Whose Stutter Is This Anyway?

August 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago the American Sociological Association gave its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life. The name of the award in this case is a bit off the mark. We gave them the award because they provide so much great material for our classes.  Sean Cole’s piece “Time Bandit” in their most recent episode, for example, is pure Goffman.

“Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men,” says Goffman in the introduction to Interaction Ritual. In eleven words, he summarizes his “dramaturgical” approach to interaction. But I don’t think that we realize how radical this view is. Much of it is not radically different from our everyday thinking about interaction. Concepts like impression management, audience segregation, backstage areas and the rest merely shine a light on what we are already dimly aware of. As an undergrad assigned Presentation of Self commented, “Goffman has a keen sense of the obvious.”

What’s radical about Goffman is that he sees even everyday interactions as bounded by the scenario for that interaction. Most of us, by contrast, think about what we’re doing as unscripted,, Nor do we think we are creating structures and rules that constrain ourselves and others. In a few formal settings — highly predictable scenes like a church service or a school classroom — we might realize that we are following the outlines of a script. Or in a long and deep relationship, we might feel limited by its history, a history that we and the others involved have created. But from Goffman’s perspective, even in fleeting encounters, we are all in it together. In moments of embarrassment, for example, the gaffe becomes part of our situation regardless of who committed it.

The central figure in “Time Bandit” was Jerome Ellis. He has a “glottal block” stutter, and he says of the stutter what Goffman says about embarrassment: it becomes a property not of the stutterer but of the situation.

Here is a transcript.

JEROME ELLIS: Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.”

SEAN COLE: The stutter.

JEROME ELLIS: Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

SEAN COLE: And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

JEROME ELLIS: Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

SEAN COLE: And we are both contending with it.


SEAN COLE: And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The Poetry Project is a marathon of performances — poetry, dance, music, stand-up — over 150 performers, so there’s a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Ellis’s performance, which is excerpted in the clip (you can hear the difference in sound quality)  was a plea that stutterers be allowed more time.

Stuttering also illustrates many of Goffman points in Stigma. This next clip shows the dilemma about disclosing a stigma or using different strategies to hide it. Listen to it, don’t just read the transcript.

SEAN COLE: : And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life — taking too much of someone’s time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there’s a line behind him. But this wasn’t that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter — synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he’s blocked on for one that’s easier to say. He didn’t want to do that on stage.

JEROME ELLIS: : And I didn’t realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

SEAN COLE: : Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

JEROME ELLIS: : Yes. To their customers with — So there’s the Portuguese word — With.
distúrbios na temporização

which I had literally translated to — in my text, I translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it to just — to “disturbance.” And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was —
Customers with
I said, “breaks.” —
Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.
--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn’t like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I — I just did with — with you, is just wait.

SEAN COLE: : Wait for the word.

JEROME ELLIS: : Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D’s, they can be really painful.


EROME ELLIS: : So that’s why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened — like “breaks” to me, it doesn’t capture what I wanted to capture.

*This is an imperfect transcription. There is another sound before distúrbio, but my Portuguese is very limited, and I could not figure out what it might be.

It was this moment, his speech blocked at the same word over and over again, that brought home what he had said before — that the stutter becomes part of the situation. It becomes our stutter. For while I was listening, I kept suggesting alternative words. I thought that the “t” of “to” was the problem. “Translated as. . .” I said out loud.

Social facts, says Durkheim, include thoughts, feelings, and actions that have the strange quality of being properties of the situation, not just of the individual. Here I was, at home by myself, listening to an event that I had not attended and that had taken place at least a year ago. Yet that situation was co-opting what seemed like my very personal reactions. And the stutter — not Jerome Ellis’s stutter, but the stutter — was an crucial part of that situation.

These Truths, These Untruths, These Really Big Numbers

July 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check. That’s the warning sociologist Joel Best has been giving us since 1990, if not before, when he looked at claims that the number of children abducted by strangers annually was 50,000. Way too many.

And now we have distinguished historian Jill Lepore, author of the recent best-selling history of the US These Truths. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in her article “The Invention of the Police” (here) she says this:

I’m using a screenshot of The New Yorker’s online version only to show that as of this writing, more than a week after its initial publication, this passage remains unchanged. The text reads:

One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.

This number, two-thirds, does not sound right. I have been in NYC emergency rooms — in the city’s high-crime years and in its low-crime years. Never did it look like two-thirds of the people there had been roughed up by the cops. The study Lepore cites (by Justin Feldman, here ) used data from 2001-2014. In that 14-year period,  683,000 young people (15-34) turned up in emergency rooms after being hit by the police or security guards, roughly 50,000 a year. That’s the numerator.

The denominator is the total number of emergency room visits by this age group. My estimate is about 30 million a year.* Obviously, 50,000 out of 30,000,000 is not two-thirds. It’s less than two-tenths of a percent.

What happened? Isn’t The New Yorker the publication that made “fact check” part of our everyday language?

Louise Perry (here) has an explanation of how Lepore and the fact checkers at The New Yorker misread the numbers and prose in Feldman’s article.

But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that: Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.

That’s the “how.” Perry also thinks she knows the “why”: “political bias.” Liberal, anti-police bias. Of course, it’s impossible to get evidence for this idea. The magazine and the writer have politically liberal views. Maybe the fact-checkers do as well. But it’s impossible to get evidence that their politics caused their misreading of the data.

So as long as we’re speculating without evidence, here’s my explanation (I’m not necessarily rejecting the politics explanation, just maybe adding to it): writing and reading about big numbers. It’s not easy to write up statistics in a way that is unmistakably clear. A reader not familiar with the territory can easily take a wrong turn, especially when that territory takes the shape of large numbers. If I told you that before the current pandemic, emergency rooms in the US saw about 3 million people a year, that might sound reasonable. I mean, three million seems like a really big number. But it’s only one- tenth of the actual number.

I know very little about dinosaurs. If you told me they went extinct 10 million years ago, I would think, Yeah, that’s a long time ago; it sounds about right. If you told me that they went extinct 200 million years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Sounds plausible. But a paleontologist would wonder how I could be taken in by such obvious untruths.

Yes, it’s possible that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were so eager to stick it to the police that they let an “obvious” mistake slip by.  But it’s also possible that they just didn’t know how to parse these claims about the data, and because some of the numbers were large and others (ED visits) still larger and unknown, they just seemed reasonable.


* This a rough and quick estimate. The average 15-34 population over those years was in the range of 30-35 million. This site  shows rates of ED use by age group. Unfortunately, the age groups are Under 18 and 18-44. So I estimated on the low side.

Statues and Heroes — Looking Back From the Future

July 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Woodrow Wilson was a straight-up racist. No doubt about it. Yet in 1948, Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, which started up in 1930, added his name, making it the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It has taken Princeton until now, seventy-two years later, to dump him. WTF? What changed, and why did it take so long?

What changed, of course, is that racism, especially the racism of institutions, has finally become a central issue in the national conversation. The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought big changes in the law, but it never had mass demonstrations as widespread and sustained as those of the last several weeks. Until now, racism, even though it was generally recognized as wrong, was not as salient an issue. Critics may have pointed out Wilson’s racism, but for Princeton, it just wasn’t that big a deal, certainly not big enough to warrant removing his name.

It’s hard to understand how Princeton could have let something so wrong slip by for so long. But Nicholas Kirstof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (here) points the way towards understanding that failure even if we do not condone it.

As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures, I’ve been wondering what our great-grandchildren will find bewilderingly immoral about our own times — and about us.

Which of today’s heroes will be discredited? Which statues toppled? What will later generations see as our own ethical blind spots?

I believe that one will be our cruelty to animals. Modern society relies on factory farming to produce protein that is inexpensive and abundant. But it causes suffering to animals on an incalculable scale.

It’s hard to imagine the moral climate of the year 2090. As Yogi said, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.* But suppose that Kristof is right. Suppose that seventy years from now the progressives (or whatever they are calling themselves) are tearing down the statues of Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or demanding that the John Lewis School of Civil Rights change its name — all because these one-time heroes ate meat, often two or three times a day!

If we could speak to the protestors, would we tell them, “Wait. These were good people, the best. Back in 2020, we didn’t realize how cruel and how disastrous for the planet meat production was. We didn’t apply 2090 moral codes to animals.”

Their reply: “Yes, that’s precisely the point. Your morality was wrong, and we are not going honor those who lived by it. What’s painful to admit is that we waited till now to take these long overdue actions. After all, we’ve known all along that these people were straight-up meat eaters.”

* Comparison with the future, like prediction, is very hard. But it can be useful, especially when people use the much easier comparison with the past in a misleading way, for example to argue that poor people today are not really poor. See this post from 2015.

Ahmad and Miles

July 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I’m a few days late with this one. Ahmad turned 90 on July 2.)

“When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they're right.” Miles Davis, Miles, the Biography

But mostly, people don’t say that, and they don’t realize how great the influence was. There’s the musical style of course. In the 1950s, when beboppers were playing as many notes as possible in a measure, Ahmad was allowing for much more space, an approach that also suited Miles.

There was also the choice of tunes. When I was in junior high school, I got a copy of the Miles’s album “Milestones.” One of the tracks is “Billy Boy” — no horns, just Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. The liner notes said, ‘Miles has an ear for a pop tune ("Billy Boy").’ I agreed. What a neat idea to import this folk tune (not a “pop tune”) into jazz.

I was an ignorant kid. I didn’t know then (and most people still don’t) that the musician who brought it into the jazz world was not Miles. It was Ahmad Jamal. The 1958 Red Garland arrangement on “Milestones” is nearly identical to Ahmad’s 1952 recording — the intro and outro, the added bridge, the block chords with octaves in the right hand.

For the Red Garland version, listen here.

Miles also often gets credit for making “On Green Dolphin Street” part of the standard jazz repertoire thanks to his 1958 sextet recording. It’s a great recording, but Ahmad was the one who clued the jazz world in to the potential of this movie-soundtrack tune. The same sequence is true of “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”: first Ahmad, then Miles, then everyone.

Ahmad did have one huge hit, an album that became a best seller even outside of the jazz world: “Live at the Pershing” (1958). The track that got played over and over again on the radio back then (and often now) is  “Poinciana,”  another tune that Ahmad hauled out of the “unlikely for jazz” bin. 

Here he is at age eleven – Fritz Jones in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Texas and Messes, Then and Now

July 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can you get Texans to do something that is inconvenient and brings them no direct benefit but will benefit the general society?

Today’s New York Times had this story on page one, above the fold.

How do you get Texans to wear masks and to stay out of bars? Pubic health orders apparently won’t work, even if they carry $250 fines. As a Lubbock County commissioner told the New York Times, “We’re some of the nicest people in the entire world. But as soon as you make demands and tell them they’re going to do something, you get a different response: You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Nor will appeals to self-interest and personal safety. These people don’t feel ill at all, and are they sure they know how to take care of their own health.. The statistics don’t seem all that alarming. A large majority of these people will not get COVID, and most of those who do will not have severe symptoms. You might as well tell them that those guns they keep at home are more likely to kill or wound a family member (accident, suicide) than to ward off criminals. Besides, masks carry a political message that’s almost as clear as a MAGA hat. They are part of the culture war Trump is waging. Going maskless has become a way to taunt those on the other side. Besides, maskless is macho.  Masks are for the fearful.

In addition, the economic benefits of “opening up” are immediate and clear. The costs from a huge increase in COVID-19 lie in a far less visible future.

We’ve been here before, and by “here” I  mean the problem of individual inconvenience versus collective benefit.  By “here” I also mean Texas. The problem was not as serious as COVID-19 — highway beautification vs. littering. How could you get people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about highway beauty to stop tossing their empty beer cans out the pick-up truck window?

I wrote a blogpost about it in 2009, reposted in 2017. But it’s relevant once again.

*                    *                    *                    *                  

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

*                    *                    *                    *          
Now Texas needs something as brilliant as the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. The ideas  I came up with spur of the moment —  “Don’t Infect Texas,” macho-looking Lone Star masks, “If New Jersey did it, so can Texas, only better” — don’t really hit the mark. Where are those advertising people when you really need them, because this time the stakes are much higher than highway aesthetics. A convincing campaign could save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Johnny Mandel, 1938-2020

July 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Johnny Mandel died on Monday.

His best-known song, the one heard most often by the most people, is “Suicide Is Painless” though most of those people will not know the title let alone the composer. It’s the theme song for M*A*S*H. The obits will list Mandel's other hits like “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

When I was a freshman, someone in my dorm had a record of the soundtrack from the 1958 film “I Want to Live.” I thought: Wow, can you really do this — have real jazz played by real jazz guys (Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Shelly Manne) in a Hollywood movie. It didn’t occur to me then to think about the composer/arranger. It was Johnny Mandel. Sixty-two years later, it still holds up. You can hear it here.

It’s hard to choose one recording. Shirley Horn has wonderful performances of several of his songs, and so does Bill Evans. There’s a Stan Getz recording of “Close Enough For Love” that I like because the piano player on it is Lou Levy, and once when I went to see him at a bar in New York, he let me copy the changes for that tune from his lead sheet. This was long before the Internet made that sort of thing so easy.

The beautiful “Moon Song” is not well-known, and when it’s performed, it’s usually done as a very slow ballad. But Fred Hersch, on his all-Mandel solo album “I Never Told You,” takes it at a livelier tempo, which makes easier to hear the melody and harmony.

You All Might Get Covid-19, But At Least I’ll Get Some Shuteye

June 30, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This photo, posted to Twiter on Sunday, has gone viral. It was taken two days earlier on a flight from Cleveland to Nashville on Allegiant Airlines.

The man in the MAGA hat summarizes the Trump demographic — a White male (overweight) in his fifties. But what triggered Twitter was the symbolism of the mask. Turning the face mask into an eyeshade is the perfect metaphor for the Trump mentality. Masks (in the US, not elsewhere) have become political; they are not just a means to reduce the spread of Covid-19. They are now symbols of ideology, especially for those who refuse to wear them.

But what does not wearing a mask symbolize? Most obviously, for this man and many others, it symbolizes support for Trump. More specifically, it symbolizes the willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of the general society when that goal conflicts with personal convenience and preference. Mr. MAGA places his desire to block out some ambient light above the health and well-being of everyone else on the plane.

The ideology that justifies this behavior is what Claude S. Fischer has called ‘voluntarism” — the idea that I have an obligation only to those groups that I have chosen voluntarily. These other passengers are not a group I have joined. They are merely a bunch of other people who happen to be on my flight. So their well-being is not my concern, and I can legitimately ignore their norms. (For earlier posts on voluntarism, go here, and here.)

Often “voluntarism” marches under the banner of Freedom, and in America, Freedom is a very powerful argument. Even people who in the current pandemic want everyone to wear a mask feel its pull. People like me. Freedom seems like such a good thing, and its opposite such a bad thing, that we assume that people from other advanced countries, people who seem similar to us, share our view of Freedom. So I was surprised at how different we Americans are in balancing individual freedom against government policies on public health.

Surveys done three months ago asked people in twelve countries if they would be willing to accept a decrease in individual liberty for purposes of public health.*

One of these countries is not like the others. Timing may have something to do with these results. Three months ago, the increase in US rates of infection had started only about a week earlier, lagging Europe by one to two weeks, and US cases were still concentrated in the New York area. Still, the comparison with other countries, especially Canada with its much lower rate of infection, shows us how greatly the US differs from these other countries. It seems that we are far less trusting that the government will do the right thing and perhaps more suspicious that it will do the wrong thing.

This difference shows up on two other items, one on presidential power, the other on government control over the media.

True, these are unusual times. The pandemic may have increased the willingness of Europeans to trust their governments. In the US, Trump’s preference for authoritarian leadership (so long as he is the leader) may have decreased trust in the government. (Again, the survey was done in early April. The poor performance of the Trump administration and some local officials was not yet so obvious.)  It’s also possible that the Trump presidency may have raised the affinity for authoritarianism— greater presidential power, especially power to control the media — among his supporters. But remember, the survey questions relate these matters specifically to public health, and it wasn’t until March 29 that Trump acknowledged that Covid-19 was worse than the ordinary flu.

My guess is that the survey results reflect a deeper and more abiding American exceptionalism. When there is a conflict between individual freedom on the one hand and general benefit for the society on the other, Europeans and Asians, compared with Americans, give more weight to promoting the general welfare.


* The paper is “Note — Économie sociale du Covid-19,” by Stefanie Stantcheva, Clément Herman, and Constantin Schesch. As far as I know, it has not been published and is available (here ) only in French. The survey item statements above the graphs are my own translation.

What’s in a Movie Quote?

June 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

You shouldn’t use a quote out of context, especially when that context gives the quote a meaning very different from what you intended. And especially if it’s one of my favorite movies.

Novelist Sally Rooney’s literary career began with a non-fiction piece, her 2015 autobiographical essay (here) about becoming a champion debater. The title of the essay is “Even If You Beat Me.” It’s a line from the 1961 movie The Hustler. It’s spoken by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a brash young pool hustler from middle America who has come to New York to shoot high-stakes pool against the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They play through the night, and Felson is winning by a considerable amount.

“I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Earlier in her essay, Rooney uses another line from the film. Being on stage in a debate tournament she could slip into what athlete’s call “the zone.”

There are a lot of different names for this state of immersion. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it ‘flow’: that form of focus so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away. Fast Eddie Felson, the pool-playing protagonist of The Hustler, talks about it too. ‘You don’t have to look, you just know,’ he says. ‘You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play the game the way nobody’s ever played it.’ Hitting that perfect rhythm while speaking, connecting concept to response, drawing examples out of thin air, you feel just like I imagine a pool shark must. Complex things become simple.

Rooney was a winner. “When I was twenty-two, I was the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe.”

But that’s not quite what happened to Fast Eddie. And the line Rooney uses as the essay title was eclipsed by the line that follows it, the line spoken by Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the manager and money man for Minnesota Fats.

The question for Bert Gordon and for Fats is whether to keep playing. They are down by more than $10,000, and it certainly looks as though Fast Eddie is right when he says he’s the best there is. Fast Eddie’s manager (Myron McCormack) wants to end the match and leave with their winnings.

Here is the scene.

“Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” That’s the line everyone remembers.

And he is a loser. In the hours of pool that follow, Fast Eddie loses his edge, his coolness, his composure, and his money. For Bert, “Even if you beat me,” is the tip-off that Fast Eddie, at some level he himself is unaware of, wants to lose.

Bert’s point, and perhaps the point of the movie, is that “talent” is not enough. To win also requires “character,” an unbending focus on winning. As Bert tells Eddie later in the film, “Minnesota Fats’s got more character in one finger  than you got in your whole skinny body.” 

“Character” — at the highest levels of competition, it means a willingness and desire to crush your opponent. I don’t think that this is the point Rooney wants to make about becoming a champion debater.  In fact, just after she says that debating requires “a taste for ritualized, abstract interpersonal aggression,” she adds, “And you have to learn how to lose.”

As for her career, she stopped debating at age twenty-two and wrote that essay. Soon after The Dublin Review published it, she was sought out by a literary agent, wrote a novel (Conversations With Friends) that became the prize in a seven-way bidding war among publishers, and barely a year later published a second novel (Normal People). I don’t know if she has character, but she certainly has characters.

The Hustler is a great movie with great performances from Newman, Gleason, and Scott. (And that saxophone you hear in the last minute of this clip is the great Phil Woods.). It’s one of those films that works only in black and white. Years later, Scorsese made a sequel, The Color of Money, in color, and it retains nothing of the feeling of the original.

What Cops Can Do, and What They Should Do

June 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“There is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do.”

In one simple sentence, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms has zeroed in on a central problem in police violence and the public response to that violence. “Can” is about what is legally justifiable. “Should” is about what is right.

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and others — all these killings were legally justified. The same is true of less well-publicized cases, lethal and especially non-lethal. The grand jury did not indict, or if the case went to trial, the jury did not convict. And it’s not because prosecutors and juries are racists; it’s not because they are biased towards the police; it’s not even because the police lie. Those reasons apply in some cases. But often, the justice system fails to achieve what to most people would seem like justice because the violence is consistent with the law. It is legally justifiable.

But that doesn’t mean that the shooting, the beating, or other abuse was right. Nor does it mean it was unavoidable.

In the Atlanta killing that occasioned the mayor’s statement, the victim, drunk and uncooperative, had thrown a punch, taken the taser of one officer, and tried to run away. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,* “During the chase, Mr. Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer . . . The officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.” (This last sentence is copspeak for “The officer shot him.”) It’s possible that the victim’s actions will provide sufficient legal justification for the killing. But the cop certainly did not have to shoot.

Some police violence seems justified, and not just legally, given the pressures of the immediate situation. But that situation itself may have been the outcome of actions on the part of the police. The most obvious recent example is the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the police version, someone shot at them. They returned fire. Surely that’s legitimate. But that shooting was the end point of a series of actions that could have been avoided — the no-knock warrant, the battering ram breaking down the door, and even farther back in the causal chain, the militarization of the police.

Six years ago, when the St. Louis police shot and killed a man, probably mentally disturbed, who was armed with only a steak knife, I posted (here) this 2011 video of police in London responding to a truly deranged man wildly swinging a machete.

In the US, the police would have shot and killed the man, and they would have been legally justified. But the London police who first arrive on the scene do not carry guns, and they handle the situation in a way that results in no death or injury.

* The GBI’s original version was much more favorable to the cops and was probably based on what the cops told them. When video of the incident turned up, the GBI changed its story.

Chick Corea, b. June 12, 1941

June 12, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I started taking piano lessons last winter. Before the pandemic shut that down, I managed to meet with my teacher a half-dozen times. I told I was stuck in bebop cliches and wanted to move beyond that. At our last meeting — we didn’t know then it would be the last — he suggested that I listen to Chick Corea’s “Matrix.” It’s a 12-bar blues, but Toto, we’re not in “Now’s the Time” territory anymore.

I saw Chick live only once. I had gone to see Bill Evans at the Village Gate. Not long into the second set, Evans noted that Chick was in the house and asked him to sit in. Evans then left the stand and didn’t return. Chick played out the rest of the night.

“Black People”or “The Black People”

May 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a subtle but important difference between talking about “Black people” and taliking about “the Black people. Here’s Trump yesterday. (I’m usins Sarah Cooper’s version because she’s physically so much more expressive than Trump playing his invisible accordion.)

“By the way, they love African American people. They love Black people. MAGA loves the Black people.”

Does anybody really believe that Trump was being sincere? Or accurate? Does team MAGA love “the Black people”? The definite article, that the, gives him away.

During the 2016 campaign, when some suggested that Trump presidency would not be good for women, Trump said, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

At the time, I wondered how “I’d be phenomenal to the women” is different from just “I’d be phenomenal for to women.”  The blog post (here) continued:   

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society. Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

This construction using the definite article fits well with the MAGA notion that America is their country. In their view, they are, as Sarah Palin put it, “the real America.” Republicans, when they are out of office, talk a lot about “taking back our country,” as though the Democratic party were a bunch of foreign usurpers. (See this post from when Obama was in office and running for second term.)  Now that they have taken back the country, they may allow others — the Blacks, the women, and others — to live in it.

Watching for Birds . . . and for Attribution Errors

May 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

By now you’ve probably seen the cellphone video that Christian Cooper made during his unpleasant encounter with Amy Cooper when he was bird-watching in the Central Park Ramble and she was letting her dog run loose. He asked to leash the dog, just as the sign nearby indicated. She apparently disagreed.  The confrontation escalated.

The video shows the her calling the cops. “I’m in the Ramble, there is a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” And “I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”

Through it all, Mr. Cooper remains admirably calm, given what might happen if the cops do show up, and not in the last threatening,

Yes, it’s about race. It’s also about norms and norm enforcement, it’s about formal social control (the cops) and informal social control, it’s about birders and dog owners, it’s about the use of urban spaces. But for me, it was about the Fundamental Attribution Error — our tendency to explain people’s behavior as arising from internal factors like personality and to ignore the situational factors. (That’s when we’re explaining the behavior of others. When it comes to explaining our own behavior, the balance of internal and external explanations is pretty much the opposite.)

All over Twitter, people are condemning Amy Cooper. Understandable. But they are also attributing to her all sorts of ideas, knowledge, feelings, life history, and past behaviors that they cannot possibly know about. Here’s one example:

I’ve worked for people like this - it’s rage (that he was disobeying her), not fear, that made her call. And of course, racism, because she knew just what danger she was putting him in by making that call.

 Mr. Cooper, by contrast, refuses to leap to these global characterizations, especially on the central question of whether Amy Cooper is a racist.

NPR: She said that she is not a racist. How do you respond to her?

C. COOPER: I can't tell you whether or not she’s a racist. I can tell you what she did in that moment, and it was a moment of, you know, stress and of confrontation and of, you know, probably spectacularly poor judgment. But in that moment, what she did was definitely racist. Now, should she be defined by that couple-of-seconds moment? I can’t answer that.

I had already admired Cooper for his calm and obviously non-threatening behavior displayed in the video, especially given what might happen if the cops actually arrive. But his interview raised that admiration higher. First, he realizes that Amy Cooper’s behavior was, at least in part, a reaction to the situation. And second, he refuses to make those attributions about what is in her head.

Jay Smooth makes the same point in this video, which I cited in a 2011 post “Constructing Character” l: Too often “what started out as a what-you-said [or did] conversation turns into a what-you-are conversation.”


Jay Smooth says that in these conversations, the “who you are” assumption leads to “mutual frustration.” On the Internet, it leads to self-righteous moral condemnation and to death threats and other calls for punishment. Cooper is quite sensible about that as well. “I am told there has been death threats, and that is wholly inappropriate and abhorrent and should stop immediately.”

Island of the Press Secretaries

May 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

At her first press briefing, Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s new press secretary, was asked by an AP reporter, “Will you pledge not to lie to us?”

“I will never lie to you. You have my word on that,” said McEnany

Remember the language-logic problem about the tribes on an island?
One tribe always lies, the other always tells the truth. The problem is this: you are at a fork in the road, and you need to know which road leads to the castle. (The other one leads to a fire-breathing dragon and sure death.) Two native islanders, one from each tribe, are standing nearby. You need to ask one of them which path leads to the castle. But first you must determine whether he is a liar or a truth teller. What question can you ask in order to make that determination?
I don’t remember the answer, and maybe I haven’t remembered the problem with perfect accuracy. But I do know the question which will not help you at all: “Will you pledge never to lie to us?” The truth teller will of course say “yes.” But so will the liar.

After her pledge, McEnany went on to say several things that were not true. (See the Vox write-up here. )

The question the reporter should have asked is not “Will you pledge never to lie to us?” It’s “Do you work for Donald Trump?”

Patriotism à la Sondheim

April 29, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As many people have noted (including me here), one of the things that Stephen Sondheim brought to Broadways was ambivalence. It pervaded several of the songs in Sondheim 90th birthday tribute Monday night.  Some songs declare their ambivalence right off the bat (“I’ve got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later Blues.”) or in their titles (“Marry Me a Little”).  But ambivalence is a subtext in “Send in the Clowns” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” 
Baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell*, for his part in the tribute, chose “Flag Song.”  It's a patriotic song, written for a parade. It was going to be the opening for “Assassins” (“An imaginary parade with a crowd of bystanders watching, some of whom turn out to be assassins we get to know later,” says Sondheim)  but it was cut from the show.

Even in a song of patriotism, Sondheim gives us ambivalence.

You can gripe
All you like,
You can sneer,
“Where are the heroes?”
You can shout about
How everything’s a lie.
Then that flag goes by…

You can snipe
At the greed
At the need
To be a winner
At the hype
You keep hearing
From on high.

For a minute you’re aware
Of being proud.
And then suddenly you’re staring
At the crowd
And you’re thinking.
“They’re as different from me
As they possibly could be— “

Then that flag goes by,
And no matter how you sigh,
“It’s the bright blue sky.
It’s just Mom and apple pie.”
There’s this thing you can’t deny.
This idea.

George M. Cohan it ain’t.

To hear it, go here**  and push the slider to about 1:20. Mitchell introduces the song this way.

If somebody asked Steve Sondheim to write a patriotic song for our country right now with everything that is going on, I think this is the song that he would write. It’s pretty amazing that he already wrote it. Thirty years ago.

Here he his performing it at the Kennedy Center a year pre-Covid-19.

* Mitchell fell ill with Covid-19, recovered, and now regularly leans out his fifith-floor window — still on Broadway, but two miles north of the theater district — and, as people on the sidewalk below listen, booms out “The Impossible Dream.” (A video is here.)

**  After you hear “Flag Song,” push the slider to 1:58 to see “Ladies Who Lunch.” You’ve probably heard about this performance already if you’re at all interested in musical theater, but if not, don’t miss it.

The Worst: Agamemnon . . . and Maybe Some Other Leader

April 26, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I’m not stating parallels,” says Madeline Miller, who writes novels using characters from Greek myth, “but the ancients had a saying, ‘Nothing new under the sun.” She was being interviewed by Ezra Klein in his podcast. This comes at about the one hour mark.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript.

If I were to name the worst person in the Iliad, Agamemnon wins, hands down. And speaking of our current situation, the Iliad begins with a plague, because Agamemnon has taken as a war prize a daughter of a priest of Apollo. The priest of Apollo shows up to take his daughter back, and he offers Agamemnon fair ransom. When someone offers you fair ransom in the ancient world, you’re supposed to give back whatever the thing is.

Agamemnon not only does not give the girl back, he insults the priest and sends him away with harsh words and threats. So the priest of course — this is not very smart on Agamemnon’s part — goes to the god Apollo and says, “Punish the Greeks.”

So Apollo sends down a plague. For nine days, people die all across the Greek army. The fires burning the bodies are burning constantly.

And Agamemnon says nothing and does nothing. Even though everyone knows whose fault it is, he does nothing.

Finally, Achilles says, “OK, we’ve gotta get everybody together. If Agamemnon won’t act, I will act.” And he gets everybody together, and he asks the priests, “Hey priests, what do you think’s going on. Do you think someone offended a god?” And the priest says, “Yes, of course. It’s Agamemnon.”

And Agamemnon blows up at Achilles for embarrassing him even though it was completely his fault.

After Miller’s disclaimer that she’s not stating parallels, Ezra Klein adds, “Yes, there’s a Greek dimension to some of the national figures on the stage right now.” He and Miller are talking about him whose name, apparently, must not be spoken. A man who manages a plague poorly, thereby costing many lives; who refuses to acknowledge his error or do anything to correct it; and who lashes out angrily at those who do say clearly that he is at fault.

We all recognize Trump’s narcissism. And Agamemnon’s. But what about Achilles, who Madeline Miller seems quite fond of? He is the hero of her first novel, The Song of Achilles. In the interview she notes that Achilles, unlike the other fighters in the Trojan war, “is their voluntarily. Everyone else is bound by this oath . .  But he’s just there for the kleos, for the glory. . .  He’s given a choice: you can live a long and happy life, and no one will ever remember your name. Or you can die young and be famous forever.”

Miller finds Achilles’ choice “extremely compelling.” But it proceeds from the same narcissistic rewards that motivate Agamemnon and Trump – glory, reputation, and the defeat of enemies rather than the satisfactions that come from living with others.

The interview with Miller brought to mind sociologist Philip Slater’s book on ancient Greece, The Glory of Hera (1968)*. Slater draws a portrait of Greek males —  gods, leaders, and even less celebrated men — as mostly examples of what we would today call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “Quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers.. . He [the narcissist] will feel that if he is not a great hero he is nothing, and pride and prestige become more important than love.” For Achilles, these were more important than life. “Nothing seemed to have meaning to the Greek unless it included the defeat of another.”

So much winning.


* Slater’s book received mixed reviews, especially in the provinces ruled by traditional classicists — what Slater called “the Un-Hellenic Activities Committee.” That was partly because of his Freudian take on Greek narcissism emphasizing mother-son relations. But listen to Madeline Miller talk about youthful Achilles, petulant and angry at Agamemnon. “He gets his mom to talk to Zeus so that the Trojans start winning and the Greeks all start dying.” Ezra Klein interrupts to point out that “the greatest warrior in Greek history gets mad and calls his mom.” Maybe Slater was on to something.

COVID-19 Politics — Zombies and Boundaries

April 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time now, I have thought that liberal-conservative differences often rest, at least in part, on feelings about boundaries. Conservatives, far more than liberals, are concerned with the certainty and sanctity of boundaries. Those on the right see these boundaries as constantly threatened and constantly in need of defense. As Scott Alexander put it seven years ago, “the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.”

Zombie-apocalypse thinking resides in the far right corner of what Alexander calls the  “thrive/survive theory of the political spectrum. Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.”

It’s a robust idea. Thrive/survive explains those “moral foundations” at the core of Jonathan Haidt’s theory (purity, loyalty, hierarchy, etc.) as well as differences on less abstract things like guns, cops, wealth, science and intellectualism, the military, etc. (Alexander’s post is here at his Slate Star Codex blog. Like most of his blog posts, it runs long — about 3400 words — and is well worth reading.)

But now, seven years later, Alexander finds the left/right reactions to the coronavirus pandemic puzzling, especially because in the thrive/survive model, the zombie-apocalypse threat envisioned by rightists sounds very much like the coronavirus: “one of your long-term zombie apocalypses.” [Alexander’s italics]

Some people have brought up that my thrive vs. survive theory of the political spectrum does an unusually bad job predicting current events, especially the thing where Democrats mostly want to maintain lockdown and Republicans mostly want to take their chances. I don’t have much to say about this, but I acknowledge it’s true, and you should update your models accordingly

One way to update your model is to listen to what the rightists are saying. They are trumpeting something that outweighs survive/thrive, a principle that is consistent with other right-left differences – Freedom. It’s the old conflict  between individual freedom and collective benefit. As the woman who, in mid-March, brag-tweeted about going to a crowded fast food restaurant, “This is America. And I'll do what I want.” As for keeping unspecified others — i.e., the general public — safe, that’s not her job. If, as Conservative Margaret Thatcher said, “society” is a fiction, and there are only individuals and families, then you and your family are the only people you have an obligation to protect.

Still, we would expect the emphasis on individual freedom to shrivel when the zombies attack. When threat looms large, people shift their concern from the individual to the group. Individuals may even heroically sacrifice their own lives to save the group. Curiously, Alexander does not mention this reaction. He does note the emphasis on conformity, which is a corollary of group-centered values. So reactions to the coronavirus still seem contradictory. Those right-wing protestors on the steps of the state capitol should be calling for unity, for conformity to the commands of the governor. Instead, they are proclaiming their right to disobey the rules.

The boundaries-based update to the thrive/survive model adds one important consideration. It asks which side of the boundary the threat is coming from. For the right, all threats come from others — those who, even if they are within our geographical boundaries, are in some way outsiders. Go back a few years and it’s the Soviets and godless communism. More recently, it has been immigrants and Islamic terrorists, categories the America Firsters generalize to include all darker people and all Arabs and Muslims.

Some versions of the zombie apocalypse are perfectly congruent with the rightist vision. The threat really is external and comes from clearly identified others.
. . . a large number of zombies overwhelming social, law-enforcement, and military structures. Typically, only a few individuals or small bands of survivors are left of the living. [Wikipedia]
But other variants of the zombie scenario sound more like the coronavirus pandemic.
In some stories, victims of zombies may become zombies themselves if they are bitten by zombies or if a zombie-creating virus infects them; in others, everyone who dies, whatever the cause, becomes one of the undead. [Wikipedia]
The rightists are able to see only the first kind of threat. The attack is from the “Chinese virus,” which is an “invisible enemy.” It will be defeated by hardening our boundaries with the equivalent of walls and guns — travel bans that keep it out and medical cures that kill it.

What that right-wing view cannot comprehend is a virus that is being spread not by outsiders or evildoers but by people who are like us. Maybe even by people who are us. In that situation, the boundaries are unclear — boundaries between good guys and bad guys or even between those who are free of the virus and those who are carrying and spreading it. Also incompatible with the boundary-hardening view is a policy based not on medical-military action against the enemy but on a change in our own daily behavior.

Here are the Michigan protestors, the “small band of survivors,” all suited up for the external zombie apocalypse. They have identified the enemy; it’s the governor. They stand close together, only three or four of them wearing masks, all of them carrying guns. Michigan, as of this writing, has the sixth highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. These protestors may come from areas in the state with lower rates of infection, but if there’s one thing we have learned, it’s that rates of infection and death may be low now (“We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered,” said Trump in late February), but those rates can rise rapidly, especially when people crowd together, even if they are carrying guns.

Is Trump’s “Invisible Enemy” Trope an Anti-Semitic Dog Whistle? Probably Not.

April 22, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is this anti-Semitic?

The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward and aka  פֿאָרווערטס) thinks it is.

There is no other way to say it; just like “America First,” the phrase “invisible enemy” has an ugly history that is now being revived and exploited at the kind of moment when such ugliness thrives—when everyone is scared for their lives and their basic survival.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” claims to describe how Jews invisibly control the world. It’s supposed to be the “proof” of this “invisible enemy” idea.
(The full article is here.)

The logic seems to be :
Anti-Semites have often claimed that Jews are an invisible enemy.
Trump says the coronavirus is an invisible enemy.
Therefore Trump is saying that the virus is like Jews. So the tweet is anti-Semitic.

The logic is obviously flawed. Yes, there is something typically Trumpian in thinking of the virus as the invisible enemy, but that something is not anti-Semitism.* It’s Trump’s need to see everything as a competition, a fight where there is a clear winner (Trump of course) and a clear loser. Where others might see the coronavirus as presenting a public health problem to be solved, Trump sees it as an “attack” by an “enemy.”

Unfortunately in this case, one of the most important methods of solving the problem — physical distancing to keep people from spreading the virus — doesn’t look like aggressive competition. Distancing is so different from the combative things a man can do to defeat an enemy and to win, things like bullying, mocking, or cheating.

The “invisible enemy” framework is also congruent with another facet of Trump’s thinking (at least as he expresses his thoughts publicly). For Trump, the world is divided into absolutes. Something is either the best ever or the worst ever. Similarly, a person is either a loyal ally or an enemy to be disposed of. Again, this view is incompatible with a distancing policy or public health policies in general, for they do not offer clean and immediate absolutes. Not only do the benefits of distancing lie somewhere in the future, but distancing also has immediate and obvious economic drawbacks. Distancing may save lives, but it does not offer the clear and unmitigated win that Trump needs.

* Some of the people who oppose distancing and other restrictions are blatantly anti-Semitic (see this story about Ohio.) But even if all anti-Semites oppose restrictions, that does not mean that all, or even a large proportion, of those who oppose restrictions are anti-Semites.

Earth Day Birthday — a Repost

April 22, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is Julian Koenig’s birthday. It’s also Earth Day, which is now fifty. Koenig would have been 99.

Earth Day / Birthday. The rhyme is not a coincidence.

[What follows is what I posted two years ago. I’m posting it again because this is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If only Koenig had been born a year earlier to make it an even 100.]

Julian Koenig was an ad-man. The word “creative” gets tossed around pretty loosely in the ad world, but Koenig truly was. When environmentalists were planning their first big  national event in 1970, Koenig offered to help. Surely he could come up with something better than the name they already had – “Environmental Teach-in.” The day of the event just happened to be his birthday, and the rhyme was a natural.  As the national director recalls,

He offered a bunch of possible names — Earth Day, Ecology Day, Environment Day, E Day — but he made it quite clear that we would be idiots if we didn’t choose Earth Day.

It worked for them. It worked for him.
Our paths — Koenig’s and mine — crossed a few years later, in the early seventies. How that happened is a story I told in brief in this blog years ago (here).    

Then, in 2013, the American Sociological Association gave its Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award to Ira Glass and the staff of “This American Life.”  The awards ceremony was a panel discussion. Ira was the with three producers from the show. One of them was Sarah Koenig, Julian’s daughter. David Newman, one of the sociologists on the panel, said that what he liked best about the show was that he could use it to give his students the larger picture of social issues.

But Ira Glass, when it was his turn to speak, said that what the show thrived on was not issues but people. “Don’t pitch us a story about some issue; you have to have a character – a character who has an interesting story . . . and who comes across on tape.” (Not an exact quote, but that was the idea.)

After the panel ended and people were milling about, I went up to Sarah Koenig, still sitting on the podium. “I have a character,” I said. “It’s an advertising guy I met when we worked together on this project in Florida. He had retired but he was just getting back into the business.” I looked at her to see if she was catching on. I couldn’t tell.

“We discovered that we both liked the track. But he really liked it. He’d buy the Racing Form every day, even days he didn’t go to the track.” I thought I detected a hint of interest in her expression.

“And he didn’t throw them out,” I continued.  “He had the back issues stacked up in the closets of his house.”

“I think I know this man,” she said smiling.

She said she’d ask her father if he’d remember me. She was sure he would. I was sure he wouldn’t. In any case, I never heard from her. But then, I never pitched any stories, and she got busy with other projects, like “Serial.”

I Really Do Not Like Thee, Dr. Phil

April 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

My post of January 4 (here) had the title “I Do Not Like Thee Doctor Phil,” a variant on a nursery rhyme that’s not as well known here as in Britain. It begins,
I do not like thee Dr. Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell.
I have almost never watched Dr. Phil, so I really did not know the reason why I didn’t like him. Now I do. He is dangerously stupid, at least when it comes to public health.

Last week, he was on TV pushing the idea that businesses should re-open soon despite the pandemic.
If the businesses remain closed, he said, “There’s a point at which lockdown will create more destruction and more death than the actual virus will.”

He said this on Fox News, of course, on Laura Ingraham’s show. He continued,

People are dying from the coronavirus. I get that. But look, the fact of the matter is we have people dying, 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools,* but we don’t shut the country down for that.

As several people pointed out, the swimming pool figure is more than one hundred times the actual number. All drownings, not just swimming pools, account for less than 4000 deaths.

Dr. Phil’s logic is just as wrong as his statistics. Swimming pools, traffic accidents, and cigarettes are not contagious. As John Oliver said last night, “If swimming pools were killing 360,000 people a year, and you could contract a swimming pool on a trip to the grocery store, we might want to think about shutting them down until we worked out what the fuck was going on.”

* Right wingers love swimming-pool deaths, especially when the victim is a child. Ditto for traffic deaths.  Tea Party types frequently use these mortality statistics in arguing for the removal of all restrictions on guns. The logic there is just as shoddy as it is in regards to Covid-19. (See this 2016 post “A Gun Is Not a Swimming Pool.”)