We Still Need a Queen — Now More Than Ever

October 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Not the Vest?

October 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make America Great  — and Safe! — Again.

“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Flashback Friday: Asians in the Library

October 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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


March 20, 2011


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

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

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



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

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

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

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*

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

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

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

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

“A Different Person”

October 5, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust and Tribalism?

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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



Better would have been

Tribalism Drives Republicans’ Trust in Politicians.

Gallup provides this graph:

 (Click to enlarge.)

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

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

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

My Introduction to Young Brett Kavanaugh’s World

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark at the Top of the Stairs

October 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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



Here’s an edited transcript

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

I tell this story because it’s so uncomfortable.

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

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


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

Memory and Character, What Are They Good For?

October 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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