What Have You Got Against Progress?

April 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to find a liberal politician these days. Hillary? Nope. Bernie? Not him either.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and others of their generation used to be Liberals. No longer. They’re Progressives. And of course, so are newer faces like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Is there a difference? In a NY Times op-ed today, “When Liberals Become Progressives,” Greg Weiner of Assumption College says Yes there is. He’s wrong. Or rather, if he’s right, he’s right only in his own particular definition of these words.

“Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.” He sees Progressives as uncompromising, almost totalitarian. Progressivism is a steamroller flattening anyone and anything in its path to social improvements – tradition, the Constitution, individual rights; nothing is safe. “It supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.”

I’m sure that Chuck and Nancy, Hillary and Bernie, Cory and Kamala and the rest would be surprised and delighted to learn that their power was so awesome.

Of course, Prof. Weiner knows what’s really going on. It’s a change of name, not of policy.* “In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use.” Even as a name change, Weiner says, it “augurs poorly for Democrats.” He’s wrong. It was a brilliant bit of renaming and rebranding. It trades a label that was at best peripheral to American ideas and ideals for one that has a more central place in American culture.

The pantheon of American values includes ideals like Freedom, Equality, Success/Achievement, Democracy, Patriotism, and others. But no observer of American culture has ever seen Liberal as one of these terms that have such deep resonance in the hearts of Americans. That may have made it even easier for Republicans to turn “Liberal” into a slur.

But Americans do believe in Progress. Politicians can rail about ideas and policies that are liberal. But who will speak out against Progress? Back in the 20th century, the term was so unassailably positive that General Electric made it the core of their brand.** Progress was their most important product.

Yes, that’s conservative saint Ronald Reagan pitching progress. The idea of progress may have lost some of the sanctity it had in the 1950s, but it’s still highly positive. Not to Prof. Weiner. He still loves the “liberal” label. He says that those on the left “would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it. I wonder how many politicians (and their brand consultants) who are trying to win elections would agree with him?

* Weiner does not mention any actual policies. Nor does he specify what he means by “the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.” Presumably, he means the right to discriminate against LBGTQ people.

** Back then, we spoke of “image” rather than “brand.” It’s really the same thing – how the public perceives the company. The main difference is that the word “image” suggests that the whole thing is a fake, an imaginary facade that PR guys have created to manipulate the public. “Brand,” by contrast, is as honest and unpretentious as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. This change from “image-mongers” to “brand consultants” is itself one of the great examples of rebranding.

Couch and Context

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s nothing unusual about a girl sitting on a couch, backpack beside her, writing in a notebook. But this was in a bus shelter on Columbus Avenue.

I crossed the street to make sure that it was an actual bus stop and not some temporary prop. It was the real thing.

But why would the MTA put a couch at a bus stop – besides the obvious reason so that people can sit on it and write in their notebooks. It took me a few seconds to catch on. I had seen this couch before, but in a different context, which is why I didn't recognize it immediately. Maybe you have seen it  too.

Bad News – This Kid Got Accepted at Lots of Colleges

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re a Republican, you probably think that Whites suffer more from racial discrimination than do Blacks.* One of the ways that Black people make things harder for Whites is by applying to college.

You have probably seen this video of the Black kid in Houston, on his computer, reading his acceptance from Stanford. Full scholarship. Family and friends scream in delight. He breaks down crying. It’s touching. He applied to 19 other schools with similar results.

The DC local Fox News program could not let the moment go without some criticism He had, the anchors complained, applied to too many schools. At each of those schools, they said, his acceptance meant that some other applicant was put on the wait list.**

The Fox reaction had nothing to do with race, right? That kid in the video  – that kid who jumped the line and displaced “someone else who worked really hard” –  just happened to be Black.

Still, there was something hauntingly familiar about the Fox take on college acceptances. Then I remembered it – the “Hands” ad. That was the TV spot Jesse Helms ran in his 1990 campaign for Senate in North Carolina. The ad showed a man’s hands opening a letter (no computer acceptances back then). The voice-over was explicit in playing the race card.

Affirmative action in 1990, college applications in 2018. In Republicanland, everyone knows that a White person just doesn’t have a chance any more.


* A Public Religion Research Institute poll (WaPo summary here) asked voters if Whites were “under attack.” Sixty-three percent agreed.  Is there “a lot of discrimination” against Whites? Forty-three percent of Republicans agreed. Against Blacks? Only 27% of Republicans agreed.

** Colleges send out more acceptances than they have places for. They make fairly good estimates of how many of those accepted students will choose another school. I would imagine that those estimates take into account the average number of schools that high schoolers apply to.

“Mi Amor” — My Larry David Moment

April 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Larry David, in his pre-”Seinfeld” standup years, did a bit about familiar and formal pronouns in Romance languages.* “I’m glad I wasn’t the owner of a big hacienda in some South American country [pause] because I’d never know whether to address the workers as tu or usted.” And he would explain the delicacies and conflicts associated with each pronoun.

David did not exactly kill as a standup. Or as he put it, “I sucked.” But when I read about that line, I thought – it’s pure sociology. It’s Goffman, it’s social class, it’s culture. By choosing one pronoun you are, as Goffman says,  “projecting a definition of the situation” and the role relationships within that situation. We Americans, with our ideals of equality, do not feel comfortable with vertical relationships. We don’t like to admit that social class distinctions exist. Economic inequality, that’s OK. But cultural inequality, that’s evil elitism.**

Fairway, my local grocery store, is not a hacienda, but I had that same Larry David moment this morning.

Let me back up. I’ve been shopping there for years. The long-time workers there  – we recognize one another and exchange brief pleasantries. I try to use what little Spanish I have. A while ago, I noticed that the workers, at least in male-female exchanges, address one other as “mi amor.” There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s very casual –  the equivalent of the British “luv” (“Care for a cuppa cha, luv?” asks the waitress.)

I wanted to be “mi amor.” After all, I’ve known these cashiers for ages. Some of them ask after my son, who they remember from when he was a toddler. I comment, always favorably, when they change their hair style. When I pay in cash, I tell them to keep the pennies. (I told you this was very Larry David.) Hey, what about me? Why can’t I be “mi amor”?

And then, a year or so ago, it happened. One of the cashiers, Arelis, a woman of at least fifty, started calling me “mi amor,” and I did likewise to her. A dream fulfilled. I was “mi amor.”

This morning, I wound up at Arelis’s register. “Buenos dias, mi amor,” etc. I had only a couple of items (three red peppers and a slice of manouri cheese, if you most know). On the screen, it said $5.00. “Five dollars,” said Arelis. “Exactly?” I said and then added “En punto,” She was surprised and said something in Spanish about how much Spanish I know.

I demurred. The only reason I know “en punto” is that it’s in the one line of Spanish poetry I know –  “Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde,” from a famous poem by Garcia Lorca. But could I recite the line to Arelis? Is the poem famous enough to be recognized by a grocery store cashier from the Dominican Republic? If not, I feared that explaining how I knew “en punto” would come off as elitist. I would become the over-educated Americano, and that elevated status – like using usted rather than tu –  would disqualify me forever from being “mi amor.”

I handed her the $5 bill, said, “Buen dia,” and went on my way.


* For a short video of David, somewhat older, doing this bit, go here

** Donald Trump’s supporters don’t mind that he has a ton of money – who wouldn’t want a ton of money? – because he shares not just their political views but their cultural preferences. Speaking about “Rosanne” to a rally of his supporters, Trump said, “It’s about us,” as though Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago were just slightly spiffier versions of the Connor house in Ohio. The crowd cheered. 

Evidence at the Upshot

March 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Common sense” is not evidence. Neither is “what everyone knows” or, to use a source of data favored by our president, what “people say.”  That’s one of the first things students hear in the intro sociology course. Our discipline is empirical, we insist. It is evidence-based, and evidence is something that really happened. Often you have to actually count those things.

The Upshot is the “data-driven” site that the New York Times created to compete with FiveThirtyEight. Friday, an Upshot article about marriage, social class, and college had this lede,* a six-word graf.*
Princetonians like to marry one another.
The article, by Kevin Carey, showed that students from wealthier families are more likely to be married by their early thirties than are students from the bottom fifth of the income ladder. Carey argued that the cause was “assortative mating” – like marries like – and that the pattern holds even for graduates of the same elite school – Princeton, for example. Rich Princetonians marry other rich Princetonians, says Carey. Poor Princetonians remain unmarried. In their early thirties, only a third of them were married.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

According to Carey, the sorting that leads to mating takes place in the “eating clubs” – Princeton’s version of fraternities and sororities. Acceptance into this or that club depends in part on social class, so as Carey sees it, “Eating clubs are where many upper-income marriages begin.”

It’s logical and it makes sense. The only trouble is that Carey provides no evidence for Tiger intermarriage. That 56% of rich Princeton alums who were married by age 32-34 – we don’t know who they married. Another rich Princetonian? Maybe, maybe not. We know only that they were married, not to whom.

Oh, wait. I said Carey provided no evidence. I take that back. Here’s the second graf.

Although the university is coy about the exact number of Tiger-Tiger marriages, Princeton tour guides are often asked about matrimonial prospects, and sometimes include apocryphal statistics — 50 percent! Maybe 75! — in their patter. With an insular campus social scene, annual reunions and a network of alumni organizations in most major cities, opportunities to find a special someone wearing orange and black are many.

You don’t have to have taken a methods course to know that this is not good evidence, or even evidence at all. What people say, and even logical reasons that something should happen, are not evidence that it does happen. Carey all but admits that he has no real data on Princeton intermarriage, but that doesn’t stop him from writing about it as though it’s a solid fact.

Is it? Five years ago, a Princeton alumna, president of the class of ’77, published a letter in The Daily Princetonian giving her 21st-century counterparts this bit of advice: “Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

The reaction was swift and predictable. Some even thought that the Princetonian had run the piece as an April Fool’s joke. Besides, people these days typically do not get married till their late twenties – at least five years after they graduate. A lot can happen to that eating-club romance in those five years.

Let me clear: the negative reaction to the letter and the median marriage age of the US population are not evidence that Princetonians are not marrying one another. But it’s just as good (or bad) as Carey’s evidence that they are.

*Using journalism jargon when I’m writing about journalism is one of my favorite affectations.

Happy Birthday, Jay Livingston (1915 - 2001)

March 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s strange to go ego-surfing and the only person who turns up is some other guy. It’s only fair. He’s the one who wrote all those songs that were hits a half-century ago – “Mona Lisa,” “Tammy,” “The Mr. Ed” theme song, and of course of course, “Silver Bells.” Simple songs with simple chords.

That’s what he became known for. That’s what Hitchcock was looking for when he hired him to write a song for “The Man Who Knew Too Much. What Livingston (and his songwriting partner Ray Evans) came up with was “Que Sera Sera.” Said Hitchcock when he heard it, “Gentlemen, I told you I didn't know what kind of song I wanted, but that's the kind of song I want.”

His only tune in the jazz standards repertoire is “Never Let Me Go,” so different from those other songs – darker, in a minor key, and with complex and unexpected chord changes. It was also his own favorite. He tells the story that after he finished it, he took it to another song writer (I can’t remember who) to ask his opinion. The other composer sat down at the piano, played through it, and said, “You didn’t write this.”

He did write one other song that a few jazzers and singers do. “Maybe September.” Here is the version from the second Bill Evans - Tony Bennett album, 1977. There may be other recordings with a better vocal, but this one has Bill Evans.

“Concerted Cultivation” and the March For Our Lives

March 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A question that few people seem to be asking about Enough Is Enough and the March for Our Lives is: Why now? Or to paraphrase a question that some people soon will be asking: How is this school shooting different from all other school shootings?

There’s #MeToo and #Time’sUp of course. These may have inspired advocates of other liberal causes like gun control. But just three weeks earlier, a 15-year old in Benton, Kentucky brought a handgun to school and started shooting – 2 dead, 18 injured. The incident evoked only the usual responses, nothing more.

Here’s my hunch. When I first saw the kids in Parkland speaking out, organizing, demanding that adults do something, I immediately thought of a sociology book that had nothing to do with guns – Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau published in 2003.

These high-schoolers, I thought, are the children of “concerted cultivation.” That was the term Lareau used for the middle-class approach to raising kids. It’s not just that middle-class parents cultivate the child’s talents, providing them with private coaches and organized activities. There is less separation of child worlds and adult worlds. Parents pay attention to children and take them seriously, and the children learn how to deal with adults and with institutions run by adults.

One consequence is the notorious sense of “entitlement” that older people find so distressing in millennials. Here is how Lareau put it:

This kind of training developed in Alexander and other middle-class children a sense of entitlement. They felt they had a right to weigh in with an opinion, to make special requests, to pass judgment on others, and to offer advice to adults. They expected to receive attention and to be taken very seriously.

It is this sense of entitlement – the teenager’s sense that she is entitled to have some effect on the forces that affect her life – that made possible the initial protests by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And once word of that protest spread, it was this same sense of entitlement, these same assumptions about their place in the world, that made so many other high school students join the movement.

At Fox and elsewhere, conservatives had to denigrate the students. That goes without saying. But their choice of lies and slurs is instructive. Conservatives just could not believe that kids could or should be so adept at mounting an effective movement or that they could or should speak intelligently about political issues. So the right-wingers insisted that the students were paid “crisis actors” or pawns of various forces of evil – adult anti-gun activists, the media, the deep state, etc. They also claimed that the students were “rude” and that they did not have standing to raise the issue of gun control.
“[the students] say that they shouldn't be able to own guns even though they can go to war, but they think that they should be able to make laws. None of this makes any sense at all.

(For this and more really stupid Fox commentary the day before the march, see the excerpts in the transcript here.)

In a way, Fox and their friends are hauling out the old notion that children should know their place. But it’s not necessarily do-as-you’re-told authoritarianism. The issue isn’t the child’s independence. As Lareau says, concerted cultivation makes children far more dependent on parents than does the “natural growth” parenting more common in working-class families. Besides, foreign visitors since the early days of the republic have remarked on the independence of American children. What’s new, and what is so upsetting to exponents of older ideas, is the demand by teenagers to be involved in the decisions that shape their lives.

Sondheim – “The Glamorous Life”

March 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Stephen Sondheim’s birthday – he’s a pianistic 88.

It’s hard to write about Sondheim without repeating what are by now cliches. But cliches (which Sondheim scrupulously avoids) usually contain some truth, and the one that sticks in my mind is this: Sondheim brings ambivalence to center stage. Sometimes it’s right there in the title of a song. In company, in answer to the question, “Are you ever sorry you got married?” a character sings “Sorry Grateful” (“You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful, you’re always wondering what might have been.”)

In other songs, the ambivalence is subtext, as in “The Glamorous Life” from “A Little Night Music.” Frederika, young teenage girl is singing about the glamorous life her actress mother compared with the lives of “ordinary mothers.” It’s no contest, and yet, under the protestations of how wonderful it is to have a glamorous mother, Frederika senses that she’s missing something.
Ordinary daughters may think life is better
With ordinary mothers near them when they choose. . .

No, ordinary mothers merely see their children all year,
Which is nothing, I hear…
But it does interfere
With the glamorous—
Here is the great Audra McDonald performing the song at a celebration for Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Yes, there’s her powerful voice, but she also perfectly reveals the ambivalence. (I don’t see how an actual teenage girl could sing this song – the version in the movie of “Night Music” is not good – especially if she has ever heard this performance by McDonald.)

Connecting the Dots

March 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brilliance in science is sometimes a matter of simplifying – paring away complicated scientific techniques and seeing what non-scientists would see if they looked in the right place. That’s what Richard Feynman did when he dropped a rubber ring into a glass of ice water – a flash of brilliance that allowed everyone to understand what caused the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Andrew Gelman isn’t Richard Feynman, but he did something similar in his blog post about an article that’s been getting much buzz, including at Buzzfeed, since it was posted at SSRN two weeks ago. The article is about Naloxone, the drug administered to people who have overdosed on heroin or opoiods. It keeps them from dying.

The authors of the article, Jennifer Doleac and Anita Mukherjee, argue that while the drug may save lives in the immediate situation, it does not reduce overall drug deaths. Worse, the unintended consequences of the drug outweigh its short-run benefits. Those whose lives are saved go back to using drugs, committing crimes, and winding up in emergency rooms. In addition, a drug that will prevent overdoes death “[makes] riskier opioid use more appealing.” 

The title is “The Moral Hazard of Lifesaving Innovations: Naloxone Access, Opioid Abuse, and Crime.” (A moral hazard is something that encourages people to do bad things by protecting them from negative consequences.)

Naloxone didn’t happen all at once. In 2013 fewer than ten states allowed it; the next year the number had doubled. In 2015, only nine states still did not allow its use. Doleac and Mukherjee used these time differences to look at bad outcomes (theft, death, ER admissions) before and after the introduction Naloxone in the different states.  Here are some of their graphs.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

They conclude that “broadening Naloxone access led to more opioid-related ER visits.” As for deaths, “in some areas, particularly the Midwest, expanding Naloxone access has increased opioid-related mortality.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of the data, but let’s assume that the numbers – the points in the graph – are accurate. Even so, says Andrew Gelman (here), there’s still the question of how to interpret that array of points. Doleac and Mukherjee add lines and what I assume are confidence bands to clarify the trends. But do these added techniques clarify, or do they create a picture that is different from the underlying reality? Here’s Gelman:

The weird curvy lines are clearly the result of overfitting some sort of non-regularized curves. More to the point, if you take away the lines and the gray bands, I don’t see any patterns at all! Figure 4 just looks like a general positive trend, and figure 8 doesn’t look like anything at all. The discontinuity in the midwest is the big thing—this is the 14% increase mentioned in the abstract to the paper—but, just looking at the dots, I don’t see it.

Are these graphs really an optical illusion, with the lines and shadings getting me to see something that isn’t really there? My powers of visualization are not so acute, so to see what Gelman meant about looking only at the dots, I erased the added lines and bands. Here is what the graphs looked like.

Like Gelman, I can’t see any clear patterns showing the effect of Naloxone. And as I read the reactions to the paper, I sense that its results are ambiguous enough to provide rich material for motivated perception. Conservatives and libertarians often start from the assumption that government attempts to help people only make things worse. The unintended-consequences crowd – Megan McCardle, for example (here) – take the paper at face value. Liberals – for example, Richard G. Frank, Keith Humphreys, and Harold A. Pollack (here), who have done their own research on Naloxone – are more skeptical about the accuracy of the data.*


* This reminded me of a post I did in the first year of this blog.  It was about an editorial in the WSJ that included an utterly dishonest, ideologically motivated connect-the-dots line imposed on an array of points. The post is here.

Le Bron and Grades

March 21, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve never used those percentages in grading – you know, 94% is an A, 82% is a B– and so on. Eighty-two percent of what, I wonder, especially on essays? The percent may be just the same subjective judgment of an essay, but one that makes it seem more precise and objective. You can’t argue with numbers. 

I do use points – a point for each multiple-choice or short answer, so many points for a short essay, more for a long essay – to weight different parts of the exam. But I don’t use a standard formula for converting exam scores to letter grades. Instead, I adjust my own idea of what the grades should be to the actual distribution of scores in the class.

I explain this on the first day of class, and I post a document (“How I Grade”) on Canvas at the start of the semester, but apparently neither of those is very convincing. Students see their scores on Canvas, which also converts these to percents. The student who sees 55% on Canvas comes to class convinced it’s a failure. Even when I give them my own number-to-letters conversion for the exam, some remain skeptical. It’s as though I were singing my own made-up lyrics to some well-known song. They hear, but deep down they know, “Those aren’t the real words.”
I came up with a new strategy this week when I gave back the midterms. “Who’s the best basketball player in the NBA?” I asked. Everyone knew: LeBron James.

“What’s LeBron’s field-goal percentage?” The few students who had some idea lowballed it, guessing 40-45%. “Actually, he’s having a good year,” I said. “He’s hitting about 55%.” Then. “So I guess that means LeBron gets an F in basketball.”

That analogy may have done the trick – that, plus a letter grade that was higher than what they had expected.

Drugs and Death Penalties

March 13, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s a sure sign of desperation when a politician calls for the death penalty for drug dealing.

Trump is basically admitting that his administration has no idea how to solve the drug problem.

Two hundred fifty years ago, Cesare Beccaria argued that of the three elements of punishment – certainty, swiftness, and severity – severity is the least effective. All the subsequent research has proven him right. But certainty and swiftness are hard to increase; severity is easy. Just pass some laws imposing long sentences, mandatory sentences, life sentences, and of course, death. When politicians call for the death penalty what they are saying is, “We don’t know how to catch very many of these guys, and it takes a long while before they are actually sentenced, so when we do catch one of them, we’re going to show him how pissed off we are.”

Draconian punishments may be very good for expressing the frustration and anger of law-abiding people, and Trump is very good at playing to those emotions. But as for the practical effects, executions are unlikely to have much of an impact on crime. What was true in in the crack crisis of the 1980s is still true: there already is in fact a death penalty for drug dealers. It’s just not administered by the state. It’s administered by rival drug dealers. And compared with any death penalty the state might impose, it is carried out with far greater frequency and swiftness.

President Reagan was fond of saying that in the sixties we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won. He was factually wrong. But if he had made the statement about the war on drugs that the government waged in the following decades, he’d have been closer to the truth. Those years when drugs were winning the war also gave us the spectacle of politicians falling all over themselves to pass harsher and harsher drug laws. Conservative politicians them sounded very much like Trump today. And like Trump today, many of them, perhaps, thought that in this way they were “doing something” about drugs. Of course, what they were more certain of was that they were doing something about getting re-elected.

Ass-Backwards Through the Gateway

March 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that you’re a US Attorney on the drug beat. Your boss is Jeff Sessions, who has announced that he’s going to vigorously enforce laws against marijuana and use the federal law when state laws are more lax. Maybe you also think that weed is a dangerous drug. You do a little “research” and tweet out your findings.

This brief tweet might serve as an example of how not to do real research. The sample, which excludes people who have not gone to treatment centers, is hardly representative of all users. There’s researcher bias since the guy with the ax to grind is the one asking the questions. The respondents too (the drug counselors) no doubt feel some pressure to give the Sessions-politically-correct answer. They may also be selectively remembering their patients. 

But even without the obvious bias, this tweet makes an error that mars research on less contentious issues. It samples on the dependent variable. The use of heavier drugs (opioids, heroin, meth, etc.) is the dependent variable – the outcome you are trying to predict. Marijuana use is the independent variable – the one you use to make that prediction. Taking your sample from confirmed heroin/opioid addicts gets things backwards. To see if weed makes a difference, you have to compare weed users with those who do not use and then see how many in each group take up more serious drugs.

Here’s an analogy – back pain. Suppose that, thanks to advances in imaging (MRIs and the like) doctors find that many of the people who show up with back pain have spinal abnormalities, especially disk bulges and protrusions. These bugles must be the gateway to back pain. So the doctors start doing more surgeries to correct these bulges. These surgeries often fail to improve things.

The doctors were sampling on the dependent variable (back pain), not on the independent variable (disk bulges). The right way to find out if spinal abnormalities cause back pain is to take MRIs of all people, not just those who show up in the doctor’s office. Eventually, researchers started doing this and found that lots of people with spinal abnormalities did not pass through the gateway and on to back pain.

The same problem often plagues explanations that try to reverse-engineer success. Find a bunch of highly effective people, then see what habits they share. Or look at some highly successful people (The Beatles, Bill Gates) and discover that early on in their careers they spent 10,000 hours working on their trade.

US Atty. Stuart’s tweet has all the advantages of anecdotal evidence and eyewitness testimony. It’s a good story, and it’s persuasive. But like anecdotal evidence and eyewitness testimony, it is frequently misleading or wrong. The systematic research – many studies over many years – shows little or no gateway effect of marijuana. No wonder US Attorney Stuart chose to ignore that research.*

* As Mark Kleiman has argued, even when a marijuana user does add harder drugs to his repertoire, the causes may have less to do with the drug itself than with the marketplace. The dealer you go to for your weed probably also carries heavier drugs and would be only too happy to sell them to you.  Legalizing weed so that it’s sold openly by specialty shops rather than by criminals may break that link to other drugs.

This Is Not a Pipe . . .

March 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . .  But what is it? Is there a word a statement that contradicts the assertion in the statement?  For example, one of Trump’s better lines at the Gridiron Club was this.

"My staff was concerned that I couldn't do self-deprecating humor, and I told them not to worry, nobody does self deprecating humor better than me. It’s not even close.

Not a new joke, but a good one, especially for Trump.

Self-contradiction does not really convey the delightful irony. Trump contradicts himself all the time but the contradiction is not inherent in the statement itself.

It’s kinda sorta like apophasis (my favorite rhetorical term), but it’s different. I posted about it last summer (here) with Magritte’s painting and this unwitting example that was going around the Internet.

I still haven’t found le mot juste for it.

School Shooters and Broken Homes

February 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suzanne Venker knows what’s wrong with America’s boys – broken homes.

A few days after the massacre at the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she wrote at Fox News (here)

Broken homes, or homes without a physically and emotionally present mother and father, are the cause of most of society’s ills. “Unstable homes produce unstable children,” writes Peter Hasson at The Federalist.

He adds, “On CNN’s list of the “27 Deadliest Mass Shootings In U.S. History,” seven of those shootings were committed by young males since 2005. Of the seven, only one—Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho — was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.”

I’ll get to the data in a minute. But I confess, my personal reaction was something resembling nostalgia. “Broken homes.” Reading that phrase was like turning on the radio and hearing The Mamas and the Papas — so popular back in the sixties, and then . . . What ever did become of them? To see if it was just my selective attention, I checked Google n-grams.

I don’t know why broken homes descended the charts so rapidly. Maybe because of its implicit moral condemnation. Broken things are no good. Either try to repair them or toss them out. Also, it was no longer just the poor who were vulnerable to having the finger of blame pointed at them. More middle-class people were getting divorced and breaking their homes. Or maybe the rising wave of feminism raised consciousness that the phrase blamed women. It was a slightly more subtle way of saying that a woman alone would raise children that were a menace to society.

Conservatives at Fox, The Federalist, and elsewhere were not swept up in this revisionist thinking.For them, broken homes remain the eternal bad guy.

As for those mass shootings, Philip Cohen tweeted this chart of the top ten – the most deadly.

Only Paddock and Huberty grew up in fatherless homes.

But what about the boys like Nikolas Cruz, the ones who are angry or resentful at their schools – the teachers who put them down, the students who bullied or rejected them – and come back armed with guns? It turns out we have some data, though it’s not up-to-date. After the Columbine shooting of 1999, the Secret Service and the Department of Education did an extensive study of school shooters. Their report covered 41 shooters involved in 37 school shootings from December 1974 to May 2000. There was a summary recently in The Conversation (here):

While most attackers – 96 percent – were male, the report found that there “is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” . . . Most came from intact families, were doing well in school and were not loners. [emphasis added]
One problem with all these studies is sample size. Mass killing and school shootings are rare events. With Cohen’s sample of 10 or Hasson’s 27 or the Secret Services’s 41, only the widest differences (e.g, between males and females) gives us any ability to generalize. For other comparisons  (e.g., broken vs. unbroken homes), the sample, even in the US, is too small. This is one case where a too-small sample is, on the whole, a good thing. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Trump Gets One Right (Partly)

February 26, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s easy to make fun of Trump’s claim to heroism, and Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker does it very well.  Trump, speaking to a group of governors today, was criticizing the deputy who did not enter the Marjory Stoneman school during the shooting. Then Trump went on to say,

You don’t know until you're tested, but I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon – and I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too, ’cause I know most of you.

This was remarkably similar to what Pam Bondi, the Florida Attorney General, had said on Fox News just a few hours earlier: “When you have a school full of students, and your duty is to protect those students, even if I didn’t have a firearm I would have gone into that scene.” Heroic minds think alike, I guess.

What’s ignored in most of the discussion about Trump’s comment is that he said something that was correct: “You don’t know until you’re tested.”

It’s pointless to argue whether Trump would or would not have charged weaponless into the building to confront the shooter. We don’t know. Neither does Trump.

If we’re asked what we would do, and the hypothetical situation is a familiar one, we can make a pretty good guess. Of course, we’d all like to think that we’ll do the right thing. But we can also look at how we’ve behaved in similar situations in the past, and guess that we’ll do something similar the next time. But when it comes to novel situations, our powers of prediction are just not very good, especially when that situation is stressful. When I show students the Milgram film, I ask if they would continue shocking the victim all the way to the end. Nobody ever raises their hand. Yet we can be fairly sure that about half of them are wrong. They’re not lying – saying something they know to be untrue. Neither is Trump.

The TV show “What Would You Do?” frequently concocts some morally questionable behavior and then focuses its hidden camera on a naive person who happens to be present. A shopper in a store sees a clerk being rude to a Black/overweight/transgender/whatever customer. Someone in a bar overhears two women planning to steal the money of man at the bar. What will the shopper or bargoer do? What would you do?

To the list of episodes we can now add: sounds of shooting coming from inside a school. What would you do?

For all these, the most accurate answer is, “I don’t know.”

Path Dependency and the Road Not Taken

February 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In my Superbowl post earlier this month (“The Social Construction of Brutality”), I said, “We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.” Reality is constructed by people, but once constructed, it develops its own momentum, its own seemingly inevitable logic.

So now we have the President of the United States endorsing the idea that the solution to the problem of school shootings is to pay teachers to carry guns. It’s part of the strategy of “target hardening” – more guns, more guards, more metal detectors, more locks, more secure doors – basically making schools resemble prisons. Conservatives from the NRA to the National Review love this idea. It’s realistic. It makes sense given the reality that we have created.

In that Superbowl post, I asked readers to imagine a world with no football. Given what we now know about brain damage, would we introduce football – from levels starting in  grade school on up to the pros – into that world? I borrowed this idea from Lisa Wade (“Imagine a world of higher ed but with no fraternities . . . .”)

Now imagine a world where guns are tightly regulated. Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are banned. So are most handguns. Let’s call this world the United Kingdom. Suppose someone – someone like Wayne LaPierre – goes to the UK and proposes that they do away with all these laws. Here’s the pitch:  If you just let gun manufacturers and dealers make and import these wonderful weapons and sell them to just about anybody, your country will reap the rewards of more safety and more freedom.

Of course, eventually you’ll have a few school massacres now and then, but you can hire school guards who you buy guns for, and you can instal metal detectors and buy guns for your teachers to carry at all times. Your police officers too will run a much greater risk of being shot and killed, but bullet-proof vests can help a little, and the police themselves will all carry guns so they can kill more people. Oh, and you’ll also have more civilians shooting each other or themselves. What do you say? This is your chance to make the UK great again. Have we got a deal?

The UK politely declines. (“The logic of the honourable gentleman’s proposal lacks a certain . . . .”  Which is a polite way of saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”)

Now imagine another world, a world where some people have guns, but the guns that most bad guys can get are cheap revolvers accurate only at very close range though useful to brandish in a robbery (they’re called “Saturday night specials”). More sophisticated handguns are relatively few; semi-automatic rifles for civilians are unknown. Let’s call this world United States 1965.  Imagine the same spokesman coming to the US and making the same proposal – more and better guns (by better, he means, more accurate and able to shoot more bullets that are more lethal; simply put, he means better at killing more people). Others protest. They want to put restrictions on what gun merchants can manufacture, import, and sell and on who can buy these weapons. Don’t listen to those people says our spokesman. Get rid of those pesky restrictive laws. The future lies before you bright with semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns. That is path to safety and freedom. What do you say, US? Have we got a deal?

That is the path we chose.

What makes Trump’s proposal rational is “path dependency”
the continued use of a product or practice based on historical preference or use. This holds true even if newer, more efficient products or practices are available. (Wikipedia). 
In many ways path dependency is a fancy phrase for addiction – trying to solve a problem with larger doses of what caused the problem in the first place. To outsiders our president’s more-guns solution to the problem of school slaughter sounds crazy.  But Americans who have come down this path, even Americans who find the idea repugnant, have a hard time denying its logic.

We Still Don’t Need No Stinking Evidence

February 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology isn’t just “common sense,” we tell our students on day one of the intro coruse. First, one common sense proposition can contradict another. And in any case, the only way to find out if common sense is right is to look at systematic evidence rather than relying on intuition and experience. 

So here is Ross Douthat on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast on Thursday, talking about his “Let’s Ban Porn” column in the Times (see this post from last week).  Asked about the negative effects of pornography, Douthat says,

I think we spend a lot of time in the media landscape today arguing about studies, and in certain ways in this case I’m appealing to cultural experience and moral intuition

Early in the discussion, Douthat had referred to the “experiment” we have conducted “in using not just pornography but hard core extreme obviously misogynistic pornography as a kind of broad based form of sexual education for young men.” He didn’t specify the outcome variables of this experiment, though the hosts of the show mentioned that at the same time that porn was spreading wildly, the subjects of the experiment (teenagers) were racking up lower rates of casual sex, pregnancy, abortion, and rape.

Nearly an hour into the podcast host David Plotz asks about evidence. Douthat referred to the relation between porn and “anti-social behavior writ large – depression, unhappiness.” I would have thought that unwanted pregnancy and rape were writ just a bit larger than unhappiness. But even with the variables he mentions, Douthat acknowledges that the studies showing a relationship between porn consumption and unhappiness come from a think tank that is hardly neutral (the Witherspoon Institute), and that these studies suffer from the problem of endogeneity, a word that here means that even if there’s a correlation, it’s hard to figure out which is causing which. (Douthat says nothing about the studies that contradict his desired result that porn makes kids unhappy.)

Douthat mentions other outcomes: “Young men are messed up. . . .Relationships just aren’t working that well. . . People seem really unhappy with the dating landscape.” If there’s evidence that all of these were different in some pre-porn paradise, Douthat doesn’t cite it.

For sex conservatives, the question of the evils of porn is just too important to be left to empirical evidence. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a similar post (“Data? We Don’t Need No Stinking Data”). The names of the conservatives have changed (Kristol out, Douthat in) but the idea is the same.

Does watching porn or listening to make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, 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? [emphasis added]
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.

In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased.

But What Can We Do When It’s Too Late?

February 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NRA doesn’t really have to marshal arguments against the gun control laws that will again be proposed in the coming days and weeks. If legislators ain’t gonna legislate, you don’t really need to support your position. But argue they will. Their basic argument is that good guys need guns to defend themselves against bad guys, and the bad guys have lots of guns.

The country is so awash in guns that your only hope is to buy a gun, thus putting still more guns into circulation, creating an even greater need for people to buy guns. It is a feedback loop devoutly wished for by the NRA and gun manufacturers.

They also argue that the huge number of guns (300 million – an average of one per person – and counting) also makes anti-gun action a fool’s errand. As Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg argued (here) four years ago in the wake of the Aurora massacre, “It’s too late.”

It’s Vietnam all over again. In the late 60s, as it became clear that the US war in Vietnam was a mistake, war supporters made a similar argument. “Yeah, you were right about not getting into the war and then sending hundreds of thousands of more troops. But what we can do now? The war is not going well for us, so we have no choice but to send even more troops.” The Bush administration made a similar response when their invasion and de-stabilization of Iraq turned out to have been a predictably terrible idea.

Here’s one idea about what we can do. It’s not really a policy, but it might provide a start on finding a better policy: Stop electing the same kinds of politicians and the same party that got us into this mess in the first place.

In a post last November, I said (here) that the NRA policy on guns is like addiction: trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. We wouldn’t put a Mexican heroin cartel in charge of the DEA. But we keep electing NRA-certified politicians to write our gun laws. Then, we’re shocked and dismayed that there’s so much gun violence.

Victims and Policies

February 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Right-wingers used to smugly say, maybe they still do, that a conservative on crime is a liberal who’s just been mugged. It seems logical. But twenty-five years ago when I was working on a criminology textbook, I could find no systematic evidence showing a link between victimization and political attitudes.

At the time, I thought that the problem might be that while most victimizations might be upsetting, they were not permanently traumatizing. If one day I stepped in dog shit because some inconsiderate New Yorker hadn’t bothered to obey the pooper-scooper law. In the moment, I would to immediately be rethinking my position on the death penalty.

But the emotion was transitory and faded quickly. It was the same when I found the window of my car smashed. Perhaps those victimizations were not serious enough. They were property crimes, not what the UCR calls “crimes against the person.” But I knew people who had been mugged – this was, after all, New York in the bad old days – and they had not adjusted their politics.

During the lockdown at the Stoneman Douglas school in Florida, while the shooter was still at large, one of the students interviewed others hiding with him in a closet.

There is only audio, no video, for the second girl interviewed, but  ABC posted a captioned version on Twitter. Here is a composite screen shot.

Maybe a liberal on gun control is an NRA hopeful who has just been shot at. But maybe not. In any case, whether this girl retains her new position on gun control, the evidence suggests that a mass shooting, even one covered extensively in the media, will have little impact on opinion nationwide. With Republicans in control of the government, yesterday’s killings might not even bring the customary increase in sales of guns and assault rifles.

In states that already have some sentiment in favor of stronger gun laws, a local massacre might be enough to tip the legislative balance. That’s what happened in Connecticut following the slaughter of children in Newtown. But in the legislatures of states like Florida and in Congress in Washington, these mass slaughters – even when the victims are children, even White children – count for little.

The kid who made the video, David Hogg, said on CNN, “We're children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action. Work together. Come over your politics.”

The public may be upset, but the emotion is transitory, unlikely to last much past the funerals of the next few days. The pro-gun forces are strong and steady. It seems unlikely that Hogg’s simple request, despite its wisdom, will have any impact on laws or policies.

Porn and Pandora

February 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat wants to ban porn. No wonder he buries the lede even though it’s the only bit of systematic evidence he cites in his column today.

According to Douthat, we had a chance to ban porn a few decades ago. We could have done it. And we all, especially women, would have been better off – happier in our sex lives. Instead we “surrendered” to smut. But why?

Between the individualistic drift of society, the invention of the internet, and the failure of the Dworkin-Falwell* alliance’s predictions that porn would lead to rising rates of rape, the anti-porn case was marginalized  — with religious conservatism’s surrender to Donald Trump’s playboy candidacy a seeming coup de grace. [emphasis added]

Like Trekkie Monster in “Avenue Q,” I have no doubt that the internet made for much wider consumption of porn. As for US society being more individualistic now than it was 40-50 years ago, I would prefer to see some evidence. But on cause #3 – the failure of those predictions about rape – Douthat glides past an important fact. The rates didn’t just “not rise.” They fell. A lot.

The BJS victimization survey (here) shows that rates of rape and sexual assault in 2010 were less than half of what they were in 1995. More recent BJS surveys show no significant increase since 2010.

The same is true for victimization among college-age women. For both students and non-students, victimization rates in 2013 were about half of what they had been before the internet-porn explosion.

Maybe some John Lott of porn will write a book – More Porn, Less Rape.

Douthat doesn’t like porn. So rather than confront this large but inconvenient fact about porn and sexual assault, he buries it in the middle of a sentence one-third of the way into his column. 

It’s not just porn that Douthat doesn’t like. He doesn’t like sex for sex’s sake. He’s condescendingly dismissive of sex ed that is not focused on repression.

The sex education programs in my mostly liberal schools featured a touching faith from the adults in charge that they were engaged in a great work of enlightenment, that with the right curricula they could roll back the forces of repression and make sexuality a place of egalitarian pleasure and safety for us all.

The students of the 90s, when Douthat was in those classes, wound up being much less sexually assaultive and sexually victimized than their counterparts of earlier years. No matter. Douthat likes those “forces of repression” and wants to see them rolled out again.

Don’t hold your breath. That Pandora’s box has been opened. Those erotic evils will continue to float unconfined, and Pandora herself has gone into the Internet music biz. So we are all free to pontificate, unconstrained by data, about what would happen if porn were banned. But if we’re going to speculate about the effects of pornography, we should pay at least some attention to the evidence we have about what actually did happen.


*Andrea Dworkin did not coin the phrase “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.” That was Robin Morgan. But Dworkin, in her vigorous fight against porn, espoused that causal idea. Falwell is Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. He too did not like porn, though in my very unthorough Google search, I could find no reference to his claiming that it caused rape.

The Social Construction of Brutality

February 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Super. It’s Superbowl Sunday. On the front page of the New York Times Review section is an article by the wife of former NFL safety Rob Kelly. The title is “Football Destroyed My Husband’s Mind.” Mood swings, paranoia, depression, irrationality. “Often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal left around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel.” It’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of concussions and other physical insults to the brain.  

The kickoff today is at 6:30.

            *            *            *            *

Construction Job. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckman describe how behaviors that start as a one-off – let’s meet for lunch tomorrow at 1:00 – can become institutionalized as regular practices. It turns into the Tuesday one o’clock lunch – external to the people involved. As more people become a part of it, its reality becomes more and more solid, literally, with buildings and equipment as well as rules and scheduling. We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.
            *            *            *            *

Imagine That. Last year, after a Penn State student died during a fraternity hazing, Lisa Wade tried to reframe the whole argument.

Imagine a world in which everything was the same about higher education except there have never been Greek organizations. An 18-year-old waltzes into a dean’s office and says, “I want to start an exclusive club on campus that doesn’t allow women and serves mostly white and privileged students and we’re going to throw parties all the time that are illegal, and at these parties, all the bad stuff that happens on campus is going to happen disproportionately. What do you think?”

By “bad stuff” she means rape and less criminal kinds of sexual coercion, drunkenness, physical and psychological intimidation, and brutality resulting in injury, sometimes hospitalization, and the occasional death.

Some people preferred to imagine Lisa being raped or killed for suggesting that their fraternities led to rape and brutality. 

            *            *            *            *

Zero-based Reality Construction. In “zero-based budgeting” no part of an organization has its budget automatically renewed. Instead, budgeteers ask of each item, “Is this necessary? What does it contribute to our goals?”

Imagine a world with no football. A group of athletes puts forward a proposal for a new sport to be played by school teams and professionals. It cost a lot of money – money that most schools will not recoup. Many who play at the collegiate level and nearly all those who play professionally will live the rest of their lives with some pain and injury. Many will suffer permanent brain injury. Even those who play only in high school are at risk. Should we get started on making this a national institution?

            *            *            *            *

What’s done is done and cannot be undone. Institutions once constructed cannot be unconstructed, at least not quickly and only with great difficulty. Even if everyone agreed that fraternities or football are toxic institutions, nobody can imagine how do get rid of them. So instead, we get minor adjustments – rules about helmets and hits and heads, rules about drinking (requiring “third-party vendors”) or rush (reducing it from eight weeks to six). [Inside Higher Ed]

But there is no such agreement that these institutions do more harm than good, certainly not on fraternities and probably not on football. Millions of us watch football and suffer no apparent harm. What happens to the players is, well, too bad. But that’s the way it is. What can you do?

Enjoy the game.

The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.

From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.

Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list include: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript

Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does , “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we'll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don't fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.


* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.

Punishment and Crime

January 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When a criminal case is front-page news, the sentence matters not for its effect on the criminal but for its effect on the rest of us. As I said (here) about the Stanford swimming team rapist, punishment is not about crime.

The headlines in the local papers this morning confirm this idea.

What’s important about the sentence and the judge’s statement is that they express a collective outrage at Nassar. Nobody seriously expects the sentence to have any deterrent effect on other potential criminals. Nor was the sentence necessary to keep Nassar from further crimes. Federal courts had already sentenced him to sixty years for kiddie porn. The purpose of the sentence is to allow the rest of us to feel good. That function of sentencing marches under the banner of “retribution” or sometimes “justice.” But it might just as well be called “vengeance.”

The headlines also make it clear that this same motivation is the basis for sentiments favoring the death penalty. Proponents may talk about deterrence and saving lives, but their real argument is the moral one – that the criminal is so evil that he (almost always he, rarely she) does not deserve to live. But it’s not the criminal’s death per se that they want. The criminal who commits suicide or dies of illness has “cheated” us of our chance for vengeance. (See this 2006 post, “Cheating the Executioner.”)

We want the strongest expression of our moral outrage – and that is a sentence of death. Anything less will not do. So even though Nassar’s crimes were not capital offenses, the judge pretended that she was handing down a death sentence. Predictably, “death warrant” was the part of her statement that the newspapers ran in the headlines. Even the sedate New York Times had the money quote in a subhead, after “Gymnasts’ Abuse Draws Sentence Likely to Be Life.”

In these celebrated cases, what’s important then is the judge’s pronouncing the sentence. Whether the sentence is actually carried out usually escapes notice. Most people sentenced to death are not executed, and for the few who are, the execution comes so many years later that the crime has been all but forgotten. Go back to a case of a few years ago, a case where prosecutors and the much of the general public claimed that the only way to achieve justice was to execute the convicted person. Ask people if that criminal is still alive. Most will not know, and most will not care enough to bother to find out. The moment of truth was the handing down of the sentence. What happens later doesn’t count much on ledger of moral sentiments. There are exceptions – Charles Manson was never going to be paroled – but they are just that, exceptions

Harley Barber Was Right

January 20, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harley Barber’s Finsta video – the one where she repeats the word nigger a dozen times in a minute – went viral. But in all the criticism, nobody (as far as I know) bothered to note that she is essentially correct: Language norms vary from region to region and from group to group. Or in Barber’s formulation of this idea:

I’m in the South now, bitch so everyone can fuck off.  I’m from New Jersey. So I can say nigger as much as I want.

Here’s the entire video.

She could have been more specific. She’s not just in the South. She’s in Alabama, and even more specifically, she’s in a car surrounded by her University of Alabama Alpha Phi sorority sisters. Her point is that if she had been in New Jersey, the people around her might have said, “You know Harley, we don’t think that way or use that word these days. And even if you do have those sentiments, it’s not a good idea to make a video of yourself expressing them, especially with that word. And if you do make a video, it’s a really bad idea to post it on Instagram.”

But her sorority sisters seem to be in complete agreement with her. That’s to be expected. Alpha Phi has a reputation for its retrograde mentality regarding race and gender. Their 2015 recruiting video looked like a casting call for The Bachelor except that all the girls are White.

As a writer at AL.com (the newspaper/media consortium) put it, Alpha Phi in this video presents itself as “all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition.” (The sorority soon took down the video, though you can see it here in a TV news story.)

The message was not lost on Harley Barber. Her video begins,

I’ve wanted to be in Alpha Phi since fucking high school and nobody fucking understands how much I love Alpha Phi

A couple of other observations about the incident:

1. Language norms change. Barber says fuck or fucking more times than she says nigger. As far as I know, nobody has voiced any objections.

2. Money makes it OK. In Barber’s reasoning, wealth and conspicuous consumption justify morally questionable attitudes.

And if anyone else wants to snake me for saying nigger on my finsta, I’m a in a fur vest. I want you to buy my fur vest. Cause fuck you. Go to Neiman Marcus and buy my fur vest

Neiman-Marcus fur vests go for as little as $600, but most are $2500 and up. Barber is not alone in resolving moral questions by looking at financial success. (See this earlier post about similar defenses of chicanery by JP Morgan during the financial crisis)

3.  Ideas and essence.  A day or two later in her fifteen minutes of fame, Barber issued an apology: “I’m an idiot. There’s no excuse. I did something really bad.” I would guess that if you asked Barber, “Are you a racist?” she would say No, and she would be sincere. Many other people are calling her a racist, and they are just as adamant. The trouble is that the question “Is she a racist?” is the wrong question. First, it assumes that ideas and attitudes are permanent and essential. Second, it also assumes what we might call the racism-binary – that each person either is or is not a racist. Both those assumptions are questionable if not flat out wrong. Much of the reporting about the incident got it right. Headlines referred to a “racist video” or “racist rant,” not a “racist co-ed.”

What Becomes of the Broken Norm?

January 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norms are fragile things, especially when they apply only in select situations.

In the 1970s, Bill Weeden and Dave Finkle worked as a comedy duo in clubs like the Improv in New York City. They billed themselves as “A Couple of Guys With Class,” which was also the title of their opening song. As best I can remember, it stared like this:

We’re a couple of guys with class,
Up to our ears in class.
If you looking for vulgar,
Boy we’re not it,
We never say “fuck”
And we never say “shit.”

The joke of that last line – it always got a laugh – was in the apophasis (saying something while saying that you’re not saying it). But it also put the audience on the side of the performers in recognizing that the norms about proper language were arbitrary and situational. The message was,“We all know we’re not supposed to say these words, but we also know that we all actually do say them.” We were laughing at our own hypocrisy or at least our inconsistency from one situation to another.

If you lean on that situational norm, pretty soon it gives way. Twenty years earlier, Weeden and Finkle could have been arrested for violating New York’s obscenity laws (as Lenny Bruce fans and viewers of Mrs. Maisell know). Many “fucks” and “shits” and a few court cases later, that had changed. Today, it’s rare to hear a comic who, like Seinfeld, does not say “fuck” and “shit.”

A few weeks ago, news outlets with class – the New York Times and NPR, for example – would not use the word “shit” even as part of a compound word – a word like, say, “shithole” – even though the word  “shit” was in wide use elsewhere. Season two of NPR’s podcast “Serial” was about an Alabama man who referred to his local community as “Shittown.” NPR called the podcast “S-town.” That was a year ago.

Now Donald Trump’s characterizing some nations as “shithole countries” was just too important to ignore. Some publications continued to censor or Bowdlerize the word. You would see “S**t” in print or hear Wolf Blitzer talk about “s-hole countries or bleep-hole countries.” Much of the mainstream media put the phrase in quotation marks, as if to say, “Trump’s word, not ours.” But in today’s Times, Paul Krugman, writing about anti-immigration in the 19th century, says, “Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day.” The quotation marks are implied but not visible.

I expect that from now on, the censoring of other quotes that include “shit” will decrease. Then before long, op-ed writers will be able to use the word even when it carries no reference to what someone else said.

The norm once breached is now broken. Like Humpty-Dumpty, it has been pushed off the wall and lies shattered on the sidewalk. Of course, Trump has violated far more serious norms (as noted in this Atlantic article  among many, many others). Will the social forces (i.e., people) upholding those norms be resilient enough to re-instate them?