Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.

   


The Day they Defined Dixie Deviance Down

August 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thinking About the Unthinkable was the title of a 1962 book about thermonuclear war. The author was Herman Kahn. In an earlier book, Kahn maintained that thermonuclear war, like any other war, was both possible and winnable.  Critics responded that to even bring discussion of such a war into the realm of rational debate turned the horror of mass annihilation into an acceptable idea.

A half-century later, Donald Trump is helping to bring the ideas of White nationalism – once closeted and unacceptable – into the realm of legitimate political discourse. At least, that’s the argument made by Emily Badger in the New York Times today* (here)

Critics fear that Trump is inviting white supremacists out of the corner, helping ideas that have become widely reviled in America to be redefined as reasonable opinions — just part of the discussion.

It’s what Pat Moynihan called “defining deviance down.” People can change their ideas so that what had once been deviant is now acceptable.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how norms change. People who write about the process wind up using the passive voice, a lot, as Badger does with both verbs in the second part of that sentence:  “ideas that have become widely reviled”; “to be redefined.”

Who is doing the redefining?

It probably helps if the the green light on expressing those ideas comes from an important and mainstream source – the leader of the free world, for example. Or how about a respected magazine, not Brietbart or the Daily Stormer, and how about a “Senior Fellow” some place, just to give the whole thing the trappings of scholarship? 

So here we have Arthur L. Herman, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, writing in the National Review. His article bears the title “Confederate Statues Honor Timeless Virtues – Let Them Stay” (here). If you have any doubt as to how wrong Herman is historically, read the Eric Foner piece I quoted yesterday, or see this article by Justin Fox at Bloomberg. Fox, in a footnote, cites a relevant statistic: in the 1890s in Alabama there were 177 lynchings.   

What Herman does in his article is not so much defining deviance down but rather standing it on its head. Those 177 lynchings, he argues, were good times compared with the court decisions and passage of civil rights laws seventy years later. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

[Robert E. Lee’s] dream of a new South descended into Jim Crow after he died. This is in fact the best argument that those who want these statues gone can make: that the “reconciliation” between North and South was done on the backs of blacks, and that the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow were the price America paid to have peace in the aftermath of civil war. From a historical point of view, it’s almost convincing, even though what American blacks suffered under segregation was nothing compared to what liberalism has inflicted on them since the 1950s, as it destroyed their families, their schools, and their young men and women’s lives through drugs and guns and the gangster-rap culture “lifestyle,” which is really a death style. [emphasis added]

For much of his article, Herman sounds like the stereotypical old White man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, though he’s barely into his sixties. Perhaps his views about the relative joys of Reconstruction and Jim Crow will fade as the people who hold those views age and depart this plane. But it’s also possible that when those views are given the official stamp of National Review and the Hudson Institute, they become, even for younger people, less deviant and more thinkable. No doubt, Herman Kahn, one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, would be pleased.

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* Badger cites two noteworthy sociologists, Tina Fetner and Sarah Sobieraj

The Statues That Were Never Built

August 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ASA meetings in Montreal, someone (and I wish I could remember who it was) told me that the blog post of mine he really liked was the one about “negative space” (here). It’s from 2012, and I had only the vaguest memory of it, but here’s the gist. It started with what my grad-school roommate had said about the life drawing course he was taking.

One evening he came home and reported that the teacher had given a brilliant instruction that allowed him to make a real breakthrough.  What the teacher had said was this:
    Don’t draw the figure, draw what’s not there.  Draw the negative space around the subject.
In social science too, the solution to a problem sometimes starts with thinking about the part that isn’t there.

Today’s New York Times op-ed by Eric Foner (here) provides an excellent example. Much has been written in the past week or so about the statues of Robert E. Lee and other heroes of the Confederacy that are now central points in a political-cultural tug-of-war. Historians examine the provenance of the statues – who put them up and when – to reveal what these chunks of stone are saying. But, says Foner, we can also learn a lot about the statues and their meaning by thinking about the statues that are absent from the public square.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

According to a YouGov poll, most of the public (54%) see the statues as symbols of Southern pride. Only half that many see them as symbols of racism. And a plurality of the respondents disapprove of removing the statues, though there is an understandable difference between Whites and Blacks.  (I’m puzzled by the high rate of “No Opinion,” especially among Blacks.)                       

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)


I would expect that most of the statue supporters in the South would say that they are motivated by Southern pride and not racism. But after reading Foner’s article, I wonder ow would they respond to a proposal that their town square add a statue of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet? Or Frederick Douglass? Or the first Black senator from their state?

America’s Youth — Lost Yet Again.

August 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, The Atlantic posted this article by Jean Twenge, and some of my Facebook friends linked to it with favorable comments.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
Just from what you can see in this graphic, I was skeptical.

1. Kids and Trouble. When I see titles like this, I immediately think of “Trouble” from “The Music Man” and “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie.” (What can I say – I was raised on LPs of Broadway shows.) I’ve mentioned these in posts going back ten years (here) and more recently (here).  Apparently, you can get a lot of attention by telling people that the youth of America are going to hell in a handbasket, or in this case, an iHandbasket.

2. Crying wolf. Jean Twenge sounded a similar alarm not all that long ago. Generation Me (2006) and The Narcissism Epidemic (2009).  I noted my doubts about the latter here.

3. Question titles.  Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”*

I’d like to explore the evidence – it seems that the main source of Twenge’s data is Monitoring the Future, a long-standing survey housed at ICPSR – but it’s complicated. The survey gives different forms to different samples of different age groups (8th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders). And in 2012, the survey changed the way it compiled the surveys. Anyone who knows how to work with MTF, please raise your hand.

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*This is a slight variation on Betteridge's Law

Chasing the Dragon

August 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
Three weeks ago, I posted this photo on my Facebook, adding that apparently KEEPOFF had a solid fan base at the Jersey shore.


A former student (Thomas Springsteen, no relation) commented: “Their early stuff was way better.”

Perfect. It’s what people always say. At least, it seems that way to me. Is there systematic evidence of the earlier-was-better bias? Well, sort of.

Philip Cohen asked people to rate performers twice on a scale of 1 (“terrible”) to 5 (“great”):
  • how good were they in the 70s?
  • how good were they in the 80s?
Here are the results.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Most groups are on the 1970s side of the line of equality. And of those few who were better in the 80s, except for Pat Benatar and perhaps Prince and Michael Jackson, the degree of improvement is small.

Philip’s explanation (here)  is that his respondents are accurate reporters – music really did go downhill in the 80s, along with the whole damn Zeitgeist.

As I look back on these events – Reagan, the Cold War, sell-out music – in the context of what I thought of as my emerging adulthood, they seemed to herald a dark future, in which loss of freedom and individuality, the rise of the machines, and runaway capitalism was reflected in the decline of rock music.


Maybe. But maybe the results in this graph might not be so fixed in the historical moment. My guess is that he would have gotten similar results no matter what dividing point he chose. And not because of some inevitable law of musical entropy. It’s not the music, it’s the audience. The sound of a group or performer when they first becomes popular defines who they are. And that’s what we want to hear. We think: that’s what they sound like, and I really like it.

But what happens after a few years? The group can keep turning out music that sounds pretty much the same. We the fans think: yeah, it still sounds like them. But we don’t get that same thrill we had when we first heard them or saw them in concert.

Or the performers get bored and search out new sounds. They then risk losing their audience. A few can bring their audience along with them in these new explorations,  like Dylan when he went electric or the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper.” But these, I think, are exceptions.

My guess is that the graph looks the way it does for the same reason that we have oldies stations. We want to hear the songs that made us fans to begin with. Their early stuff was way better.

Directory Assistance

August 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know why I became briefly obsessed with the 1940 Manhattan phone book when a Facebook friend linked to it yesterday, but I did. Nostalgia perhaps, though I wasn’t living in New York in 1940. I wasn’t living at all. But seeing the exchanges with names instead of numbers (area codes, of course, had not yet been invented) makes it just a little easier to imagine what life in New York was like three quarters of a century ago. 475 tells you nothing; GRamercy 5 evokes a neighborhood.*

I couldn’t find my wife’s family. In 1940 not everyone had a phone. Perhaps they didn’t get theirs (WAdsworth 8) until later.  Then I went looking for other people who might have been living in New York then.

(Click for a larger view.)

You could just pick up the phone and call J.D. Salinger,** who might prefer not to have been bothered, or Coleman Hawkins, who would probably want to go out for a few drinks.

Estee Lauder lived just a few blocks from me, and we shared an exchange – ENdicott 2, (The elegant Endicott Hotel, built in the 1890s, was just a few blocks north.)

You can browse the entire phone book here.

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*  “I know the last part of your number –  6160,” I years ago to a fellow West Sider, “but I can never remember – is it 479 or 749.”
“749,” he said as though it were obvious. “RIverside 9.”
That was decades ago. I still remember.

**   “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you
’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Cosmopolitans and Roots

August 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of yesterday’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.
ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They're not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.
Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”
 Cosmopolitans:
  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation
Locals:
  • high on loyalty to the employing organization,
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.
Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one Website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing.


The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false.  For the anti-Semites, the Website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

Miller would of course understand this, and I think those more dedicated to The Tribe get the reference as well.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews. Second, Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And fJinally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

(Click to enlarge. The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949).

UPDATE: Jeff Greenfield says something similar and more at Politico. ( “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”) (I met Greefield once long ago at a party, back before he was on CBS, ABC, CNN, back when he did a morning show once a week on WBAI.)

Lucky Gunners

August 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again – the false equivalency of guns and cars. It’s sort of like a riddle: Why is a Honda Civic like 6,000 rounds of ammunition? Answer: because both can be used to kill people. It must then follow, so goes the logic, that they are alike in many other ways.

Today’s logician is Jay Caruso, managing editor of Red State, writing in the National Review (here) about a lawsuit filed by the parents of one of the victims in the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre. With the encouragement of The Brady Campaign, a gun-control group, the parents sued Lucky Gunner, the online company that sold the Aurora shooter his stockpile of ammunition.

Lucky Gunner was no more responsible for the actions of James Holmes than Honda was for the actions of Abdul Razak Ali Artan when he attempted to use his Civic to kill pedestrians at Ohio State University, and it no more deserves punishment.

I don’t know about you, but to me it seems kind of obvious what the difference is between a Honda and 170 pounds of bullets.


It’s the same as the difference between a swimming pool and an AR-15.* Simply put, the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill. If they didn’t kill, nobody would buy them. Car manufacturers and swimming pool manufacturers, by contrast, try to make their products increasingly safer – less able to kill people.

So you have one dealer that sells people things whose purpose is transportatin and another dealer who sells people things whose purpose is killing. Caruso makes this same point in his next sentence.

There are already consumer protections that make gun manufacturers liable in rare cases when their products malfunction. Naturally, they do not apply to misuse.

Misuse it may have been. But the bullets did not malfunction. They did what they were designed to do – kill.

The main point of Caruso’s article is to criticize the Brady Campaign – first, for urging the parents to file a lawsuit they were sure to lose; and second, for not paying the $200,000 in Lucky Gunner’s legal fees that the court assessed the parents.

The reason the lawsuit was a sure loser also reinforces the idea that, as even a child knows, deadly weapons are different from cars. Because the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill, people might think that companies and individuals who sell them to killers have some responsibility for the ensuing deaths. So gunlovers, mostly via the NRA, have successfully gotten legislatures to pass laws absolving these sellers of any responsibility. As Caruso explains,

Phillips’s lawsuit was dismissed under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was meant to protect the firearms industry from politically motivated lawsuits in which the plaintiffs claim that gun manufacturers and dealers were responsible for the criminal acts of third parties beyond their control.

Lucky Gunner is indeed lucky to have that kind of near-total immunity.  The  Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act might well go under another name – The Tom Lehrer “Wehrner von Braun” Act.
Once bullets get sold,
Who cares who they slay,
That’s not our department
Thanks to you, NRA.
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* Gun lovers often claim that swimming pools are more dangerous for kids than are guns. Really, they do. See this earlier post.