Camille — a Name that Bucking the Trend (in France)

July 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harper, Avery, Aubrey, Riley, Addison were among the most popular fifty names for girls last year. These fit a general pattern — first they are names for boys, then become acceptable and often stylish for girls.

Often, once a name has crossed the gender line, parents of boys find it less and less attractive. In an earlier post (here ), I referred to this as the “there goes the neighborhood” effect. The lower-status group (in this case girls) move in, the higher-status group leaves. And they don’t come back.

Here’s Aubrey:

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It doesn’t always happen that way, maybe not even most of the time. Charles Seguin has graphed several names, and in many cases the popularity of the name for boys increases even as the name grow popular for girls.

(Click on an image for a larger view.
The lines don’t go in opposite directions, and are often closely parallel, popularity rising and falling for girls and boys and roughly the same time. But in every case — 27 names in all (I did not copy the other two of Seguin’s graphs)  — once the name becomes more frequent for girls, once the blue line crosses to be above the red line, game over. Girls with that name continue to outnumber boys. (Seguin’s paper is here.)

Things may be different in France, at least for one name. Baptiste Coulmont this week tweeted a graph of the name Camille. I know of only three French Camilles, two male — the Impressionist (or is it post-Impressionist?) artist Pissaro and the composer Saint-Saens, both born in the 1830s – and one female, sculptor Camille Claudel, sister of poet Paul Claudel, mistress of Rodin, born in 1864. (I know about her only because I saw the 1988 film with Isabel Adjani.)

Coulmont graphs the ratio of girl Camilles to boy Camilles. Through the first half of the 20th century, the name was twice as popular for boys. Then that relative poularity reverses until, by the turn of this century, there are 15 times as many girl babies given that name. But after 2000, the trend reverses towards boys just as rapidly as it had 30 years earlier for girls. The girl-boy ratio falls from 15:1 to 2:1.

Here is the graph showing frequqencies.

As might be expected, as the popularity of Camille among girls soared, the name lost popularity among boys, falling by 50% over the course of the 1990s. But then came the unusual reversal. As the name lost favor for girls, in rebounded among boys.  Why are French boys returning to the Camille neighborhood as the girls flee? Coulmont does not offer any explanation, only the data. I don’t know enough about current French culture to speculate. For the few other androgynous French names I could find — Dominique, Claude, Yannick — the trends in popularity go in the same directions, separated sometimes by a few years. Camille is unique.

Multiple Negatives and Believable Lies

July 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Language Log (here ), Mark Liberman posted this sentence from a CNN interview with Michael Hayden, CIA director in the Bush 43 administration, about the Mueller investigation.
I would not be surprised
if this were not the last indictment we see
that- that doesn't mention
an American

[emphasis addded]
Does this statement mean that Hayden thinks more Americans will be indicted?

Jake Tapper quickly translated
so in other words there will be another indictment, and you think there'll be Americans involved
Oh those multiple negatives, cancelling each other out. Hayden has three nots.

You have to cut Hayden some slack. He was speaking extemporaneously. But what about writers? I’ve blogged before about problem of multiple negatives in multiple-choice test questions and even the GSS (here).

In today’s New York Times, Mark Landler (here) matches Hayden’s three-in-a-sentence construction. Here’s the second paragraph of Landler’s piece.

Mr. Trump’s declaration that he saw no reason not to believe President Vladimir V. Putin when he said the Russians did not try to fix the 2016 election was extraordinary enough. But it was only one of several statements the likes of which no other president has uttered while on foreign soil. [emphasis added]

I won’t say that Landler’s sentence is not less than incomprehensible. And maybe “Trump said he found Putin’s statement believable” is imprecise and overstates Trump’s credulity. Maybe — but not by much. Here’s what Trump said,

My people came to me, Dan Coats [Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. . .  So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

Trump does not use multiple negatives. That may be because they pose problems of logic for the speaker, not just the listener. But whatever the reason, this avoidance may be one of the things that fosters the impression that he is a “straight talker.” What he says on a topic may change from one day to the next, but when he voices his view of the day, he states in absolute terms – no reservations, no qualifications.

Double negatives are ambiguous. If we say that someone is “not unfriendly,” we leave open the entire spectrum. from  “possibly somewhat friendly” to “absolutely the friendliest person in the world,” as Trump might put it, especially if he were talking about himself. Trump’s world has no ambiguity. Things that are not good are the worst. Things that are good are the greatest.

Maybe Putin’s denials to Trump about election meddling were similarly uncomplicated — no multiple negatives — allowing Trump to ascribe to Putin’s lies the same credibility that conservatives in the US give to Trump’s lies.

UPDATE:  The press conference happened yesterday. Today Trump issued a clarification that reinforces my point that he doesn’t know how to state ideas involving multiple negatives. In the press conference Monday, on the matter of who was responsible for the hacking and other meddling in the election, Trump said, “ I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Today, Tuesday, Trump corrected himself, reading from a script probably written by Stephen Miller:  “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,”

He’s probably lying about what he meant to say. But even if he’s telling the truth, he’s saying that the logic of that double negative is a bit too complicated for him, which is why he couldn’t speak it correctly at the time.

A Behavioral Econ Lab Is Not a Restaurant

July 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great title for an article
We should totally open a restaurant:
How optimism and overconfidence affect beliefs
It will be in the August issue of the Journal of Economic Psychology. The link popped up in my Twitter feed this morning.

No, the failure rate for restaurants is not 90% in the first year as a 2003 American Express ad claimed. But most restaurants don’t make it to three years. So it’s only natural to ask about the people who think that their new restaurant will be among those that beat the odds. This was an article I wanted to read.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the article was not at all about people who started up a restaurant. True, the word restaurant appears 13 times in the article, plus another seven if you include restauranteur [sic – the preferred term is still restaurateur, no n]. But the data in the article is a from a laboratory experiment where subjects try to guess whether a ball drawn from an urn will be white or black. No chefs brilliant but overweaning, no surly waitstaff, no price-gouging suppliers, no unpredictable customers, no food, and no location, location, location. Just opaque jars with white balls and black balls.

The procedure is too complicated to summarize here – I’m still not sure I understand it – but the authors (Stephanie A. Hegera and Nicholas W. Papageorge) want to distinguish, as the title of the article says, between optimism and overconfidence. Both are rosy perceptions that can make risky ventures seem less risky. Optimism looks outward; it overestimates the chances of success that are inherent in the external situation. Optimism would be the misperception that most restaurants survive for years and bring their owners wealth and happiness. Overconfidence, by contrast, looks inward; it is an inflated belief in one’s own abilities.

Both in the lab and probably in real life, there’s a strong correlation between optimism and overconfidence. People who were optimistic also overestimated their own abilities. (Not their ability to run a restaurant, remember, but their ability to predict white balls.) So it’s hard to know which process is really influencing decisions.

The big trouble is that the leap from lab to restaurant is a long one. It’s the same long leap that Cass Sunstein takes in using his experiment about “blaps” to conclude that New York Times readers would not choose a doctor who was a Republican. (See this earlier post.)

The Hegera-Papageorge article left me hungry for an ethnography about real people starting a real restaurant. How did they estimate their chances of success, how did they size up the external conditions (the “market”), and how did they estimate their own abilities. How did those perceptions change over time from the germ of the idea (“You know, I’ve always thought I could . . .”) to the actual restaurant and everything in between — and what caused those perceptions to change? On these questions, the lab experiment has nothing to say.

But you’ve got to admit, it’s a great title. Totally.

Minority Rule, the Legitimacy of Courts, and a Penny Bet

July 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s almost certain that the Republicans in the Senate will confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. And when they do, they will speak glowingly about democracy and convince themselves that they are carrying out the will of the people.

In 2006, I was having coffee at Zabar’s café one morning with a conservative I knew. We were talking about Bush’s nomination of Alito to the Supreme Court. The Democrats were wrong to oppose Alito, said my coffee companion, because most Americans wanted him confirmed. (He also said that those who opposed Alito were “disloyal,” but that’s another matter.)

As Robin Hanson says, a bet is a tax on bullshit, so by way of calling bullshit on him, I offered him a bet — a penny bet.

“When the Judiciary Committee votes on Alito,” I said,”some will vote for him, others will vote against. America is a democracy. Our senators are elected democratically. So I’ll give you a penny for every person who voted for the senators who vote for Alito. Then you give me back a penny for every person who voted for the senators who vote against.” I offered him the same bet for when the full Senate would vote on the nomination.

He declined my offer. He may have been deluding himself about what the American people wanted, but he wasn’t stupid enough to take the bet.

I’d love for someone to take this same penny bet on Kavanagh. After all, the Republican senators outnumber the Democrats 11-10 . But if the vote goes along party lines, I’ll walk away with nearly $80,000. Another penny bet on the full Senate would add about $20,000.

Far more important than my potential $100K windfall, is the issue of legitimacy.

In December 2000, the Supreme Court ruled against Al Gore, halted the Florida recount, and gave the presidency to George W. Bush.. The majority of the justices had been appointed by Republican presidents (including one appointed by Bush’s father). The next day, Gore made a speech saying that while he disagreed with the Court’s decision, he accepted it. He was upholding the legitimacy of the Court and the president-elect. Can anyone imagine Trump doing anything like that?

The Court, like other political institutions is losing the confidence of the American people, at least according to Gallup.

I’m not sure whether surveys like Gallup are measuring reactions that are specific to the Court or just a more general feeling about government. But the current and future Court provides ample material for questions of legitimacy. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, and his first Court appointment, Gorsuch, was made possible through an unprecedented and blatantly political maneuver by Mitch McConnell, whose party represented a minority of voters as it will when it confirms Kavanagh.

What will happen to the Court’s legitimacy if Trump’s appointees wind up ruling on cases directly involving Trump that emerge from the Mueller investigation?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me . . . Or Not

July 8, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I wondered why Republican women surveyed by Pew saw Donald Trump as having “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of respect for women. One of the explanations I didn’t consider is that people don’t always answer the question that researchers are asking. The Pew survey asked dozens of questions. Several were about respect — how much respect does Trump have for women, men, Blacks, Hispanics, Evangelicals, and more. Others asked how believable Trump is, whether he keeps his business interests separate from his presidential decisions, whether he respects democratic institutions. (Results from the survey are here.)

But maybe to the people being interviewed, these were all the same question: Trump – good or bad?

Claude Fischer blogged recently (here) about this difference between questions researchers think they are asking and the questions people are actually responding to. Sometimes people give incorrect answers to basic factual questions. But it’s not that these respondents are ignorant.

an interesting fragment of respondents treat polls not as a quiz to be graded on but as an opportunity for what survey scholars have termed “expressiveness” and partisan “cheerleading.”

I would broaden this kind of poll responding to include “self-presentation” or, more simply, “sending a message.” That is, there are respondents who treat some factual questions not as chances to show what they know but as chances to tell the interviewer, or data analyst, or reader, or even themselves something more important than facts.

If expressing feelings or sending a message underlie people’s responses to factual questions,  those same purposes should have even more importance when it comes to subjective judgments, like whether Trump has a lot of respect for women.

Fischer seems to side with the “sending a message” explanation. But that phrase suggests, to me at least, an intention to have some specific effect. For example, proponents of harsher criminal penalties claim that these will “send a message” to potential criminals. The obvious corollary is that these punishments will have an actual effect – less crime.

When pollsters call me, I’m often tempted to send a message. I consider what the implications of my answer will be when it’s reported in the survey and how that might affect politicians’ decisions. I’m even tempted to lie on demographic questions (age, income, party affiliation). Maybe my preferences will swing more weight coming from a young Independent.

But my hunch is that in most of the Pew questions about respect, people are not trying to influence policy. They’re just expressing a global feeling about Trump. The message, as Fischer says, is that they want others to know how they feel.        

Which is it — a deliberate strategy or an expression of sentiment? The trouble is that the only way to know what people are thinking when we ask them whether Trump respects women is to ask them and to listen to their answers instead of giving them four choices and them moving on to the next question. That is the great limitation of questionnaire surveys.

Flashback Friday — Wynette v. Franklin

July 6, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ten years ago, I blogged (here) about Stand By Your Man,” the country-and-Western classic song by Tammy Wynette. I didn’t use the phrase “false consciousness” but I should have. The lyrics document the ills that women suffer at the hands of men, but then, instead of urging women to rethink their roles and expectations, the song tells them to uphold the system – and the man – that is the cause of their heartbreak. (Here’s a link to Ms Wynette lip synching to her own recording of the song.)

I flashed back to that post today when I saw the results of a recent Pew survey. One of the questions asked. “How much does Donald Trump respect women?. Pew offered respondents these choices:
a great deal               
a fair amount                   
not too much
none at all
Men were more likely than women to say Trump respected women. Three-fourths of men put him in the positive categories (“a great deal,” “a fair amount”). Less than half the women were so sanguine. That’s no surprise. But among women who identified themselves as Republicans, nearly three-fourths said that Trump respected women. They were split nearly evenly between the two favorable categories.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Is this merely motivated perception? Have these women, once they’ve decided for whatever reason to support Trump, then selected the details from his biography that seem to show respect for women and ignored or discounted the rest?

Do these women have a definition of respect that is different from that of their more liberal sisters? If so, what is it? I confess I am not familiar with the research on this. Do Arlie Hochschild  or Katherine Cramer tell us how these women see the world and men like Trump?

Or is this perception that Trump respects women the same old “Stand By Your Man” consciousness that Tammy Wynette was singing about a half-century ago? After all, Trump does embody those two staples of country songs – lyin’ and cheatin’.  Are these women willing to accept whatever the man does and find in it some sign of respect, rather than, like Aretha, first demanding that respect and then, just to make sure the man cannot misunderstand, clearly spelling it out?

Proud? Maybe Just Not Right Now

July 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“America’s the best country in the world,” says Noam Chomsky. His writings are unfailingly critical of US government policy, so interviewers tend to ask him why he doesn’t go live somewhere else. That’s his answer.

More and more Americans are coming to share that ambivalence. A Gallup poll released two days ago shows that less than half of us are “extremely proud” to be an American.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The attacks of 2001 are probably the reason for the increase of pride in the next few years after 9/11, and the war in Iraq might have had something to do with the decline in pride as the futility of that war became evident in the mid-2000s. Interestingly, the financial collapse and great recession had no perceptible impact on national pride.

It’s tempting to blame the current low ebb of pride on Trump. The “extremely proud” percent has fallen five points since he was elected. But it also fell five points in the last years of the Obama presidency.  And in both periods, the decline was greatest among Democrats, whose “extremely proud” percent fell 11 points in Obama’s last three years and another 13 points since Trump was elected.

Does this mean that Democrats don’t love their country? Another recent poll (USA Today / Ipsos) takes a more nuanced approach to try to separate the general feeling of pride from the temporary feeling of shame for one’s country when that country is led by a shameless president. So the poll also asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “I am proud of America right now.”       

There’s a big difference. While 72% are proud to be an American, only 42% agree that they are proud of America right now. And almost as many (39%) flat out disagree. The survey breaks this down by political party.

No surprise that Republicans are most proud on both questions. And as in many surveys, Independents are closer to Democrats than to Republicans. But even among Republicans, the current reality doesn’t come close to their ideal. There’s an 18-point gap between their American pride and their pride in America right now.

The survey has further breakdowns by gender, age, and other demographic and political variables. It also asks respondents to rate a variety of people (Trump, Pelosi, McCain, et al.), classes of people (nurses, bankers, actors) and things (the Second Amendment, respect for authority, etc.) as representing the best or worst of America.  (You can get all the data here. )

The variable that consistently produces the widest differences is which news source the person most trusts. Here, for example, is the breakdown on the pride questions.

Fox viewers are more than twice as likely to be proud right now. Similar or even larger differences separate Foxists from CNN and network TV in their best-worst ratings on issues like respect for authority and not protesting, being uncompromising in your beliefs, having secure borders, believing in God, and several others. 

Bureaucrats a Conservative Can Love

July 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives don’t like bureaucracy. They utter the word “bureaucrat” with the same sneering tone they use for “liberal” or “feminist.” They hate regulations and red tape.

But there’s something they hate even more – poor people. Well, not exactly. What they hate is the idea that some poor person somewhere might be getting food or medical care that he of she does not “deserve.”

So the Trump administration is allowing states to impose work requirements on people who get Medicaid. The assumption is that hordes of able-bodied people who could be working are idly whiling away their time in unproductive self-indulgence. We should not reward this  by giving them free medical care.

The reality of the lives of poor people on Medicaid is, of course, far from this image of dolce far niente. Most of them work. But under the work requirements, they will have to go through the bureaucratic process of documenting that. Those who can’t negotiate the red tape will lose their health coverage even though they were working. How many such people will there be, and how many freeloading idlers will be kicked off Medicaid?

Those are the questions that the Kaiser Foundation answers in its recent report (here). The answer is that most of the people who will lose coverage will lose it because of the paperwork, not because they failed to meet the work requirement.

Kaiser made estimates of what would happen in each of four scenarios – the cells in this 2 x 2 table. The top and bottom row are the high and low estimates of the percent of Medicaid recipients the work rules are aimed at — people who would lose coverage because they failed to find work (or some substitute like being in a job training program or volunteering). The Kaiser estimates are based on what happened when states imposed work requirements on people who received welfare (TANF) or food stamps (SNAP).

The columns  are the low and high estimates of the collateral damage — people who really did meet the work requirement but who would lose coverage because they were not able to complete all the necessary paperwork each month (things like documenting each hours worked).

Even under the most favorable scenario, the people who are “disenrolled” for bureaucratic reasons outnumber those who are disenrolled because they didn’t work. – 62% to 38%.

The work requirement and the bureaucratic requirements surrounding seem to assume that poor people have, or should have, a “job” – a regular place of long-term employment — the kind of job that middle-class people have.* In fact, the great majority of Medicaid recipients do work. But the kinds of work that poor people get is often temporary. In retail, food-service, and construction, hours are irregular and uncertain. Turnover is high. In a bad month, a low-wage worker may work less than the 80 hours required, and consequently lose benefits.

As for administrative costs, Kaiser says this:

States implementing work requirements will likely have to design new systems to reflect changes in eligibility rules, to enable enrollees to report compliance, to interface with other programs (such as SNAP, TANF, or employment training), to implement coverage lock-out periods, and to exchange eligibility information among the state, enrollment broker, health plans, and providers.  New staff may be required to conduct beneficiary education, develop notices, evaluate and process exemptions, and review more applications as churn increases and enrollees appeal coverage lockout periods.

More money spent on more bureaucrats and more red tape. You’d think that conservatives would rise up and say no.** But the states that are most eager to impose work requirements are the states dominated by conservative governments — Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, and others.

Sure bureaucracy and bureaucrats are bad, but apparently, if we can keep even one undeserving poor person from getting Medicaid, then all the bureaucratic regulations we impose on people and all the bureaucrats we pay to enforce all these new regulations, will have been worth it. Who cares if a few of the deserving poor are discomfited? How many of them could there be anyway among all these freeloaders getting Medicaid? The answer is: a lot, far more than the number of freeloaders.

* Arkansas even assumes that poor people have broadband access. The state is requiring that Medicaid recipients submit their forms online. No in-person, no phone, no snail mail.

** Conservatives have a similarly flexible view of federal budget deficits.

Frank Loesser — “My Time of Day”

June 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is birthday of Frank Loesser, composer of one of the greatest Broadway musicals, “Guys and Dolls.”  The most frequently played song from that show, at least by jazz musicians, is “If I Were a Bell.” Miles, with his 1956 quintet recording, made it a standard part of the jazz repertoire, and that’s the version I was going to use here.

Instead, I’m going with “My Time of Day” – not so well known and rarely sung outside the context of the show. Here is Peter Gallagher in the studio for the cast recording of the 1992 revival. The saxophone player doing the intro so beautifully is Red Press.

The song is very different from standard Broadway fare. It begins in the key of F. The lyric for the first two bars is, “My time of day is the dark time.” The first emphasized note, “day,” is on the flatted fifth of the chord – very unusual for Broadway songs then in 1950 or now. Then comes “dark time,” a descending interval of a tritone, also uncommon.
A few bars later, “When the street belongs to the cop, and the janitor with the mop” is sung over four descending major chords – G, F, E, D. A few bars later, the song shifts key to G major, which is where it ends. Except it doesn’t really end. There’s a tense chord that leads to the next song,  “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” a duet sung with the female lead.

Loesser wrote other musicals (“Most Happy Fella,” “How to Succeed”) but “Guys and Dolls” is by far the best.

Who Should Satire Satirize?

June 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Those children at the border – families separated, children sent far from their parents. It all seems so cruel. But what else can we do? The defenders of the cages and the family separations can make it all see so rational, so based in procedural and legal rules.

Swift satirized this way of thinking in  “A Modest Proposal,” where he lays out a perfectly rational solution to the problem of impoverished children — a policy other less rational people might find cruel

I was thinking of trying to write something along similar lines, but not only do I lack the wit (in the 18th-century meaning), but I thought that too many people would not see it as satire or irony. The left would be outraged, and the right would try to figure out ways of implementing the suggestions.

In any case, someone at Texas Tech beat me to it. The difference is that while Swift was using exaggeration to scorn those who inflicted cruelty, the Texas Tech student is using exaggeration to scorn the victims of that cruelty.*

In case the jpg above is too fuzzy to read, here are the key comments

Alex Provost: Don’t bother reporting them just use a firing squad

The cocaine cowboy: I’m telling you build a wall, and the us govt. can sell permits for legal hunting on the border and we can make a sport of this, can be a new tax revenue stream for the govt.

The cocaine cowboy: The us govt would be making money to stop illegals insted of spending it, win win for everyone

Nate Novak: Kyle run for president in the future please

The cocaine cowboy: No the poors would get me ... I’d stop all of their support and let them die ... I couldn’t get votes haha

Haha indeed — this from students who are getting tens of thousands of dollars from the taxpayers in the form of lower tuition (compared to what they would pay at a private university) plus whatever other financial aid they may get.

Satire works best when it is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  But The cocaine cowboy’s modest proposal puts it the other way round, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. Like too much of what passes for humor on the right — like Trump’s mocking a disabled reporter — it speaks with the voice of smugness and cruelty.                                

* Insider Higher Ed (here) has more information.

Proof and Institutions — Football and Brain Injury

June 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Malcolm is a great storyteller, and in an episode of Season Three of his podcast Revisionist History (here), he tells the story of Owen Thomas. Thomas was a star football player, in high school (he actually started playing competitively before that, when he was nine) and then at U Penn. In his senior year, he committed suicide. He had always been outgoing and happy  — his teammates selected him as team captain — and a good student, but he became depressed and confused, unable to remember things.

The episode is called “Burden of Proof.” How much proof do you need, Gladwell asks how much proof that multiple blows to the head that football players inevitably suffer causes irreversible brain damage? How much proof do you need that football caused Owen Thomas’s suicide?

Gladwell is particularly outraged at the statement by the Penn administration

While we will never know the cause of Owen Thomas’s depression and subsequent suicide, we are aware of and deeply concerned about the medical issues now being raised about head injuries and will continue to work with the Ivy League and the medical community in addressing these issue. Owen’s untimely death was a terrible tragedy, and we continue to grieve for his loss.

Listen to Gladwell read it and then tear into its hypocrisy.

Gladwell’s tone of moral outrage turns to disappointment, almost despair, as he acknowledges that there’s little hope for change any time soon. 


After the speech, as I walked to the reception, one of the big deans at Penn looked at me and shook his head. He said, “We’re not stopping football.”

Of course not. And it won’t stop. At least not until the thrid suicide or maybe the fourth suicide or the fifth, at which point the students and alumni at Penn will finally say, “That’s an awfully high price to pay for a game.”

As the title of the episode suggests, Gladwell thinks that it’s all about scientific proof and that the problem now is that the evidence is not yet overwhelmingly convincing. But when that proof does emerge —  the fourth or fifth suicide — Penn students and alumni will be persuaded and force Penn to jettison football.

Gladwell slights the more important reason that football continues: It is embedded in an large structure of institutions and interests —  a structure so large that we cannot imagine how it might be disassembled — and embedded in our consciousness. That’s the point I was trying to make when I posted this months ago on Superbowl Sunday. We cannot envision what life would be like without these institutions.  “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for football,” says one Penn student, a football player, in the Q&A following Gladwell’s talk. He could not imagine other pathways for people like him to get to the Ivy League that might arise to replace football.

I doubt that he and the others — the deans and alumni — will change their minds even as science accumulates more proof, just as no amount of proof will convince climate-skeptics. More likely the change will come slowly. It will seem sudden — a decision to cancel the football program — but it will come because more and more of the students who then become alumni will have grown up playing and watching soccer rather than football. When attendance at Penn soccer matches starts to rival that of football, the university administrators may decide to dump football. They’ll probably make some high-minded moral statement, and they’ll explain their long delay in reaching the decision by saying that till now the evidence had been ambiguous. But when that day comes the decision will not be about proof any more than it is now.

Resources and the Construction of Race

June 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Race is a social construction. That’s the truism you find in just about any sociology course. But if you want a great example, take eight minutes and watch this video. 

As you can see in the freeze frame below, the speaker, Corey Quinlan Taylor, is obviously Black. He’s certainly not White. Well, maybe not to you or me, but listen to his story.


Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t watched the video,  what I’m about to point out may spoil it.

            *                    *                    *                    *

First, Taylor’s story is yet another illustration that the same person may be Black in one context and White in another. The race depends on who is doing the classifying. Second, different societies have different categories of race, different bins to sort people into.  These two observations summarize the basic Soc 101 lesson.

The third lesson in Taylor’s micro-social world is that these categories do not change all by themselves. Sometimes the change starts with a small number people (in this case, one) making a conscious effort to instill new ways of thinking, to create new categories. But once set in motion, the change can spread through processes of social influence that are invisible both to those being influenced and those doing the influencing.

And sometimes, the process can be accelerated by those with greater resources — resources like power and institutional position, social capital, cultural capital, and sometimes confectionary capital.

Pittsburgh’s Other Mister Rogers

June 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rob Rogers is was the political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The paper just fired him.

Here are some of his recent cartoons.

(Click for a larger view.)

The Post-Gazette is the only print daily left in Pittsburgh. The others that I grew up with, the Press and the Sun-Telegraph, were eroded by the demographic, economic, and technological changes. So it goes.

The paper is owned by Block Communications, which combined the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages with that of its other paper, the Toledo Blade. The Blade’s editorial director, Keith Burris, took over the Post-Gazette as well. Block and Burris are conservative. Burris had been killing Rogers cartoons on a regular basis, though they ran in syndication.

This does not seem like a complicated story. If you have enough money to buy up newspapers, you can hire editors to publish ideas that you like and to get rid of people who express ideas you don’t like.

Of course, Burris doesn’t think he was telling Rogers what to put in the cartoons. It was merely a matter of “collaboration.”             

“We never said he should do no more Trump cartoons or do pro-Trump cartoons,” said Mr. Burris. “For an in-house staff cartoonist, editing is part of it. Rob’s view was, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

[Burris] said he did not “suppress” Mr. Rogers’ cartoons but that Mr. Rogers was unwilling to “collaborate” with him about his work and ideas. [from the Post-Gazette’s story on the firing, here.]

Maybe Jeff Bezos should collaborate more with George Will.

The more media outlets a corporation can buy up, the more it can control what people see and hear. Block Communications is not Sinclair, with its 200 (and counting) radio stations. But it does control 100% of the daily press in Pittsburgh. For Rob Rogers and Pittsburghers, today is not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Blaming the Baby — The Language of Medical Infallibility

June 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent article at Vox (here), Julia Belluz says, “Only 4 percent of women give birth on their estimated delivery date. . . Medicine is surprisingly bad at measuring the precise age of a fetus or how far along a woman is into her pregnancy.” The rest of the article explains why doctors suck at predicting the date of delivery.

But that’s not the way we talk about it. We don’t say, “The doctor was wrong.” We don’t say, “The doctor made a really bad prediction.” Instead we blame the woman. We say she was “late.”  She “missed her due date,” as though childbirth was something akin to a term paper. I guess if she provides a good excuse, we’ll give her an extension till Friday. 

Or we blame the baby. Look at the opening sentence of the article, “A pregnant friend of mine is due to give birth on Saturday, but as she told me this week, she really has no idea if the baby will come on time, or two weeks from now.” [emphasis added.]
The kid is still in the womb, and already we are taking him or her to task for not arriving “on time.”  

It’s not just obstetrics. Talk related to most other areas of medicine also rests on the same charitable assumption of doctor infallibility, especially when the ones doing the talking are doctors. The patient “failed to respond to treatment,” not “the treatment we used didn’t work.”

I caught on to this trick long ago, when I was reviewing the literature on compulsive gamblers. There wasn’t much to review, and most of those accounts were from psychiatrists. One of them said that treating compulsive gamblers was difficult because they “do not make good patients.” At first, that tallied with what I had found. Many of the compulsive gamblers I was listening to had tried psychotherapy without much success. It took me a while see that if you translate this idea out of the language of psychiatric infallibility, it sounds very different: “We psychiatrists have no idea how to cure these guys.”

This way of speaking — the one we frequently use — places the blame for failure on the patient, not the doctor. Those compulsive gamblers don’t make good patients. And babies — don’t get me started. Totally unreliable. They just have no sense of punctuality.

A Class of Rich People — Gallup Goes Marxist

June 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gallup asked “Do You Think the United States Benefits From Having a Class of Rich People, or Not?” Here are the results.

Gallup’s lede is that Democrats have grown more skeptical about the rich while Independents and Republicans haven’t changed their views. The other obvious conclusions from the survey is that Republicans think far more favorably of the rich and that Independents are closer to Democrats than to Republicans. (The Gallup summary is here.)

What surprised me is that Republicans would agree to even answer the question given that it was about “a class of rich people.” The true conservative would tell the Gallup interviewer, “There are no classes in America. We have only individuals; some of them get rich.” But overall, only 3% of the 1500 people surveyed refused to answer, though Gallup does not provide data on the political affiliation of these refuseniks.

Most of the time, when Americans talk about “class” they really mean “social status” – a scale based mostly on money which, therefore, has infinite gradations. A person with $100,000 is higher on the scale than is a person with $90,000. But “class” in the Gallup question implies a more Marxian definition — a group of people who share common economic interests and who act to secure those interests against the interests of other classes.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what Gallup’s respondents had in mind when they heard the question. Maybe Republicans, Independents, and Democrats interpreted the question differently.

What else could Gallup have asked?

“Does the US benefit from policies that allow some people to get very rich?” frames wealth as an individual matter with America as the land of unlimited opportunity.  A question like this would probably draw higher rates of agreement across the board.

“Do Americans in general benefit from policies that benefit the rich?” treats the rich more as a true class. It implies that some policies benefit one class, the rich, even though they might not benefit most people. This question might have fewer people agreeing.

I wonder what the results would be if Gallup asked both these questions.

Gentrification and Its Discontents

June 6, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

This Facebook post by a Rutgers history professor has gotten picked up by the usual right-wing suspects – Breitbart, Washington Examiner, Daily Caller, New York Post, etc.

Here’s a clearer version of the text:

OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them — us — us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would [be] my dinner, and the place is overrun with little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do.

Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you moron, Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white.

I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about access to my dinner. Fuck you, too.
Facebook removed the post. Rutgers is investigating. The official university statement says, “There is no place for racial intolerance at Rutgers.”

All these reactions have the same take-away – this is race hatred. That’s understandable, I guess, since Livingston  (no relation to me, btw) says, “I now hate white people.”  FB and Rutgers are concerned. The right-wing media are delighted. See, they say, it’s really the leftists who are bigots.

They’re missing the point. It’s not about bigotry, it’s about gentrification.

Imagine that you’re a committed leftist. With perhaps a hint of romanticism, you identify with the oppressed – the poor and the Black. Maybe you’re also looking for an apartment in the city. What better place than Harlem? The awful years – the closing third of the twentieth century – is now just a bad memory, but the name still carries a hint of risk, of danger. But the name also throbs with the rich history – Duke Ellington and James Baldwin and the Apollo. That’s the Harlem you want to move to, the authentic Harlem where you can still call Lenox Ave Lenox Ave and not Malcolm X Boulevard.

So you take apartment on 117th, and when people ask you where you live, you don’t say “SoHa,” the term coined by the real estate rebranding geniuses. You say, “Harlem.” You get to know the stores, the restaurants, even some of your neighbors.

But after a few years, you see the neighborhood changing – more White faces, kids in their twenties., Starbucks is everywhere, and there’s a new a Whole Foods that seems to be all glass. This is not what you wanted. This is what you were trying to escape. You wanted Harlem’s authenticity, its soul. But that is waning, and in its place, Privilege.

You go to that newish restaurant you like, Harlem Shake, that opened a few years ago, and all you can see are White kids. Why are you surprised? You should have seen it coming. Look at this place with its  umbrella-shaded sidewalk tables, its menu that includes a Veggie Burgers ($17) and Kale Caesar. (“Kale Caesar,” you think, “We who are about to diet salute you.”)

But tonight, it’s too much. It looks like an outpost of the Wharton school. You think, “I just don't want little Caucasians overrunning my life. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant.”* 

So you go home and vent to your Facebook friends. They’ll  get it. They’ll appreciate your dilemma — hating White people and yet, “I am a White people.” They’ll know you don’t mean all White people, maybe not even most White people —just these Jakes-come-lately in Harlem. They’ll understand the internal conflict of the White lefty in a gentrifying neighborhood, an internal conflict that’s reflected even in the dilemma over which pronoun to use. —  “can we keep them – us – out of my neighborhood?”

It’s like Chris Rock’s rant, the one where he says, “I love Black people, but I hate Niggas.” The audience laughs. They get it. But you can imagine the reaction from Breitbart, et al.,  — “Self-avowed Black-people-hater Chris Rock said in a racist rant. . . .”

The Internet is no place for ambivalence. The right-wing media could grasp the humor and irony. They just deliberately refuse to. College administrators seem truly incapable of even minimal subtlety. Oh well, Chris Rock won’t play colleges any more either. They take everything literally.

“There is no place for racial intolerance at Rutgers.” Apparently there’s also no place for ambivalence, irony, and humor.

* From his subsequent explanatory post on Facebook

Feckless Bunt — The C-word at Home and Abroad

June 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was browsing the New Book shelf in our library yesterday and noticed The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy, about differences between US and British English

One of those differences is the word cunt, a word which, by coincidence was very much in the news that same day. Samantha Bee had called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.”  Conservatives especially fell into an angry swoon. But Bee’s remark was the top story in news feeds across the political spectrum.

In the US, cunt is the worst thing you can call someone. If Bee had called Ivanka a “clueless asshole” or a “heartless fuck,” I doubt that the reaction would have been as swift and strong. As for bitch and pussy, we know that Trump supporters, thanks to “Access Hollywood,”  have long since made peace with those terms.

Bee’s comments would also not have drawn so much attention if she’d been speaking to a British audience. Cunt is different in the UK. As Murphy says (not in the book but on her blog), “The British can be amused by how much this word offends many Americans.”

Because cunt is less offensive in Britain, it can be used more casually and therefore more often. Even in the formal world of books, cunt appears more frequently in the UK, as Google n-grams shows (hat tip: Philip Cohen, who tweeted a similar graph).

The word is less offensive in the UK because it has a different meaning. In the US, only a woman can be a cunt. But in the UK, the term is applied to both genders, perhaps more often to males.  Murphy used a corpus of Internet sources (blogs, news, etc.) and found, “two unique instances of this phrase in the American data. Both refer to women. There are five in the British data and they refer to: a male athlete, a male friend, and fans of a certain football team or football magazine.”

It’s sort of like pussy – demeaning the man’s manhood.  “In the UK, the word is thrown around rather easily among men. It can be used among friends in a playful way, but more often (as far as I can tell) it is a term of abuse for men they don't like.”

In the US, if a woman is a cunt, she is a horrible person. But in the UK, the term can suggest just a general inefficacy or stupidity, not cruelty and evil. I don’t have the Internet corpus, but I do have the Monty Python Travel Agent sketch, which dates back to the 1960s.

Here’s a transcript.

Bounder: Anyway you’re interested in one of our adventure holidays?
Tourist: Yes I saw your advert in the bolor supplement.
Bounder: The what?
Tourist: The bolor supplement.
Bounder: The color supplement?
Tourist: Yes I’m sorry I can’t say the letter ‘B’
Bounder: C?
Tourist: Yes that’s right. It’s all due to a trauma I suffered when I was a sboolboy. I was attacked by a bat.
Bounder: A cat?
Tourist: No, a bat
Bounder: Can you say the letter ‘K’?
Tourist: Oh yes, Khaki, king, kettle, Kuwait, Kings Bollege Bambridge.
Bounder: Why don’t you say the letter 'K’ instead of the letter ‘C’?
Tourist: what you mean.....spell bolor with a ‘K’?
Tourist: Kolor. Oh that’s very good, I never thought of that. What a silly bunt.

No American man would refer to himself as a “silly cunt.” Or rather, a “silly kunt.”

Experiments and the Real World

May 26, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two days ago, the NY Times published an op-ed by Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein, “Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?” It is based on a single social psychology experiment. That experiment does not involve going to the doctor. It does not involve anything resembling choices that people make in their real lives. I was going to blog about it, but Anderw Gelman (here) beat me to it and has done a much better and more thorough job than I could have done. Here, for example, is a quote from the op-ed and Gelman’s follow-up.

“Knowing a person’s political leanings should not affect your assessment of how good a doctor she is — or whether she is likely to be a good accountant or a talented architect. But in practice, does it?”

I followed the link to the research article and did a quick search. The words “doctor,” “accountant,” and “architect” appear . . . exactly zero times.

Gelman takes the article apart piece by piece. But when you put the pieces together, what you get is a picture of the larger problem with experiments. They are metaphors or analogies. They are clever and contrived. They can sharpen our view of the world outside the lab, the “real” world  — but they are not that world.

 “My love is like a red, red rose.” Well, yes, Bobby, in some ways she is. But she is not in fact a red, red rose.

Here is the world of the Sharot-Sunstein experiment.

We assigned people the most boring imaginable task: to sort 204 colored geometric shapes into one of two categories, “blaps” and “not blaps,” based on the shape’s features. We invented the term “blap,” and the participants had to try to figure out by trial and error what made a shape a blap. Unknown to the participants, whether a shape was deemed a blap was in fact random.

The 97 Mechanical Turkers in the experiment had to work with a partner (that is, they thought they would work with a partner – there was no actual collaboration and no actual partner). Players thought they would be paid according to how well they sorted blaps. The result:

[The players] most often chose to hear about blaps from co-players who were politically like-minded, even when those with different political views were much better at the task.

To repeat, despite the title of the article (“Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?”), this experiment was not about choosing a doctor. To get to New York Times readers choosing doctors, you have to make a long inferential leap from Mechanical Turkers choosing blap-sorters. Sharot-Sunstein are saying, “My partner in sorting ‘blaps’ is like a red, red rose a doctor or an architect.” Well, yes, but . . . .

See the Gelman post for the full critique.

Full disclosure: my dentist has a MAGA hat in his office, and I’m still going back for a crown next month. A crown is like a hat in some ways, but not in others. 

Clinton-Patterson — The Copy Editor Is Missing

May 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Entertainment Weekly has posted an excerpt from the new novel co-written by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

Here is the opening of that excerpt.

Everything I did was to protect my country. I’d do it again. The problem is, I can’t say any of that.

“All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will.”

I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I keep eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We think—we hope—that we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case—[emphasis added]

I confess I have never read any books by either of these authors. I voted for one of them, and the other has given a fair amount of money to the school where I work. But despite these considerations, I cannot shirk my duty to point out the mixed metaphors. Maybe they’re the result of mixed authorship. Did Clinton like the “balls” and Patterson* the “shoe”? And where was the copy editor who is supposed to spot these kinds of miscue?

* Multiple authorship is nothing new for Patterson. He does not actually “write” his own books, in the usual sense of write. “Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines, sometimes running 80 pages, to co-authors, . .  a stable of writers that rivals this year’s field at the Kentucky Derby. ‘It may be a factory,’ Robinson says, ‘but it’s a hand-tooled factory.” (WaPo)

Philip Roth, Buses, and Me

May 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I met Philip Roth once, in March 1988. It was in the Port Authority, in the waiting room for the bus to Newark Airport.  He was sitting in one of the seats against the far wall.  The other areas were about equally full, so I walked towards him.  He looked up and saw me looking at him.  I sat down one seat away.

“You’re Philip Roth, aren’t you?” I asked, by way of explaining why I had been looking at him. 

“Yes,” he said.  “Who are you?”

“Nobody,” I said.  “A reader.”

“A reader,” he repeated as though to himself, “well, that’s good.”

The rest of the time in the waiting room, he spoke to the woman on his left, who I assumed was Claire Bloom.  I could catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the British accent.

On the bus, he wound up sitting across the aisle from me.  I searched my mind for the right opening.  Finally, when he was not speaking with Ms. Bloom, I said, “Is it often that you get recognized in bus stations?”

“It depends,” he said.  “If the bus is going to Newark, there’s usually somebody.”

Roth readers less forgetful than I am will recall the opening line from Zuckerman Unbound (1981). “What the hell are you doing on a bus with your dough?” a fellow passenger asks the very Roth-like Zuckerman.

The other Roth bus quote has stayed in my mind. It’s the opening of a chapter in Portnoy’s Complaint: “Did I mention, Doctor, that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?”

But I didn’t think of either of those at the time. For much of the remaining twenty minutes of the trip, I actually carried on a conversation with him.  We talked about the decline of journals like Partisan Review.  I asked if he were still active in getting Eastern European writers published in the US.  He said (I think) that there was not a lot of material there.  I asked if he had helped to get Kundera first published here.  He said that he had helped get some of his stories published.

He asked me if I’d read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and said that he hadn’t thought much of the movie.  Here is approximately what I said:  I was disappointed.  It didn’t seem as good as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, especially “Lost Letters.”  The author seemed more distant from the characters, less involved with them, as though he didn’t care so much about them.

“I think you’re right,” Philip Roth said.
Did he really think I was right?  Maybe he was just being polite.  Maybe, even if he thought I was right, he also thought that the point was irrelevant.  I should have asked him what he thought, but then I didn’t think it was fair to ask a writer to comment on the work of another. It was probably the kind of question he got asked all the time. 
When he got off the bus, he shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me.  I, of course, said the same.

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.)

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use them. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.

School Shooting + Guns + Flag — How Embarrassing

May 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Embarrassment happens when someone sees something you don’t want them to see, and you think that they will draw an impression that is not the one you want them to have. It’s embarrassing to be discovered cheating (on a test, on your spouse) because then people will get the impression* that you cheat – an accurate impression, but one you don’t want them to have. It’s like Michael Kinsley’s observation about politics: a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.

Less than an hour after the gun slaughter in Santa Fe, Texas, a man showed up at the school carrying a large flag and a large pistol. Someone tweeted a video of him, adding that another man said that what the gunslinger did was “an embarrassment.”

It was embarrassing because someone might see this flag-waving gunslinger and get the impression not just that flag-waving and gunslinging are part of the American way of life, our American exceptionalism, but that these go along with our exceptionally high number of school massacres. Someone might get the impression that the guns and the massacres are just as American as the Stars and Stripes.

The man in the video had committed a gaffe.

Anyone who has taken intro sociology will recognize that I’m using Erving Goffman’s ideas about impression management and the presentation of self.

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

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Lots of artists get ideas that they consider for a while – in this case apparently for a few hours one morning – and then reject. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)

Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties

May 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A “traitor to his class” – that’s what wealthier Republicans and conservatives called FDR. Here was a man who came from wealth yet whose policies were more directed at helping the poor and unemployed, even at the expense of the rich.

Tom Wolfe’s most famous work is probably “Radical Chic,” the 25,000-word piece that ran in New York Magazine in June, 1970. It was about “a party for the Black Panthers.” Wolfe too casts a cold eye on wealthy people coming to the aid of people who were on the wrong side of the social system, in this case, twenty-one Black Panthers accused of a variety of offenses including conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, police stations, the New Haven Railroad, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Thirteen of the accused had been arrested and bail was set at $100,000, in effect denying them bail. They had been in jail for over a year. Leonard Bernstein had been persuaded to hold a fund-raiser for them in his apartment. Wealthy people, some of them famous, were invited. So were the lawyers and some members of the Black Panther Party.

You’d think that a journalist covering the event would pay extensive attention to the legal side of things – the charges, the evidence, and so on. You’d also think that in reflecting on the article years later in an interview with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the journalist would mention, at least in passing, that the eventual trial had lasted eight months (New York’s longest and most expensive ever at the time) and that the jury took only a couple of hours to return not-guilty verdicts on all 156 charges (twelve crimes x thirteen defendants).

You might think that, but if the journalist is Tom Wolfe, you’d think wrong. Wolfe didn’t really care about the legal charges. He didn’t care about the issues of justice or race or politics that the people at Bernstein’s apartment were talking about. What he cared about was Style.  His goal in the article was to mock these rich White people, many of them Jewish, for trying to incorporate elements of Black style. For Wolfe, the gathering – the discussion and donations – was not primarily about justice. It was merely one more attempt by rich people to appear hip. As Wolfe told the Nieman interviewer

This is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — [. . .] They’ll never be a starker contrast between, to use a fancy word, two sensibilities.

The cover for this issue of New York Magazine captures Wolfe’s message –three wealthy-looking White women (I have no idea who designed their dresses; Wolfe, no doubt, would know) raising their fists in the Black Power salute.

Wolfe is very good at style and status. Nobody does it better. The article is awash in observations of clothes, colors, fabrics, objects.

The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.

No detail is too trivial.

Lefcourt and Quat [lawyers for the Panthers] start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . . 

You might think that devoting this much attention to a mint – a mint for godssakes – serves mostly as a vehicle for Wolfe to show off his knowledge of merch (Marthinsen bowls) and his prose. But the Nieman interviewer, tells Wolfe. “This is a beautiful thing, the way you puncture the tension with a mint.” Shows you how little I know about journalism.
There’s another problem with Wolfe’s New Journalism – the almost imperceptible shift from the reporter’s observation to the novelist’s omniscience. I hope to say more about that in a later post.