism of the message comes from the pairing of “lynch” with one of the other all-caps words – OUR in “our history”. To Oliver, and no doubt many others, the category “Southern Americans” contains no Black people. It’s not just that he would like to return to the days when the only people who counted were White, the days when you could lynch someone who offended the total dominance of Whites. But even today, when he looks at Mississippi and the South, he sees only White people among his “fellow Southern Americans,” at least the ones who matter. The population of Mississippi is 40% non-White, but for the Karl Olivers of the South the numbers are no more important than they were back in the days of the Confederacy when Blacks were a clear majority in the state.

Or maybe he thinks Black people in Mississippi share his reverence for the Confederacy. Maybe he’s like Jusice Scalia, who thought that Jews would be honored if a monument to the war dead of their religion and other religions were decorated with a cross.

Gov. Landrieu took a more inclusive view of the history those monuments honored.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism, as much as burning a cross on someone's lawn. They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

And for the record, the monuments are not being “destroyed,” as Oliver says. They are being quarantined. Robert E. Lee will still be there on horseback, probably in some museum, for anyone to see. What has changed is the symbolism about whose South and which history is being honored.*

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*Mitch Landrieu and Louisiana may be outliers. Mississippi will probably not take similar actions, even with the embarrassment that Karl Oliver has brought. As Bryan Stephenson, a Black lawyer, says in a recent interview with Ezra Klein (here):

In this country, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching. Worse, we've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious.

In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They're both 90-some percent African-American. If we don't think it matters, then I think we're just kidding ourselves.

The “Will & Grace” Conjecture That Won’t Die

May 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“It’s very hard to say are we changing the culture or is the culture changing us.” So said Ezra Klein recently on the podcast “I Think You’re Interesting.” Todd VanDerWerff, the show’s host, had raised the question in connection with “Will & Grace.”
If you look at attitudes about gay people, when 'Will & Grace' comes on the air, attitudes about gay people start to shift towards the more positive."  You can’t prove that “Will & Grace did that. But that correlation  – and obviously correlation is not causation . . .
Klein seemed to agree, but he amplified the causality caution about what’s changing what.
It’s very hard to say when something is a leading or a lagging indicator. . .  You can make the argument that “Will & Grace” only happened because it was in a country that was ready for “Will & Grace” to happen.
Alas, apparently neither VanDerWerff nor Klein had read my blog post of four years ago (here) on this very question. True, causality is hard to prove. But if you have data tracing attitudes over time, you can make a better guess. And in fact, we have the data. The GSS, since almost day one (i.e., 1973), has asked people about homosexuality.

What about sexual relations between two adults of the same Sex?
1 Always Wrong
2 Almost Always Wrong
3 Sometimes Wrong
4 Not Wrong at All

(I have collapsed the first three responses into a single category – “Wrong.”
Besides, “Almost Wrong” and “Sometimes Wrong” combine for only about 10-15% of the total.)

The change in attitudes about gays happens in about 1991. Nothing in the graph supports the idea that “Will & Grace” had a big a-impact on these attitudes – not when it hit the screen in 1998 nor in its highest rated years (2001 - 2005).

VanDerWerff was mistaken about the importance of “Will & Grace” just as Joe Biden was five years ago. Ditto for Dan Quayle in 1992 about the impact “Murphy Brown” on out-of-wedlock births, a view repeated twenty years later by Isabel Sawhill (here) who should know better.  I suspect that they are all using the “availability heuristic,” our tendency to attribute undue importance to things that come quickly to mind – things like television shows – and to discount less salient sources – like the General Social Survey.

Flashback Friday: Has Anybody Here Seen A Kelly?

May 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last Thursday, the lead article in the Arts section of the Times was about Ellsworth Kelly. Near the end of the article was this:

The current two exhibitions, with works priced between $3 million and $5 million, bring the gallery’s tally to 19 solo shows of the painter’s work.



It reminded me that ten years ago I had written here about a $5 million Kelly. I repost it here, partly because of the coincidence, partly because I still like the title I gave it, even though I suspect that few people then, and fewer now, will know that song.

April 20, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Social context influences how we judge and respond to a piece of art (or anything else for that matter). That was the message of the previous post in this blog. It was based on a Washington Post article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the DC metro. Everybody who was in on the stunt thought that people would recognize Bell or that at the very least, some people would recognize the quality of the performance. In fact, almost nobody stopped to listen, and many commuters, when interviewed later, didn’t even recall that there was a violinist in the station that morning.

But one person wasn’t surprised and did realize the importance of context—Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery of Art.

Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: “Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.”




One reason for the art curator’s wisdom might be that in his field, the connection between artistic value and monetary value is so tenuous. And he knows it. Monetary value is based on what collectors are willing to pay. They’ll pay $5 million because that canvas is a genuine Kelly. The same canvas painted by a nobody would be bring only $150.

Of course, if someone decided to hang the nobody’s canvas in a major museum or an upscale gallery, its price would skyrocket. Location, location, location.

It’s not about the art, it’s about economics. And in this case, as in Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, all you need to know about economics is “supply ana demand.” Here’s a Kelly print.


It costs $8,000 signed. Unsigned, it might go for less than $1,000. It’s from a limited edition, the supply is limited to 45. If Kelly had printed and signed several hundred, it would still be the same piece of art and have the same artistic value. But it’s price would be less.

(Maybe you think you yourself could produce these works with a $1.89 roll of masking tape and three cans of paint. But that just shows what a Philistines you are.)

People who work in the art world probably take it for granted that judgments and evaluations will be influenced by extrinsics — rarity, authorship, a signature, and location— rather than the intrinsic qualities of the painting. It’s a lesson the rest of us, social scientists included, are continually learning.

“black-ish” – Voluntary Conformism

April 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 “Freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” said DeTocqueville 250 years ago. He might have held the same view today.

But how could a society that so values freedom and individualism be so demanding of conformity?  I had blogged about this in 2010 (here) with references to old sitcoms, but for my class this week I needed something more recent. Besides, Cosby now carries too much other baggage. ABC’s “black-ish” came to the rescue.

The idea I was offering in class was first, that our most cherished American values can conflict with one another. For example, our desire for family-like community can clash with our value on independence and freedom. Second, the American solution to this conflict between individual and group is often what Claude Fischer calls “voluntarism.”  We have freedom – you can voluntarily choose which groups to belong to. But once you choose to be a member, you have to conform.  The book I had assigned my class (My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan*) uses the phrase “voluntary conformism.”
 
On “black-ish”** this week (S3, E22: “All Groan Up,” April 26, 2017), the oldest daughter, Zoey, must choose which college to go to. She has been accepted at NYU, Miami, Vanderbilt, and Southern Cal. She leans heavily towards NYU, but her family, especially her father Dre, want her to stay close to home. The conflict is between Family – family togetherness, community – and Independence. If Zoey goes to NYU, she’ll be off on her own; if she stays in LA, she’ll be just a short drive from her family. New York also suggests values on Achievement, Success, even risk-taking (“If I can make it there” etc.)

Zoey decides on NYU, and her father immediately tries to undermine that choice, reminding her of how cold and dangerous it will be. It’s typical sitcom-dad buffonery, and his childishness tips us off that this position, imposing his will, is the wrong one. Zoey, acting more mature, simply goes out and buys a bright red winter coat.

The argument for Independence, Individual Choice, and Success on the other is most clearly expressed by Pops (Dre’s father, who lives with them), and it’s the turning point in the show. Dre and his wife are complaining about the kids growing up too fast. Pops says, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this why you both worked so hard - movin’ to this White-ass neighborhood, sendin’ her to that White-ass school so she could have all these White-ass opportunities? Let. Her. Go.”  


That should be the end of it. The final scene should be the family bidding a tearful goodbye to Zoey at LAX. But a few moments later, we see Zoey talking to her two younger siblings (8-year old twins – Jack and Diane). They remind her of how much family fun they have at holidays. Zoey has to tell them that New York is far, so she won’t be coming back till Christmas – no Thanksgiving, no Halloween.


Jack reminds her about the baby that will arrive soon. “He won’t even know you.”

In the next scene, Zoey walks into her parents room carrying the red winter coat. “I need to return this.”

“Wrong size?” asks her father.

“Wrong state.”

She’s going to stay in LA and go to USC.

Over a half-century ago, David McClelland wrote that basic but unstated tenet of American culture is: “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.” Zoey has chosen to do what others want her to do – but she has made that individual choice independently. It’s “voluntary conformism,” and it’s the perfect American solution (or at least the perfect American sitcom solution).
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* Not her real name.

** For those totally unfamiliar with the show, the premise is this: Dre Johnson, a Black man who grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood of LA, has become a well-off advertising man, married a doctor (her name is Rainbow, or usually Bow), and moved to a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They have four children, and the wife is pregnant with a fifth.