Ethnic Slaughter, Gang Rape, and Jil Sander Pants, $1,120

May 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What is the right word for this?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s a page from the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine, which the Times calls “T,” (for Travel, I think.)  This issue is “Everything Old Is New Again: Adventures in Ancient Lands.” It has articles on the Draa Valley in Morocco, the Greek island of Ithaca. The fashion section is embedded in an article about Myanmar.  The text that appears on the page under the photo:

effectively pushing out about 300,000 citizens. Streets and cities were renamed. A law was established in 1982 that rendered many ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims — an ancient tribe descended from Arab traders, sailors and migrants who had lived in the Rakhine province of the country for generations before the British arrived — as ineligible for full citizenship. Just as the Burmese had been made British subjects by fiat, so, too, were the Rohingya Muslims rendered not Burmese by decree.

In August 2017, Myanmar initiated a round of ethnic slaughter, mass gang rape and the burning and razing of hundreds of villages. Despite the installation of a nominally democratic government headed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the previous year, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were driven from their homes by Myanmar’s military forces and Buddhist mobs. This latest conflict began when security posts and an army base were attacked by Rohingya insurgents, killing 12 officers. It was apparently reason enough for the military to initiate a massive genocidal campaign. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the country’s de facto leader but does not control the military, has been criticized for her inaction during the crisis and for her refusal to call it ethnic cleansing. That is Myanmar’s truth, and everyone from the military to government officials has doggedly stuck

Here is a better view of the photo and the caption that on the page appears in the middle of the text.

When The New Yorker in 1963 published Dwight MacDonald’s four-part series “Our Invisible Poor,” based on Michael Harrington’s The Other America, critics were quick to note that MacDonald’s words about dire poverty amid affluence shared the magazine’s pages with advertisements for expensive perfumes, watches, and other baubles for well-heeled consumers. I’m sure that others have called out this same irony in many other places in the decades since. So yes, this blog post is something of a cliche of culture critiques, but I found the juxtaposition just too striking to ignore.

It’s the sort of thing that might be tagged with keywords like neocolonialism or cultural appropriation or exploitation. But is there a word that embodies not only the idea that the commerce of wealthy nations is exploiting poor nations but also that wealthy consumers fail to see that exploitation, even when the contradictions stare back at them in black and white print and color photos on the pages of T?

Stay In Your Lane

May 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Cillizza at CNN pretends to be baffled by Donald Trump’s tweet about the Kentucky Derby. In case you missed it, the horse that crossed the finish line first, Maximum Security, drifted out at the quarter pole, bumping into another horse and impeding another.

Here is the crucial ten seconds showing Maximum Security (in the lead, pink silks) moving out and then back in.

The jockeys of the two horses to his right claimed a foul, and the stewards upheld the claim. They disqualified Maximum Security* and awarded first place to Country House.**

Our Handicapper-in-Chief objected.

(The original tweet had the first mention of the race as “the Kentuky Derby.”)

“Donald Trump’s ‘Kentuky Derby’ tweet makes literally no sense,” says the Cillizza headline. It’s referring to the part about political correctness.

The PC-DQ connection makes perfect sense to Trump, also to his followers, and to me. Political correctness is all about rules, specifically rules that aim to protect the less powerful against those with more power. These rules that limit what the powerful can do and say. Trump likes “rough and tumble.” He decries rules that limit how rough cops can be with people they arrest. He’s upset that police have to be “too nice.” He scoffs at NFL enforcement of rules that protect players. “Too soft.” I could imagine that in an earlier era, he would have had a similar macho reaction against batting helmets or rules against beanballs and spitballs.

It’s not that Trump is against rules and their enforcement. If he owned (or had bet on) the horse that Maximum Security impeded, he would have been screaming for a DQ. But Trump treats rules not as abstract principles to be applied in a universalistic way. For him, rules are just another tool. If they help, use them. If they hinder, break them and denigrate those whose job it is to enforce them —  the courts, the FBI, even Bob Mueller, the straightest of arrows. Trump accuses them all of using their position in a personalized, biased, and self-serving way —  that is, of sharing his own transactional attitude towards rules.

Have Trump’s attacks on these institutions undermined the public’s confidence? The General Social Survey shows no obvious trend in that direction.

Nevertheless, journalist Michael Lewis, in his new podcast series, sees the Trumpian view of rules and their enforcement as a more general trend in the US. His podcast “Against the Rules” argues story by story that Americans have become less willing to stay in their lane and accept the authority of traditional rule enforcers. The initial episode, which Lewis reports mostly from the NBA,  is called, “Ref, You Suck,” a more succinct version of what our president said about the stewards at Churchill Downs.

 * Trump has consistently argued that the US is in grave danger from outsiders — Muslims, Central Americans, immigrants generally — and that we must increase our spending hugely to defend against these dangers. Still, I’m sure that it’s purely coincidence that the horse he thinks should have gotten the roses is named Maximum Security.

** Sondheim lovers should have been backing Country House, which is also the title of a song cut from the original version of Follies, put back in for some later versions. It’s a husband-wife dialogue about the kinds of problems that don’t usually make an appearance in Broadway songs. (A good version — Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins — is here.) The horse paid $156 for a $2 win ticket. My mother, whose handicapping system gave much weight to names, would have had her money on the winner. Of course, since “Country House” is a show tune, she probably would have be it to show. 

More Woke in the Era of Trump

April 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Negro Family — a Case for National Action.” That was the official title of 1965 Labor Department document that came to be called the Moynihan report after its chief author and researcher Pat Moynihan. It became the center of a tangle of conflict both in social science and in politics. One strand in the tangle emphasized the role of “structural” factors — things that the poor can do little about: the kinds of schools available, the job market (the number and kinds of jobs available and the wages they pay), and of course racial discrimination.

The conservative strand in the tangle found the causes of poverty in personal failings — e.g., laziness — or in a culture that encourages behavior that leads to poverty or at least discourages behavior that would lead people out of poverty. If only poor people waited until they were married to have children, remained with their spouses and provided good role models for those kids, then all would be well.

That was then. It’s also now.

Just last week, Pew published a report (here) about race in the US. Among many other things, it asked respondents about the “major” reasons that Black people “have a harder time getting ahead.” As expected, Whites were more likely to point to cultural/personal factors, Blacks to structural ones. But compared with a similar survey Pew did just three years ago, it looks like everyone is becoming more woke.

Here are the Pew results for the structural factors.

(Click on an image to for a larger view.)

For “racial discrimination,” Black-White difference remains large. But in both groups, the percentage citing it as a major cause increases – by 14 points among Blacks, by nearly 20 points among Whites. The percent identifying access to good schools as an important factor has not changed so much, increasing slightly among both Blacks and Whites.

More curious are the responses about jobs. In 2013, far more Whites than Blacks said that the lack of jobs was a major factor. In the intervening three years, jobs as a reason for not getting ahead became more salient among Blacks, less so among Whites.

At the same time, “culture of poverty” explanations became less popular.

Blacks especially were likely to discard family instability and lack of role models as important factors. And the laziness explanation gets little support – about 22% — from either Blacks or Whites.

The General Social Survey, which has asked similar questions going back to the 1980s, shows a similar convergence in the ideas of Blacks and Whites.

The GSS question asks if “lack of motivation and will power” is a cause of Blacks having “worse jobs, income, and housing.” The convergence comes earlier than in the Pew surveys, around 2002, and in some years the percent of Blacks agreeing exceeds the percent of whites. Also, the percentages are much higher than in the Pew survey. Instead of 22% for both races, here 36% of Whites and 41% of Blacks point to this personal flaw. Maybe it’s easier to agree that race differences are caused by “lack of motivation and will power” than to say that Black people are lazy.

With external factors — discrimination and not having “the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty” — Blacks are still much more likely to say that yes, these are causes. But even the 25-point Black-White gap on racial discrimination is smaller than in the 1980s and 90s.

If both Whites and Blacks are paying more attention to racial discrimination and less to personal-cultural factors, if everyone is more woke, how does this square with the widely held perception that in the era of Trump, racism is on the rise. (In the Pew survey, 56% over all and 49% of Whites said Trump has made race relations worse. In no group, even self-identified conservatives, does anything coming even close to a majority say that Trump has made race relations better.)

The data here points to a more complex view of recent history. The nastiest of the racists may have felt freer to express themselves in word and deed. And when they do, they make the news. Hence the widespread perception that race relations have deteriorated. But surveys can tell us what we don’t see on the news and Twitter. And in this case what they tell us is that  the overall trend among Whites has been towards more liberal views on the causes of race differences in who gets ahead.

Van Doren

April 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the fall of 1961, I took a semester of freshman lit. The instructor was a young man named John Van Doren. He would pace slowly back and forth at the front of the narrow classroom, often pausing mid-sentence and looking up at the wall, apparently searching for just the right word or idea. He held his white handkerchief to his mouth, as though his intense concentration might be causing him to drool slightly. Then he would turn back to the class and continue speaking.

There was something familiar about him, but what? After a few weeks, I finally realized what it was: Charles in the isolation booth.

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.” [from the obit in today’s Times.

I had watched the show, though not often. I don’t know what relation my teacher was to the Columbia professor who four years earlier had drawn millions of Americans to their televisions each week to watch “Twenty-One.” A cousin perhaps.* Certainly there was a family resemblance.

I remember almost nothing of Henry IV, part i or As I Lay Dying and whatever else was on the syllabus. What I remember is Van Doren’s performance and its similarity to that of his famous relative, right down to the handkerchief held to his mouth, as in the right-hand frame above.

* UPDATE, April 12.  John was the younger brother of Charles. (Thanks to Anonymous for providing the link. In 1961, such information was not a click away.) John died in January of this year.