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 was that government-mandated segregation 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 those 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 data 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 role models or that the 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.

* 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 be 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 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.

* 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 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%.

 * 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.

* 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.

Transference — Structures and Crushes

May 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If sex between professors and students weren’t a problem, we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But it is, and we are.

(Click for a larger, more legible view.)

The Inside Higher Ed article and discussion (here) circle around terms like “harassment,” “supervisory relationship,” “power differential,” “adult,” “infantilizing,” and “consensual.”

The word that first came to my mind was “transference.”

Yes, I know that Freud has been shooed out of the conversation these days. But the lesson from psychoanalytic practice is still valid. Patients often transfer feelings about others in their lives onto the therapist — simply put, crushing on your shrink. Or more accurately, falling in love with who or what you imagine your shrink to be.

The therapist can use the transference to help the patient gain insight. It would also be easy for him to use it to get laid. But even though the patient in that situation might technically be a consenting adult, it is considered highly unethical for a therapist to have sex with a patient. In most states it’s also illegal.

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Social Relations 120 (Analysis of Interpersonal Behavior) was not structured like a regular Harvard course. The instructor gave no instruction. Instead, on the first day, after distributing the syllabus and laying down a few ground rules, he would fall silent, leaving the twenty-five students sitting around the oval table to generate the interpersonal behavior that would become the data for analysis. Occasionally, the instructor would offer a comment. “I wonder if what we’re really talking about is . . . .”

It sounds like a therapy group, but the content was different. The instructor did not encourage students to reveal intimate facts or to work on personal problems. When the discussion seemed to be going in that direction, the instructor would try to steer it back towards what was going on in the room – the interactions among the members of the group.

But structurally, the course was very much like a therapy group, especially the role of the instructor — non-directive, mostly listening, analytic rather than engaged.

All this was a long time ago. The Social Relations department itself was dissolved in the 1970s. But the Inside Higher Ed headline reminded me of something one of the instructors in the course told me. He would never try to date a student, he said.  But then he quoted a colleague who also taught the course and who did have affairs with undergraduates. “You can’t do it when they’re in your group, But then the next semester, you can have them sign up for an Independent Study, and  . . . .”

The Inside Higher Ed “fair game” headline a half-century later could have been about him — the predatory professor, ethics determined only by the academic calendar.

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Crushes are essentially transference, based more on who we imagine someone to be than on the reality of that person, and yes, they can happen anywhere. But certain structures for how people interact are more crushogenic than others. A Dynamics class like SocRel 120 is not a course of psychotherapeutic treatment, and the instructor is not a therapist. American History 101 is not SocRel 120, and the history prof is not a group leader/facilitator.  But all these courses leave the door open for transference. The differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. 

Umpires and Allegories

May 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Michael Stewart’s podcast “Against the Rules” is about “what’s happened to fairness — in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more” (according to the Website blurb). What happens to legitimacy, to faith in the rule of law, if everyone is screaming, “Ref, you suck,” (the title of the first episode)?

Lewis talked about this question at the 92nd Street Y with fellow journalist and podcasater Malcolm Gladwell.  Lewis says that one inspiration for the series was what happened after a close play at home in a softball game played by nine-year old girls. It happened ten years earlier. But it can easily be an allegory for tactics and a tactician of the present moment.

 (If Blogger has deleted this audio clip, you can go here and listen. It's about 2:20.)

The story continues (to hear the rest of it, get the entire episode and push the slider to about 12:40), but the excerpt here is sufficient. It shows a winning-obsessed and angry man using his position of power to bully an impartial judge. I chose to end the clip at the point where the angry bully says, “You’re fired.” (We’re not long on subtlety here at the Socioblog. For a recent “Ref, you suck” moment from the leader of the free world, see this post from two weeks ago.)

Lewis has another anecdote turned allegory about another man on the far right becoming enraged at impartial judges who threaten his privilege. This time, it’s Curt Schilling.

 Lewis is worried about what happens when influential people (the stars of sports, media, and politics) encourage people to dismiss the refs as partisan agents helping out their own side. In sports, says Lewis, as the calls have gotten more accurate, fans and players have become even more outraged at the refs. I’m not sure he’s right, and even if he is right today, attitudes and behavior may soon change. It’s hard to imagine John McEnroe yelling “You cannot be serious!” and other verbal abuse at the Hawk-Eye replay system.*

But that’s sports. Chief Justice Roberts famously said that what he does as a judge is to “call balls and strikes.” But the courts have no pitch-track machine, no Hawk-Eye, no hi-def, slo-mo replay. So Lewis is right to worry that if the independence and authority of courts and other referees dwindles, the biggest bullies will be the winners even more than they already are.

* In this anecdote about Schilling v. Pitch-Track, Lewis says parenthetically, “Why they even keep the umpires there is another question, ’cause the machine could just do it.”

Today (May 23), Kendall Baker of Axios sports brings this news:

An electronic radar system called TrackMan will soon be calling balls and strikes in the Atlantic League, an independent East Coast league that has emerged as MLB's testing ground for new rules and equipment initiatives. 

In a simple test to make sure that TrackMan data could be successfully transmitted and understood, home plate umpires were fitted with earpieces that relayed calls to them one-tenth of a second after the ball crossed the plate.

What Do Women Want?

May 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wilcox thinks he knows what makes a woman happy in her marriage — a helpful husband. He also thinks that progressives are wrong to assume that conservative ideology —  religious and political — tells men not to be helpful. His New York Times op-ed  on Sunday has the defensive title, “Religious Dads Can Put Kids to Bed, Too.” As Wilcox puts it, “Both feminism and faith give family men a clear code: They are supposed to play a big role in their kids’ lives.”

Wilcox likes religion, especially Christianity, and he likes conservatism, so he is happy to report that in his survey of wives, religious conservatives are the most likely to say that the quality of their marriage is “above average.” Score one for conservatives, or as Wilcox calls them “traditional.”

(Click for a larger view.)

But among the non-religious, women in marriages with traditional gender roles are much less likely to be happy, and by a lot (33% vs. 55% for secular women). How to explain these unhappy conservative women?  Wilcox has a hunch. It’s the men they married.

We also suspect that these groups are less likely to have husbands who have made the transition to the “new father” ideal that’s gained currency in modern America — and they’re not happy with their partner’s disengagement.

Yet even though traditional husbands have become more evolved as fathers, there’s one area where they may differ from progressive dads — housework. The progressive egalitarian man doesn’t just take care of the kids; he also does housework, an activity Wilcox does not mention at all. I downloaded the pdf of his report (linked to in the online version of the NYT piece) and searched for “housework,” “cleaning,” and “cooking.” Nothing.

The conservative/religious dad may be involved with the kids, but the marriage is hardly egalitarian. Wilcox’s epitome of the traditional wife is Anna, a stay-at-home mom he interviewed for a book on marriage.

I feel so blessed to have Greg as a husband. His involvement as a father and leadership in the family only adds to my level of happiness.”

Father, breadwinner, leader. From his niche in TV history, Ward Cleaver smiles approvingly.

As for those women married to traditional but non-religious husbands, they may be less happy for another reason, says Wilcox. They don’t have a church.

We suspect that part of their relative unhappiness, compared with religiously conservative women, is that they don’t enjoy the social, emotional and practical support for family life provided by a church, mosque or synagogue.

Note that even Wilcox won’t say that the benefits of religion have anything to do with belief, faith, prayer or anything else explicitly religious. What nonreligious “traditional” wives aren’t getting is “support for family life.”

I confess that I don’t know much about what churches, mosques, and synagogues provide in the way of support for family life.  Wilcox doesn’t mention anything specific. His phrase “we suspect,” here and in the previous quote, is another way of saying, “We have no evidence for this but we hope it’s true.” So I’ll offer my own guess.

I suspect that for the woman in the traditional gender-role-segregated marriage, church makes a difference because it offers her escape from the home.  Her family roles — wife, mother, housekeeper — are solo numbers, performed in isolation and with little moment-to-moment confirmation from others that she is performing these roles and performing them well.  But at church she finds others who will give that confirmation — the “social, emotional support for family life” Wilcox may be referring to.  But church also offers her other roles — friend or member of some church subgroup or committee — that take her outside of the house. “Traditional” women who do not belong to a church get miss out on the support for their housewifely roles; nor are they valued in non-housewife roles. That lack of validation is a likely source of unhappiness.

Since the 1950s, sociologists have worried about women in traditional marriages, isolated their homes all day, while their breadwinner/leader husbands are in constant interaction with a variety of other people in the world of work. Betty Draper in the first season of Mad Men is an extreme if fictional example. I’m sure she has her counterparts in far less wealthy households. I just can’t think of an example right now. What church provides is not so much support for those isolated roles but friendship, even community.

At least, that’s what I suspect.

Ethnic Slaughter, Gang Rape, and Jil Sander Pants $1,120

May 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What is the right word for this?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s a page from the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine, which the Times calls “T,” (for Travel, I think.)  This issue is “Everything Old Is New Again: Adventures in Ancient Lands.” It has articles on the Draa Valley in Morocco, the Greek island of Ithaca. The fashion section is embedded in an article about Myanmar.  The text that appears on the page under the photo:

effectively pushing out about 300,000 citizens. Streets and cities were renamed. A law was established in 1982 that rendered many ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims — an ancient tribe descended from Arab traders, sailors and migrants who had lived in the Rakhine province of the country for generations before the British arrived — as ineligible for full citizenship. Just as the Burmese had been made British subjects by fiat, so, too, were the Rohingya Muslims rendered not Burmese by decree.

In August 2017, Myanmar initiated a round of ethnic slaughter, mass gang rape and the burning and razing of hundreds of villages. Despite the installation of a nominally democratic government headed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the previous year, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were driven from their homes by Myanmar’s military forces and Buddhist mobs. This latest conflict began when security posts and an army base were attacked by Rohingya insurgents, killing 12 officers. It was apparently reason enough for the military to initiate a massive genocidal campaign. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the country’s de facto leader but does not control the military, has been criticized for her inaction during the crisis and for her refusal to call it ethnic cleansing. That is Myanmar’s truth, and everyone from the military to government officials has doggedly stuck

Here is a better view of the photo and the caption that on the page appears in the middle of the text.

When The New Yorker in 1963 published Dwight MacDonald’s four-part series “Our Invisible Poor,” based on Michael Harrington’s The Other America, critics were quick to note that MacDonald’s words about dire poverty amid affluence shared the magazine’s pages with advertisements for expensive perfumes, watches, and other baubles for well-heeled consumers. I’m sure that others have called out this same irony in many other places in the decades since. So yes, this blog post is something of a cliche of culture critiques, but I found the juxtaposition just too striking to ignore.

It’s the sort of thing that might be tagged with keywords like neocolonialism or cultural appropriation or exploitation. But is there a word that embodies not only the idea that the commerce of wealthy nations is exploiting poor nations but also that wealthy consumers fail to see that exploitation, even when the contradictions stare back at them in black and white print and color photos on the pages of T?

Stay In Your Lane

May 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Cillizza at CNN pretends to be baffled by Donald Trump’s tweet about the Kentucky Derby. In case you missed it, the horse that crossed the finish line first, Maximum Security, drifted out at the quarter pole, bumping into one horse and impeding another.

Here is the crucial ten seconds showing Maximum Security (in the lead, pink silks) moving out and then back in.

The jockeys of the two horses to his right claimed a foul, and the stewards upheld the claim. They disqualified Maximum Security* and awarded first place to Country House.**

Our Handicapper-in-Chief objected.

(The original tweet had the first mention of the race as “the Kentuky Derby.”)

“Donald Trump’s ‘Kentuky Derby’ tweet makes literally no sense,” says the Cillizza headline. It’s referring to the part about political correctness affecting the stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security.

The PC-DQ connection makes perfect sense to Trump, also to his followers, and to me. Political correctness is all about rules, specifically rules that aim to protect the less powerful against those with more power. These rules limit what the powerful can do and say. Trump likes “rough and tumble.” He decries rules that limit how rough cops can be with people they arrest. He’s upset that police have to be “too nice.” He scoffs at NFL enforcement of rules that protect players. “Too soft.” I could imagine that in an earlier era, he would have had a similar macho reaction against batting helmets or rules against beanballs and spitballs.

It’s not that Trump is against rules and their enforcement. If he owned (or had bet on) the horse that Maximum Security impeded, he would have been screaming for a DQ. But Trump treats rules not as abstract principles to be applied in a universalistic way. For him, rules are just another tool. If they help, use them. If they hinder, break them and denigrate those whose job it is to enforce them —  the courts, the FBI, even Bob Mueller, the straightest of arrows. Trump accuses them all of using their position in a personalized, biased, and self-serving way —  that is, of sharing his own transactional attitude towards rules.

Have Trump’s attacks on these institutions undermined the public’s confidence? The General Social Survey shows no obvious trend in that direction.

Nevertheless, journalist Michael Lewis, in his new podcast series, sees the Trumpian view of rules and their enforcement as a more general trend in the US. His podcast “Against the Rules” argues story by story that Americans have become less willing to stay in their lane and accept the authority of traditional rule enforcers. The initial episode, which Lewis reports mostly from the NBA,  is called, “Ref, You Suck,” a more succinct version of what our president said about the stewards at Churchill Downs.

 * Trump has consistently argued that the US is in grave danger from outsiders — Muslims, Central Americans, immigrants generally — and that we must increase our spending hugely to defend against these dangers. Still, I’m sure that it’s purely coincidence that the horse he thinks should have gotten the roses is named Maximum Security.

** Sondheim lovers should have been backing Country House, which is also the title of a song cut from the original version of Follies, put back in for some later versions. It’s a husband-wife dialogue about the kinds of problems that don’t usually make an appearance in Broadway songs. (A good version — Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins — is here.) The horse paid $156 for a $2 win ticket. My mother, whose handicapping system gave much weight to names, would have had her money on the winner. Of course, since “Country House” is a show tune, she probably would have be it to show. 

More Woke in the Era of Trump

April 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Negro Family — a Case for National Action.” That was the official title of the 1965 Labor Department document that came to be called the Moynihan report after its chief author and researcher Pat Moynihan. It became the center of a tangle of conflict both in social science and in politics. The more liberal strand in the tangle emphasized the role of “structural” factors — things that the poor can do little about: the kinds of schools available, the job market (the number and kinds of jobs available and the wages they pay), and of course racial discrimination.

The conservative strand in the tangle found the causes of poverty in personal failings — e.g., laziness — or in a culture that encourages behavior that leads to poverty or at least discourages behavior that would lead people out of poverty. If only poor people lived by middle-class values and norms; that is, if they waited until they were married to have children, remained with their spouses and provided good role models for those kids, then all would be well.

That was then. It’s also now.

Just last week, Pew published a report (here) about race in the US. Among many other things, it asked respondents about the “major” reasons that Black people “have a harder time getting ahead.” As expected, Whites were more likely to point to cultural/personal factors, Blacks to structural ones. But compared with a similar survey Pew did just three years ago, it looks like everyone is becoming more woke.

Here are the Pew results for the structural factors.

(Click on an image to for a larger view.)

For “racial discrimination,” Black-White difference remains large. But in both groups, the percentage citing it as a major cause increases – by 14 points among Blacks, by nearly 20 points among Whites. The percent identifying access to good schools as an important factor has not changed so much, increasing slightly among both Blacks and Whites.

More curious are the responses about jobs. In 2013, far more Whites than Blacks said that the lack of jobs was a major factor. In the intervening three years, jobs as a reason for not getting ahead became more salient among Blacks, less so among Whites.

At the same time, “culture of poverty” explanations became less popular.

Blacks especially were likely to discard family instability and lack of role models as important factors. And the laziness explanation gets little support – about 22% — from either Blacks or Whites.

The General Social Survey, which has asked similar questions going back to the 1980s, shows a similar convergence in the ideas of Blacks and Whites.

The GSS question asks if “lack of motivation and will power” is a cause of Blacks having “worse jobs, income, and housing.” The Black-White convergence comes earlier than in the Pew surveys, around 2002, and in some years the percent of Blacks agreeing exceeds the percent of whites. Also, the percentages are much higher than in the Pew survey. Instead of 22% for both races, here 36% of Whites and 41% of Blacks point to this personal flaw. Maybe it’s easier to agree that race differences are caused by “lack of motivation and will power” than to say that Black people are lazy.

With external factors — discrimination and not having “the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty” — Blacks are still much more likely to say that yes, these are causes. But even the 25-point Black-White gap on racial discrimination is smaller than in the 1980s and 90s.

If both Whites and Blacks are paying more attention to racial discrimination and less to personal-cultural factors, if everyone is more woke, how does this square with the widely held perception that in the era of Trump, racism is on the rise? (In the Pew survey, 56% over all and 49% of Whites said Trump has made race relations worse. In no group, even self-identified conservatives, does anything coming even close to a majority say that Trump has made race relations better.)

The data here points to a more complex view of recent history. The nastiest of the racists may have felt freer to express themselves in word and deed. And when they do, they make the news. Hence the widespread perception that race relations have deteriorated. But surveys can tell us what we don’t see on the news and Twitter. And in this case what they tell us is that  the overall trend among Whites has been towards more liberal views on the causes of race differences in who gets ahead.

Van Doren

April 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the fall of 1961, I took a semester of freshman lit. The instructor was a young man named John Van Doren. He would pace slowly back and forth at the front of the narrow classroom, often pausing mid-sentence and looking up at the wall, apparently searching for just the right word or idea. He held his white handkerchief to his mouth, as though his intense concentration might be causing him to drool slightly. Then he would turn back to the class and continue speaking.

There was something familiar about him, but what? After a few weeks, I finally realized what it was: Charles in the isolation booth.

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.” [from the obit in today’s Times.

I had watched the show, though not often. I don’t know what relation my teacher was to the Columbia professor who four years earlier had drawn millions of Americans to their televisions each week to watch “Twenty-One.” A cousin perhaps.* Certainly there was a family resemblance.

I remember almost nothing of Henry IV, part i or As I Lay Dying and whatever else was on the syllabus. What I remember is Van Doren’s performance and its similarity to that of his famous relative, right down to the handkerchief held to his mouth, as in the right-hand frame above.

* UPDATE, April 12.  John was the younger brother of Charles. (Thanks to Anonymous for providing the link. In 1961, such information was not a click away.) John died in January of this year.

You’re Cheatin’ President

April 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How you do one thing is how you do everything,” says Rick Reilly, author of Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

Reilly may be right about Trump and golf. But that “How you do one thing” aphorism is wrong, even about Trump.

Reilly was on the podcast “Right, Left, Center,” interviewed by the show’s podcaster-in-chief Josh Barro. 

Here’s a redacted transcript.

Rick Reilly: He kicks the ball so much the caddies call him Pele. He kicks the ball, he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes. But he kicks other people’s balls into the bunker so that he wins.

Josh Barro: . . . in his presidency he was surrounded by people all the time who know he’s cheating.

Rick Reilly: . . . His caddies all get paid to cheat for him, and so they’re kind of his Cohens. They’re always out there doing the dirty work, and then he can say he never touched the ball. Well, OK, you pay your caddies to do it. I snuck into the Bedminster caddyshack, and they all said, “Well Trump doesn’t cheat. We cheat for him.”

How you do one thing is how you do everything, and golf gives you a chance to look at that.

I like the image of Trump kicking his ball out of the sand trap, and kicking the ball of his opponent in. (After a shot, Trump has his “supercharged” golf cart speed up the fairway so that he gets to the balls while his opponents are still far away.)

But why kick? He could place the ball more accurately if he picked it up and tossed it. At first, I thought that it was one of those cognitive gimmicks that we use to give ourselves “plausible deniability.” Picking up the ball seems so deliberate, so unmistakably intentional. Kicking it could be accidental. Then it occurred to me that for Trump, bending over to pick up something off the ground might be too much of an effort.

Deniability is certainly the motive for paying caddies to do the actual rule-breaking. (In the interview, Reilly says, “he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes.” I assume that the they in that sentence are Trump’s caddies.) The caddy, for Trump, serves basically the same function that the shabbos goy does for orthodox Jews, the chief difference being that Trump doesn’t brag about the arrangement. (An earlier post on the this topic is here.)

Reilly’s final statement — “How you do one thing is how you do everything” — sounds awfully good. It’s a very tempting and persuasive idea, one that we often use in judging “character.”  At the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, women defending him insisted that the honorable and respectful way he acted as a boss, co-worker, or friend must also be the way he acted as a drunken teenager at parties. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) A lawyer who had known Kavanaugh professionally for 20 years, said that the man he saw in the hearings “seemed like a different person altogether.” (More here.)

Trump too can change his “presentation of self,” especially when he’s trying to get something — money from potential donors, for example. Or sex. Remember the “60 Minutes” interview with Stormy Daniels?

Anderson Cooper: How was the conversation? 

Stephanie Clifford: Ummm (laugh) it started off— all about him just talking about himself. And he's like “Have you seen my new magazine? 

Anderson Cooper: He was showing you his own picture on the cover of a magazine. 

Stephanie Clifford: Right, right. And so I was like, “Does this — does this normally work for you?” And he looked very taken— taken back, like, he didn't really understand what I was saying. Like, I was, “Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?” 

 [she describes threatening to spank him playfully with the rolled-up magazine] 

Stephanie Clifford: So he turned around and pulled his pants down a little — you know had underwear on and stuff and I just gave him a couple swats. 

Anderson Cooper: This was done in a joking manner. 

Stephanie Clifford: Yes. and — from that moment on, he was a completely different person. 

 Anderson Cooper: How so? Stephanie Clifford: He quit talking about himself and he asked me things and I asked him things and it just became like more appropriate. [emphasis added]

There’s no doubt that Trump does a lot of cheating, also a lot of lying. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the map of Trump support looks a lot like the map of country music. But in different circumstances, as Stormy Daniels says, Trump can become a different person — just  like Brett Kavanaugh, just like all of us.

That Word Again — More Taboo, Less Taboo

April 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The latest issue of the Hasbrouck Heights High School journal, The Pilot’s Log, reports on their student survey.
  • 98% of students polled hear or see the word used on a daily basis
  • 85% of those students say the word was used in a non-derogatory manner
  • 70% of students polled admit to using the word in a friendly manner
The word, of course, is nigger, or in the Pilot’s Log version “the N-word.”

OK, this survey isn’t the GSS. The editors make no claims for their sample (n = 160) as representative even of their school. As for Hasbrouck Heights, it’s an upper middle class suburb eight miles from New York City, median family income greater than $80,000. The high school students are mostly White, with some Hispanics, and fewer Asians. Less that 4% are Black.

Still, the results, whatever they’re worth, suggest contrary motion. At the same time that nigger is becoming less acceptable and more deplorable, it is also changing its meaning and becoming more widely used and accepted in places where it was once largely unspoken.

In the world controlled by grown-ups, the word is basically taboo — powerful and dangerous. It must be treated with special circumspection. Steven Pinker told the Pilot’s Log that their survey results surprised him.

In the public sphere . . . the word is more taboo than ever. . . Writers have been excoriated for simply mentioning the word as a word, commenting on how it is used . . . I notice that not even you spell out the word . . . but use the euphemism”’N-word” — that is an indicator of how taboo it is.

Note the important caveat Pinker starts with: “In the public sphere . . . .” He’s talking only about the world ruled by grown-ups, the world where even when Whites are not in control they are still within earshot. In private, of course, things are different. African Americans speaking among themselves do not accord nigger a sacred/taboo quality; maybe they never did. And now, among White kids as well, the word is apparently losing its strong overtones of denigration and hostility.

I would guess that the main cause of this change in usage among young Whites is hip-hop. The historical arc of rap resembles that of earlier Black music like the blues and R&B. Those too began as Black musicians speaking to Black audiences. Eventually, White folks listened in, especially White folks who wanted to be hip or cool. That’s true of rap as well, But rap, with its wordy and uncensored narratives, gives White listeners (and maybe Black listeners) the impression that this is how Black people really talk among themselves, or when they just don’t care what White people think.

As in the past, White people, especially young White people are adopting the  sounds and rhythms and moves of Black culture. Also its language. Not just new coinages (bro, 24/7). But some words that have been around for a long time are losing their White meaning and coming to be used the way they are used among Blacks. I’m not a linguist, but my guess is that dude and bitch fall into this category. Sixty years ago, a dude was a “city slicker” — a too-nicely dressed urban dandy, the guy who showed up at a “dude ranch.” Only among Blacks was it a generic term for men.*

Now, it seems that White kids are using nigger not with its White meaning — a nasty racist epithet — but with something more like its Black meaning. I noticed this five years ago seeing a bunch of middle-class White and Hispanic girls at a Sweet Sixteen party in the Bronx.

I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. (The full blog post is here.)

I expect there may be some conflict during this evolution, some people insisting that it’s wrong to for certain people to use the word this way.**  But from being on the losing side of language battles too often, I expect that political arguments about what’s right will be just as ineffective as my shouting, “It’s ‘for you and me,’ not ‘for you and I,’” at the people on television.

* In the early 1960s, a Black co-worker — we were shampooing rugs on site, and the boss, for purposes of future sales, wanted information on the homes we went to. My co-worker, filling out the form later, asked me, “How many rooms did that dude have in his crib?”

**See the famous 1975 SNL sketch (here) with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, where a job interview morphs into a tense battle of racial epithets.

Is Jeanine Pirro Taking Orders From the Pope?

March 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jeanine Pirro’s comment about Ilhan Omar (D - MN) is a perfect example of the variation on Betteridge’s Law I offered a while ago (here).
Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  •     The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  •     The more accurate answer is “No.”
In this case, the question in question is not a headline but part of her commentary about Rep. Omar.

Think about it: Omar wears a hijab. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?

It’s a cheap rhetorical trick. It lets you promote an idea without having any evidence. And if challenged, you can claim that you were not making an accusation, but merely asking a question.

This time it didn’t work. Even Fox News suspended Pirro, saying that they “strongly condemn” her comments, and that the comments "do not reflect those of the network.”

My other reaction to this incident is: how soon we forget.

Pirro is a practicing Catholic. She was nine years old when John F. Kennedy ran for president. At the time, some Protestants argued that if Kennedy were elected he would be “taking orders from the Pope.” It’s the same charge that Protestant ministers made in 1928 against the country’s first Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith. Catholics, so the argument went, cannot be true to their religion and still uphold the Constitution. They are under the control of nefarious non-American religious sources.

 And now a Catholic commentator is making the same accusation against a Muslim that was made, in her lifetime, against her own co-religionists .

Danny Boy — Bill Evans

March 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time, I dismissed “Danny Boy” as a treacly song that was usually crushed under the weight of too much sentiment, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, especially by tenors. Yet never did I breathe its pure serene till I heard Bill Evans’s eleven-minute exploration of it.

The story I’ve heard (but haven’t fact-checked) is that after his bassist, the incredibly talented Scott LeFaro, died in an automobile accident in July 1961, Evans went into mourning, or at least stayed out of the studio. In April, 1962, Evans went into the studio alone, sat down at the piano, recorded four tunes, and walked out.

For the first few choruses, he stays very close to the melody, first in B-flat, then B-natural (!), then F. Only in the fifth chorus, back in B-flat, does he improvise single-note lines.

For more on Evans, see the documentary “Time Remembered” (available at Amazon Prime), which is also the title of the album on which this take was eventually released. If you watch it, or maybe if you just listen to this track, you will understand why I keep a picture of him on my piano.

Scientific Management and Child Rearing

March 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Listen to the opening minutes of the 2006 episode of This American Life that was rerun this past weekend. (If you don’t want to listen, a transcript is here. The clip ends with Ira saying, “and this is the way it was for decades.”)

The John Watson mentioned in this excerpt — the psychologist who thought that kissing your child more than once a year was “overkissing” — wasn’t just president of the American Psychological Association, he was the founder of behaviorism, which dominated academic psychology in the US for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism focused on behavior. Thoughts, emotions, desires, personal attachment — these internal states were invisible, and behavioral psychology brushed them aside as unimportant or irrelevant.

Behaviorism in psychology was a close cousin of Taylorism in business. Both had little use for these human feelings. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” reduced work to a carefully controlled series of steps for workers to carry out with machine-like consistency. It was an inconvenient fact for Taylorism that the workers were people, not machines. They would just have to suppress those human qualities, at least on the job.

Behaviorists usually did their experiments on animals. The lives of these lab animals, as far as the experimenters were concerned, consisted entirely of learning — learning to get food, learning  to avoid electric shocks. These subjects could not convincingly protest to the psychologists that their thoughts and emotions were being ignored.

It’s only a short step from the psych lab to the nursery, white rats to children and the idea that raising kids was, or should be, a matter of conditioning. In both settings, but especially with children, the person in charge was imposing order and control on what in nature tended to be messy. And in bringing order to this messiness, scientific rationality was better than relying unthinkingly on what seemed natural. Scheduled feeding was better than on-demand feeding, and scientifically produced formula was better than breast milk. Half a million years of evolution may be telling you to respond to your child physically and emotionally, but John Watson says, “Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap.”

As I listened to the podcast, glad that the days of behaviorist conditioning had been left behind, I suddenly remembered “Ferberizing.” In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber published Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Its centerpiece was a technique that would condition your child to sleep through the night. When the child cries, do you wake up and give comfort? Bad strategy. Instead, well here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the Ferber approach:

1. At bedtime, leave the child in bed and leave the room. 

2. Return at progressively increasing intervals to comfort the baby (without picking him or her up). For example, on the first night, some scenarios call for returning first after three minutes, then after five minutes, and thereafter each ten minutes, until the baby is asleep. 

3. Each subsequent night, return at intervals longer than the night before. For example, the second night may call for returning first after five minutes, then after ten minutes, and thereafter each twelve minutes, until the baby is asleep.

It’s pure behaviorism. Instead of rewarding the undesirable behavior, the parents “extinguish” (as behaviorists say) the crying response.

You don’t ignore the child completely. It’s OK, even good, to stand in the doorway so that the poor kid doesn’t think you’ve abandoned them. But do not go into the room and comfort the child. Let them “cry it out.”

It works, said my fellow parents. The nights of crying it out had been followed by uninterrupted slumber for all. So my wife and I decided to try it. I cannot remember how old our son was at the time, nor do I remember the hour when he awoke crying, maybe around eleven p.m. We went to the door of his room. I checked my watch and mentally started counting down the three minutes. Our son, seeing us through the bars of his crib, cried even harder. And why not? The parents who he knew as reliable sources of comfort were now choosing to let him suffer.

After thirty seconds or so, I knew there was no way I could last three minutes.I turned to my wife.  “Dr. Ferber is saying let him cry.  Half a million years of evolution is saying go pick up the kid and hold him.”

And that was our one attempt at Ferberization.

Faith and Disaster

March 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do groups do when they are faced with strong evidence that their core beliefs are wrong? Ever since When Prophecy Fails (1957), we’ve known the answer. They try spread the word, both to others who they try to convert, and to themselves with greater demonstrations of their faith.

The phrase “acts of God” usually refer to natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes. Yet after these events, no matter how devastating, people rarely give up their belief in God as a beneficent being.

When Prophecy Fails followed a group that believed that on a given date, the world would be destroyed but that aliens in flying saucers would come and rescue them. They were not unusual. Faith often is a belief in a distant and powerful figure who will save the group from disaster. If there are two such figures, the faiths can be combined.

The idea of a God-Trump alliance may be widespread among his Christian supporters. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated the idea explicitly: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.”

An act of God that caused great destruction and loss of life is not going to shake the faith of Alabama Christians. As for Trump, it’s possible that his administration will come through for Alabama. But even if FEMA fails to deliver the kind of relief Alabamians expect, and even if their lives do not improve during the Trump years,they will probably maintain their belief in his goodness and blame any misfortunes on others.


Previous posts include examples of failed prophecy among liberals, the NRA, economists, and a Trump supporter in the South who is young, Black, and gay.

Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1

March 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I begin the semester with the Durkheim’s idea of social facts, and I use his example of suicide rates. The rate may be made up of individual facts (each suicide) but that rate takes on an existence that seems separate from those cases. It is more a property of the society or the specific group. Here are the numbers of suicides and the rate per 100,000 (age-adjusted) in New Jersey for the last four years (CDC)
2014   786 (8.3)
2015   789 (8.3)
2016   687 (7.2)
2017   795 (8.3)
In three of the four years, the numbers are nearly identical, differing by only 9 suicides in a population of over eight million. So it makes sense to think of the rate as something about the state, not about the individuals that make up that rate. Rates in the other 49 states, though they vary widely from state to state, show the same kind of stability. Each year the state produces roughly the same number of suicides.

In case students had missed the point that it’s not about individuals, I remind them, “The 789 people who killed themselves in 2015 cannot be the same 786 who killed themselves in 2014.” I add, “There aren’t many facts in social science that were 100% sure of, but that’s one of them.”

My second point is that while we can use individual facts to explain other individual facts, when we try to explain social facts, those same explanatory individual facts often aren’t much help. For explaining the individual suicide, it makes obvious sense to look at a variable like happiness. I’m willing to assume that people who kill themselves are not as happy as people who don’t. But are people in Greece three times as happy as Americans? 

A headline in the local papers a couple of days ago looped us back to that first week of class.

In fact, New Jersey ranked 31st. The headline is referring to a recent Gallup report (here). Gallup calls its measure “well-being,” not “happiness.”  Whatever. As for the happiest or wellest-being  states? Here’s the map.

The map of well-being looks strikingly similar to the map of suicide that I show students in Week 1. The same states that have a lot of well-being also have a lot of suicide. Here is Gallup’s list of the top ten on well-being. I have added a column to show the ranking and rate for age-adjusted suicide.

All but two of the states highest on well-being are in the top twelve on suicide rates. Only Delaware has a lower-than-average suicide rate.

If happiness doesn’t keep suicide rates low, what does? Durkheim’s answer was “social integration.” Unfortunately, Gallup doesn’t have a variable by that name. But the Well-being index is a score made up of five components: Career, Financial, Physical, Social, and Community. The one that seems closest to Durkheim’s conception of social integration is not Community (“liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community”) but Social (“ having supportive relationships and love in your life”). What the scale-makers call Community does not sound a lot like Gemeinschaft. It's more an individual feeling of pride or safety. It does not require actual involvement with other people. By contrast, Social seems to be a measure of interpersonal involvement.

So Social seems much closer to Durkheim’s notion of social integration than does Community. So we shouldn’t be surprised that those high-suicide mountain states also rank high in Community. But mostly they are not among the highest in Social. New Jersey, with its low suicide rate, is low on Community (ranked 40th) but high on Social (9th).

There are many anomalies. Colorado, for example, comes out very well on Social and all the other sub-scales of Well-being, yet its suicide rate is 10th highest (tied with Nevada). New York  ranks in the bottom half on four of the five components, including Social, and in the bottom fifth on three of them (Community, Career, Financial), yet it has the lowest age-adjusted suicide rate among the fifty states.

The Gallup numbers do support the Durkheim explanation — not overwhelmingly, but enough for the first week of class, enough to open the door to social  explanations of what seems like a highly personal decision.