Call Me, Maybe. Or Maybe Not.

December 3, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The big news today is that the president-elect called Taiwan. Big mistake. The American Conservative (here)  calls it “the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior.” That’s our next president – impulsive and ignorant. Not a good combination for the leader of the free world. Those traits were not a liability in the election campaign – maybe they were an asset – but foreign governments are not the US electorate, and every gesture carries great meaning.  If the US talks with Taiwan, China will be upset. In fact, they just lodged an official diplomatic complaint.

I sympathize with Trump’s ignorance on this one. The story reminded me of one of the early posts in this blog (here), ten years ago, about a similar issue of who could talk to who.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved.

It was like those disputes from my childhood.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine Trump’s reaction on being told that the phone call was a major blunder. “What, you mean I have to pretend that Taiwan doesn’t exist? That they don’t have phones? They’ve got terrific phones, the best. Believe me. And I know they exist, bigly. Great economy. That’s why I want to put up hotels there. Fantastic, classy hotels. Besides, it was just a phone call.”

A State Department official tries to explain the rules about talk and that if you really want to communicate with Taiwan, you have to go through other channels. As I said at the end of that 2007 post

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.

Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.

Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.

* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).


November 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him.

This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here).

The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass.

* “Unorthodox” bills itself as a fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember.

Power and Information

November 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Trump’s selection of Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff signals some hope. After all, he might have picked the White nationalists’ favorite, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart anti-Semite.Priebus is a more mainstream Republican. Instead Bannon will be chief strategist.

My guess is that in the Trump White House, the chief of staff will be a crucial position. I asked a colleague in the political science department about this. She leafed through a textbook looking of an “org chart,” but couldn’t find one.  Here’s my stripped-down version of what it might look like.

The diagram shows the power arrangement, the chain of command. The president tells the chief of staff what he wants, and chief of staff converts these ideas into specific directions for those lower down the line.

But if you think of system as an information network, then the more information a person controls, the more power he has, regardless of the title associated with his position. Here’s another diagram.

Who’s in charge? It’s the same diagram – the same lines of communication. But relocating the circles shows more clearly the central position of the chief of staff. If all communication has to flow through him, and if he is the one who decides which information to pass along to others, he has the most power.

With a high-information president who seeks out information from a variety of sources, the chief of staff’s position is not so central, and its power is less. But if a president has little curiosity about facts, the person who controls the facts that he does get is the one who is really calling the shots. My impression is that George W. Bush was that kind of president, though in his case, at least during the first five or six years of his tenure, the central position was not the chief of staff but vice-president. “I’m the decider,” Bush famously said. But if Cheney was giving Bush the options to choose from and the information about those options, Cheney was the most powerful person in the administration.

Our current president-elect does not show much interest in the details of policy. It seems that he is delighted to be the president but that he does not really want to do the work of directing an administration. Given Trump’s meager knowledge of most issues, especially foreign policy, and his impulsiveness, a more centrist party hack like Priebus as chief of staff looks like a good thing, relatively speaking. Trump’s image of his administration will be Diagram A above. The reality will be Diagram B.