Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part I: The Loneliness Fascination

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

  I. The Epidemic That Wasn’t

A couple of weeks ago, Arthur Brooks, in the New York Times, told us that an “epidemic of loneliness” was “tearing America apart.”  Brooks, citing a Cigna survey, brought us the bad news: “Most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”

I blogged my skepticism (here). That number — nearly half — was way out of line with what other repeated surveys like the GSS have found. Last week, Pew issued a “Facttank” report about loneliness. The Pew survey found, as had previous studies, that loneliness went hand-in-hand with feelings of dissatisfaction with family, work, and community. No surprise there. But the estimate of the scope of the problem was much smaller. Did nearly half the population suffer by these feelings? Hardly.

(Click to enlarge.)

Overall, one in ten Americans say they are lonely. Not having a partner makes loneliness more likely. So does not having money. (Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. Or rather, nobody knows 16% of you when you’re down and out, which is really not all that many — nowhere near the nearly 50% Brooks cites, thought it is more than the mere 6% of people with higher incomes.)

“Calling Claude Fischer,” I said in that blog post, because for years, Claude has been  been debunking these claims about loneliness epidemics, comparing them against the available evidence from social science. On Sunday, the Times included his response to the Brooks article.

Loneliness is a serious social problem, but there is no good evidence that it has spiked over the last couple decades or so. . . . We have no current epidemic of loneliness, but we do have periodic epidemics of alarm about loneliness.


The Times published several other letters on this topic (here) . Claude’s was the only one expressing any doubt about the loneliness panic.

Even among sociologists, he is in the minority.  The plague-of-loneliness idea and its corollary, the demise of community have been at the core of important sociology books going back a half century or more.



More tellingly, these three books – David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone — are part of a small, select group — serious sociology books that sold well outside of academia. These books were bought and read even by people who weren’t going to be asked about them on the final. Apparently, Americans like reading about loneliness.

(Continued in the next post.)

Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part II: Turtles All the Way Down

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Continued from the previous post.)

II. A Myth of Decline for Everyone

Obviously, loneliness cannot have been increasing at epidemic levels every year since 1950. Nor could the sense of community have been similarly decreasing. If they had, we would be at 100% loneliness and 0% community. Yet each generation looks to the past as having been a time of greater community and less isolation. What makes this idea so irresistible?

My hunch is that the persistent appeal of this idea of a communitarian past has the same roots as another popular myth of decline — the authoritarian past. According to this myth, parental authority has all but disappeared, and kids today are far less obedient than their counterparts of a generation ago. But of course, a generation ago, adults were saying the same thing about their kids, as were the adults of the generation before that about theirs, and so on. Turtles all the way down.

Nearly twelve years ago, I suggested (here) that these myths resemble the 19th century idea in evolution that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” but in reverse. They project the experience of the individual onto the entire society.  In that post, I imagined the man who says, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.”

He pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

This perception generalizes to the idea that adults a generation ago were more powerful vis-à-vis children than are adults today.

The same logic underlies the idea of the decline of community. The world of the child is warm, nurturing, and personal; dependence on others is taken for granted. Compared with the world of grown-ups, life is simple. (Of course the child does not make that comparison; grown-ups do.) Adults, by contrast, move among a complicated diversity of separate settings where feelings count for less, where dependence is less tolerated, and where interactions are based on people trying to accomplish their own goals. Childhood is Gemeinschaft, or as that word is usually translated, community.  Then, as we grow up, the Gemeinschaft share of our lives dwindles, leaving us with a nostalgia for those simpler times. Mentally transposing that personal experience to the society at large takes us from “my childhood” to “the good old days,” you know, the time when people knew one another and cared about one another, when life was simpler, and nobody was lonely — just like when we were kids. But of course, when they were kids, their parents were similarly mourning the loss of the good old days, as were their parents. Turtles all the way down. 

There’s an interesting difference between these two myths of decline. The myth of the authoritarian past appeals mostly to those who find authoritarianism appealing. But the decline-of-community finds adherents across the political and cultural spectrum.  It’s not just liberal sociologists who patrol the loneliness-community axis. The Brookses at the New York Times who write about it (Arthur and David) are politically conservative but culturally liberal. But go way over to the right, and you’ll hear Hannity, O’Brien, Glenn Beck, and others mourning the loss of a more Gemeinschaft-like world. From left to right, these observers disagree about just what has caused the crisis (smartphones and social media are the latest villains), but they are united in their assumptions, despite the shakiness of the evidence.

Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 50s or 1960s at the latest. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris. But he is not so keen on getting back together.


I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been long enough before to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”



The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

Tom Waits

December 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tom Waits is 69 years old today.

I don’t remember how I found my way to Tom Waits, though it happened fairly late in my listening life,  or who showed me the way? Was it the jazz station DJ who played “Emotional Weather Report” early one morning as I was driving to New Jersey? Or my step-brother the huge Dylan fan? Or was it the friend who sent me a mix tape with the Tori Amos cover of “Time.”? (Waits’s songs do not lend themselves to covers. But Amos’s “Time” is an exception. And of course there’s Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl.”).

Waits’s lyrics, like Dylan’s, shine with novel imagery of the familiar world.

You’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds
Like a round of applause.


But Waits, also like Dylan, often stays in his own room, inviting us in to look at the striking but puzzling pictures on the wall.



Oh and things are pretty lousy
For a calendar girl.
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
And when they’re on a roll
She pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons
Fall around her feet

Anyway, here’s the original, just Waits (voice and guitar) and an accordion sounding more like a concertina.



Doctor My Eyes

November 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

You could have seen it coming. A little over a year ago, the University of Wisconsin board of regents passed a Free Speech resolution. The intent, supposedly,  was to guarantee “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”

A fine principle, free speech. After all, the regents couldn’t very well pass a resolution that protected only conservative speech. But that’s what they meant. That part about the broadest possible latitude — just kidding.

So when a communications professor at UW LaCrosse had author and former porn star Nina Hartley give a talk during “free speech week,” the university system president and the board sent him a letter of reprimand. His “poor judgment” will affect his salary adjustment, though it doesn’t say how much he will have to pay for free speech. 

What struck me was not the obvious hypocrisy. As I say, that was predictable (the Inside Higher Ed story (here) has some of the more mealy-mouthed quotes). It was this gem in an op-ed written by one of the regents, Bob Atwell:

Most of us don’t need science to know how devastating pornography is to the mental, physical and social health of those enslaved by it. We can see it in the sad and empty eyes of millions of boys and young men whose zest for life is being sucked into their smart phones.

I was having double déjà vu. First, “we don’t need science.” Back in February. Ross Douthat said pretty much the same thing, though not quite so blatantly. In fact, when prodded, he acknowledged that rape, pregnancy, and abortion had all decreased as porn became more and more widespread. He thought porn made people unhappy, though he allowed that the evidence linking porn with unhappiness was flawed. Nevertheless, he persisted. Porn was just plain bad.

Years before, Irving Kristol, a founding father of neo-conservatism, writing in the Wall Street Journal had argued in language very similar to regent Atwell’s: “we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.  Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our ‘rap’ music is without effect?” (For more detail, see my earlier blog post ).

Then there were those “sad and empty eyes” and the lost “zest for life.” Where had I heard that before? I searched my files and found it.

This is a very degrading and destructive habit. There is probably no vice which is more injurious to both mind and body, and produces more fearful consequences than this. . . When the evil has been pursued for several years, there will be an irritable condition of the system; sudden flushes) of heat over the face; the countenance becomes pale and clammy; the eyes have a dull, sheepish look.

Back when I taught deviance, I would sometimes read a longer version of this passage to students and ask them to guess. Weed and cigarettes were the usual suspects, but even after I identified the source and date — Our Family Physician published in 1885 — nobody got it. Nor did it help when I would tell them the title of the chapter — “Onanism.”

I’m not all that familiar with the actual research on how porn (or masturbation) affects young men (or women). Its enduring effects on older conservatives seems clearer — a tendency tp reject science and replace it with “common sense” and a deep look into the eyes of the afflicted.

Randy Newman

November 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Randy Newman is 75 today.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in a movie theater watching Toy Story 2. It may have been someone’s birthday party. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the song “When She Loved Me.”



As the song ended, I thought: here I am, a grown man  surrounded by a bunch of eight-year olds, and I’m practically in tears because of a song that a cartoon toy doll just sang about a cartoon girl.

If this song does not win an Academy Award, I thought, there is no justice. It didn’t and there wasn’t. The Oscar went to Phil Collins.

The song has none of the irony that pervades his non-Pixar songs. In those songs, we hear flawed characters and unreliable narrators, like the voice in his biggest hit “Short People.” (Some unimaginative listeners, unable to see the satire and irony,  took Newman literally and condemned the song.)

The ambivalence haunts even the love songs, like “Marie,” which seems merely beautiful until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this guy is an abusive drunk, someone Marie would be better off without..

    And I'm weak and I'm lazy
    And I've hurt you so
    And I don't listen to a word you say
    When you're in trouble I just turn away

And yet, his feeling is real.


(I made similar observations in this 2008 blog post after seeing Newman in concert at Carnegie Hall.)

All The Lonely People . . . Are There Really More of Them Than Before?

November 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Loneliness seems to have an irresistible appeal. Last weekend, it was Arthur Brooks in the New York Times (here) bringing us the bad news: “America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.”

The consequences of this loneliness are serious, says Brooks. Riffing off Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R Nebraska) recent book, he lists suicide, drug overdoses, the mail bombs to Trump’s opponents, the mass killing in Squirrel Hill, and above all, political polarization. The title of Sasse’s book is Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.  The title of Brooks’s op-ed is “How Loneliness is Tearing America Apart.” We now live, he says, in “a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation.”

Brooks’s other source of information Besides Sasse is a report (here) issued last May by Cigna, the insurance company, based on an online survey of 20,000 Americans. It shows, as Brooks says, that “most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

Brooks is not the first loneliness spotter to cry “epidemic.” Back in April, a month before the Cigna report was released, the Times’s other Brooks, David, warned that “Facebook and other social media companies are feeding this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.” Psychology Today ran an article “Epidemic of Loneliness” in 2009. The term has cropped up in the popular press for decades. Google nGrams shows the phrase first appearing in books in the early 1960s, taking a giant leap and fall in 1980, but holding steady since then.



But every so often, a Brooks or a Sasse runs in breathless with news of a dangerous loneliness epidemic (the nation's “number one health crisis” according to Sasse) —  all apparently unaware that sentries on the loneliness watch ten, thirty, and even sixty years earlier had issued the same alarm.

True, loneliness and social isolation are bad for your physical and mental health, as the Cigna report and much previous research confirms. But Brooks is claiming something else — that the increase in political polarization has been caused, at least in part, by an increase in loneliness. The only trouble with this idea is that there is no evidence that loneliness has been increasing.

Calling Claude Fischer. For years, with each rediscovery of a loneliness epidemic, he has added historical and methodological information in an attempt to calm the waters, usually to no avail. Nevertheless, he persists. As he says in a blog post (“Loneliness Scare Again… and Again… and…” ) inspired by one of the Brookses, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And in fact, Fischer is no longer a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. Yes, journos on deadline and Senators on the make ignore him, but now more official sources are sometimes echoing what Fischer has been saying. An article in CQ Researcher, an offshoot of Congressional Quarterly, cites sociologists Fischer and Eric Klinenberg, both skeptical about any increase in loneliness. And Sasse’s Senate colleague Mike Lee (R Utah), or whoever is doing the research and writing on his Webpage, says, “It is not at all clear that loneliness has increased over the last several decades.”

Still, we get articles like the one by Arthur Brooks, and Brooks is a man who respects sociological research. Why, in spite of all the evidence, does it seem as though Americans are getting lonelier and lonelier? I have an idea, which I will leave for a latter post.

About Joni Mitchell

November 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.

Fifty years ago, liking her music was so cool in 1968. But by the end of the century, that had changed, as I painfully realized when I saw “About a Boy.” She had become the punch line to a joke.

It’s not that Joni herself changed, though she did, nor that her music changed, though it did. But what had changed was the liking of her music. It has followed a cycle roughly similar to what Jenn Lena in Banding Together calls “genres,” from “avant garde” to “tradionalist.”

The boy “About a Boy” is about is Marcus, a twelve-year old who lives with his mother Fiona.

Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird.. . she didn't want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do any of the things that any of the other kids spent their time doing, he had to argue with her for hours.

She likes Joni Mitchell, and so does he. The two of them sing Joni Mitchell songs together. The scene in the movie — mother and son in the kitchen, singing not especially well — is painful to watch.

The political and cultural preference Marcus has adoptedfrom his mother do not do him much good outside the home, especially at his new school.

If he tried to tell Lee Hartley — the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he'd met yesterday — that he didn't approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn't want to be called.

Into their life comes Will (Hugh Grant in the movie), who makes it his mission to separate Marcus culturally from his mother, to transform Marcus into someone the other kids will not bully. He introduces Marcus to music that is more generationally appropriate, as in this clip.  (I’d embed it here, but the clip is Mystikal, and this post is supposed to be about Joni Mitchell.)

In the end Will is successful. The final lines of the book are reminiscent of the “K-Mart sucks” ending of “Rain Man.”

Will decided to give Marcus a little test. “Hey Fiona. Why don’t you get your music and we can all sing a Joni Mitchell song?”...

But Will was watching Marcus’s face carefully. Marcus was looking really embarrassed. “Please, Mum. Don’t.”

“But Marcus, you love singing. You love Joni Mitchell.”

“I don’t. Not now. I hate Joni Mitchell.”

Will knew then, without any doubt, that Marcus would be OK.

We Still Need a Queen — Now More Than Ever

October 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Durkheim noted long ago, the function of a ritual, regardless of its specific content, is to heighten group solidarity. So the important symbols in a ritual represent the group as a whole. Those symbols are objects, but they are also people — usually the group’s leader. That’s why America needs a queen. Or someone like her.

When Trump announced that we would go to Pittsburgh, the mayor asked him not to come. Many Jewish leaders said he should not come. Thousands of people signed a petition asking Trump to stay away from Pittsburgh. So did leaders of the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Nevertheless, he persisted. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The mayor and “the top four Republican and Democratic congressional leaders who were invited to join him all declined.” Not all of Pittsburgh’s tens of thousands of Jews opposed the visit. The Times reports (here) that “more than 40 ‘members of the Jewish community’" signed a letter welcoming Trump because they like his stance on Israel. Wow, more than forty.

If only we had a queen. Back in 2007, I wrote a blopost with this same suggestion. I had just watched the movie “The Queen..”

Most European countries, with their long histories of monarchy, have retained a nonpolitical figure as symbolic ruler of the country. In some countries (England, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, etc.) it’s an actual monarch; in others, it’s a president, who has only ritual duties, while the actual business of running the country falls to the elected prime minister. But in the US, we have this strange system where a partisan politician is also our ceremonial head of state.

The “partisan politician” at the time was George W. Bush. Today “partisan” seems like too weak a word. Trump rarely tries to accommodate the entire nation. He likes winning. . . . and gloating about winning, waving his triumph in the loser’s face. And when he does try to be accommodating, he’s not very good at it.

The family of Daniel Stein, a victim of the attack who was buried on Tuesday, explicitly told inquiring federal officials that they did not want to meet with the president. They cited Mr. Trump’s comments immediately after the shooting that the Tree of Life should have had an armed guard. “It was just a worthless thing to say,” said Steven Halle, Mr. Stein’s nephew. “When something tragic has happened, you don’t kick people when they are down. There should have been an apology.”

“You don’t kick people when they are down.” Well, Mr Stein, maybe you don’t.

One other observation from that 2007 post now strikes me now as quaintly amusing.

An early scene in “The Queen” shows Tony Blair coming to Buckingham Palace. He has just won the election in a landslide, but he will not be prime minister until he kneels before the Queen and is officially requested by her to form a government. As historian Robert Lacey says in his commentary track on the DVD, “People feel it’s good that these politicians have to kneel to somebody to be reminded that they are our servants.”

The president, going before someone who symbolically represents the entire nation, and kneeling. Imagine that, if you can.

Why Not the Vest?

October 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, Trump blamed the Dodger loss on the manager, Dave Roberts. He shouldn’t have taken out the pitcher.
Trump also blamed the slaughter in Pittsburgh on the Tree of Life syagogue. They should have had an armed guard.

Unlike many of Trump’s statements, these are not lies or untruths. They are counterfactuals about a single event; there is no evidence that can tell us whether they are accurate. It’s unlikely that a similar baseball situation will soon arise. And if, in some future fifth inning, a pitcher who is pitching well tells the manager that he’s tiring, and the manager thinks about replacing him, will anyone remember this game?

Mass shootings are different There will be more of them in our future — this is America after all — so we will continue to search for policies to reduce the carnage. The armed guard idea is very popular these days, especially among gun lovers — the people who want to increase the sale of guns.  After every mass shooting now, they tell us that the only solution is armed guards.

 I suppose it’s worth noting that the police who arrived at the synagogue were armed, heavily armed. They were also trained, well trained. Their training and weaponry exceeded that of any guard a synagogue might have had. Yet four of the officers were wounded. Two are still in the hospital. Were it not for their bulletproof vests, police officers too might have been among the fatalities.  And therein lies the answer —  bulletproof vests.

The assumption behind armed-guard policy is that we cannot do anything about the shooters. We cannot change their psychology, and we certainly cannot —  must not --- do anything to limit their access to extremely deadly guns. In that spirit, and using the same assumption, I am offering this modest proposal: All schoolchildren, all worshippers, all those who attend concerts or popular clubs, all spectators at movie theaters and sporting events — they should all wear bulletproof vests.

When you go into a synagogue, they usually have a large box so that you can pick out a yarmulke and tallit if you haven’t brought your own. Imagine if Tree of Life synagogue had also had a box of bulletproof vests. Or if Steve Scalise and those other Republican legislators had had the good sense to wear bulletproof vests when they went out on the field to play softball. Think of the death and injury that would have been prevented. At clubs, the person giving you the little bracelet or stamping your hand could also give you a bulletproof vest. Schoolchildren would have a bulletproof vest at home to put on as they leave the house for the schoolbus.

The NBVA membership would burgeon. States would pass laws promoting the manufacture and sale. Think of the variety as fashion designers get into the arena. Bulletproof vests for all occasions, in all colors. Cute, pink vests for girls to match the cute, pink AR-15s they can now buy (I am not making this up.).

Yes, some people may choose to walk around unvested. But hey, some people disable their car airbags and don’t use the seatbelt. If these risktakers get shot, we will make the same argument about bulletproof vests that our president makes about armed guards.

A vested society is a safe society. That will be one of the slogans. Or, “You can’t stop a bad guy with a gun, so make yourself less vulnerable.” OK, I admit it lacks the macho fantasy element of the good guy with a gun, but that’s true of “shelter in place” and other parts of “active shooter drills.”  Anyway, the goal is the same, and the vests will be more effective.

I have seen the future, and it is bulletproof vests for everyone. What a country.

Make America Great  — and Safe! — Again.

“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re old enough, it’s easy to spot language anachronisms in period TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m old enough. I notice the terms that we now take for granted but were nowhere to be heard in the wordscape of a few decades ago. (Earlier posts on these shows are here and here.) It’s much harder to remember the opposite — words and phrases from the period that have since disappeared, words that place the scene firmly in its historical context.

I’ve been watching “The Deuce” on HBO. It’s set in the  world of West 42nd Street circa 1970, with its pimps and hookers, strippers and porn merchants, cops and gangsters, and assorted others who plied their trade in that neighborhood. Nothing in season one seemed out of place, maybe because the episodes were written or overseen by people old enough to have been bar-mitzvahed by 1970.

In Season Two, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), has gotten into porn as a way to escape the dangers of life as a street hooker. She has gone from being on camera to writing scripts. In Episode 4, we see her at a shoot where an actor complains about his lines, and others support him. It’s bad even for porn, they say. Candy agrees.

“I’m gonna try to tweak it,” she says.

No, no, no. In 1970, people didn’t tweak scripts. They didn’t tweak much of anything, but if they did, it was an actual thing you could pinch with your fingers. In porn, it might have been a nipple. Anywhere else, it was most likely a nose. Nothing had changed in the 370 year since Hamlet.* It was only towards the end of the 20th century that people began tweaking less tangible things like systems, colors, or designs.

(Click on the image for a larger view. 
The graphs show the last few years of each period and the 
most frequent completions of the phrase "tweak the” for the entire period.)

Candy has ambitions beyond grinding out low-budget, poorly written fuck films. She wants to produce a film with multi-layered story, with characters, and with a woman’s point of view. She has come up with the idea — a porno version of Little Red Riding Hood — but she realizes that she doesn’t have the talent to write the script. So she meets with a writer. When she reveals what the film will be, she fears that he’ll reject the project. But she’s wrong. “It’s genius,” the writer says.


The trouble is that in 1970 (the year the writer of this episode was born), genius was not an adjective. It was a noun and only a noun. Even today, Webster online does not recognize genius as an adjective.

I know what people did not say in 1970. But what did they say? What is the language equivalent of the disco suit? The only thing I can think of is groovy.  Yes, there was a brief period — a few weeks back in the late 1960s — when people actually spoke the word without a trace of irony. But what else?

--------------------------------
* Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? (II, ii)


Flashback Friday: Asians in the Library

October 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2011, I did a blogpost with the title “Ethnocentrism and Family Values.” I should have called it “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

It was inspired by a YouTube rant that went viral — a UCLA student complaining about Asian students talking too loudly in the library. Much derided, she soon removed the video, leaving my blogpost with a large open space.

Yesterday, an Inside Higher Ed article about anti-Asian messages posted at Washington University referred to the rant and informed me that once again copies of the video were available online. So I’m reposting it. I think it holds up. (Yes, it has a lot of text in the footnotes. A Sociological Images, where this was cross-posted, someone commented, “You, sir have unseated the late, great David Foster Wallace as the Prodigiously Lengthy Footnote King.”)


March 20, 2011


When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I'm not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:
It used to really bug me but it doesn't bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they've brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It's seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That's what they do.
(The transcript does not quite do justice to Ms. Wallace’s presentation. The video was taken down, but in 2018 a copy became available.)



These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:
I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**
Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,
Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”
Do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don't teach their kids to fend for themselves.”

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*

I'll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany... Over here from somewhere, “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.”
** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”

I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds,

I'm sure he's very good at this chess thing,
but that isn't really the issue.
Mantegna loses it.
My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you
acknowledge that, then maybe we'll have something
to talk about. Chess is what it’s called.
Not the “chess thing.”
*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs,-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.

“A Different Person”

October 5, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Benjamin Wittes is baffled. Wittes is a Washington lawyer — he’s the blogger-in-chief at Lawfare — and he thought he knew Kavanaugh fairly well. But he was completely taken aback watching Kavanaugh at the Senate committee hearings earlier this week.

The Brett Kavanaugh who showed up to Thursday’s hearing is a man I have never met, whom I have never even caught a glimpse of in 20 years of knowing the person who showed up to the first hearing. I dealt with Kavanaugh during the Starr investigation, which I covered for the Washington Post editorial page and about which I wrote a book. I dealt with him when he was in the White House counsel’s office and working on judicial nominations and post–September 11 legal matters. Since his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, he has been a significant voice on a raft of issues I work on. In all of our interactions, he has been a consummate professional. The allegations against him shocked me very deeply, but not quite so deeply as did his presentation. It was not just an angry and aggressive version of the person I have known. It seemed like a different person altogether. [source]*

For Wittes, what’s troubling is Kavanaugh’s seemingly unprecedented behavior. But unwittingly, Wittes opens up a broader problem — our idea about what a person is. Wittes, like most of us, thinks that each person has a “character,” a set of qualities or traits that determines how he will act and react in any situation.

In a post earlier this week (here) and in a much older post, I tried to explain the limitations of this idea. One obvious limitations is that we base our idea of a person’s character on seeing them in only a narrow range of situations. Yet we think that we can then predict how they will respond in very different situations, situations that we have never seen them in and that may be completely new to the person himself. As Wittes tells us, he knows Kavanaugh mostly, perhaps entirely, as a lawyer at work.
He has never seen Kavanaugh reacting to accusations — damning accusations that may well be true and that may have momentous consequences for his career. And of course, he has never observed Kavanaugh the callous and sloppy-drunk teenager.

What if we abandoned this idea of the person as unified and consistent set of a few traits? Suppose we thought of a person as having a large repertoire of emotions and behaviors, some of them contradictory. After all, we generally allow for this kind of variability when we think about ourselves. We can be proper and we can let our hair down. We can be even-tempered and we can lose our temper.

Even this broadening of the range of traits for ourselves does not completely solve the person problem. Instead, it allows us to cling to this same theory of the person. But even with ourselves, anomalous events can threaten that theory. When we have a reaction that is truly new, we say things like, “I don’t know what got into me.” This explanation is the only way to maintain the idea of the person as an object with clear and permanent boundaries and within those boundaries a more or less permanent “character.”

As Clifford Geertz says, this is a unique and weird notion.

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

Our idea of what a person is works fairly well most of the time, but, as Wittes’s bafflement illustrates, not always. In any case, this conception of personhood is the only one we’ve got. That’s our theory, and we’re sticking to it. And in sticking to it, we wind up saying things that are obviously not true, as Wittes does when he says that the Brett Kavanaugh he saw at the hearings was “a different person.”

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* Aside from the puzzlement over Kavanaugh as a person, Wittes’s article is excellent for its explanation of why the Senate should not confirm Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

Trust and Tribalism?

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gallup could use a headline editor. Today (here), they went with this:



Better would have been

Tribalism Drives Republicans’ Trust in Politicians.

Gallup provides this graph:

 (Click to enlarge.)

When Obama took office in 2009, Republican trust or confidence in elected officials fell by thirty points. During the Obama years, Republicans remained 20-30 points less trustful of politicians than in the Bush era. In 2016, when it looked likely that Hillary Clinton would be the next president, that trust fell to its lowest point in the century; only 33% of Republicans had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in politicians. Since Trump took office, Republican trust has regained 20 points.

Democrats’ confidence in politicians shows nothing like this partisan volatility.

So here’s yet another accurate alternative headline
Republicans Don’t Trust Anybody But Republicans

My Introduction to Young Brett Kavanaugh’s World

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I had one beer!” Trump said, imitating Ford’s statement that she was not intoxicated when the incident occurred.
“How did you get home? ‘I don’t remember,'” Trump said, mocking Ford’s voice.

“How did you get there? ‘I don’t remember,'” he continued.


Trump’s rendition was met with cheers in Southaven, Mississippi.


[Source: Time The link also has a video of our president performing this routine.]

With all the news about Brett Kavanaugh and his pals — their callousness and their drinking — I’ve been remembering my own first encounter with drunken, Ivy League assholes. It was about this time of year, autumn but still warm. I was a freshman at Brandeis. One evening, some classmates and I went in to Cambridge just to see what it was like, this famous school that we hadn’t gotten into. I had never been in Cambridge before.

We were walking on Mass Ave on the Harvard Yard side of the street. On our left was Wigglesworth Hall, a freshman dorm. The space between the dorm and the sidewalk outside the fence is only about ten feet, though the social distance is much greater.


From the open windows came the sounds of partying. Suddenly, an object came sailing down at us — a one-quart milk carton. It glanced off my arm and some its contents splashed onto my sweater. It had been thrown from a third-floor window, where boys were now laughing uproariously. My friends and I looked at the milk carton — looked and smelled. It was filled with vomit, and that was what I now had on my sweater.

This happened when I was seventeen, a long time ago.
Do I remember how I got to Cambridge? No.
Do I remember how I got home? No.
Do I remember the names of the guys I was with? No.
Do I remember what I did with the sweater? Did I find a place to rinse it? Did I take it off? I don’t remember.
Were those Harvard freshmen prep school grads? I don’t know, but it’s likely. In those days, Harvard welcomed even more of them than it does today.
Did they become judges, bank executives, Senators? I don’t know. Probably some of them did.

So my memory, like Christine Blasey Ford’s, is spotty. I remember that the sweater was a green, cotton cardigan. I remember the look and smell of the vomit-filled milk carton. And I remember the derisive laughter.

Did the experience give me a lifelong revulsion towards Harvard? No.
But I was always careful never to walk on that side of Mass Ave on weekend evenings.

Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump’s speaking style must infuriate the teachers of communications and public speaking, the professional speechwriters, the instructors in the required composition course, and anyone else who values logic and coherence, not to mention factual accuracy. Trump, unless he  sticks to a script someone has written for him, jumps from one topic to another, sometimes leaving sentences unfinished and interjecting irrelevancies that seem to be the product of the free association of a disordered mind.

But obviously, Trump is doing something right. It’s not exactly “method in his madness”  — “Trump is not crazy, nor is he methodical. But he is using a strategy, a technique for connecting with his audience.

Gabriel Rossman summarized it perfectly in a tweet yesterday responding to the question, “Who is our Alcibiades?”

“A lot of people tell me I could have seduced Socrates, who by the way was a very 
famous philosopher I studied with. [begins to lose the crowd] Hey, who here likes 
Aristophanes? There's gonna be so much winning in Sicily you’ll get tired of it.”

Aside from the resemblances between Trump and Alcibiades, aside from the rhetorical style (“people say,” “by the way”) and egotism, there’s the quick change of topic when the crowd fails to respond. Reporters who followed Trump during the campaign and now in his presidency note the same thing. Trump is like a stand-up comedian with a variety of bits. When one routine isn’t working, he shifts topics until he finds some material that the audience responds to.

Martin Luther King did something similar in the early years, as Taylor Branch writes in Parting the Waters. He describes King in 1955, twenty-six years old, not yet sure of what will ignite a crowd, speaking at a YMCA on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott.

“We are here this evening — for serious business,” he siad, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch. When he paused, only one or two “yes” responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them.

“And I think I speak with — with legal authority — not that I have any legal authority . . . that the law has never been totally clarified.” This sentence marked King as a speaker who took care with distinctions, but it took the crowd nowhere. “Nobody can doubt the height of her character, no one can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”

“That’s right,” a soft chorus answered.

“And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested,” King repeated. The crowd was stirring now, following King at the speed of a medium walk.
   
He paused slightly longer.

“And you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

A flock of “Yeses” was coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath that cheer — all withing the space of a second. The startling noise rolled on and on, like a wave that refused to break, and just when it seemed that thr oar must finally weaken, a wall of sound came in from the enormous crowd outdoors to push the volume still higher. Thunder seemed to added to the lower register — the sound of feet stomping on the wooden floor — until the loudness became something that was not so much hears as sensed by vibrations in the lungs. The giant cloud of noise shook the building and refused to go away. One sentence had set it loose somehow, pushing the call-and-response of the Negro church past the din of a political rally and on to something else that King had never known before.

King had tried giving the crowd the legal angle. He had tried giving them the nobility of Rosa Parks. The crowd merely waited. He had called, and there was no response. But “there comes a time when people get tired,” had opened the floodgates, and the crowd let him know. He used the phrase at least twice more.” “There comes a time when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation,” and “There comes a time when people get tired of being people get tired of getting pushed out the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.”

Maybe there’s a lesson here for teachers – sensing when you’re losing the class and figuring out a way to get them back.

Dark at the Top of the Stairs

October 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It happens once every couple of years. In a period when I’m not teaching, I happen to walk past a classroom where the professor is someone I know. The door is open. I stop to listen. And the person teaching the class sounds nothing like the person I know. The political science guy that I’ve had many calm discussions with is now bombastic. A friendly colleague sounds almost hostile towards the class. An unassuming friend comes across as pretentious.

The point of yesterday’s post about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford was that we often make the mistake of thinking that people are consistent across a variety of settings. But they are not. We can easily picture how they will behave in settings like the ones where we know them. But it’s a mistake to extend that picture to parts of their life that we are not privy to. We are in the dark. And often, the area where we have the least knowledge of the other person is sex. It’s like that room at the top of the stairs, and everyone else at the party downstairs has no idea of what’s happening behind the locked door.

So while Kavanaugh may be the upstanding, friendly, helpful, honorable man of character that his supporters know, he could also have been capable of doing what Ford says he did at that party.

The latest episode of The Annex Sociology podcast has in interview with Nicole Bedera, who has done research about rape among students. Her personal story is especially relevant here.

In her senior year her college in Salt Lake City, she did a campus survey to estimate the prevalence of rape. Here’s an excerpt from the podcast.



Here’s an edited transcript

For my senior thesis I did a prevalence survey . . . on my campus . . . I presented [the results] anywhere I could . . . because I wanted people to know that sexual violence was a serious problem on my campus. And in giving all those presentations, a lot of survivors came up to me and told me their stories. And many of them named names. And in this process I identified three serial rapists on my campus. And two of them were close friends of mine.

I tell this story because it’s so uncomfortable.

Often the men that can get away with sexual violence are really charismatic, they’re often very powerful, they’re people who are likeable. . . That’s why when we hear whispers about what they’ve done, we say, “That can’t possibly be true. He’s such a nice guy.”

So a lot of us are very close to people who have done unspeakable, horrific things to women in their past.


The entire interview is well worth listening to. You can find it here (don’t let the title and picture fool you). As Joe Cohen, one of the Annex hosts, says of each episode, you won’t want to miss it.

Memory and Character, What Are They Good For?

October 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Christine Balsey Ford is 100% sure that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her thirty-six years ago at a party. Kavanaugh “unequivocally” denies it, says that he was not at any such party.

Often, those involved in the debate seem to be arguing on the basis of unquestioned assumptions that are incorrect. With two areas in particular — memory and character — widely held commonsense ideas just do not square with the findings of social science.

1. Memory.  It’s likely that neither Ford nor Kavanaugh is lying – deliberately saying something they know to be untrue. But memory is faulty. Our memories of events are incomplete --- details we can’t remember — as most of us would admit. What people refuse to believe is that what they do remember may also be wrong.

We like to think that a memory is a photo or video. Over time, details may become faded or blurry or disappear entirely, but what remains was there when the event happened. But that’s not how it works. Instead, memory is more like a document that we edit each time we open it. We add details, delete, change. Then we resave. And each time we call up the memory, we think that what we are seeing is the unedited original. We do this even with harrowing events. We can wind up entirely appropriating other people’s experiences, as Brian Williams did when he “remembered” being in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG. (See my 2015 post, or listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast from last June. .)

Often, we edit memories in a way that makes them consistent with our idea of who we are now.  The man who in his fifties is sober as a judge will have a hard time remembering things he did as a hard-drinking and drunken teenager. He may not remember them at all.

2. Character. Kavanaugh and his defenders make much of his character. Because he is a man of excellent character, they argue, he could not have done what Ford says he did. The character argument rests on two dubious assumptions
  • that character is an unchanging, and ever-present quality
  • that behavior, especially behavior that can be judged as moral or immoral, flows from character.
We think that if we know someone’s character, we can know how he acted. Bad acts are committed by people of bad character. A person of good character could not have committed a bad act.

These assumptions about character are wrong, or at least incomplete. As Philip Zimbardo has said, reflecting on his own famous study and those of others, “behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than personality traits, character, [or] will power.” He could have added that predictions as to how someone will behave become still murkier in settings that include sex and alcohol.

Behavior is inconsistent. The person who acts heroically in one situation may act cowardly in another. But we know that person in only a limited range of situations, and usually, that range does not include sex. Nevertheless, we form judgments about their character. We think we  know how they would act in most other situations, including those that do involve sex. Then we are shocked to discover that the kindly priest who was always so thoughtful and considerate acted very differently when alone with the altar servers. Or that the fatherly fellow, “America’s dad,” so wise and thoughtful, is the same man who drugged women in order to have sex with them.*

Many women have come forward to support Kavanaugh. (You can see a short version of their video here.) They are identified as having been friends, classmates, co-workers, and law clerks. Their message is that they are a diverse group  of women who have known Kavanaugh in a variety of situations.


Well maybe not so much diversity. It looks like it might be a reunion of Fox News on-screen women except that there’s a handful of brunettes. More important, the settings where they have known Kavanaugh are very unlike the one that Ford describes.  Were any of these women at parties where Kavanaugh had been drinking heavily in company with other heavy-drinking bros like Mark Judge? Did any of them ever try to resist Kavanaugh’s advances at a party or on a date? Has any of them resisted or challenged Kavanaugh in any way?

I was waiting for a woman to come forward and say, “I dated Brett for a couple of months in college, and even when he’d had a couple of drinks, he was a lamb. Sometimes when we were making out, he’d try to push me to go a little further. I’d tell him I didn’t really didn’t feel comfortable with it, and he’d say, ‘Ooops, sorry’ or something like that.”

I haven’t followed this story all that closely. Maybe some woman has said something like this, and I missed it. But it’s the kind of testimonial I would have found persuasive, far more so than several admiring law clerks talking about his professionalism and character.

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* I made this point in more detail in this 2011 post, which ended with a quote from Jay Smooth: “We need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift toward seeing being good as a practice.”

The Past Is Never Uncertain

September 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Yogi Berra famously said, It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. He should have added the corollary (the obverse? or is it the converse?) – it’s easy to make predictions about the past.  I was going to say “the obvious corollary,” but I keep coming across statements by people who don’t seem to realize that they are making predictions about the past or that it’s easy.

A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran an article by psychiatrist  Richard A. Friedman, who was skeptical about claims that technology was rewiring the brains of America’s youth, and not for the better. “Despite news reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers.”

Times readers, some of them at least, could not let this calm, evidence-based assessment go unchallenged. The letters in response (here) included this, from a clinical psychologist.
 
[Dr Friedman’s] failure to take seriously the increased anxiety experienced by young people is problematic. The everyday lives of young people confront them with much more uncertainty about their futures than everyday life did for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Young people today experience increased financial uncertainty relative to previous generations, with housing, education and health care costs having escalated astronomically relative to income. In addition, young people today have to contemplate the consequences of climate change over the next five or six decades, which will in all likelihood transform the quality of everyday life in many ways, almost none of which are desirable.

Oh for the 1960s and 70s, the era of certainty. But they were certain in the same way that it was certain Justify would win the Triple Crown, that the housing bubble would burst and with disastrous consequences, or that “Cheerleader” (God help us) would be a huge hit. They are certain only because we now know that they happened. Before that, they were uncertain.

Is the future more uncertain for young people today than for their counterparts fifty years ago? The sixties was a decade of cultural and political change:  a country divided over a seemingly endless war; political assassinations; urban riots, crime and White flight transforming the cities; drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll; student protests shutting down universities; the new feminism challenging rules and ideas about gender; and the ever present possibility of all-out nuclear war. Was anyone certain that it would all turn out OK?

Even for the fraction of the population (maybe 20%) who experienced the sixties, when we think about it now, all the  uncertainty is gone. We know what happened, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have happened any other way.  The outcome has become certain, so it’s hard to imagine anyone having been anxious about its uncertainty.

Twelve Years a Blog

September 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Now we are beginning a new school year.” That was the line I had to write every September in elementary school, back when penmanship was still part of the curriculum. If I recall correctly, the follow-up line was, “Writing helps me in my lessons.” I should pay more attention to those words of wisdom. Writing this blog can have its rewards both for learning and for teaching.

The start of a new year (academic year, blog year, Hebrew year) is also the end of the old year. Time to look back and pick out the posts that I liked — an exercise in what Chris Uggen,* in the banner of his blog, called “self-indulgery.”

1. Two posts about Debbie, the sociology grad student in the TV show “Mindhunter.” Her misreadings of Durkheim and Goffman are noteworthy.

Debbie Does Durkheim  if only for the title. (Among people in France who read this post, there was some discussion on Twitter about how to translate the title so as to capture the cinematic allusion.)
   
“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker 

2.  Two posts on current hand-wringing over kids and technology.
America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst 

3. Two posts about Tom Wolfe. Nobody had a sharper eye than Wolfe when it came to status and style — what we now call “signalling.” The trouble is that even when the issue was injustice or inequality, Wolfe saw only status and style.
   
Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties 

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

4. Rutgers v. Irony. I lapsed into very non-academic prose in this one.
Gentrification and Its Discontents
The guy it’s about e-mailed me that it was “brilliant,” but that’s only because I understood what he was trying to do while everyone else (Breitbart, Rutgers) was deliberately misunderstanding it. Eventually FIRE got involved.

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* If anyone can get Chris to put on his spikes again and come out of blogger retirement, the Internet will be a better place.

Politics and Child’s Play II — Different Games, Different Thoughts

September 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When kids play on their own — with no adults to direct, organize, or supervise —  they find ways to resolve differences and disputes that arise. Over the past few decades, kids’ opportunities for this kind of free play have dwindled. More and more play has come under the domination of adults and their institutions — schools, leagues, clubs, and the like.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt fears that this trend is aggravating the polarization that increasingly afflicts our society and politics. If kids never learn how to deal with one another in play, they’ll grow up to be adults who can’t work with other adults they disagree with.

There’s not a lot of data to support Haidt’s idea (see this previous post). More important, Haidt sees the problem as a matter of individual attitudes. That seems logical, but it makes two questionable assumptions: that it is largely these attitudes and abilities that determine what people do;  and that each person has a limited repertoire of emotions and social skills. It makes more sense to realize first, that people generally have a wider range of thinking, feeling, and acting than psychological theories give them credit for. And second, that emotions and ideas are not just individual; they are part of a situation.

It might seem strange see thoughts and feelings as residing in the external situation and not inside individuals, so let me give an example. In that earlier post, I briefly compared two ways that kids play baseball — pick-up games and Little League. In pick-up games, kids come up with all sorts of ways to resolve disputes and to deal with problems. Is the score lopsided after two innings? Have some players switch sides. Are there only thirteen kids, not enough for a full team on either side? Have same-side pitcher and catcher, no right-field hitting, or other work-arounds.

In contrast, in Little League, these solutions are literally unthinkable. If only six players from one team show up, it’s a forfeit. No game. Go home. How is it that the adults running the game cannot think of solutions that are obvious to 12-year olds playing a pick-up game? These grown-ups are not stupid. But ideas reside not just in the heads of individuals. What is thinkable and what is unthinkable is part of the situation.*

Emotions too come with the setting. Nobody likes to strike out or muff an easy grounder or fly ball. Still, these things happen. But only in Little League did I ever see this kind of mistake bring a kid to the edge or tears, or over the edge. Were these Little League kids more emotionally frail while the pick-up game kids were psychologically resilient? No. These were the same kids. The only difference was the setting for the game.

What prevents kids from engaging with one another to resolve differences is not their personalities or social skills. It’s the structure of organized sports —adult umpires, coaches, and managers to make decisions; the teams dressed in uniforms, sitting on separate benches; the emphasis on winning. Put the kids in a different setting, and they are skilled negotiators and problem-solvers.

Politics may have this same dual character,  with different kinds of politics shaping the available thoughts and feelings. Where people cannot talk to one another as people, they think of politics as a competition. Their goal is to win, to beat the other side. In politics at a smaller, more human level, people may see politics as governing — finding solutions to immediate problems in a way that accommodates others rather than alienating them.

The political polarization of recent years is real. At least there’s evidence of it in the answers people give in surveys. (See the charts in that previous post.). But surveys are general and abstract, and they ask mostly about national politics and national offices. What do you think of Trump, Democrats, Mueller, the tax bill? Whis Senate or House candidate will you vote for? In other words, in this distant game you watch on TV, which team are you rooting for? But when the issues are local — when a person can have a real effect on the outcome, and when the outcome is plainly visible — people are more flexible and co-operative. That’s one of the lessons James and Deborah Fallows draw from their five-year sojourn to cities in the heartland.

What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory. They’re very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, “How’s Obama doing?,” or later, “Do you trust Hillary?” and “What about Trump?” The answers to questions like those won’t take you beyond what you’ve already heard ad nauseam on TV.

Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. [In The Atlantic]

Ask Conservatives and Republicans about taxes, and you’ll get the standard answer that lower is better. But Fallows visited towns in western Kansas, central Ohio, West Virginia, and South Carolina that voted for taxes in order to provide parks and libraries and to keep the employees who worked their from being thrown out of work.

These adults can come up with a variety of solutions to a problem. They can work out their differences. They can compromise. But they can also be the very same people who tell pollsters that they want government officials to stand on principle no matter what.

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* I made this same argument in the early days of this blog (here) after I happened on a girl’s soccer game .

Chasing Rosebud

September 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stories about what very rich men do with their money bring out my inner Freud. This week, it was Paul Allen

Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is, of course, a billionaire. And with his billions, he does many of the things that very rich people do. He owns a 414-foot yacht plus a smaller yacht that’s only 100 yards long. He bought some sports teams (Seahawks, Trail Blazers). He has also supported medicine, science, and the arts. But his true love is aerospace..

His latest project is “Stratolaunch”– a dual-fuselage plane with a wingspan longer than a football field. It will carry a half-million pound rocket ship to its cruising altitude a mile or more above the earth, then drop the rocket, which will then blast off for space. An article about it in Wired  had the title “385 Feet of Crazy.”

Mark Palko at West Coast Stat Views, (here), my source for this story, pulls the quote that would have caught my attention too.

As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. . . .His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. . . . . As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.

Allen never stopped thinking about space.


As Mark says, “You have here a fantastically wealthy man going to great lengths to recapture childhood dreams.”

Mark posts period images of Willy Ley Space Models and Galaxy magazine that might well have been part of Allen’s childhood. The current project, says Mark, is part of the culture of “Silicon Valley futurism . . . heavily (and I would argue not at all healthily) influenced and bounded by the tropes, rhetoric, and imagery of postwar science-fiction.”

My ideas run less to sci-fi and more to Freud and “Citizen Kane.” I’m not so much concerned with the specific type of fantasy. It could be sci-fi or winning the Superbowl; it could anything. What’s important is  that the object of the chase is just that, a fantasy — an ideal that can never be realized. It’s a dream object that, if only it could be grasped, would bring total fulfillment. The trouble is that it can’t, and it wouldn’t.

But (and here comes the Freud*) the fantasy does have a basis in reality — the reality of the warmth, security, and fulfillment of early childhood.  That reality can never be fully recaptured — we’re adults after all, living in the adult world. Yet it remains in the unconscious as a motivating assumption — the idea that somewhere out there, something can bring that same level of gratification.

A man (it’s usually a man) driven by this kind of motivation converts that unconscious ideal into something more tangible; often that something is wealth or power or both. These goals have the added benefit of being infinite and therefore unattainable. No matter how much you have, you can always have more.**

“Citizen Kane” illustrates this idea in near-perfect form. From the very outset, the film makes it clear that Charles Foster Kane has spent his life trying to recapture the childhood he had with his mother.  In the opening scene, the dying Kane lets fall from his hand a snow globe, a perfectly contained snowy world of happiness and peace. Soon after, a flashback shows us Kane as a boy, playing in the snow, gliding downhill on his sled. But this is the day that Mr. Thatcher arrives to take him east. It’s his last day with his mother. Minutes earlier the sled had been a source of delight. Now he uses it, as a shield-like weapon against the man who is taking him away from this childhood..

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or lost,” says Thompson, one of the investigative reporters who, according to the screenplay is “the personification of the search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane.” Thompson, in the next sentences,  hedges his hunch. “No, I don't think it explains anything. I don't think any word explains a man's life.”

But of course, it does. Rosebud symbolizes something Kane lost and then couldn’t get. And he couldn’t get it because he didn’t realize what it was that he really wanted – the human warmth and happiness of childhood. He displaced that goal onto the narcissistic goals of wealth and power.  Each victory in pursuit of those goals brings him no real or lasting pleasure because they are not really what he is seeking.
                               
Is Paul Allen a version of Kane with sci-fi memorabilia instead of snow? I have no idea. Wikipedia tells me only that “Allen has never married and has no children. He has been, at times, reclusive.” More important, in real life, motivation is not purely a matter of individual psychology. Movies are very good at showing us individual reactions, emotions, and ideas. But as I argued a while ago (here), motives, even motives like greed,  also reside in institutions and situations.

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* The ideas that follow also owe much to Philip Slater.

**  “A million dollars isn’t cool,” Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerberg (or at least he does in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay).  “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” But people with a billion dollars several times over are rarely cool enough with that amount that they stop trying to make more.

Politics and Child’s Play

September 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on bureaucracy and rationalization, I ask students to think about the differences between Little League baseball and pick-up games. It’s the same activity — kids playing baseball. But Little League runs on principles of bureaucracy as outlined by Weber. It has clear rules and authorities to enforce them. In pick-up games kids are free to adjust the rules according to the situation. With no umpires around, it’s the kids themselves who make the decisions. So the outcome on a close call, like whether a runner is safe or out, might depend on the current score (“OK, we’ll give it to you”), the decision on the previous close call, the individual involved (“Hey, it’s little Mason — give him a break”); or it might be decided by rock-paper-scissors. These are all reasonable ways of reaching an agreed-on resolution. And in Little League, they are all off limits. Kids are barred from participating in the decisions that affect their own game.

In Sunday’s Times (here), Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make the same point about adult-organized activity compared with “free play,” but they go much farther. It’s not just that different structures (bureaucratic or informal) demand different ways of acting and thinking. They have long-term consequences. “Free play . . . matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.”  Clearly, Haidt-Lukianoff they are swinging for the fences.

There’s good data to show that they are right about free play getting squeezed out — by school and homework, by adult-run activities (lessons, organized sports), and by solitary vices involving screens. But Haidt-Lukianoff claim that the change has led to anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. They also argue that it makes for a more polarized society where those who disagree cannot work towards compromise solutions. Do we have any real evidence for these consequences?

The trouble is that Haidt-Lukianoff are talking about how free play affects individuals, but for evidence they rely on data about aggregates — rates of behavior now compared with the same rates in the past. The logic is tempting. Teens today, on average, spend less time in free play. Teens today, on average, report more symptoms of anxiety and depression.  But are those anxious and depressed kids the ones who have been spending less time in free play? We don’t know. It’s also possible that these psychological problems are increasing not just for teens but among the population generally. For example, it’s true that rates of teen suicide have increased in the last decade, but so have rates of suicide among all age groups, including those who grew up in the years when kids had more free-play time.

Then there’s Haidt-Lukianoff’s claim about “the health of our democracy.”
The second predictable consequence of play deprivation is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills.
It’s predictable, but has it actually occurred? Haidt-Lukianoff point to the increasing political polarization in the US. “Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies.”

But young people are not responsible for this polarization, as even Haidt-Lukianoff recognize. “Play is clearly not sufficient for political cooperation — today’s political elites had plenty of free play as children.” Those “conflict-management and negotiation skills” are part of a willingness to compromise rather than adhere rigidly to ideology in all situations.  So it might be helpful to see who prefers compromise and who prefers ideology. We might expect to find a greater preference for flexibility in what Sarah Palin called “the real America” —  small-town and rural, conservative in religion and politics, more in the South and Midwest than on the coasts.

In 2014, a Pew survey asked people whether elected officials should “make compromises with people they disagree with” or on the other hand whether they should “stick to their positions.” In most comparisons, “real Americans” were less likely to want compromise.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)


If the decline of free play is related to the inability or unwillingness to engage with others, that suggests one other variable, one that Haidt-Lukianoff ignore — social class. I’m a little surprised that they don’t mention it since one of the most important and widely read books in sociology in the past 20 years, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, focuses specifically on the question of who organizes children’s play — adults or the kids themselves. Lareau compares the “natural growth” parenting of the working-class parents with the “concerted cultivation” of middle-class parents. The natural-growth approach lets children develop more on their own, with less parental direction and intervention. Middle-class parents, by contrast, cultivate. They organize and supervise. They pay great attention to what their kids are doing and worry about how that fits with long-term goals. They’re less willing to leave things to chance. . .  or to their children. Needless to say, middle-class kids have far less free-play time than their working-class counterparts, who are left to organize their own play. 

If Haidt-Lukianoff are right, the better-educated, more middle-class people should be less likely to want compromise. But it’s just the reverse. It’s the less educated who want their elected officials to be uncompromising when dealing with people who have conflicting ideas.


This  lack of convincing evidence is disappointing, for I don’t think that Haidt-Lukianoff are completely wrong. They’re making an important point about play and about politics. But they see the problem as psychological; they focus on individual psychological traits and social skills. They miss the important point that when we are looking at political processes, and even when we are looking at personal reactions and problems, it makes more sense to think about structures and situations, as I will hope to explain in a subsequent post.