Intercultural knowledge (Comprenez?)

April 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Foreign students in the US are often dismayed at how ignorant American students are about other countries. Not just ignorant but incurious. So I was interested in this poster that’s all over Paris metro walls these days.



How many Americans could decipher a visual pun in foreign language? Certainly not enough to make it worthwhile to advertisers. (Of course, if they could offer round-trip to London for $90, they wouldn't have to worry about ads.)

The problem of ethnocentric ignorance goes beyond pop culture trivia, and it’s certainly not confined to the young. Soon after taking office, the Bush administration decided that it could change the politics of the Middle East, and in 2003 it launched that policy with the invasion of Iraq. But the ignorance of the region’s culture and religion is stunning. Last October reporter Jeff Stein revealed that many high-level government people working on counter-terrorism didn’t have a clue as to the differences between Sunni and Shiite, didn’t even know which branch of Islam was followed by Al Qaeda or Iran.


If you didn’t get the poster reference, you can find the answer here.

Rewarding Good Behavior

March 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many people think of welfare as helping the unfortunate. In this view, the government should ensure that everyone, even the poorest members of society, can feed and shelter their children. Yet for as long as I can remember, conservatives have hammered on welfare as “rewarding bad behavior” — if you give women these princely sums (a couple of hundred dollars a month) when they have babies, of course they’ll go and have more babies whether they’re married or not.

The evidence doesn’t support this idea, but the moralistic and punitive mentality remains unchanged. The most striking feature of the “welfare reform” of the 1990s was this punitive approach: if you don’t get a job, we’ll punish you by taking away your welfare grants.

Now, a new program in New York City keeps the same conservative view, but instead of punishing bad behavior, it seeks to reward good behavior.

The city will select an experimental group of 2500 poor families and give them cash for good behavior in
  • education (children’s attendance and performance, parents’ involvement)
  • health (regular check-ups at doctors and dentists)
  • work (job training, looking for work, working)
The total payments, if a family does everything right could add up to $5000 for a year.

The official announcement was full of optimism, and the press coverage has been favorable. I like the idea that it’s based on reward rather than punishment. At a time when the very richest are getting astronomically richer, it just doesn’t seem right to have government taking money away from the very poorest. I also like the built-in experimental design — a study will also follow a control group of 2500 similar families who are not offered the incentive. (As Mike Kellerman at Harvard’s Social Science Statistics blog notes, “The image of 2,500 families randomly selected to not receive benefits probably doesn't do much to help the cause . . .”

But I have a couple of reservations. First, I worry that the rewards won’t work because they are too small and too long range. Suppose we offer a reward of $50 or even $100 for good school attendance. If the family can’t get the cash till the end of the term, will that far-off promise be enough to offset whatever pressures there are in the present that have been pulling the kids away from school? These rewards are based on the assumption that the poor have the luxury of a longer-term perspective. That perspective is much more available in the comfort of a middle-class income than in the world of poverty with its frequent financial crises.

Even middle-class people may not act “rationally” to maximize their rewards. In my classes, I offer bonus points for papers turned in on time. On most assignments, about half the students don't take advantage of the offer. Other things in life get in the way of doing the paper on time.

Suppose that the study does prove a success, and that the experimental group does better in those three areas. Is the program an answer to the problem of poverty?

Programs like this one assume that poverty is matter of individual characteristics; they ignore the role of the broader economy. Welfare rolls were reduced in the 1990s, and Clinton’s welfare reform may have played a part. But so did a booming economy, which was certainly not caused by welfare reform. In those full-employment years, employers were paying living wages to people whose personal characteristics might have caused employers and economists a few years earlier to write them off as “unemployable.” In a weak economy, all a program like this might be expected to do is to convert the welfare poor into the working poor.

Whatchoo Lookin' At?

March 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few months ago in this blog, I speculated about what people in supermarkets spend their time doing. Ask people, and most would say “shopping.” But I wondered what the results could be if we could somehow track what they were actually looking at. My guess was that they spend much more time looking at other shoppers than at the stuff on the shelves.

We may not yet have unobtrusive ways of following the gaze of people as they walk around, but eyetracking technology can tell us what people actually look at when they look at a computer screen. The technology can overlay the screen image with a color map showing which places on the screen got the most attention. Here, for example, is a newspaper. Red areas were the most looked at, green the least. Purple X’s are mouse clicks.


One researcher, Tara Pierce Coyne, found that as with most things in life, there are differences between the sexes. Here’s a photo of baseball Hall-of-Famer George Brett. (The image was not a stand-alone as it is here, but part of a larger page with biographical information. ) Both women and men looked at Brett’s face, but men were also interested in an area not usually thought of as having much to do with on-base percentage.


Of course, if you asked guys what they looked at, they would probably not mention this area. They wouldn’t be deliberately lying. It’s just that we’re not always aware of everything we are doing.

Nor should Brett be flattered. Men’s attention (but not women’s) drifted to similar areas even when viewers were told to look at the Website of the American Kennel Club.


I bet you looked.

Just Your Average Family

March 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

This sceptred isle . . .this happy breed of men, this little world . . .
Against the envy of less happier lands . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, Manhattan.

Even for those of us in the social science biz, anecdotal evidence is more striking than systematic evidence. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers, that is a statistic. The death of a single Russian soldier, that is a tragedy.” And when it comes to making an impression on someone’s mind, statistics lose out almost every time. Almost. Sometimes you come across one of those numbers that speaks so loudly it stops you in your tracks.

Sure, I know about income inequality and how it’s been increasing, mostly because those at the very, very top of the income ladder are raking in larger and larger amounts. I also know that middle-class and upper-middle-class families are returning to the cities. I know that in my town, New York City, the “good” schools, public and private, are flooded with applications — far more than when we went through this ordeal with my son back in the 90s.

Parents with more kids and more money. There was even a story in the Times a couple of months ago about the Mercedes GLs and other pricey SUVs crowding the streets near expensive preschools at drop-off and pick-up time. It had gotten so bad that the director of one school sent a letter to parents telling them to have the drivers wait somewhere else. (“Drivers” was the word used. The parents themselves were certainly not driving, but they also don’t care for the word “chauffeur.”) The Times story was angled mostly at the foibles and status games of the rich, as in the following: “In the letter, [the director] played perhaps the only bargaining chip she has, stating that failure to observe this rule could hinder their children's chances of getting into the kindergarten of their choice.”

But today, the Times told the story with a single number, and here it is: the median income for white families in Manhattan with children under age 5 was $284,208. The median, not the mean. In other words, the middling Manhattan white family has an income higher than 99% of all US families.

Nevertheless, I’d bet that most of those Manhattan families feel that they don’t have quite enough money. I don’t have data on them, just a strong hunch based on what we know about people and money.

Organizing the Fun out of Play

March 21, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Parents, with the best of intentions, organize sports teams and leagues for kids, and then are dismayed that the kids are stressed by the pressure of winning. “Have fun,” parents tell the kids. “Enjoy playing the game. That’s more important than winning.”

But structures speak more loudly than words, and if you structure kids’ play as a formal competition, with teams and leagues and won-lost records, the message is clear: it’s about winning. It’s as though parents had organized a military marching band for their musically inclined children and then wondered why kids weren’t jamming on the blues.

That was the gist of my previous post. But there’s something else contradictory about organized sports for kids. The whole idea — at least the officially stated idea — is to provide more opportunity for kids to play. But the result can turn out to be less opportunity, less play.

In the suburb where I grew up, there was a nice field where kids often played pick-up baseball. Maybe kids would arrange beforehand to meet there. But often, you’d just go up to the field, and if there was a game, you’d get in. But then the grown-ups who ran Little League, probably in some arrangement with the town government, converted this space into an official Little League field. They sodded the outfield and smoothed down the infield, and when it was done, it was beautiful. A perfectly shaped dirt infield without a pebble, surrounded by neatly trimmed grass, the whole thing surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The only trouble was that the field now became forbidden territory for everything except Little League games. The wise adults who ran the show didn’t want this beautiful field that they had created worn down by kids who just wanted to play there. So now, the field provided less play time than it had before it was taken over by Little League. The goal of having this wonderful official field for the organized games won out over the original goal of providing more opportunity for kids to play.

I saw something similar last September. I happened to be in a park where a girls’ soccer match was just getting started. The girls looked to be about six or seven years old, incredibly cute, one team in shiny pink shirts, the other in blue. It was a scene you could easily imagine parents taking pictures of. But as it turned out, it wasn’t much of a match. The blue team had a couple of really good players, and the game was never close. The pink team would put the ball in play, but after a few seconds the blue team would get it, and one of the good players would take the ball downfield and kick a goal. After a few such scores, the girls in pink were becoming demoralized, and even the girls in blue didn’t seem very excited or happy. The coach of the blue team even benched one of the good players to try to even things up. It didn’t help. Mercifully, six-year-olds don’t play long matches, and the whole dismal thing was over in twenty minutes or so.

What was wrong with this picture? For the purpose of making it easier for girls to play soccer, parents had organized a league with teams and uniforms and scheduled matches. But today, it wasn’t working very well. How might they have had a good match? In other circumstances, the solution would be so obvious that even six-year-olds could think of it: have one or two of the good Blue players switch sides with some of the weaker Pink players. But I doubt that this thought occurred to any of the parents. Even if some of the soccer moms or dads had thought of it, what could they have done? The uniforms, the necessity of keeping won-lost records, and everything else based on the idea of permanent teams in an organized league make that solution all but impossible.

Instead, the coach made her best player stop playing, and for all I know the adults ended the match early rather than let the score get even more lopsided. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but I wonder if anyone thought, “Hey, the whole idea of this league was to get the girls to plays soccer? How can our solution be to have one of them, or all of them, play less or not at all?”

The way we organize something carries its own logic, and that logic that often overwhelms our best personal intentions.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

March 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Tesh was on the Fox news show this morning talking about kids’ sports and the emphasis on winning. Kids themselves, in surveys about why they play sports, put winning far down the list, and the main reason kids drop out of sports is that they weren’t having fun. (I cannot find the original study by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, only references to it online. ) Tesh blamed the winning-is-everything approach on parents.

Sure, it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence of overly competitive parents overly involved in their kids’ sports. But the pressure on winning comes as much from the organization of the game as from the people involved. As soon as you set up a formal structure — leagues with teams, uniforms, schedules, rules, won-lost records and other statistics — your focus is no longer on the fun of playing. Instead, the point of the game is to work towards some future measurable goal, a championship. And there's the contradiction: fun isn’t in the future, it’s in the present. And it can’t be easily measured. Cchampionships are about winning, not about fun.

Pick-up games are much less organized, and they are much more fun. They have no prizes, no championships. They have no permanent teams, no uniforms, no scheduling, no record keeping. The kid’s first objective is to play; winning is secondary. For example, in baseball, what do you do if you have only 13 players instead of the officially requisite eighteen (nine to a side)? In pick-up games, kids think up all kinds of solutions; they think outside the box of official baseball rules. You improvise positions and rules (no right field hitting, batting team supplies the catcher, etc.). As kids leave or arrive, teams change, so it’s not clear which team is winning. Often the game doesn’t really end, it fades out, so you can’t really say what the final score was or who won. And yet, despite the fuzziness over the winner or the score, you’ve managed to play baseball for hours.

What about a league game? If fewer than nine kids from one team show up, it’s a forfeit, and nobody plays. The message here is clear: determining the winner is more important than having a good game. Or any game at all. But that’s because of the organized structure, not the people involved. Put these same people in a pick-up game, and they’d have no such problem.

Yet grown-ups continue to organize kids’ games and to force children’s play within the rigid structures of teams and leagues, coaches and practices, record-keeping and trophies. Of course, the parents (most of them) tell the kids that the important thing is to have fun. But despite what the parents say, everything they do points in the other direction, towards winning.

I’m reminded of a line from the British movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” The protagonist, a young schoolgirl, has just done badly in some school competition (not sports), and a grown-up tries to console her: “Winning isn’t the important thing.”

“Then why is that what they give the prizes for?” asks the girl.

Why indeed? It’s not hypocrisy—I’m sure most grown-ups mean what they say about fun and winning —it’s just ignorance about social structures and how they shape our ideas about what’s important.

“300” and Counting

March 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I sometimes ask students if Violence is an American value. Their first thought is usually: No, of course not; violence is bad. But then I point out the amount of violence in our popular culture (TV, music, movies) and in our real lives (US rates of violent crime, even after the extraordinary decline in the last 15 years, are still much higher than those of other industrialized nations).


My point in all this is to question the idea — often found in sociology textbooks — that values are primarily guides to action. That definition implies that we can discover a culture’s values by looking at what people do. Looking at Americans do, we see that they produce and
consume a lot of violence. So either Americans value violence, or there’s something wrong with this sociological idea about values.

The answer I usually give is that the guides-to-action definition is at best incomplete. Despite our actions, Americans and American culture do not value violence itself. Violence is not an ultimate good —like success or freedom —that we use to justify some action. It’s just that we don’t mind using violence to get some of the results that we do value. We don’t think violence is inherently good. We just don’t think it’s all that bad.

Brian Gellman, who blogs at Intel Dump, may get me to change my thinking. Intel Dump is a blog run by former military officers, and it has provided excellent military analysis of the current war. But this
post, inspired by the recent hit movie “300,” shaded over from purely military matters into the cultural arena.
Critics of 300 fail to understand what many critics of the current administration’s handling of the “Global War on Terror” fail to understand. American culture. . . .Americans today overwhelming see military power as a solution to any number of problems.

Critics of current US policies in the world who believe things will change when the current administration leaves office are fooling themselves . . . The reality is that until American culture changes, US policies will not change significantly.
So maybe we don’t mind violence as a means to an end; maybe it's the means we most prefer, at least in international matters. This preference goes along with another idea that forms the basis for at least three hundred American movies from “HighNoon” to “Top Gun” and “300,” an idea I’ve mentioned before — that all problems (moral, psychological, personal) will be resolved through a final, decisive contest between two adversaries. It works in the movies.

Unfortunately, in real life, where we cannot fade to black and roll the credits, the results are rarely so simple.

Spring Break

March 12, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The blog is going to Florida for Spring Break. It will return, tanned and rested and maybe with a few strings of beads. Don't look for it on the next installment of “Blogs Gone Wild,” though. It's just not that kind of blog, jello shots or no.

Dissonance, Hypocrisy, Irony

March 11, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Cognitive dissonance — the phrase echoes from the past when I took courses in social psychology. It’s the idea that people find it uncomfortable to hold two conflicting “cognitions” and usually adjust one of them to make it fit.

The classic experiment asked people to do a very boring task — turning square pegs on a board for no apparent reason and with no apparent effect. Some people were paid a pittance, others were paid well. When they were asked to rate how interesting the task really was, the poorly paid volunteers rated it as more interesting than did the well-paid ones. Their cognition that the task was boring conflicted with the cognition that they’d done it for very little money. So they changed their view of the task and rated it as not so boring. Well-paid volunteers needed no such rethinking to justify their actions; they did it for the money.

Cognitive dissonance is really the close cousin of Hypocrisy — changing your perceptions to make them square with your larger ideas. Cognitive Dissonance went to grad school; Hypocrisy chose religion and politics. Here’s what I mean.

1. One of These Adulterers is Not Like the Other

The Rev. James Dobson, a moral crusader, hates Bill Clinton and his politics. (He also came out strongly against Spongebob — Bob was  part of the homosexual agenda — but that's another matter.) Dobson far prefers the conservatism of a Newt Gingrich. When Congressman Newt was rallying the troops to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the good reverend was cheerleading from the pulpit. Now Newt has disclosed that at that very moment back in 1998, he himself was having an extramarital affair.

Rev. Dobson was appalled by Clinton’s behavior: “we can’t overlook his shameful sexual behavior in the Oval Office... Indeed, it is my belief that no man has ever done more to debase the presidency or to undermine our Constitution — and particularly the moral and biblical principles upon which it is based —  than has William Jefferson Clinton.”

How did Rev. Dobson react to Newt Gingrich’s infidelity? He invited Gingrich to be on his radio show and praised him as a national leader.

Jerry Falwell thought Clinton’s affair was not just immoral but bad for the morality of the country. “My view as a theologian is that the leadership of a nation reflects the moral condition of the nation itself, and Bill Clinton is a reflection of the moral climate of the nation.” As for Gingrich’s philandering, Falwell has forgiven him and invited him to be commencement speaker at Falwell’s Liberty University (or is it Libertine University?)

Apparently it’s Clinton’s lying, as opposed to Gingrich’s merely keeping his mouth shut, that makes Clinton’s sexual misdeed so malignant, while Gingrich’s adultery is benign

2. See No Evil
And then there’s the Washington sex scandal. The “Beltway Madam,” Susan Palfrey, ran a business which she styled, “high-end adult fantasy firm which offered legal sexual and erotic services across the spectrum of adult sexual behavior.” The prosecutors say she was running a prostitution service. Her defense? The women who worked for her had to sign a contract saying that they wouldn’t engage in illegal behavior.

This fig leaf wasn’t good enough for the prosecutors, who insist that she knew what the women were doing and encouraged them to do it.

But how about torture? Here’s President Bush talking about the administration’s program of “rendition” — sending prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured:

“We seek assurances that nobody will be tortured when we render a person back to their home country.” The Bush administration knows that those countries use torture, but it gets them to sign a statement, just like Madam Palfrey’s contract, saying that they won’t do anything illegal. These assurances, unlike Ms. Palfrey’s signed contracts, are sufficient for the Justice Department. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I’m sure cognitive dissonance is at work.

3. Patriots, Prostitutes, Privacy
Here's the final irony: This week Ms. Palfrey threatened to sell her phone records of 10,000 numbers dating back to 1993, a client list that probably included several powerful Washington people. No names, of course — Ms. Palfrey respects her clients' privacy — just numbers and preferred scenarios. That same week, the Justice Department announced that the FBI had been abusing the Patriot Act to illegally get phone records and other information on thousands of Americans.

Annals of Crime - GTA

March 10, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

I know from my own days in the crim biz that people with criminal records have trouble getting jobs, a difficulty which only contributes to the cycle of problems. (Blogger and U. of Minnesota sociology chair Chris Uggen is very good on the problems faced by convicts.) I’m not talking about criminals like Scooter Libby or Jack Abramoff—they’ll do very well, pardon or no — but street criminals. Case in point:

My friend David G tells me this story. David G is in the retail food business, and as he was sorting the chèvre and mozzarella this morning, our conversation turned to the topic of the disorganization and craziness he sometimes encounters in the business.

“We just had a guy who came to a job interview in a stolen car.”

“How’d you know it was a stolen,” I ask.

“Well, the guy comes in, fills out the forms, has the interview, and leaves. And right there on the first page, it says, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” and he puts down that yes, he was convicted of possession of stolen property. So I figure, OK, maybe here’s a guy trying to get his life back together.

“Then one of the workers comes in and says, ‘You know that guy that was just here— he left his car out in the parking lot.’ So I have the application with the address and phone number. So we call him. ‘Hey, you left your car here.’ He says, ‘No, it wasn’t me, I didn’t drive.’

“So we go back and run the surveillance tape, and sure enough, it shows him driving up in that car. We get the license number, call the police and run the plates, and it turns out the car is stolen.

“We have the tape of him driving up in the car, and we have his name and address.”

“Not exactly CSI,” I say, “but look at it this way: the guy is trying to get an honest job, your place probably isn’t that easy to get to, maybe he was running late, so instead of taking the bus, he took a car. It just wasn’t his. That’s pretty enterprising.”

“Enterprising,” says David G, “but not very smart.”

I guess the guy’s not going to get the job.

Gossip in High Places

March 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, small minds talk about people.

I first heard that line when I was in high school — someone in our crowd tut-tutting us for gossiping.

It’s not true, of course. Everyone gossips, the great-minded and the small-minded. But I remembered that line today when I read about the guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby case. Officially, Libby was guilty of lying to a grand jury, but the whole incident was really about gossip. Oh sure, it was also really about the Bush administration’s attempt to sell the false notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But what Libby lied to the grand jury about was not the talk of ideas or events; he had lied about gossip — about who was telling who about Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame.

The people involved may not even have thought of it as gossip. The image of gossip is usually women whispering about trivialities of personal life. A search on Google turns up images like the ones in this post.

But according to a recent British research report, it turns out that men gossip just as much as women, and
Even in universities and the headquarters of multinational companies, where one might expect conversations in common rooms and restaurants to focus on matters of wider importance such as politics, business, cultural or intellectual issues, no subject other than gossip occupies more than 10 per cent of total conversation time – and most of these ‘serious’ topics only account for about two or three per cent.
So I don’t find it surprising or upsetting that people in Washington gossip. That’s what people who share some corner of the social world do. They talk about other people, and the talk often has overtones of moral judgment.

What’s troubling is to find gossip used as an instrument of policy. I had hoped that policy was about ideas and events. The neoconservatives, in the Bush administration and out, styled themselves as people of ideas. One of their biggest ideas was the invasion of Iraq. O.K., maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all, but you’d think that at the highest levels of policy, people would be talking about it in terms of ideas and events.

But no. Cheney, Libby, Rove, and probably many others were using gossip to defend their policies. They could have focused on the ideas and evidence in Joe Wilson’s report. Instead, they were calling reporters to tell them that Joe Wilson had gotten the job (to investigate one part of the WMD claims) only because his wife, who was in the CIA, had recommended him. In other words, Wilson was a wimp who relied on his wife to get him an assignment.

The press doesn’t come off much better in all this. Libby and the others knew when they made those phone calls that the news people traded in gossip. I suspect that Tim Russert, Robert Novak, and the others look with contempt on the celebrity press – the reporters who try to ferret out every secret fact about Britney and Paris and Brad and all the rest. The Washington press probably don’t consider even them to be real journalists. But how is what they do different from stories about Joe Wilson and his wife?

I’m going to be reading the newspaper from a different angle now. I’m going to try to see how much of the “news” is talking about ideas and events and how much is gossip. (Surely there must already be research on this. I’m just too lazy to track it down right now.)

Music and Lyrics and Success

March 3, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

“All British films are about the class system,” said Melissa in her perfect British accent. This was a long time ago when we were in graduate school, and we’d just seen some classic British film, maybe This Sporting Life, and I’d offered some brilliant bit of analysis like, “It was sort of about the class system.”

She didn’t say, “Duhhh.” We didn’t have “duh” back then, and she wouldn’t have said it anyway; she was too nice. But that would have been the appropriate response. Instead, she made that statement about all British films being about the class system. She said it as if she were reminding me of something so obvious that any child would have known it.

“No they’re not,” I said defensively, continuing my moment of brilliance. “What about . . . .” But I was stumped. I had seen a few British films, but as I went through them in my mind, I could see that just as she had said, they were all about the class system. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the class system was such a pervasive presence in British life that it inevitably played an important part in any movie.

Now I’m wondering if all American films are about success.

I saw Music and Lyrics yesterday, the new film with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, but the romance seemed, to me at least, secondary and not intrinsic to the story. Yes, it’s nice that Hugh and Drew finally wind up together, but that’s not really what the story is about. In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.

But in Music and Lyrics, the struggle is not for the lovers to finally come together but for each of them to overcome obstacles to writing a hit song. Their stories are less about love and more about success. Drew has the talent to write, but devastated by the publishing success of a former lover, she’s reluctant to write anything, especially song lyrics. When she does write the winning song, she’s unwilling to allow Cora, the airhead Britney Spears-type rock star, to give it her hit treatment. (Of course, this being a Hollywood comedy, she has it both ways: Cora sings the song the way Drew wanted it, and it becomes a hit.)

Hugh is a 1980s has-been, coasting along on his faded fame, writing songs that pander to an imagined audience rather than trying to do serious musical work. Will Drew finish the lyric, will Hugh write worthwhile music? That’s what the story is about.

The happy ending is not that they wind up together (though of course they do). Instead, the high point is that they finish the song and have it performed by Cora before twenty thousand screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. And even the success of their romance at the end seems to depend on their implied career success as a songwriting team.

How different this all is from the British romantic comedies that Hugh Grant has been in — Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill come to mind. These may have Americans as love interests (Andie McDowell and Julia Roberts, respectively), but the films are absolutely unconcerned with career success.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Music and Lyrics. It’s pleasant, with good-looking people in good-looking places, and the Hugh Grant character lives in a building one block from my own, which can be seen in some of the shots. The film has several funny lines and wonderful send-ups of 1980s and 2000s rock music and videos. Go see for yourself.

As for Melissa (see the first sentence of this post), she went back to London, became a documentary filmmaker, and made several excellent ethnographic films — none of them, so far as I know, about the class system.

Look Who's (Not) Talking

March 1, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s this morning’s headline from CNN

White House: U.S. won't talk to Syria, Iran directly

It’s obvious that the US has big problems with Iran and its nuclear program. The White House is recycling its pre-Iraq-war script, but Iran, like Saddam, refuses to cave. For one thing, they probably don’t think the US can really launch another war right now (there are reports, though not in the mainstream press, that several generals have threatened to resign if the Bush administration declares war on Iran). For another, as apparently, even the Bush White House has discovered, the US can’t force other nations to do what it wants — not by threatening invasion, not by waving fistfuls of dollars in their faces.

So talk seems to be the best place to start. But the Bush policy has long been that one cannot talk with evildoers. Such talk would sully our moral purity and reward bad behavior (as though speaking with a Bush administration official were some kind of prize).

How to reconcile the need to talk with the stated policy of not talking? Look closely at the headline, especially the last word: “directly.” Four months ago, I posted here that this “We won’t talk to him” game reminded me of quarreling children, usually siblings, who refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, they address remarks to intermediaries (parents) though in full hearing of the enemy (i.e., brother or sister).

And so it is with the US. The CNN story continues that Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, “said U.S. and Iranian officials have been ‘seated at the same table in multilateral negotiations’ several times in the past few years, during aid conferences and in meetings at the United Nations.”

So the US will sit at the table in Baghdad; so will Iran and Syria. But several other countries from the region and from the UN Security Council will also be “seated at the same table.” The US will talk to these others, not to Syria and Iran. But it’s just possible that as at the family dinner table, the representatives from Iran and Syria will overhear.

As I said in my earlier post, when people use this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy. (Apologies for recycling my garbage. I’m doing it only because the White House is also recycling its own.)