The Charter School Advantage

December 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed that I criticized last week (here), Jason Riley begins with the story of a father who was desperate to get his kid into a charter school.

I thought he was going to tell me that the charter school had smaller classes or better graduation rates. Instead, he wanted to talk about something most parents take for granted when they send Johnny and Susie off to school each morning: physical safety.

He didn’t take it for granted. He told me the atmosphere at the old school had been chaotic, that bullying was rampant, and that his son, a sixth-grader at the time, had become terrified of the place. One day the boy was attacked by other students in the school lavatory, and the father got a call to pick him up from the hospital. It was the final straw. “I didn’t know anything about charters,” said the father. “I was just looking for an escape.” After the new school assured him his child would not have to worry each day about being assaulted by his classmates, he was sold.

Riley uses this anecdotal evidence to support the decision by Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos to rescind Obama administration efforts to reduce the disparity between discipline imposed on Black schoolkids and White schoolkids.

But this anecdote also speaks to another controversial issue in education — whether charter schools, compared with traditional public schools, do a better job of educating kids.  On that question, the scorecard is mixed. In most studies that compare charters with similarly situated publics, there’s little difference in students’ test scores. For the rest, in some places, the publics come out better. And in some cities — New York, for example —  some charters consistently outperform public schools.

Charter school boosters claim that charter students do better because their schools are unencumbered by the teachers’ unions and educational bureaucracies that hobble public schools. But critics point out that charter schools have one way of improving their test averages that is not available to the public schools, and it has nothing to do with unions or regulations: charter schools can get rid of bad students. If you can force out the low scorers, the school average will be higher not because the school does a better job of teaching but just because of the way an average is calculated.

That’s true. But the expulsion option has an impact far beyond the math. Difficult and disruptive kids don’t just bring down the class average because of their individual low scores. They affect the general atmosphere of the class and the school. As Riley’s anecdote illustrates, troublemakers make it harder for other kids to learn and harder for teachers to teach.

I wrote about this back in 2012 (here), but I was reminded of it a few weeks ago in a conversation with an expert on educational testing and measurement who also had once taught in a middle school. We were talking about rating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Disruptive kids in the classroom, he said, can undermine the efforts of a teacher. Even the good teacher who gets one kid like that is not going to score well on these measures. With more than one, the problem grows almost exponentially.

That atmosphere in the public school in Riley’s WSJ op-ed was chaotic not because of the UFT and not because of the Board of Ed. The “bureaucratic” regulation responsible for it was the law that requires public schools to find a place for all kids, even the very difficult ones.

“Other Than That, Merry Christmas”

December 28, 2018  
Posted by Jay Livingston 

Some countries have a ceremonial head of state — a person who stands above or at least apart form partisan politics and who therefore can more easily be seen as representative of the whole country. The UK has the Queen. It is the Queen, not the prime minister, who delivers the Christmas message.

When surveys ask Brits for the person they most admire, the Queen always wins. This year, Theresa May, the head of the government, didn’t even make the top five.

In the US, both roles — political/govermental leader and ceremonial head of state — fall to the president. The overlap can get tricky, but most US presidents, on ceremonial occasions, have tried to to avoid politics and to appeal to widely shared values and symbols. Their Christmas messages, for instance, project warmth and hope. Even if they mention problems (the suffering of those who are ill, poor, homeless, bereaved), they emphasize the American spirit that helps us overcome setbacks.

Donald Trump seems incapable of playing that role for more than a minute. The pre-recorded Christmas message from the Trumps (Donald and Melania) stayed true to the genre. But on Christmas day, Trump quickly returned to the spirit of Christmas Trump — belittling and combative. On Twitter, he wrote, “I hope everyone, even the Fake News Media, is having a great Christmas!” And speaking to reporters he concluded with, “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country. But, other than that I wish everybody a Merry Christmas.”*

Since 1946, the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” Nearly every year, the most admired man is the president or president-elect. In the graphic below, the names in red are most-admired men who were not.

(Click for a larger view.)

When a president is not the most admired, it’s because of policy failures (Truman and Korea, LBJ and Vietnam plus domestic strife, Carter and stagflation) or personal failure (Nixon and Watergate). But with Trump, it’s something else. In most of the years in the chart, the president was not really doing anything unusually admirable. The admiration was directed to him not as a person or politician but as the symbol of the nation. For better or worse, he is our Queen. What has kept Trump from the top of the list for both years of his presidency is his unwillingness or inability to play that symbolic role.

(Earlier blogposts about our lack of a Queen are here and here )

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* I doubt that anyone was surprised that Trump lumped together this supposed national disgrace and the national holiday. After all, at his very first ceremonial occasion, the inauguration, he spoke of “this American carnage.” (In that speech, he assured us that the carnage would “stop right now.” That was two years ago. Apparently, the carnage has not been stopped but merely transformed into disgrace.)

The Ferguson Effect Goes to School

December 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Ferguson Effect” has disappeared from the headlines. It doesn’t come up much in political discussions. But now, conservatives are pushing the same idea applied to schools.

In case you’ve forgotten, proponents of the Ferguson Effect sketch out this scenario:
  • A White cop kills a Black person, usually an unarmed Black person.
  • Black people protest.
  • The government, dominated by liberals, pressures police to be less aggressive, especially towards African Americans. Sometimes cops who have killed Black people are prosecuted.
  • Cops, to avoid being exposed to prosecution and accusations of racism, withdraw from proactive policing.
  • Crime in Black neighborhoods increases.
  • Conclusion: A policy intended to reduce racism winds up hurting Black people.
The fault, according to this model, is not in our cops but in our liberals.

For the schools version, just substitute teachers and administrators for police; substitue disruption/violence/bullying for crime. The villain remains the same — liberal government policies. The equivalent of consent decrees forced on police departments is an Obama-era policy that threatened schools with loss of funds for disproportionately punishing Black kids.

Betsy de Vos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, is rescinding that policy, and conservatives are cheering. Here is Jason S. Riley in the Wall Street Journal:

Racial parity in school discipline, regardless of who was being disruptive. . . is as silly as demanding racial parity in police arrests, regardless of who’s committing crimes.

If the Obama policy means that Black kids are less likely to be punished for an offense, then Black kids’ misbehavior that will increase. The losers will be the other kids in their schools. And since US schools are racially homogeneous, the anti-racism policy will wind up hurting Black people. According to Riley, this Ferguson Effect has already happened since the Obama policy went into effect in 2014.

The result is that more schools have been disciplining fewer students in order to achieve racial balance in suspension rates and stay out of trouble with the federal government. . .  In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension “unless there was blood.”

The “blood” thing is a great quote, but if you are making generalizations about a nationwide policy, Oklahoma City is a very small n. Elsewhere in his article, Riley cites the report by the National Center for Education Statistics (here), a national survey, so that’s where I went for a broader view. The NCES asks teachers whether misbehavior is undermining their teaching.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)


The graphs show no sharp changes after 2014. Misbehavior that interfered with teaching began to rise in 2007-2008 and continued to rise at about the same rate. Enforcement of school rules showed no change.

What were the effects of this supposed pullback in punishment? More bad stuff. Here’s Riley again.

After school districts in Los Angeles and Chicago softened their policies to curb suspensions, teachers reported more disorder, and students reported feeling less safe. Following a similar move in Philadelphia, truancy increased and academic achievement fell. Schools in Wisconsin that followed the guidance also saw subsequent reductions in math and reading proficiency.

Riley gives us three cities and one state, each with its own negative outcomes. It’s possible that these outcomes are related — more students feel unsafe so they stay away from school, and achievement falls. But Riley doesn’t tell us whether Los Angeles students, with their lower feelings of safety, also scored worse on tests of achievement. Or whether in Wisconsin, where achievement scores dropped, students also felt less safe. He mentions “disorder” but not actual crime or even bullying. Nor does he tell us the magnitude of these changes.

Were these cities and outcomes representative, or were they merely a few unusually juicy cherries that Riley picked? To get the more general picture, I went back to the NCES survey.  Had 2014 brought in a new era of  fear?


Fear decreased in the 1990s, and it leveled off in about 2010, and did not rise appreciably after that. There is no discernible effect of the 2014 policy. Bullying shows a roughly similar pattern.


In private schools, less affected by the Obama rules, bullying declined from 2013 to 2015. In public schools, it remained unchanged — hardly the effect Riley claims.

Finally, there is actual victimization. (The data is from the National Crime Victimization Survey.)


Victimization at school increased from 2010 to 2013. In 2014, the year when the new policy was introduced, victimization declined and has not risen since. So what can we say about the unintended consequences of the Obama policy? Where are those bad outcomes claimed by conservatives? On average nationwide, schools have not seen an increase in violence, crime, bullying, or fear.

This doesn’t mean that Riley is totally wrong. In some schools and some cities, decreased punishment of Black kids may have had the effects he claims. But it’s also possible that in some schools, the Obama policy had the good effects its proponents hoped for — Black schoolkids feeling less alienated, less resentful, and more positive towards school. At the very least, the policy did not lead to the nationwide crisis that conservatives would predict.

For the next two years (and perhaps more), thanks to DeVos-Trump, school staff will once again be free to punish who they wish, how they wish, without having to worry about charges of racism and without having to worry about federal pressure. If conservatives are right, bad things (bullying, crime) will decrease, and good things (attendance, learning) will increase, especially for Black kids.

Will that happen? No doubt, in 2020, our president will claim that because of this policy, schools are now beautiful, the best they have ever been in US history. The Wall Street Journal will publish cherry-picked success stories. The rest of us will have to wait for more systematic evidence.

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 1950s. 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 early enough 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. Everybody likes free speech, so that’s what the regents had to go with. After all, they couldn’t very well pass a resolution that protected only conservative speech. But that seems to have been their intent. 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,” as judged by the board, will affect his salary adjustment, though the board doesn’t say exactly 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 to 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 Newman’s non-Pixar songs. In those songs, the voice we hear is a flawed characters an unreliable narrator, 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 Newman’s 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 [Trump] 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 blogpost 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. The script is bad even by porn standards, 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 years 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.”

-------------

*

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.”

----------------
* 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. Throughout 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 Blasey 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 — we can’t remember all the details — 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. Sorry, 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. Yet 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. This 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.” In other words, situational forces matter more than does character. Zimbardo could have added that predictions as to how someone will behave become still murkier when that situation includes 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 Kavanaugh’s 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 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 the song “Cheerleader” (God help us) would be a huge hit. They are certain only because we now know that they happened. Before that, all these events 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 today’s 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.  Because the outcome has now become certain, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having been anxious about its uncertainty.

The logic used by the psychologist I quoted seems to go like this:

1. Things today are more uncertain than things were in the past.
2. Therefore, kids today must be more anxious than were kids in the past.

Neither of those statements is accurate. The first statement is true only because the past is history. When the current moment has passed into history, it too will be less uncertain than it is now. As for anxiety, if Dr. Friedman is right, then the evidence shows that the second statement is simply untrue.