Blog-mitzvah

September 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog is turning thirteen this month. It was originally supposed to be a group blog. That didn’t quite work out.

At our first department meeting in September 2006, we were thinking of ways to get more majors and to keep the ones we had. “How about a department blog?” I said. “We can post about things we see in our everyday lives but that we can relate to sociological ideas. That way, students will see that we’re just people with ordinary lives, and maybe they’ll see how sociological ideas can be useful.”

Everyone thought this was a good idea. So I set up the blog with posting privileges for all department members. After eleven or twelve years, I began to notice that with maybe three or four exceptions, all the posts were by me. So I changed the settings to make it my blog, though I kept the Montclair name just for the sake of continuity. I didn’t even change the name now that my connection to Montclair has become the thin thread of emeritus status.
          
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In the past year, the post that has gotten the most attention is one from the previous year — the one about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here).In his Times review the show last December, James Poniewozik mentioned these anachronisms in passing but with a link to my post. That brought a slew of visits, and the hits just keep on coming. A week or so ago, the page views for that post passed the 12,000 mark, an extraordinary number for this blog.

Besides that, here are some posts from the past year that I thought were worth revisiting.

1. Two posts about “Nostalgia and the Myth of Social Decline” (here and here) got me twenty minutes of air time on the Sociology Annex Podcast. That was fun, though in retrospect I quickly realized that I could have stated my ideas much more clearly.

2. Along similar lines, “The Past Is Never Uncertain” looks at the idea of that things today are more “uncertain” than things in the past. But the past is more certain only because now we know what happened.

3. People had different reactions to Brett Kavanagh at his confirmation hearings. But all of these reactions, for and against, seemed to share the same assumptions about “character” and about what a person is. This post (“A Different Person” ) tries to show the limitations of those assumptions.

4.  Aside from Mrs. Maisel, the post that got more views than any other in the past year was “Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1”). Were Soc 101 instructors assigning it?

It used current data but the same Durkheimian idea (and one of the same jokes) I’ve been using since I started teaching this stuff. The main point: rates are a property a group or society, not of individuals. Variables that explain individual cases (happiness, well-being) don’t seem to work so well at explaining rates.



Do the Poor Suffer From Elite Ideas?

September 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

People in the lower class and working class are more likely do things that violate middle-class standards. They drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, take drugs, don’t have a job, and commit crimes all at higher rates than their middle-class counterparts. Traditional conservative explanations for these shortcomings focus on the individual. These people fail to live middle-class lives because they lack virtue.

In modern times, conservatives have pinned that lack of virtue on the policies of liberals —  policies like not punishing criminals severely enough, not punishing idleness, giving poor unwed mothers assistance for themselves and their children, and other programs that encourage the irresponsibility of the undeserving poor. 

Starting a half-century ago or so ago, conservatives began to indict liberals not just for their social policies but for their ideas about things like happiness and freedom. James Q. Wilson, for example, attributed the 1960s increase in crime in part to the ideology of self-expression and “do your own thing.” “This attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people.”

Of course, the people who were tuning in to these messages of self-indulgence (or as they might have styled it “self-actualization”) were largely young, White, and middle-class. Wilson never traced the paths of this diffusion of ideas. He just left us to assume that muggers, rioters, and welfare mothers in the cities had come together with the Whiter, less urban Woodstock generation, and they were all listening to Tim Leary, reading Fritz Perls or Abe Maslow, and putting those ideas into practice, even if those practices looked, on the surface, very different.       

A recent version of this theory — that the poor and uneducated have absorbed the ideas of affluent liberals and are worse off because of that — comes to us from Rob Henderson (here) in his catch-phrase “luxury beliefs” —  “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” He even claims that these beliefs explain the increase in economic inequaity. “These beliefs . . . produce real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people, further widening the divide.”

Take, for example, ideas about the causes of success.

Then there’s the luxury belief that individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck. This belief is more common among many of my peers at Yale and Cambridge than the kids I grew up with in foster care or the women and men I served with in the military. The key message is that the outcomes of your life are beyond your control. This idea works to the benefit of the upper class and harms ordinary people.[emphasis added]


As I said in a previous post, most of Henderson’s assertions are hard to test against actual data. But for the last 45 years, the GSS has in fact asked people about the importance of luck.
GETAHEAD: Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks or help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?

I have broken the sample down into three educational categories: those who finished college, those who never finished high school, and those in between (a high school degree and possibly some college).  If Henderson is right, we should see a steady upward trend in the percent who say that Luck is important. The trend should begin among the most educated. If their ideas are filtering down through the class system, the less educated should also be trending upward but with a lag time of a few years.

(Click for a larger view.)

Henderson does not specify the time period for the trends he’s talking about, but if he’s thinking about very recent history, the graph offers some support. Among those with a college degree, the percent citing Luck rose in the two most recent iterations of the GSS — from about 8% in 2012 to 17% in 2018. Is that a trend? I don’t know. Prior to 2016, the percent fluctuates in no discernible pattern.

More relevant for Henderson’s claims, the fashion in Luck among the educated has no apparent effect on those with less education.  Since the mid-80s, among those who never finished high school, the belief that success depends mostly on luck does not follow the fluctuations of the college educated; instead it trends slightly downward.

 It does not look as though the less educated are adopting the ideas of those who finished college. More tellingly, the GSS data also raises the question of whether beliefs about luck affect behavior. Henderson says that the well educated (“my peers at Yale and Cambridge”) are more likely to believe in the importance of luck and “random social forces.” Yet they behave in a contradictory way. They work hard. Henderson also seems to be implying that the less educated do not work so hard. That’s why they’re poor. Unlike the Yalies, they are acting on their belief about luck and winding up worse off for it.

But what the graph shows is that these ideas have not changed much.  If anything, the dropouts believe in luck less now than in the past. And yet, their incomes have left them farther and farther from the well-educated. Maybe economic inequality has less to do with virtuous ideas and more to do with the economy.

Stand-up — the Pro Advantage

September 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to the early show (7:00 p.m.) at the Gotham Comedy Club last night — a line-up of unknown, hopeful comics, most of them with day jobs. To get on the bill, they had to guarantee six friends or relatives in the audience paying the cover and two-drink minimum. One of the comics knew my wife, and so we went.

The MC was a pro, and she warmed up the audience. She really did ask people in the audience where they were from, and had some ready-made lines for Connecticut and New Jersey. Then it was one comic after another, each doing their solid six, some good, some merely OK. The first half dozen performers took us to about 8 p.m. That’s when the MC announced a special guest. Jim Gaffigan.



He did 25-30 minutes. He killed.

Then the MC asked us to welcome a newcomer, someone not too sure of himself, someone who needed our support, etc. Nobody bought that ruse — she didn’t really try to sell it. We just didn’t know who the “newcomer” would be.



(It’s Jerry Seinfeld. Apologies for the lousy photo. I wasn’t even sure that we were allowed to take pictures, so I was in a hurry.)

Seinfeld too did 25-30 minutes, and he too got big laughs with every joke, even the ones I didn’t think were so great. Some of the other comics had lines that didn’t work, and I’ve noticed that comedians now, when a joke doesn’t land, will often comment immediately about either the joke or the audience or both (“I don’t know. It worked in Jersey”). Seinfeld and Gaffigan didn’t have that problem, and I was reminded of something I wrote ten years ago (here) after I’d seen the Judd Apatow movie “Funny People.” George (Adam Sandler) is a top comedian. Ira (Seth Rogen) is an unseasoned hopeful who George hires as an assistant.

It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side.

Last night played out the same story but with real people, and it illustrates the importance of expectations and impressions. (No, not that kind of impression, though one of the comics last night did do a very good Obama.) The comedian coming onto the stage has two related tasks. First, they have to be funny and to get the audience to form the impression of them as a funny person. But they also have to get the audience to like them and to feel comfortable with them.* A Seinfeld or a Gaffigan doesn’t face that challenge. The audience already knows them, likes them, and thinks they’re funny. Even a weak joke won’t damage that impression or definition.

A comedian that the audience doesn’t know has to create that impression and do so quickly. Even then, the joke that falls flat can undo that work. It sends the relationship back to the beginning, with the audience wondering: Is this person funny, and do I like them?

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[For some excellent sociology of stand-up, see the recent work of Pat Reilly. Or listen to him here on the Soc Annex podcast.]

* Andy Kaufman was a notable exception. He sometimes seemed to be deliberately trying to make the audience feel uncomfortable and uncertain about him. See this earlier post.

Fox Sports, Fox News, and Toxic Masculinity

August 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Doug Gottlieb, who talks about sports on Fox, had this to say about Andrew Luck’s decision to retire from the NFL.

(Click for a better view.)

In his announcement, Luck said,

For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's be unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football. . . . After 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again.

The injuries requiring rehab included
  • Torn cartilage in two ribs
  • A partially torn abdomen
  • A lacerated kidney
  • A torn labrum.
  • A calf injury, which extended to a high ankle sprain.

Gottlieb’s tweet was not about Trump or Democrats or politics, yet it seemed so Fox-like. It too me a moment or two to see the common intertwined threads, but there they were: toxic masculinity and antipathy towards young people.

I rarely use the phrase toxic masculinity rather than machismo because so often the toxicity, the damage, is indirect and intangible. But here Gottlieb’s waving the flag of masculinity is clearly a demand that Luck do even further damage to his body. That’s typical, for in many cases the masculinity being called for is toxic to someone else, not the one waving the flag. In this post  ten years ago, I noted that commentators who wanted the US to continue to torture Afghanis, Iraqis, and other non-Americans framed it in terms of masculinity. To ban torture was to “emasculate” the CIA.

As for the millennials, what nettles Gottlieb and many others on the right is the refusal of young people to get sucked into the masculinity game. What must be especially infuriating to him and other masculinists is the indifference of many young men to the old machismo-based insults — “weak,” “soft,” “pussy,” etc. That response, or lack of response, calls that whole game into question, and often the anger of older people towards kids seems to be an effort to deny that maybe these younger people have a point. Maybe there’s something to be said for a less rigid and brittle masculinity, one where, instead of doing the hard work of rehab so that you can keep injuring yourself, you respond to the messages your body is giving you.

It’s not just Gottlieb. News of Luck’s retirement broke during a Colts exhibition game. Word spread quickly through the stadium, and the fans booed.

Like other elements of the “culture war,” the Gottlieb reaction to millennials (or what he imagines them to be) is nothing new. In 1970, Philip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness wrote of

a vague resentment towards youth — a resentment with roots in the parents’ discontent with their own lives. It’s a condition ideally suited to produce anger toward young people who live differently and more pleasurably than did the parental generation.

The old-culture is saying, “I worked hard at an unrewarding job, I gave up pleasure and fulfillment. Now you should do the same.”

In that light, it’s especially noteworthy that Luck was supported in his decision by nearly all NFL players who made public statements. They where highly critical of the booing fans and of Gottlieb. Troy Aikman, a former NFL quarterback who also now works for Fox, called Gottlieb’s tweet “total bullshit.” Here is a more thoughtful response from All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, now in his ninth season, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon.


See also the comments on Gottleib’s tweet (here ) — much criticism, little support, and a couple that stooped so low as to mention Gottlieb’s credit card theft of some years back.

Addendum, Aug. 29: A day after I posted this, the New York Times ran a piece (here )by Michael Serazio, “Why Andrew Luck’s Retirement Was So Shocking.” Serazio refers t the “collective gasp . . . from the sports world” at Luck’s announcement.

My impression was that most people in the sports world, especially players, understood Luck’s decision. Serazio has a different impression, though he cites only one NFL player who criticized Luck — former quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who wrote that Luck “owes it to his team” to keep playing.

Either way, Serazio is pointing out the same basic problem with “hegemonic masculinity” — it’s toxic. “Our shock at a player’s willingness to opt for self-preservation over inevitable bodily immolation shows how deeply rooted that toxic masculinity remains.”



Old Whine, New Bottle — Luxury Beliefs II

August 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1930s, wealthy Republicans called FDR “a traitor to his class.” The logic of this label seems to be that if you’re rich, you ought to favor policies that benefit the rich, not the poor and the working class.

In the 1960s, Republicans disparaged wealthy Democrats as “limousine liberals.” It’s the same idea — if you’re rich enough to ride in a limo, you shouldn’t be a liberal —  but adds something special. It questions the motives of liberals and says they are hypocrites.

In 1970, journalist Tom Wolfe gave the same idea yet a new name, “radical chic” in his long article about a fund-raiser that Leonard Bernstein held for the defense of thirteen Black Panther party members who were in jail awaiting trial. (See this post.)  What interested Wolfe was not guilt or innocence or justice (eventually all the Panthers were acquitted of all charges) but the motives of Bernstein and his guests.

Apparently it bothers the hell out of conservatives when people of privilege say and do things that might help the less privileged. Conservatives are still serving up this same complaint. The new label on the bottle is “luxury beliefs.” The term was coined recently by Rob Henderson and got some attention, especially over on the right, when the New York Post ran his op-ed “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans.”

Here’s the gist of it.

In the past, upper-class Americans used to display their social status with luxury goods. Today, they do it with luxury beliefs.

People care a lot about social status. In fact, research indicates that respect and admiration from our peers are even more important than money for our sense of well-being.

We feel pressure to display our status in new ways. This is why fashionable clothing always changes. But as trendy clothes and other products become more accessible and affordable, there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods.

The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.

It’s a commonplace observation that people are sensitive to how others respond to their ideas. Like the clothes we wear, the ideas we express are part of our self-presentation (now called “signalling”). That’s true for people of all social groups. But with ideas, it’s more likely that what people are signalling is not social status in the usual sense but membership in a group.

Henderson’s argument in 2019, much like Tom Wolfe’s in 1970, is based on attributing motives that the people he’s attributing them to would deny. He’s saying “upper-class Americans” (a term he does not define) espouse their beliefs not because, as they would claim, the ideas are true or will make for a better society, but in order to signal their own high social status. Of course,  Henderson has no evidence of that motive (or if he does, he’s keeping quiet about it). Impugning the motives of others is easy. Providing evidence is hard.*

What’s new is Henderson’s assertion that these luxury beliefs harm the lower class. Here too, as I said in the previous post, Henderson presents no evidence that the ideas of the privileged about marriage and family have “trickled down” through the class strata or that it’s those ideas that have damaged the lives of the poor. He makes a similar claim about ideas regarding the importance of luck and other factors beyond the control of the individual. Henderson doesn’t mention it, but on this point there is some evidence, which I hope to get to in a later post.

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* Tom Wolfe too  “reported” the thoughts and motives to the people he was writing about even when those people never expressed the ideas he attributed to them. You might think of this as “making stuff up,” but it brought Wolfe much admiration for his “novelistic techniques.”

Luxury Beliefs — Blaming the Libs

August 20, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If I could buy stock in words and phrases, I’d invest heavily in “luxury beliefs.” I predict that we’re going to be hearing a lot more of it, especially from the right wing.

The idea behind is an an update of Charles Murray. Nine years ago in Coming Apart, Murray argued that the economic and moral decline of the White working class (those whose education ended in high school or earlier) had been caused by educated liberals. It wasn’t that elite liberals were promoting harmful policies, and it wasn’t because they were setting a bad example. Just the opposite. They were following the “success sequence” — getting more education, working hard at their jobs, waiting till after marriage to have kids. The trouble was that they were not trying to inculcate these practices in others. They were not preaching what they practiced.

Murray had no data for this claim, and I thought that the idea had disappeared. But over on the right, blaming the libs is just too tempting. Why let it wither away just because there’s no evidence?

So now Rob Henderson goes Murray one better. In a New York Post op-ed , he argues that those successful, educated liberals caused the decline of the White working class by holding “luxury beliefs.” It’s a clever coinage which will no doubt bring Henderson a lot of attention, especially from conservatives.

Normally, I would not pay much attention to the New York Post (see this from 2007), but the article is already bouncing around the conservative Internet, and Caitlin Flanagan, who turns up in mainstream publications like The Atlantic, tweeted it.


Luxury beliefs are “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” For example,

Affluent, educated people raised by two married parents are more likely than others to believe monogamy is outdated, marriage is a sham or that all families are the same.
      

It’s safe for the affluent educated to hold these beliefs about marriage, says Henderson, because in their own marriages they are conventionally monogamous. But that belief was disastrous for the less educated and less affluent.

This luxury belief contributed to the erosion of the family. Today, the marriage rates of affluent Americans are nearly the same as they were in the 1960s. But working-class people are far less likely to get married. Furthermore, out-of-wedlock birthrates are more than 10 times higher than they were in 1960, mostly among the poor and working class. Affluent people seldom have kids out of wedlock but are more likely than others to express the luxury belief that doing so is of no consequence.

How did that happen? How did the beliefs of the educated become the beliefs of the lower classes? Henderson’s answer: they “trickled down.”

You can see the contradiction here. Henderson is saying that elite ideas trickled down to the working class and poor. But he begins by saying that those people are less likely than are the affluent to believe that “monogamy is outdated.”

Nor does he say how that trickle-down happened. Tracking the diffusion of an idea is not so easy to do, especially when you are trying to document the diffusion across class lines. The double meaning in the title Coming Apart was not just that the White working class was coming apart but that the educated and affluent lived in a bubble separated from the working class and poor, having little interaction with them and sharing almost none of their culture.

But if Henderson is correct, somehow those beliefs just trickled out of the affluent bubble and poisoned the minds of the less educated, causing them to do things that undermined their chances for a better life.

Whose Opinion Counts? (It’s Good to be a Professional)

August 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chefs in ambitious restaurants hate the word “fusion,” says Gillian Gualtieri, who interviewed chefs in Michelin-starred US restaurants. “It’s the other f-word.”

As she was saying this in her talk at the ASA meetings last week, I was dimly remembering that in restaurant reviews in the Times and elsewhere,  fusion was a big compliment. It suggested a chef who was creatively blending and balancing different traditions to come up with something new and wonderful.

After her talk, I asked Gillian, “Don’t restaurant critics still use ‘fusion’ as a term of high praise?” Yep.  “But these elite chefs pay more attention what other chefs say than to what Pete Wells says.”  (I’d forgotten that chefs on their night off might well eat at another restaurant. Pete Wells is the restaurant critic for the New York Times.)

Of course, the opinions of other chefs don’t carry much weight outside of chefworld. But a rave review in the Times will book a restaurant solid for months to come; a bad review can leave tables empty.

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At another session, I listened to Rachel Skaggs (Vanderbilt) talk about the dilemma faced by Nashville songwriters. In the old days, songwriters wrote the songs, and  country performers sang them.  But in the last 10-15 years, with decline in the business, songwriters have had to co-operate and collaborate with the singers. And they don’t like it. Maybe that’s one reason Nashville songwriters were so willing to talk to Rachel and give her such great quotes. Or maybe Rachel’s just a great interviewer.

Sometimes songwriters choose the strategy of actually working with the singers — giving the singer what he or she wants. The other strategy is to write the song first and then con the singer into collaborating in the way the songwriter wants — basically convincing the singer that the song was mostly the singer’s idea. It’s what Rachel calls “the manipulation dance.”

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These papers were both in panels on culture, but they were also about work. They reminded me of an observation — probably commonplace in the sociology of work — that I first heard long ago when I took a course with Everett Hughes. One of the things that distinguishes a “profession,” he said, is that the work of its practitioners can be judged only by others in the profession. Or more accurately, theirs are the only judgments that matter and that can have real consequences

Over the last fifty years, maybe more, this aspect “professional” has become diluted as more and more white-collar workers styled themselves professionals. The “yuppies” of the 1970s and beyond were spun out of the acronym for Young Urban Professional. But most of them were not doctors or lawyers. Their work in finance, real estate, fashion, advertising, etc. may have left them with a lot of money to spend, especially if they had no kids, but the important judgments of their work came from people outside the occupation — clients, customers, and critics.

Even lower-level professionals who make far less money — teachers, social workers — answer not to the students or clients who are the recipients of their services but only to others in the profession (though some of these may have become administrators). Of course, student evaluations, outcomes assessment, and Yelp reviews may be changing all this, but still to a great extent being a professional means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s something elite chefs and top songwriters can only dream of.

Good-Bye Mr. Evans

August 16, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I posted a Bill Evans video a year ago on this same date. I know. Repetitious and not at all sociological. It’s what Chris Uggen, back when he blogged, would have filed under “self-indulgery.”

Bill Evans would have been ninety today had he lived, though there was never much hope for that. He shot a lot of heroin. He was only 40 when he died.

“Two Lonely People” is probably his greatest composition. The lyric added later by Carol Hall is much better than most of the lyrics people have tried to tack on to Evans’s compositions. You can hear it on the album Evans recorded with Tony Bennett (here). I prefer the trio version.




I went to the memorial service for Evans in St. Peter’s church a few days after his death in 1980 even though, as I wrote in my journal at the time, “I didn’t like going to people’s grief as entertainment.” Several musicians played. Many others there did not, Marian McPartland being the best known. Had they not asked her? Or had she been asked but declined?

Barry Harris played a beautiful composition. I asked him later what it was called, and he said he still didn’t have a title for it. I still haven’t tracked it down, though surely he must have named and recorded it.

Phil Woods, who did play at the memorial, soon after wrote “Good-bye Mr. Evans,” which has become a jazz standard. But when the song was new and largely unrecorded, I heard Lou Levy play it one night at Bradley’s. (Lou had also been at the memorial service, though he did not play.) He let me borrow his lead sheet to copy down the changes. I still have that scrap of paper in my folder.

High Hopes

August 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

History repeats itself, first as Sinatra, then as Panic! at the Disco.






Surely others must have noted the identical titles. But read the lyrics. The idea too is the same, based on the good old American values of ambition, hard work, and success. It’s the belief that single-minded striving (the 10,000 hours) will lead to success, wealth, and fame.

UPDATE, August 16: A bit of Googling (“Sinatra Panic”) has revealed to me my own ignorance. Turns out Brendon Urie is a Sinatra fan. The Panic! “High Hopes” is not so much a cover as an homage. A cover of the original Cahn-VanHeusen “High Hopes” would have seemed like Urie was making fun of the original. But Urie writes Sinatras, not parodies.

The ASA Meeings — Random Reflections

August 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston
  
The American Sociological Association meetings* ended yesterday. Here are just a few quick and random impressions that have nothing to do with any research anyone presented in any of the sessions.



1. What are we doing here?

I would imagine that if you asked people what they did at the ASA meeting, they’d list the sessions they went to and which good presentations they’d heard. After all, that’s what fills the 200-page program. Well, yes, they did go to those session, but . . .

Long ago when I was an undergrad, one of my professors (Bob Weiss, I think) said that if you ask people at the county fair what they did, they’d list the goat judging, the tractor pull, the barbecue, etc. But if you watch what they actually do, they spend the largest amount of time looking at the other people at the fair.

At the ASA meetings, a lot of what people do is to see and talk with other people — those they see only at these meetings, but also the people in their department who they see all the time anyway.

Or maybe I’m projecting my own idiosyncratic view based on the Soc Annex meet-up Monday night at a bar nearly a mile from the conference. I got a chance to talk with people who I knew only by reputation or from Twitter or podcasts.

2.  It’s the Way That You Do It.

Of the actual sessions I went to, the one I liked best was the one that should have been called “Six smart, funny people talking really fast.” (The actual title was something about getting people in the media and in government — non-sociologists — to use sociological data and ideas, especially your data and ideas.)

3.  Working.

“I’ve been working on . . . .” say the people at the ASA. They are working on minority suburbs, working on gender in selective high schools, working on Asian converts to Christianity, working on measures of economic exclusion, and so on. They don’t say they’ve been studying it, looking at it, or doing research on it. They’re working on it.

It sounds odd to me. Working on something implies that you’re doing something to it, changing it. I remember a time when researchers were supposed to try to minimize their effect on the things they were studying lest they become another causal but unacknowledged variable. So to my ears, “working” sounds strange.

4.  Show-and-tell, yes; reading, no.

I can’t listen to someone read a paper. That inability is a real drawback for an academic, but I may as well admit it. It’s not about the pace or density of the information. I heard panelists who talked rapidly, much faster than in a normal conversation, and I had no trouble following. But if someone reads their paper, I can’t stay tuned in. I want to shout, “Sit down and just send me the pdf.”

A linguist will have to explain my reaction to me. There must be something about audio perception, maybe the different rhythms of speaking and reading. But I suspect that it’s also social. When the person at the lectern is talking, you feel a connection to them — they’re talking to you — even though you’re one of 50 or more people in a room. But reading breaks that relationship. The speaker is now relating to a piece of paper.

When I am king of all conferences, reading will be banned.  Everyone will have to talk their paper. Sociology meets The Moth.

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* Thanks to my poor proofreading, the original version of this post omitted the word meetings. Imagine the sentence minus meetings when you Read Aaron Silverman’s funny and appropriate comment below. 

Open Carry and Unintended Consequences

August 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes laws have unintended consequences. I’m not sure what the intended consequences of Missouri’s open-carry law are, but they surely weren’t this:

A young man wearing body armor and carrying a tactical rifle, a handgun, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition walks into a Wal-Mart in Springfield, MO. This is cause for alarm. So the manager pulls the fire alarm, and shoppers flee the store. So does the gunman. Outside the store, an off-duty firefighter holds the man at gunpoint till the police arrive. 

The right-wing media portrays this as a good guy with a gun (the firefighter) preventing a mass shooting.



That’s one version. But the incident can also be framed as a commentary on gun laws. Missouri is an “open carry” state.  With the help of the NRA, legislators in Missouri (and thirty other states) have passed laws which say that as long as you don’t threaten anyone, you can carry your guns openly.
The young man in the Wal-Mart did not threaten anyone. He made a selfie video while pushing his cart through the aisles. When the alarm was sounded, he left through an emergency exit just like many other shoppers. Looks to me like he did nothing to warrant his arrest by the police. Also, since he never did anything to even indicate he was going to shoot the guns, the idea that the firefighter “stopped an attack” is at best an open question.

If anyone broke the law, it was the firefighter that Fox and the others are lionizing. The firefighter used his gun in a threatening manner, pointing it at a man who was merely exercising his Second Amendment and Missouri open-carry rights.     

The incident points out something that gun-loving legislators usually prefer not to know: guns are dangerous; guns are scary. It wasn’t the man who was scary. He was doing what any other Wal-Mart shopper might have been doing. It was the legal weaponry he was peacefully carrying.

A Springfield police lieutenant said, “His intent obviously was to cause chaos here.” But the officer cannot know what the man’s intent was. Maybe the man’s intent was to show that if people panic when someone exercises their legal rights, it’s the people’s ideas and reactions that need to be changed. After all, in some places, an African American man diving into a traditionally all-White swimming pool might also cause chaos. Maybe a White patron would threaten the man, and the man would be “lucky to be alive,” as the police lieutenant said of the Wal-Mart warrior. (As we know, some African Americans who asserted their Constitutional rights were not so lucky.)

What’s the NRA to do? They love open carry, but they also love “good guy with a gun.” Their website still has nothing to say. Maybe it’s a classic case of cross-pressure keeping them from taking a stand.

UPDATE August 11: The Wal-Mart shopper, Dmitriy Andreychenko, has now said what his intent was, and it was not to cause chaos. “I wanted to know if that Walmart honored the Second Amendment.” As for the NRA, I entered Andreychenko in the search box. His name there is still unkonwn.

Alarm in the Power 5

August 6, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s alarming in big-time college football? You may have thought that it was the high rate of concussions and later-life chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among the scholar-athletes in the Power 5 conferences. Or you may have thought that it was the amount of drinking on campus — high enough as it is but especially elevated on football weekends. (Ten years ago, Sarah Koenig did an episode for This American Life about football and drinking at Penn State. It’s still worth listening to — here).

The trouble is that you don’t get Axios Sports e-mailed to you every day as I do. Here is a screenshot from my inbox this morning showing how Axios Sportsman-in-chief Kendall Baker sees the problem. [The emphasis – those red boxes – are of course my own.]

(Click for a larger and clearer view.)


  • Alarming Problem: Students are losing interest in the college concussion factory.
  • Solution:  Let them get wasted on site. No more need for pre-gaming.

The Fear Curriculum

August 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed.

That’s from Kieran Healy’s blog post  yesterday after two mass shootings in a 24-hour period had left more than thirty people dead. Though neither of these were school shootings, it is schools that have institutionalized the Active Shooter Drill. It has become a ritual.

As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy.

It wasn’t until I saw “Eighth Grade” that I finally realized that the Active Shooter Drill had become a regular part of the school curriculum. And it wasn’t until I read Kieran’s post, that I began to think about it as a ritual.

Rituals reinforce social solidarity. That’s why we have them. Even when a ritual is supposed to have a practical effect — to help the football team win, to make the rains come, to ensure that the deceased goes to heaven — we don’t judge it on whether that ulterior goal was reached. If everyone got caught up in the spirit of the pep rally, it was great regardless of the score the next day. The purpose of baptism is to cleanse the child of original sin, but nobody ever asks, “Does it work?” That’s not the point. The point is to have everyone get involved and to do the ritual correctly.

The Active Shooter Drill has a rational purpose — to save lives — but most schools, thankfully, will never know whether it accomplished that goal. The drill, like any other ritual, is judged on how well it is performed. But in most rituals, doing it correctly is not enough. If the people involved are not sharing a common emotion and a sense solidarity — to one another and to the group or institution as a whole — we dismiss their behavior as “merely going through the motions.” As Kieran (channeling Durkheim) says, in a ritual, the members of a group “enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins.”

But what is the reality that the Shooter Drill demonstrates, and what is the common emotion pulsing in the veins of the participants? The answer seems to be fear —  fear of an unpredictable and fatal attack. School is the place where children are taught to be afraid.

I guess this is nothing new. In the 1950s, duck-and-cover ritruals — crouching under a school desk as protection against a Hiroshima-like atom bomb — carried the message: fear the Russians. Kids were cynical about it all, of course, but underneath the cynicism, bravado, and joking lurked at least some ambivalence. I would guess that something similar is true of those kids in “Eighth Grade” and in real schools.

At the beginning of his post, Kieran alludes briefly to his own schooldays and first communion in Ireland. “My brother tells me that the preparation nowadays is a little more humane than the version we enjoyed.” I couldn’t help thinking of Father Arnall’s sermons in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, brilliantly constructed sermons designed to instill in the boys a deep and everlasting fear.

Maybe things are different now. At least some students, like those from Parkland who started “Enough is Enough,” are demanding that adults with the power to change things liberate then from the fear. That reaction may be spreading. When the Ohio governor spoke at a vigil yesterday following the mass shooting in Dayton, the crowd spontaneously chanted, “Do something.”

One can hope.

Convenient Language

August 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes words change because of the way they sound when linked to other words. A “napron” (from the French naperon) was a protective cloth. It still is, but we call it “an apron.” The same process of “rebracketing” gives us a nickname, from the Old English an eke name (an additional name). More recently, I’ve seen “bake potato” on the diner menu and  “whip butter” at the supermarket — the “d” sound of the past participle dropped or blended into the next word.

Currently, I’m out of the city. Yesterday, I needed something (calamine lotion if you must know) and did not want to drive a half hour to the nearest supermarket and CVS. I was told that the gas station / convenience store in our small town, two minutes away, might have it.

I couldn’t help noticing the sign on the row of parking spaces.


It makes perfect sense. It is, after all, a convenient store. Very convenient since it did have calamine lotion.

Peggy Noonan Hollers “Catastrophe”

July 28, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peggy Noonan (here) says that allowing people to choose their preferred pronouns is like the Reign of Terror. I am not making this up. The Wall Street Journal has tweeted Noonan’s article complete with a 1790s painting of state officials marching a man to the guillotine. And Jonathan Haidt says that it’s campus lefties who “catastrophize.”


Language changes. Most of the time, the change just seems to happen. It spreads gradually. More and more people use the new form. What had been incorrect becomes standard. “I was graduated from college” becomes “I graduate from college” which becomes “I graduated college.” An astronaut today would say, “Houston, we have an issue.” Totally.

But sometimes language changes because of deliberate efforts by interest groups. They hope that the change in language will change the way people think and act. That’s why. anti-defamation groups campaigned to make ethnic slurs — spic, kike, chink, etc. — unacceptable. Feminists, as part of the movement to change gender roles and rules, campaigned for a generic title equivalent to Mr., one that did not emphasize whether or not the woman was married, i.e., whether or not she belonged to a man. Similarly, they sought to change gender-specific words to make them more inclusive. Fireman to firefighter, policeman to police officer, stewardess to flight attendant.

Most people would not see these changes as evidence of a Reign of Terror. Mrs. Noonan apparently disagrees. She is an authoress much admired on the right, and she was not alone over there. Fox, National Review, Daily Wire and others voiced their horror. What triggered them was the discovery of a draft of a document circulated at Colorado State University with suggestions about language. Many of these, to my ancient ears, seem silly, especially those based on etymologies that nobody now is aware of. For example, the guidelines suggest not using “hip, hip, hooray,” because “during the Holocaust, German citizens started using it as a rallying cry when they would hunt down the Jewish citizens who were living in the ghettos.” Who knew? Nor will most people know of the ethnic origins of paddy wagon and peanut gallery.

But I don’t see any harm in not using these or phrases like “hold down the fort” or “cake walk.” Other guidelines are an attempt to avoid giving offense — spaz, basket case — or to avoid terms that the designated group itself rejects — Oriental, Indian. And really, does anyone still say, “Ladies and Gentlemen”?

But the main point is that these are suggestions. Suggestions. They are not a diktat; the CSU administration is not a reign of terror.  Despite what the people on the right are screaming, the guidelines to not take away anyone’s freedom of speech. As the document says at the very beginning.   

The document is intended to serve as guidelines.... What this document is not: This is not an official policy or required practice. This document is intended as a resource to help our campus community reflect our Principles of Community particularly inclusion, respect, and social justice. [emphasis in the original document]

Mrs. Noonan does not know much about the document she’s writing about. It seems she also doesn’t know a whole lot about the French Revolution. See this twitter thread by someone who does.

Jordan, Ryan . . The Boys at the Back of the Bac

July 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The birth mother in the novel I’m reading (The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore) has named her child Mary. The adoptive parents promise to keep the name. But for them, the name Mary will not do. They call the child Emmie. They added Emma to Mary to get Mary-Emma, which became M.E., which became Emmie.

The difference in names reflects the social difference. The birth mother is from a small town in Wisconsin.  A foster parent who cared briefly for the child describes her as “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” The adoptive parents live in the university town (presumably patterned after Madison). The mother runs an expensive French restaurant (“Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments — timbales and quenelles . . .”) Her husband is a scientist. So baby Mary becomes Emmie. The Emmies of the world will have richer childhoods than the Marys. They will do better in school. They will have brighter futures.

The name-class connection is even stronger in France, as I’ve learned from Baptiste Coulmont. Each year, he blogs a graph showing the percentages of students who receive a très bien on the bac, a national test taken by all high school students.* Here are the results for 2019.

(Click for a larger view. The original is on Coulmont’s blog.)


Once again, girls do better than boys, and once again it’s the same girls — Alice and Diane, Louise and Adèle — who score très bien at a rate of roughly 20% or more. And each year, among the boys with Anglo names — Bryan, Ryan, Jordan, Dylan — less than one in twenty rate top honors. William does not do as well as his French counterpart Guillaume.

Here is just the left side of the graph, where the boys with the American names hang out.


The point, as M. Coulmont noted out in a comment when I blogged the 2016 bac, is the “cultural autonomy” of the French working class. In the US and probably elsewhere, fashions in names, like fashions in clothes, filter down through the class system. I remember that the names my upper-middle class, Upper West Side friends were choosing for their kids in the late 80s and early 90s — names like Oliver and Sophia, Noah and Olivia — were unusual at the time but became widely popular twenty years later.

But in France starting in the late twentieth century, the working class looked not upwards in the social system but outside of it, outside of the country entirely. They looked to the US as represented in TV shows and there found Jordan, Ryan, and the others.

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* All this assumes a strong correlation between social class and performance on the bac and other school measures. I’m not familiar with research on this topic in France, but I would guess that the correlation is as strong as it is in the US.

Paul Krassner, 1932-2019

July 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston


To appreciate the brilliance of Paul Krassner’s “Fuck Communism” poster, you have to remember that in 1963
a. Anti-communism was still the number one principle for US conservatives — more than tax cuts, more than “freedom,” more than guns, more than anything.

b. The word fuck was far more taboo than it is today, and especially so among conservatives. In 1963, you still couldn’t say damn or hell on TV and radio. It was darn and heck or just don’t bother.
I don’t know how many copies of the poster The Realist, Krassner’s satirical monthly, sold. The more famous Realist graphic was Wally Wood’s “Dirty Disney” drawing. According to the Times obit, “Later, digitally colored by a former Disney artist, it became a hot-selling poster that supplied Mr. Krassner with modest royalties into old age.”

More widespread fame, though also more fleeting, went to Krassner’s parody of a best-seller about JFK.

The Realist’s most famous article was one Mr. Krassner wrote portraying Lyndon B. Johnson as sexually penetrating a bullet wound in John F. Kennedy’s neck while accompanying the assassinated president’s body back to Washington on Air Force One. The headline of the article was “The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book,” and it claimed — falsely — to be material that had been removed from William Manchester’s book “The Death of a President.”

“People across the country believed — if only for a moment — that an act of presidential necrophilia had taken place,” Mr. Krassner told an interviewer in 1995. “The imagery was so shocking, it broke through the notion that the war in Vietnam was being conducted by sane men.”

I don’t know whether Krassner is right about the effects of his article. But it was impressive that one brief shining moment, so many people, sophisticated media people, believed that it was true or at least plausible. They believed it in part because it did not clash with their image of LBJ. But mostly what made it credible was Krassner’s skill as a parodist. It sounded like William Manchester. Yes, Johnson was Krassner’s target, but Krassner also did a great job of imitating Manchester’s pop-history prose.

(Click for a larger view.)


Black Teachers, White Students

July 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two years ago, in an episode of his podcast “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell took issue with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In that famous decision, the Court ruled that the problem of segregated schools was that they were inherently harmful to Black children. In Gladwell’s view, the real problem of government-mandated segregation was that it denied Black people school choice. But that was also true, in the aftermath of Brown, of government-mandated integration.

The result, says Gladwell, is that desegregation was not good for Black kids. And it certainly wasn’t good for Black teachers, at least not teachers in places like Topeka, Kansas.

Across the entire south, Black teachers just get fired left and right. It wasn’t something done secretly; it was done right out in the open. There was something like 82,000 African-American teachers in the south before the Brown decision. Within a decade, as the decision was slowly implemented across the country, about half had been fired.

Gladwell has fallen out of favor with academic social scientists, who complain that in his desire to tell a good story, he’ll use data from studies that are methodologically shoddy. (See my 2013 post here). But Owen Thompson, an economist at Williams College, heard Gladwell’s podcast and dug into the data. His recent NBER paper backs up Gladwell’s claims about Brown and teachers in the South.

Using newly assembled archival data from 781 southern school districts observed between 1964 and 1972, I estimate that a school district transitioning from fully segregated to fully integrated education, which approximates the experience of the modal southern district in this period, led to a 31.8% reduction in black teacher employment. ( Owen Thompson, “School Desegregation and Black Teacher Employment.”) [The paper is behind the NBER paywall. This is from the abstract..]

The dearth of Black teachers had a devastating effect on Black students, especially the best and the brightest. It’s not that the kids no longer had Black role models or that the White teachers were prejudiced. The problem is that White teachers apparently are just not able to perceive talent in Black kids. Gladwell draws on the research of Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding about who gets into Gifted and Talented programs. In this audio clip from the podcast, Gladwell talks with Grissom.



Here is an edited down transcript of the clip. I’m leaving out the part about all the relevant variables in the equation. The point is that even after you control for all these variables (including, of course, test scores), race differences persist. So it’s not about the kids. It’s the teachers.

Grissom: In the overwhelming majority of school districts in the United States, the way that a kid ever gets to be identified as gifted is if someone in the school, usually a classroom teacher, has to look at that kid and say, “I think this kid might be gifted.” If I am a Black student and I have a Black classroom teacher, the probability that I’m assigned to giftedness in, in the next year looks very much like the probability for a White student. But if I am a Black student and I have a White classroom teacher, my probability of being identified as gifted is substantially lower.

Gladwell: How much lower?

Grissom: Okay, so for very high achieving Black students, the probability of being assigned to gifted services under a White teacher is about half the probability as an observably similar Black student taught by a Black teacher.

Less gifted and talented Black kids also suffered.

Gladwell: Having a Black teacher raises the test scores of Black students, it changes the way Black students behave, and it dramatically decreases the chances a Black male student will be suspended. A group of social scientists recently went over the records of 100,000 Black students in North Carolina over a 5 year period. They found that having even one Black teacher between the third and fifth grade reduced the chance of an African-American boy would later drop out of high school. By how much? By 39%. One Black teacher.

Again, my guess is that here too it’s not about role models. The problem is that people, teachers included, have difficulty “reading” someone of another race. Eyewitnesses make far more mistakes identifying someone of another race than someone of their own race. In the same way, White teachers may be less able to sense the needs of Black students and to know how to respond to them.

The Shipping News — Street Value

July 10, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not every day that you see a headline story about J.P. Morgan ship full of cocaine.



In fact, you probably didn’t see it yesterday. The above headline is from Business Insider . The Wall Street Journal  put story in the “Logistics Report,” basically the shipping news. 


The J.P. Morgan part of the headline is a bit misleading. It’s not the bank; it’s J.P. Morgan Asset Management. The ship belongs to Mediterranean Shipping Co., which apparently got their financing from Morgan. The ship is worth $90 million.

The Gayane was raided on June 17 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who found about 20 tons of cocaine with a street value of $1.3 billion stashed in several containers. The ship had sailed from Freeport in the Bahamas and before that it called in Panama and Peru after starting its voyage in Chile. It was due to sail on to Europe after the U.S. stop.

That $1.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. It’s supposed to. That’s why the police and the press use street value. The actual cost to the drug suppliers is much less. Here’s the math. The 20 tons of coke is about 18,000 kg. So the $1.3 billion works out to $72,000 per kg. Divide that by 1000, and you get $72 per gram. In the US, a gram of coke goes for around $50 in most places, but maybe the $1.3 billion is based on European prices.

The coca leaf that went into that $72,000 kilo cost something more like $720. The cocaine itself cost less than $7000 a kilo at the ports of Peru or Colombia and perhaps only $2-3000 in the jungles. So the cost to replace the seized product is probably between one twentieth and one tenth of the street value. That’s still a lot of money — $65 million or more — but well under the $1.3 billion street value reported by law enforcement. (More on drug costs and prices here.)


There’s one other intriguing aspect to this news story. Most of the time, when a deal goes bad — say when someone does something that loses someone else their $90 million ship that now belongs to the Feds— there’s a lawsuit. But as Matt Levine at Bloomberg (here) points out, the folks whose 10,000 barrels of cocaine got seized aren’t likely to seek their day court.

JPMorgan might lose a $90 million ship, but the drug dealers have definitely lost $1.3 billion of cocaine! If I were the JPMorgan fund manager who owned this ship, I’d watch my back for a while; the Feds may be the least of their worries.

To repeat, the drug dealers lost far less than $1.3 billion. But whatever their losses, what can they do?  I would think that drug lords use violence in a rational way — to set an example so as deter people who might be in a position to harm them. Who would that be? Even if the financing deal were made by an identifiable person or a few people rather than by an asset management firm, why would the drug dealers want to deter other asset managers who might be thinking of making deals with ship companies?

If anybody should be worried, it’s the eight Serbian and Samoan crew members, now in custody, who loaded the cargo and who the drug biggies might suspect of, intentionally or inadvertently, tipping off the Feds.     

João Gilberto, 1931-2019

July 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the summer of 1964, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing “The Girl From Ipanema.” It was the hit single from the album Getz / Gilberto.


The Gilberto named on the album cover is João Gilberto, whose death was announced this week. He was one of the central figures in the creation of bossa nova, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes (music and lyrics, respectively, for “The Girl From Ipanema”), and a few others.
But the Gilberto who this chart-topper made famous was his wife Astrid. DJ s would even refer to her as “The Girl From Ipanema.” João was left in the editing room. On the album, the song runs 5½ minutes. First João sings the original Portuguese lyric, then Astrud the English lyric, followed by Getz for a full chorus, Jobim on piano for half a chorus, with Astrud again singing the final 16 bars.

Radio stations wouldn’t play songs longer than three minutes, so the radio version cut João completely and all but eight bars of Getz’s solo.


Gilberto’s 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade,” another Jobim-Vinicius composition, is one of the defining moments in bossa nova. It’s a wonderful song, or two songs really — a 32-bar section in C minor, followed by a complementary 36-bar section in C major.* (The minor-major change reflects the change in the lyrics from sad to hopeful.) The recording is just Gilberto accompanying himself on guitar. There’s only a bit of what he would do more of later in his career — singing slightly away from the beat, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, so that you’re not sure if he’s ever going to get back in sync with the song.



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* Most sheet music versions, including lead sheets and guitar tabs, are in D.


*

Not That Innocent

June 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is Britney Spears more psychologically sophisticated and self-aware than David Brooks? Brooks begins his column today telling us that everything good in the world in the last three-quarters of a century is a result of America’s selfless, altruistic leadership. He then says

Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.

He doesn’t seem to realize that his opening paragraph, praising the US for its pure motives and virtuous actions, is a prime example of a self-righteous sense of innocence.

As a nation, America clings to its sense of innocence, and often with a self-righteousness that makes non-Americans cringe. Five years ago, I quoted Christopher Hitchens on this very topic.

The one that amuses me the most is the reference that you get about once a year to the American loss of innocence, as if this giant, enormous, powerful, slightly vulgar society ever had any innocence to lose, let alone could regain it and lose it again. I’ve heard the loss of innocence attributed to: the Spanish-American War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of President Kennedy’s brother, the war in Vietnam, the disclosures made at Watergate, through the discovery, which is in Robert Redford’s movie “Quiz Show,” that the quiz shows in the fifties were fixed – that was apparently a great American loss of innocence – and on the front page of the New York Times, when he died, in the obituary of Frank Sinatra, the idea that Frank Sinatra’s songs represented the loss of innocence for America.

This was in 2000, so add Iraq to the list and maybe our bi-monthly mass shootings. As I said in that post, if we keep losing our innocence so often, we never really lose it. We might carelessly misplace it, but we find it again very quickly and forget that we’d ever lost it. We return to an idealized view of ourselves as a nation whose motives are 100% pure. As Randy Newman put it in his song “Political Science,
No one loves us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect,
But Heaven knows we try.

With such a view of ourselves, each revelation of anything that departs from the ideal of innocence is a new shock. One immediate reaction is denial. And when the facts become undeniable (Vietnam, Iraq), we react with something like the disbelief and regret of the morning-after drunk who had blacked out.* “I really did that? Oh, gee, I’m sorry. Killing millions of indigenous people and taking their land? I really did that? Slavery? Atomic bombs? We really did that?” Why not face it: we’re not that innocent.

This belief in our own purity makes us suckers for an aggressive foreign policy. All you have to do is tell us that some country we don’t like did something bad to us. Since we are innocent and virtuous, their behavior must have been “unprovoked.” Therefore retaliation at any level is justified. So by coincidence, today, while Brooks was proclaiming US virtue on the op-ed page, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was claiming that Iran had launched “unprovoked attacks” on ships in the Gulf of Oman.

Paul Pillar at Lobelog (here) provides some context.

“Unprovoked”? The Trump administration reneged completely over a year ago on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Since then the administration has waged economic warfare on Iran, despite Iran continuing for a whole year to observe its obligations under the JCPOA. The administration has piled sanction upon sanction in a relentless effort to cripple Iran’s economy, make life miserable for Iranians, and weaken Iran in every way possible. It has pressured countries around the world not to do any business with Iran. The administration has accompanied this campaign with unlimited hostility, threats of military attack, and saber-rattling that has included escalating military deployments in Iran’s backyard. If this isn’t provoking Iran, then the term provocation has lost all meaning.

Pompeo could have added the act of unprovoked aggression by the Iranians — their decision to locate their country geographically amid dozens of US military bases.



Pompeo will get away with his version just as he will get away with his characterization of Saudi Arabia as “freedom-loving.” He will get away with it because even supposedly well-informed and sophisticated Americans like David Brooks continue to believe in our self-righteousness and innocence.

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* I think Philip Slater may have made this same analogy. If so, maybe his inspiration was the same as mine – Shelly Berman.

Where’s Charlie?

June 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The trend in how we address one another is towards informality. But it also seems that there’s a counter-trend in names — a trend away from informal and diminutive versions of names. 

This occurred to me as I was reading two recent posts — one by Tristan Bridges , the other by Philip Cohen  — that discuss the name Charlie. Charles as a name for boys has been in decline for a long while, but recently, since about 2000, Charlie has been on the rise for both girls and boys.

(These graphs are from Tristan Bridges. Click on an image for a larger view.)

Philip and Tristan are interested in the question of androgyny in name trends and its possible connection to changes in gender in society at large. But what came to my mind was a different question:  What happened to Chuck?  Birth certificates with Charles on the dotted line may have been more numerous in decades long past, but many of those boys went by Chuck or Charlie or Charley, even as they grew to adulthood. Today, Charles is Charles, at least that’s my impression.

Unfortunately, our main source of data on names, the Social Security website, is of no use here. It logs only the official name. So for names in use I turned to a different source — the NFL. The NFL.com database uses the names that players were known by regardless of what might have been on their birth certificates. So while the Social Security Agency might have recorded the 1950s Giants quarterback as Charles Conerly, on the field and the sports pages, he was Charlie. If you remember him, you probably also remember Chuck — not Charles — Bednarik, who played center and linebacker for the Eagles.* In fact, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when a total of 89 Chucks, Charlies, and Charleys entered the NFL, there was only one Charles, a guy named Smith, who lasted only one season.

That was then.



In the current century, the preferred version by far is Charles, which outnumbers the others combined by a ratio of four to one.

A similar way, the Mike is giving way to the more formal Michael.


I suspect that this pattern holds for other names that have maintained their popularity. Thomas instead of Tom or Tommy; James, not Jim or Jimmy; Richard rather than Rich, Rick, Ricky, Richie, or Dick.

There is one perennial name where the Social Security database turns out to be useful — William. Since at least 1900, it has never ranked lower than 20, and for most of that time, it has been in the top ten. But in early 20th century, the less formal Willie was also in the top 20.



Willie Mays (b. 1931) and Willie Nelson (b. 1933) both born before the great Willie decline that started in the 1940s while William remained popular. But I would guess that up until the last quarter-century or so, many of those Williams were known as Bill or Will or even Willie. 

Without a better source of data, all this is speculative. But as long as I’m speculating, here’s one more guess. The trend away from nicknames and towards formal names is especially pronounced among African Americans. For Whites, a diminutive like Jimmy might not raise questions of dignity. It’s a boys name, but that’s no threat to manhood among men who refer to themselves as good ol’ boys. But for Blacks, the name Jimmy, like the word boy itself, reverberates with other overtones.

The difference in name preference might also explain the NFL data. In 1959, when both Charley Conerly and Chuck Bednarik were still playing, the Black proportion of the NFL was only 12%. Today. It’s closer to 70%.

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 * Bednarik played both offense and defense. He was probably the NFL’s last “60-minute man.”

Miles Davis, b. May 26, 1926

May 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In May of 1964, I was staying at a small hotel in Akasaka, Tokyo’s entertainment district. The other guests were mostly secondary acts at the local night clubs — a husband-wife dance team from Australia, three young African American who were the back-up trio for a singer named Damita Jo (Ms. Jo herself was staying at the Hilton), an Indian who did hand-shadow pictures, some acrobats who spoke a language nobody understood.

There was small bar off the front lounge. One night I came in to find the three Americans sitting at a table listening to a reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder they had lugged from the States. Electricity in Japan was 50-cycle, not the 60-cycle American machines were built for, so the music was slower in tempo and lower in pitch, but I recognized it instantly. “On Green Dolphin Street,” the first track on Side B of the Miles Davis album Jazz Track.* Sixty-one years later. It’s still a great recording.



We listened silently — Bill Evans playing the first chorus unaccompanied, Miles soloing not far from the melody, followed by Coltrane’s incredible “sheets of sound” solo, impressive even with the 17% reduction in pitch and pace. We, the four of us at the table, nodded in approval. Then guy sitting across from me, the piano player, looked up and said. “Now Cannonball comes in and spoils the whole thing.”

I was stunned. Cannonball regularly won Downbeat polls, both critics and readers. Yet here was this unknown piano player contradicting received opinion and doing so with complete confidence. I said nothing. But in later years, I came to understand.

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* Miles had done the soundtrack for a Louis Malle film “Ascenseur pour l'échafaud,” Those cuts were the A side, and the idea of a movie soundtrack consisting of nothing but Miles improvising with four Paris-based jazzmen was the supposed selling point, hence the album title “Jazz Track.” There wasn’t enough music for a full LP, so Columbia added three tracks by Miles’s working sextet. The music from the Paris session was quickly forgotten. The three tunes recorded became legendary and later appeared on other albums.