Chillin’ With Lenny, Yo

December 31, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tonight the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will offer its annual New Year’s Eve Peace Concert.  The announcement notes that “The late Maestro [Leonard] Bernstein inaugurated the annual New Year's Eve Concert for Peace more than a quarter century ago.”  More precisely, it was in 1983.  I was there. [Not quite.  It was the Dec. 31 1986 concert that I attended.  See the update below.]

Bernstein’s performance that evening combined two elements that had earned him some disdain: liberal politics and popular music.   Conservative commentators and serious music critics had scoffed at his enthusiasm for leftist causes and youth culture.  “Radical chic,”Tom Wolfe called it, implying that what motivated Bernstein was not the desire for justice or equality but the personal desire for the approval of the hip and the young.  To those critics, Bernstein’s political activity was all about style, not substance. So were the rock-music examples in his lectures. 

Bernstein was undeterred. Hence, the Peace Concert (among many other efforts).  He also remained open to the music of the young, the gifted, and the Black; he refused to dismiss it out of hand as inferior or as unworthy of the attention of serious people. 

Here is my memory of what Bernstein said that evening, New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Bernstein said that he one day when was working in the studio in his apartment, he went to get something from another room.  As he was passing the kitchen, he heard the radio that his housekeeper was listening to.  It was a loud and rhythmic but without much actual singing. 

“What is that?” he asked.  The housekeeper offered to turn the radio off.   “No, no,” Bernstein said, “don’t turn it off.  But what’s that you’re listening to?” 

“Oh, Mr. Bernstein,” she said, “that’s hip-hop.”

It was 1983, and Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC had crossed over into the general culture.  Still, I suspect that for most of the audience in St. John the Divine that evening – over thirty and overwhelmingly white – hip-hop was not exactly familiar territory.

But Lenny had listened and learned, and he delivered a speech in rap – a Jeremiad against Reagan, the arms race, the Pentagon budget, SDI (Star Wars), etc.  I think Lenny may have even had a recurring tag line or refrain, something with the word “hip-hop” in it.   Unfortunately, though I have searched the Internet, I have been unable to find a transcription or even any reference to Lenny rapping that night.  Still, I’m sure I did not imagine it. *

Peace Out.

UPDATE: Jenn Lena called out the troops to help where memory failed.  Jonathan Neufeld found the references.  Bernstein’s hip-hop speech did happen on New Year’s Eve, but the year was 1986, not 1983. 
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* It’s the timing of this incident that I’m unsure of.  I’m sure I heard Bernstein tell this anecdote in St. John the Divine and continue with his sermon in rap.  I remember it as a chilly winter evening.  But was it New Year’s Eve?  The few references to Bernstein’s speech that night say nothing about hip-hop.  The closest thing I can find is the title of a lecture, “How Leonard Bernstein Invented Hip-Hop” given by Joseph Schloss at Middle Tennessee State University.  But I cannot find an e-mail, phone number, or Facebook page for Schloss, and besides, his take on the Bernstein/hip-hop connection is different.  In my anecdote, Bernstein does not invent hip-hop but rather discovers it years after its creation.

Gun Laws and Crime in Other English-Speaking Countries

December 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great Britain and Australia, according to the title of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, provide “Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control.”  In both countries, the government responded to a massacre by passing more stringent gun laws. 

The author of the “Cautionary Tales” op-ed is Joyce Lee Malcolm, and she surely knows more about this than I do. She’s a professor at George Mason, and she’s written a book, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, published by Harvard. And she provides some data.  For example, she refers to the UK “Firearms Act of 1998, which instituted a nearly complete ban on handguns.” 
Within a decade of the handgun ban and the confiscation of handguns from registered owners, crime with handguns had doubled according to British government crime reports. Gun crime, not a serious problem in the past, now is.
I’m not sure which government report she’s referring to, but here’s a graph from one I found, the Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

(Click on the graph for a larger and clearer view.)


For two years following the Firearms Act, handgun crime increased.  But a decade later, in 2008, handgun crime was only slightly higher than it had been a decade earlier.  Today it’s lower than it was the year of the Firearms Act.*  Prof. Malcolm must have been looking at some other government report.  In this graph, starting in 2000, handgun crimes decrease markedly.  At the same time, the number of crimes committed with “imitation guns” increases.  I don’t know about you, but if I had to face a robber, I’d much prefer one armed with a fake gun than a real one.  So if this is a substitution effect caused by the law, that would seem to be a positive outcome.  Here in the US, we accept no substitutes. When it come to guns, our robbers have the real thing.

The stricter gun law in Great Britain was passed after a school shooting similar to Newtown.  The law, Malcolm says, was the result of  “media frenzy coupled with an emotional campaign by parents [of victims].”  You know how .parents can get emotional when their kids are slaughtered. The media too can devote a lot of coverage to that sort of thing, especially in a country where it rarely happens. To see the effects of the law, what crime should we look at? As Malcolm implies, what gets the media in a frenzy and causes the parents of victims to be emotional is murder.  So  I would have thought that to check on the effects of the law, the first crime to look at would be homicide.  But curiously, in her WSJ article, Malcolm makes no mention of it.  Still, I was curious, and I managed to find this graph showing the trend in homicides.

I’m not sure which “cautionary tale” these numbers are telling.  The downward trend in the graph in the last decade is hardly support for the idea that the gun law has made things worse.**  The British are killing each other less often – 550 last year, about 10% of them with guns.  The 550 homicides translate to rate of 9 murders per million.  The comparable rate in the US is five times that, about 48 per million.

Australia too passed a strict gun law following a mass murder in 1996.  Malcolm summarizes the crime data:
In 2008, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported a decrease of 9% in homicides and a one-third decrease in armed robbery since the 1990s, but an increase of over 40% in assaults and 20% in sexual assaults.

It’s hard to see how the gun law might have affected assaults and sexual assaults, and in any case, the rise in these crimes began before the gun law, as did the decrease in gun homicides.  On the other hand, it’s much easier to imagine how the gun law could have led to a reduction in armed robbery.



Here is Malcolm’s conclusion from all the evidence.
Strict gun laws in Great Britain and Australia haven’t made their people noticeably safer, nor have they prevented massacres.            

As I say, Malcolm must know much more about crime in Great Britain and Australia than I do. But the graphs do make it look as though people in those countries are in fact safer than they were twelve years ago.  As for mass murders, gun restrictions cannot “prevent massacres” if that phrase means “prevent all massacres.”  The question is whether gun laws that restrict the availability of guns, especially guns that can shoot a lot of bullets, can reduce the number of such incidents and the number of victims.  I don’t have the trends in those numbers for Great Britain or Australia.  I wish Malcolm had provided them in her op-ed, but she did not.
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* The Home Office report shows data going back only ten years.  The numbers for 1998 and 1999 are slightly lower than in 2000.  Also, these are numbers, not rates.  In that decade, the population of the UK increased by about 2.5%.  A graph of rates per population would show a somewhat larger decline.

** As the fine print under the graphs says, the highest bars in the graph, 2002-3, include 172 victims of a serial killer, Harold Shipman.  The Home Office apparently assigned all these to the year Shipman was convicted, though the murders happened over the course of many years.

What Would You Do?

December 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

When you ask a “what if” question, can you take people’s responses at face value?

A student sent me a link to a study that asked whether Americans or Turks were more likely to act on principles of universalism as opposed to particularism.

I had talked in class about universalism (apply general rules to everyone) and particularism (decide based on the needs, desires, abilities, etc. of the actual people in some real situation).  My five-cent definition was this: With particularism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the rules.  With universalism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the people. 

One of the examples I used to illustrate the difference was shopping.  For most items, we prefer universalism – a fixed price.  Everyone pays the amount marked on the price tag. You have only two options: buy it or leave it.  In Mediterranean cultures, buyers and sellers are much more likely to haggle, arriving at a price based on the unique utility curves and bargaining skills of the buyer and seller.  This winds up with different people paying different prices for the same item.

The researchers asked American and Turkish students about a “hypothetical situation”:
You are a professional journalist who writes a restaurant review column for a major newspaper. A close friend of yours has invested all her savings in her new restaurant. You have dined there and think the restaurant is not much good. Does your friend have some right to expect you to hedge your review or does your friend have no right to expect this at all?
I assumed that the study would find Americans to be more universalistic.  But I was wrong, at least according to this study.
Turkish American Total
Particularistic 8 (19%) 85 (65%) 93
Universalistic 34 (81%) 45 (35%) 79
Total 42 130 172


Four out of five Turkish students said they would write their review according to universalistic principles.  Two-thirds of the Americans said they’d give their friend a break even if that meant departing from the standards of restaurant reviewing.

I was surprised.  So was my Yasemin Besen-Cassino.  Not only is she Turkish (though very global cosmopolitan), but she sometimes teaches a section of our methods course.  She added, “I am not a fan of hypotheticals on surveys.”

And oh boy, is this hypothetical.

  • IF you were a reviewer for a major paper and
  • IF the restaurant were bad and
  • IF the owner were your friend and
  • IF she had invested all her money in the place
    what kind of review would you write?
The more hypothetical the situation, the more I question people’s ability to know what they would do.   “IF the election were held today, who would you vote for?” probably works.  The situation – voting – is a familiar one, and there’s not all that much difference between saying the name of a candidate to an interviewer and choosing that name on a ballot.   But how many of us have experience writing reviews of friends’ restaurants? 

Nearly all my students say that if they were in the Milgram experiment, they’d have no trouble telling the experimenter to take a hike.  And all those concealed-carrying NRA members are sure that when a mass murderer in a crowd started firing his AR-15, they would coolly identify the killer and bring him down.  But for novel and unusual situations, we’re not very good at predicting what we would do. 

When I present the Milgram set-up and ask, “What would you do?”  sometimes a student will say, “I don’t know.”  That’s the right answer.

“Hyde Park” Speaks to the Future

December 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
                          
“Hyde Park on Hudson” has one jarring anachronism.  I’m sure the art design crew and the costume people worked hard to make everything authentically 1939.  The room decor, the clothing, that 1939 copy of Collier’s, the photographer’s cameras and hats, the cigarettes, and of course the cars.


But then why this?

(Click on the except for a larger view.)
No wonder Missy has to ask what Daisy means.  We wouldn’t have metaphorical things on our metaphorical plates for another fifty years.* 

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The only plates in 1939 were the literal ones, the kind that keep crashing in the Hyde Park dining room.   It’s as though when FDR turns on the car radio, instead of the Ink Spots, we hear Kanye West – and intsead of a radio, an iPod.

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* I think “Mad Men” too used this same plate cliche, but that was rushing things by only 30-40 years.  Also, in “Hyde Park,” when Eleanor offers an unflattering view of the British royals, FDR says, “Let’s give them a break, can we?”  That sounded anachronistic to my ear, but Google N-grams shows the phrase rising in popularity starting in the late 1920s.


(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

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Compete Your Way to Mental Health . . . and Everything Else

December 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images


“Silver Linings Playbook,” the new David O. Russell movie, starts off by making the audience uncomfortable.  We want to like Pat (Bradley Cooper).  We root for him to overcome the internal demons that landed him in a mental hospital for eight months.  We do like him.  But he keeps doing things we don’t like.  He is socially insensitive and often offensive, utterly absorbed in his own deluded ideas and obsessions, and although we know that these emanate from his psychiatric condition, it’s impossible to separate the personal from the psychiatric.  He is his mental illness, and it’s often not pretty.   We’re actually glad to see the cop who shows up to enforce the restraining order.  (Usually in American films, when a uniformed cop restrains the hero, the moral question is so clear the cop might as well be wearing a Nazi uniform.)

At some point, the film takes a turn away from the complicated and difficult.  It calls on a smooth, familiar recipe and gives us comfort food –  sweet chocolate pudding, spoonful after spoonful.  It’s made from good chocolate, but it’s predictable pudding nonetheless.
                       
It all leads up to a climactic scene that we all know from countless other movies.  In this case, it’s a ballroom dancing competition:
The movie plays on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero — conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic contest.  Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. Rocky is the obvious example . . . .
That’s from six years ago in one of the first posts on this blog.  (I’ve edited it lightly.)  That post was about the first episode of “Friday Night Lights.”   But it could have been about “Silver Linings Playbook” – “Rocky” meets “Dancing With the Stars.” 

For a nearly complete plot summary, watch the trailer.



The contest seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the competition itself – problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.
“Silver Linings Playbook” hits all three of those plus husband and wife, brother and brother, and maybe some others.  Other seemingly insoluble problems – from Pat’s obsession with his estranged wife to the side effects of medications – vanish.  And in case the pudding wasn’t already sweet enough, there’s an added Hollywood-ending bonus involving a large bet on the Cowboys-Eagles game, an outcome so predictable I’m not even putting in a spoiler warning.

And they all live happily ever after.



These themes are not inherent in movie contests.  In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.* But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems. 

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* The more recent “Bend It Like Beckham” is much more Americanized, with its Hollywood-like resolving of all conflicts and its theme of social mobility. 

Doubling Down on Guns

December 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Addiction is what happens when your solution to a problem is the same thing that caused the problem in the first place. 

This defintion is not original with me, and I can’t remember where I heard it.  But I was reminded of it again when I heard the NRA’s official response to the massacre in Newtown. 

Decades ago, I spent a lot of time hanging around compulsive gamblers.  For most of them, gambling had started as something that was exciting and fun and often social.  The trouble began when losses started to mount up.  Instead of cutting back, these gamblers would be even more.  They would, to use the currently popular phrase, double down.  

From a distance, it might seem irrational – man who earns $1,000 a week betting $5,000 on a football game when he’s already $5,000 in debt.  But for the gambler in that situation, the bet was perfectly logical and rational.  For one thing, he knows that winning is always possible.  He knows that from his own experience – even losing gamblers win some of their bets.  In fact, if only he had bet the Falcons last week, as he had been thinking of doing, rather than the Giants, he wouldn’t be in this mess. Besides, given his salary and expenses, there’s no other way to get out of the hole.  So betting several thousand on the games this week is a logical solution to the problem caused by his betting in previous weeks. 

The US has the highest rate of gun death of any industrialized country.  The NRA’s solution to this problem is more guns.  The logic is clear.  As their statement said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  More guns – unrestricted manufacture and sale of them – means more good guys with guns.  Just as the gambler looks at all debts from his past gambling losses, America looks at all the guns piled up from its past gun policies – guns so available that bad guys have no trouble getting them.  And just as the gambler sees the solution as more gambling, the NRA sees the solution as more guns.  After all, you can’t make 300 million guns disappear.  What else is there except for everyone to carry gun? 

I remember the gambler who one afternoon tried to coax me into lending him $2 so he could make a bet at the track.  He told me he had been laid off from his job, he had family difficulties (a child with serious medical problems), and he was deeply in debt.   But with $2 to bet on a horse – and he knew how to handicap the horses, he was certain of that – when the horse won, he’d have a little more capital to bet on the next race, maybe an exacta, and so on. I questioned his logic and the likelihood of that happening.  “What else can I do?” he said.       

This Time It’s Different . . . Or Is It?

December 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
   

Immediately after the Newtown killings I wrote a despairing post with the title, “Game Over - Guns Win.”  Peter Moskos, who had a post with a similar title - “Gun Rights? Your Side Won” – reminds me  that nearly two years ago he had basically the same post (here) with this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow.

(Click on the cartoon for a possibly more legible version.)

This time it’s different, but only in the sense that columnists and politicians are at least talking about guns and gun laws.  Even the NRA says it’s getting into the act (“prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again”). 

Will the results be different this time?  Apparently some people think so; they’re the ones buying AR-15s and other weapons like there’s no tomorrow.  Or like there’s an actual gun law tomorrow.  Maybe they’re right.  Or maybe, as in the past, the familiar kabuki play will run its course.  (See this Tom Tomorrow cartoon of the generic debate – or as we now say “conversation” – that used to follow each massacre but then went out of fashion till Newtown brought it back.)

“In Which” Craft

December 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Student writing.  I’ve gotten used to the random apostrophe that makes it’s appearance in some plural’s but not others.  But now, in the last couple of years, I’ve been seeing a rise in the gratuitous “in which ” where “which” would do.  On the final exam Monday one student wrote.
The workers had a specific task in which they did and left.
I get a half dozen or more of these “in which” constructions each semester.  Montclair students are not the best writers, and I thought that this might be a local thing.  But I recently came across a blog post by a graduate student in a writing course at an expensive private university.*
It seems that memes and videos of violent and/or grotesque images are constantly posted to social media sites in which people find humorous and are quick to like, repost, retweet and share.
Maybe she meant to say, “sites in which people find humor” and then changed it to “humorous”  and forgot to delete the “in.” If so it’s just a proofreading error.  But maybe it isn’t.  The examples I see from my students are not proofreading errors.  The students apparently like the way “in which” sounds. But why?

My guess as to the origins and appeal of “in which” is the same as my guess about “for Robert and I.”  It sounds more upscale, more sophisticated.  If you’re taught that educated people say, “It is I” instead of the more common, “It’s me,” and “Robert and I went swimming” rather than “Robert and me went swimming,” you might assume this more general rule: if you’re not sure, and if the objective pronoun sounds ordinary, switch to the subjective pronoun.**   

In the same way, educated people also say “in which.”  Stiffly formal English required “in which” so that speakers and writers could avoid ending a sentence, or even a clause or phrase, with a preposition.***  Not “the town I live in” but “the town in which I live.”  The first one sounds like the way ordinary people talk, but the second, with its “in which,” sounds like the way educated people talk.

My hunch is that this use of “in which” will not catch on.  But then I would have said the same thing about “between you and I”  (or in the Easy Aces’ version, “entre nous and me”).

(An earlier post on talking sophisticated – duplicity instead of duplication, idyllic instead of ideal, etc. – is here )

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* The course is taught by a good writer who, I think, emphasizes clear and simple language and warns against pretentious sounding writing.

** The real problem is that English does not have a disjunctive pronoun – the equivalent of the French moi.  “C’est moi”  and “pour Robert et moi.” In strictly correct English, we would have to use I in the first phrase and me in the second.

***A silly rule probably based on the silly idea that English is really Latin. 

Talking Sense About Gun Laws

December 19, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Both Chris Uggen and Ezra Klein  have sensible things to say about guns – much more sensible than my rant of a few days ago.  They both argue that no legislation can prevent mass killings like the one in Newtown, though restrictions on assault rifles and other weapons might reduce the number of deaths in such incidents.   But these mass killings, although newsworthy, account for a small fraction of all gun deaths.  What new laws might be able to do is reduce the far more frequent gun deaths – the less newsworthy street-crime and gang killings.

The Naked (Lunch) and the Dead

December 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Glenn Reynolds has a USA Today op-ed  scorning gun control laws (and really scorning people who want gun control).  Here’s the lede:
“After a shooting spree,” author William Burroughs once said, “they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it.” Burroughs continued: “I sure as hell wouldn't want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”

Reynolds is a law professor and presumably knows a lot about the law and maybe a lot about guns, but apparently he doesn’t know a lot about Burroughs.  If he did, he might not have given the naked lunchman pride of place in his argument. 

As TBogg at FiredogLake reminds us, Burroughs is not exactly the poster child for loose gun laws.  In fact, he is prime anecdotal evidence for why having easy access to guns might not be such a great idea. 

When Burroughs was living in Mexico in 1951, he shot his wife in the forehead. He was playing a game they called “William Tell.” He was, of course, drunk.
At first the killer declared that in the said gathering, after there had been a great consumption of gin, he tried to demonstrate his magnificent marksmanship, emulating William Tell, and to that end he placed a glass of liquor upon the head of his wife, and aiming over the glass, at a distance of two meters, he fired, but as a consequence and result of the state of drunkenness in which he found himself, he missed the shot lamentably and injured the forehead of his wife with a bullet.

That’s one version.  In a second version, given after Burroughs’s lawyer arrived on the scene, Burroughs “claimed he misfired while showing the gun to a friend he was trying to sell it to.”

After two weeks in jail, Burroughs was released on bail and eventually went back to the US.  Mexico tried him in absentia.  He was convicted and given a two-year suspended sentence.
It is believed Bill’s wealthy parents dispensed thousands of dollars in legal fees and bribes to Mexican authorities. [More details are here.]
As for the Norman Mailer allusion in the title of this post, it’s a good thing he only had a knife and not a gun.

Game Over - Guns Win

December 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s still too early to know what went on in the Newton CT elementary school shooting.  Right now, the report is that 25 are dead, at least 18 of them children. 

I’m waiting for the reaction of the “gun rights” activists – if only third grade teachers (and maybe third graders too) carried guns in class every day, lives would be saved.

They’re right.  Weaponized teachers and students might have killed the shooter before he had killed so many.

Let’s face it, the logic of the gun lobby has won – not just in court but in everyday life.  If you create a world where every person, no matter how angry or demented, can easily get a gun  it makes sense for everyone to be armed, the deadlier the weapon the better.  And we have created that world.

So spare me the “terrible, terrible tragedy” version.  How many terrible, terrible tragedies do we need before we see that starting decades ago, we began setting the stage for this drama?  Why are we surprised each month, each week, when the scenario is played out?

How did we get to this world where there are so many guns around that it’s a fairly simple matter to buy one, legally or illegally, or steal one (as in the Oregon mall shooting earlier this week). 

Blame the NRA?  I do not know the history or the research on this, but a Marxist voice in my left ear is whispering, “Follow the money.”  The NRA is merely the ideological superstructure built on the economic substructure of the the gun industry.  It’s not the NRA that produces, sells, and makes a handsome profit from the millions of guns. 

You can’t sell, of course, if nobody wants to buy.  But gun economics may be a variant of Say’s law: supply creates its own demand.  If you increase the supply  of  guns –  especially if they fall into the hands of robbers, drug, dealers, and other bad guys –  the more you will increase the demand from people who want guns for protection.  The more guns that are out there, the less effective will be any attempts to restrict them. 

There are now hundreds of millions of guns in circulation.  Even if public opinion shifted to overwhelming support for gun control, even if laws were passed, attempts keep guns out of the hands of people with bad motives would be futile.  That might have worked a few decades ago.  Not any more. 

The gun people have won.  They always knew that guns were deadly and dangerous.  That’s why they want them for protection – guns are far more effective than knives or other weapons.  The gun people have also known that a relatively few people use them to commit horrible slaughter.  But to the gun rights absolutists,  these are acceptable losses. 

If the the NRA, and other gun lovers  thought that this loss of life were not acceptable, they would have taken a different position on proposed laws.  The innocent victims are just so much  collateral damage in the noble battle for freedom (and profits). 

I wonder if the gun lovers will talk about their wonderful freedom to the parents in Newtown, Connecticut.

(An earlier post on policy and acceptable risks is here.)

Surveys — Questions and Answers

December 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Neil Caren at Scatterplot  lifts up the rock that is the New Family Structure Study (NFSS) – the basis of Mark Regnerus’s controversial research on children of gay parents – and discovers some strange creatures wriggling about underneath: 

. . .   85 people reported living at least four months with their “mother’s girlfriend/partner.” However—and this is where it gets tricky—a different question (S8) asked, “Did you ever live with your mother while she was in a romantic relationship with another woman?” Eight people who reported in the calendar that they lived with their mother’s girlfriend answered no to this question.
So ten percent of the people who said they lived with the mother’s girlfriend also said on a different question that they did not live with the mother’s girlfriend.
                   
We all rely on surveys – pollsters, social scientists, market researchers, government agencies, businesses. We try to make our questions straightforward.  But the question we ask is not always the question people answer.  And people’s answers – about what they think and what they did – are influenced by external factors we might not have considered.  Especially if the survey is a one-off (unlike the GSS and other surveys with frequently asked questions),  we have to be cautious about taking the results at face value.

(Previous posts on this problem are here and here.)

All Happy Family Christmas Letters Are Alike

December 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Facebook friend asked about the origins of the Christmas letter – you know, those cheerful year-end summaries that seem to have been written by some omniscient third person telling you about everyone in the family.  Her question made me wonder about other aspects of this custom, not just when it arose.  Where did it start (socially more than geographically)?  What  has been the pattern of diffusion?  What are the demographics? 

I imagine that soon Hallmark will be selling a convenient standard-form version where all you have to do is fill in a few blanks, sort of like Mad Libs. 

In case you are unfamiliar with the genre, here is one I got recently.
It seems like only yesterday that we were mailing out last year’s Christmas letter, but here we are a year later, once again sharing with our friends what the Loman family has been up to.

Willy had the car fixed, and it’s running just fine. Truth be told, Linda would prefer him to work closer to home, but you can’t keep a salesman off the road. We’re glad to be all together at home for the holidays, even if Christmas here in Brooklyn is different from what it is where most of you are. I long to hear those traditional carols. Hap jokes that the song he hears most in the yule season here is “We’re doing our Christmas shopping at Robert Hall this year.” Hap and Biff – they do bring such joy to our world. 

We’re looking forward to the new year to bring us some new developments. America is the land of opportunity, and the Loman men are looking to make the most of it. Willy, ever the dreamer, has some really promising ideas, and his boss Howard is taking a keen interest. Willy might even give Bernard (our neighbor Charley’s boy) a break and bring him in to take care of some of the legal details. 

Biff has big plans too, and he has the patience to wait for the right person to open the door. Modest Biff doesn’t want us to say so, but being a star athlete and good-looking doesn’t hurt either when you’re trying to lure the venture capitalists. 

We also stop and remember those who are no longer with us to celebrate the holiday. We can never forget Willy’s brother, Uncle Ben, who walked into the jungle at seventeen, and when he walked out, by God he had rice. (We still quote Uncle Ben’s words of wisdom – with great rice comes great responsibility. )

But we also remember the good times. I think I heard the boys chuckling again about the time Biff went to Boston as a surprise to Willy who was there on a sales trip and had no idea Biff was coming. Oh, those pranksters. They’re just irrepressible. 

We hope all is well with our friends in this special season. We’re glad that the Christmas holiday gives us a moment away from the everyday busy-ness and allows us to think about the important areas of life where attention must be paid.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

The Lomans

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Coming Soon
  • Season’s Greetings from Jason, Medea, and the Boys
  • The Portnoy Family Holiday Letter
  • The Gambino Family Christmas Offering (You Can’t Refuse)
  • and others

Explaining the Election

December 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the view of many conservative journalists and bloggers, Obama won the election because his campaign was strategically canny – clever, even deceptive, and focused so as to maximize his electoral count. Some Republicans, maybe half of them, have another explanation: ACORN stole the election for Obama. That one seems less persuasive since ACORN hasn’t existed for a couple of years. (The HufPo story on that poll is here.)

But how about this wild guess: Obama won because his policies were favored by a majority of the people.
Sixty-five percent of voters back increased taxes for Americans making more than $250,000 a year, while 31 percent oppose, according to a Quinnipiac University poll . . .

Voters overwhelmingly oppose cutting Medicaid spending, 70-25 percent. Voters surveyed also oppose gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age, 51-44 percent, and don’t support cuts to military spending by a margin of 55-41 percent. Those surveyed also said a “no-taxes” pledge isn’t a good idea, 85-10 percent.  [From Politico.]

SNAP Judgment

December 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mayor Booker’s decision to go on the SNAP diet has gotten a lot of coverage in the press.  His hometown paper, the Star-Ledger, had him on the front page.


If this is really what the mayor bought with his food stamps, there’s one stereotype he’s not putting to rest – the Coastal elitist.  Yes, he’s got the Goya garbanzos and frijoles, and he’s got the yams.

But organic extra virgin olive oil?  Really, Cory. 

Accentuating the Negative

December 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted in slightly edited form at Sociological Images

Try not to think about an Oldsmobile. 

I’ve been thinking about Oldsmobile.  I mentioned it in passing in the previous post, and since then I’ve been wondering about “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” – the brand’s swan song.  Matthew Yglesias at Slate thinks that the campaign alienated the regular customers, the ones who bought a new Olds every few years, saying to them in effect, “You’re a geezer, an Oldster, and have been for a while – sans youth, sans sex, sans taste, sans everything except your crummy car.” 


The tag that completed the famous set-up line was, “The new generation of Olds.”
The word “generation” was key. If you recall, each commercial featured a celebrity and one of his or her offspring. This is why the campaign is so damn silly.
That’s from the ad man who claims to have created that tag.  He also has some war stories from the shoots, including one about William Shatner’s daughter’s nipples (here).  But I digress.

The target of the campaign was to attract young car buyers, but it missed badly.  Why?  My guess is the futility of negation.  Saying what something is not doesn’t give people a clear picture of what that something actually is.  But that’s not the problem here.  The message was clear, especially with that tag about generations.

The problem is that direct negation can reinforce the idea you are trying to deny – as in the paradoxical command to not think about an elephant. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon in his televised address about Watergate.  It’s his most remembered line, and when he spoke it, the TV screen might as well have had an overlay flashing the words “Game Over.”

If the denial contradicts general perceptions (i.e., the brand), people might not hear it at all, or worse, they might hear the opposite.  Ever since fact-checking went public in a big way a few years ago, we’ve seen corrections to the lies that politicians have told about one another.  But as
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown (here), corrections can boomerang, especially when they clash with ideas the reader already has.
Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? . . . Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

So what’s a struggling car company to do about its doddering demographics?  They can’t go back to 1905 and “Come away with me Lucille.”* 


Unfortunately, the hip hop dudes were walking to their Escalades, Beamers, and Lambos.  Not a Cutlass to be seen.

 Maybe putting the idea into the youth idiom of the day (the late 1980s) would have worked:
Your father’s Oldsmobile . . . . NOT!
(Now you know why I never went into advertising.)

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* Times change, cars change, language changes.  This pretty waltz from 1905 concludes with lines that by mid-century would have seemed amusingly suggestive:
You can go as far as you like with me
 In my merry Oldsmobile.
You can hear that line in the opening of this video (after the 15-second intro). To sing along karaoke style, fast forward to about 3:25.


“Lincoln” and Party Images

December 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Lincoln” over the weekend.  The period-piece aspects of the movie were easy to slip into – the clothes and speech, the hair style and whiskers – except for one.  It was the Republicans who wanted to end slavery; the Democrats were the party of the racists.  I couldn’t get today’s party images out of my mind.  Yet this wasn’t some bizarro world.  It was US history.

Brand images are sticky.  In the late 20th century, Oldsmobile tried to shed its codger image.  “Not your father’s Oldsmobile,” they said.   You don’t see that ad anymore.  You don’t see any Oldsmobile ads at all these days.  Or Oldsmobiles.  Efforts to change the brand don’t always go well.

Some Republicans are now calling for the party to change its image – “not your rich white uncle’s GOP.”  John Sides at WaPo’s Wonkblog  has discouraging data for those hopeful Republicans.  In the 1950s, the public saw the GOP as the party for the rich.  
Consider this poll question: “When you think of people who are Republicans, what type of person comes to mind?”   . . .  31 percent picked words like “wealthy” and “business executive” while only 6 percent chose “working class” and its kindred. 
Sixty years later, that image has not changed.  In a 2012 poll
most (54 percent) said that the Republicans were better for Wall Street; only 13 percent said this of Democrats. 
In the 1860s, the Republicans were the party of civil rights.  With help from strategists like Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater,* they managed to succeed in changing that image, but it took a century.  It seems a bit optimistic of conservatives to think that they will lose the Mr. Moneybags image in a few short years.




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*The link will take you to an audio of the famous 1981 Atwater interview where he discusses the strategy of finding issues that, while not explicitly about race, still attract anti-Black voters.  In the good old days, says Atwater, you could simply say, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”    Nowadays, you have to be more creative.