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.”)

The Creative Destruction of Situations

April 9, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post used a disastrous performance of Peter Pan as an instance wher the “definition of the situation” breaks down irreparably. That kind of total breakdown is rare. Any social situation can go wrong, but it’s a usually a matter of embarrassment, not a complete fiasco, and the encounter can continue though perhaps not as smoothly as before.

As Goffman says in his classic essay “Embarrassment and Social Organization”*

The elements of a social encounter, then, consist of effectively projected claims to an acceptable self and the confirmation of like claims on the part of the others. The contributions of all are oriented to these and built up on the basis of them. When an event throws doubt upon or discredits these claims, then the encounter finds itself lodged in assumptions which no longer hold. The responses the parties have made ready are now out of place and must be choked back, and the interaction must be reconstructed.

The Peter Pan that went wrong as described on This American Life wasn’t “restructured.” Instead, at least for the audience, it became something else entirely — a sequence of hilarious sight gags for them to laugh at. 

These breakdowns don’t always end badly, though they usually do. Sometimes the moment of embarrassment can lead to the “creative destruction” of a definition of the situation that was not working and its replacement with something better.

In the final story of the episode of This American Life, the encounter that goes wrong involves a journalist Margy Rochlin in 1982 interviewing Moon Unit Zappa, whose “Valley Girls” was climbing the charts. Moon was 14. The interview took place in her living. Her mother was also present.

The interview was not going well. As Rochlin, tells it, “I’m sort of that rock bottom level that everyone can get at in an interview, where you’re just saying, like, what's your favorite color?” The cup of coffee that Moon’s mother has given Rochlin has gotten cold. And then. . .

And so what happened was Moon told me a joke. And I didn’t see the joke coming. And right before she told me the joke, I had taken a big swig of the coffee, which was now cold. And when she told me the joke, I burst out laughing. And I started to choke. And so I pressed my lips together, so I didn't spit it out. I didn't want to do a spit-take. And the coffee came shooting out my nose. . . . I was really embarrassed, but simultaneously, I couldn't breathe. At the same time, I was choking. And I jumped up. And I sort of started running around the room, knocking things over.

It gets worse. The mother chases Rochlin around the room trying to give her the Heimlich manoeuvre. (you can hear Rochlin’s full account here).

Ira Glass: Now, what happened after that? 

Margy Rochlin: It was sort of like we’d all been in an earthquake together. And all of nervousness left the room. And suddenly we were three gals, just chatting. And I remember that I sort of hugged them both when I left. They were now my friends. 

Ira Glass: It’s interesting, because one of our criteria for a fiasco is that all social order, the normal social structure breaks down. And literally, that’s what happens here. The normal interview stops. And the social structure of the moment completely changes. The mom gives you the Heimlich maneuver. And then, suddenly, it stops feeling like an interview.

Ira Glass calls it “the social structure of the moment.” Sociology instructors call it the “definition of the situation.”

*American Journal of Sociology, Volume 62, Issue 3 (Nov., 1956), 264-271.

When Definitions of the Situation Fail

April 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This weekend’s episode of This American Life (here) was called “Fiasco.” The title for Soc 101 would have been “Definition of the Situation.”

Most of the time, we don’t realize that we have such a definition. We know what something is – a play in a theater, police responding to a minor call for assistance, a journalst doing a celebrity interview. Nor do we realize that all the participants must do their part to sustain that definition. It’s only when something goes wrong that we begin to see these requirements.

These stories all involved things going wrong, very wrong. At first, people tried to maintain the definition they had come with. They tried to ignore or explain away the events that don’t fit. But eventually, they had to abandon the defintion.

The first story, recounted by journalist Jack Hitt,  was about a production of Peter Pan, the play where Peter and the Darling children fly. But the stagehand operating flying mechanisms don’t know what they’re doing, and the actors are swung about randomly or just left hanging in air.

 [The transcriptions below do not include all of what is in the audio clips.]

Ira Glass: Wait, wait. And the audience reaction to this point is just — are they laughing?

Jack Hitt: No one is laughing. One of the great things about audiences, especially in a live theater production, is that they’re very forgiving. They want the show to work. And so everyone is sort of gripping their chair a little tightly. We feel for them. They’re up there — they're embarrassing themselves for us.

Ira Glass: We identify with them. We become them.

Jack Hitt: And so the audience, I think, was very forgiving and very understanding of this moment.

“We identify with them [the actors],” says Ira, “We become them.” But it would be more accurate to say that we identify with the entire situation. The actors may be “embarrassing themselves,” but as Erving Goffman says, embarrassment affects the entire situation and the people who are part of it.
Even when the little boy playing the youngest child is being jerked up and then suddenly plummeted almost to the floor, “No one said a word. We just all sat there sort of holding our breath. And there’s that weird tension of being in the audience thinking, oh, oh my goodness. They have gotten off to a very bad start. Oh, this is not good. And we feel for them.”

To put it another way, our definition is still that this is Peter Pan. It’s just a Peter Pan where things aren’t going well.That definition starts to crumble as the younger people, teenagers, in the audience start laughing. The adults though held on to the old definition for a bit longer.

Jack Hitt: There was a split in the audience. Sort of the younger people who were the least forgiving, they started to go first, OK? So the high school students, couple of college students maybe, they started to laugh out loud. . . . But then whatever restraint that the audience had, it just evaporated at this point because there were a number of things that happened in quick succession that just made it impossible to hold any sense of decorum.

The audience was arriving at a new defintion. This is not Peter Pan, where we think about the schemes of Captain Hook and the responses of Peter and the children. It’s a fiasco, where we wait for the next sight gag.

Jack Hitt: There are just belly laughs rolling up to the stage from the audience. People are howling with laughter at every mistake. And now any small mistake just takes on these-- any instigation for laughter is just enough of for this audience. And now the old people have given it up. Everyone has quit being nice. Now there's just this kind of frightening roar that comes from the audience every time there’s a mistake.

Once the audience has this new definition, they sustain it in the same way that they had tried to sustain the old one, ignoring or rejecting information that doesn’t fit.

Ira Glass: At some point the audience turned and realized, oh wait. I realize what’s going on here. This is a fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Yeah. This is a fiasco. And what’s really interesting about a fiasco is that once it starts to tumble down, the audience wants to push it further along.

Ira Glass: Oh, they get hungry for more fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Oh, yeah. Ira Glass: If the play proceeded perfectly, they would be disappointed.

When Virtue Is Its Own — and Only — Reward

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A warren of journalism professors have written on open letter to Rupert Murdoch demanding that his Fox News stop spreading misinformation about the corona virus.

The basic purpose of news organizations is to discover and tell the truth. This is especially necessary, and obvious, amid a public health crisis. Television bears a particular responsibility because even more millions than usual look there for reliable information. Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic. [This HuffPo piece contains the full text of the letter.]

This is a noble sentiment, but but it’s a little like saying that the basic purpose of a president is to run the executive branch of the government effectively. The trouble with these ideal versions is that they ignore a basic principle of behavior — the reality of rewards. As Deep Throat said, follow the money or whatever else the people involved crave.

For both Fox News and Trump, the reward they pay attention to is popularity. Fox News is not very good at telling the truth, but it is very good at keeping and expanding their audience, and the larger the audience, the more money Murdoch makes. Apparently, it is by profits that he measure success, it is profits that bring him gratification.

Similarly for Trump. He’s not very good at running the government, but he is very good at keeping and even expanding the number of people who pay attention to him and who approve of him. Those ratings, along with the number of his Twitter and Facebook followers and his TV ratings, are what bring him satisfaction. They are what he craves.

As long as spreading misinformation brings no loss in popularity, Fox News and Trump will continue to do what they do best. The truth and the well-being of the population will remain secondary considerations with little consequence and therefor little influence; even less so will be the opinions of professors or even the judgment of history.   

Ellis Marsalis, 1934 - 2020

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

His sons Wynton and Branford became far better known, even outside the jazz world, especially when Branford was leading the Tonight Show band back in the Jay Leno days. But Ellis Marsalis was a fine pianist. This is his recording of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” from the album Heart of Gold, recorded in 1991. The other 14 tracks on the album are with bass and drums. But this one is solo piano., the melody once through. It shows his great sense of harmony.

I had known of this song, but the recordings I’d heard were treacly romantic versions from the 1940s. I never really heard it till I listened to Marsalis’s treatment (which I have tried to more or less copy when I play it). It’s as though he were singing it, and I’m sure that as he played he was thinking the lyrics to himself.

The Times obit says that he died of complications from COVID 19. He was 85.

Tomie de Paola, 1934 - 2020. The Art Lesson

March 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I heard Tomie da Paola l speak one summer at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod. 

“Who here knows how to draw?” he asked. A few people raised their hands — there’s no dearth of artists on the Cape in the summer — but most of us didn’t. “If you ask that question to a bunch of five-year olds, they all raise their hands,” he said.

His point was not, of course, that as we grow older we lose our ability to draw. What we lose is the ability to find joy in drawing.

That evening in the library, it was obvious from the man himself, even you didn’t know that he had drawn/written hundreds of books, that he never lost that joy.

Distance Norms – Feeling the Breach

March 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Public life has suddenly become an exercise in “breaching”*  — the breaking of norms.

What makes norms so powerful is that we usually don’t realize that they are there, constraining our behavior. A norm doesn’t become visible until someone breaks it.

In the lecture on norms, I always included Edward T. Hall’s observations about interpersonal distance. If we do not follow the norms, distance may be more important than the actual words we speak.
The flow and shift of distance between people as they interact with each other is part and parcel of the conversation process. The normal conversational distance between strangers illustrates how important are the dynamics of space interaction. If a person gets too close, the reaction is instantaneous and automatic – the other person backs up. And if he gets too close again, back we go again. I have observed an American backing up the entire length of a corridor while a foreigner whom he considers pushy tries to catch up with him.

It’s commonplace now, but in 1959, when Hall published The Silent Language, it was one of those facts that had been hiding in plain sight. But even now that we know, we usually remain unaware how these norms are an unseen and unheard theater director telling us actors to hit our marks. I’m not following rules, I think; I’m just acting naturally.

Lately, I’ve gotten a more visceral understanding of conversational distance.  It’s one thing to read about it and understand in an intellectual, cognitive way. Or even to have students in class stand up, face one another, and move closer and farther apart to see what feels comfortable and uncomfortable.  It’s quite another thing, and the understanding of the norm gets much more meaningful, when you run into people you know and have a brief conversation standing five or six feet away from them. You can hear each other, but it just feels, well, distant.

* Some instructors assign students to do a breaching exercise. I am skeptical of these assignments for reasons outlined here and here.

Sampling — the General Idea

March 17, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Need a current example for the unit on sampling, day one? Read on.

Today, NPR tweeted the results of a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll on perceptions of the coronavirus.
“This survey of 835 adults was conducted Friday and Saturday using live telephone callers via landline and cellphone. It has a margin of error of +/- 4.8 percentage points.”
It found that since last month, the percent of Americans who thought that the virus was a “real threat” had fallen from 66% to 56%, barely more than half. The decline was especially steep among Republicans – from 72% to 40%

Most of the Twitter comments critical of the NPR tweet were political, echoing Trump’s “media hoax” claims of last week. But one of them was methodological.  

(I wouldn't trust this poll.
Looking at the methods used it isn't like they
 asked the same 835 adults for the poll that 
they asked last month. Not terribly reliable.)

Yes, asking the question of the same sample would be ideal. But is it really necessary?

Apparently, the concept of “representative sample” is not intuitively obvious. My favorite illustration is the army general in the Pentagon who was presented with the results of a survey and informed that these were based on the responses of 1500 soldiers. He was incredulous. After all, there were 300,000 in uniform. How could this sociologist know what they were thinking and doing by asking not even one percent?

“How many should we survey?” asked the sociologist.

“You gotta ask ’em all.”

The conversation then proceeded something like this:

“General, do you ever go to the doctor for a physical?”

“Yep, every year.”

“And to find out your cholesterol levels and other things, does he take blood?”


“Well, how much of your blood does he take?”

“You know, just that little tube, maybe an ounce or two?”

“So, do you tell him that if he really wants to know the percent of cholesterol in your blood, he’s going to have to take more than that little tube; he’s going to have to take it all?”

I remembered this anecdote from a small book on sampling that some publisher sent decades ago. I can’t recall the author’s name, and I may have gotten some of the details wrong. Nor do I remember if he said what the general’s response was. My guess is that the general sort of got the idea of sampling but still suspected that there was something fishy about it.

The Scrolls, One More Time

March 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a distraction from COVID-19, the Museum of the Bible had an important announcement.

The museum said in part, “Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments." [USA Today.]

I know that I shouldn’t be citing Woody Allen these days. Plus, I used this same excerpt from his essay “The Scrolls” not so long ago. But with life so brazenly imitating art, I felt compelled.

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing . . . .

The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.

Blaming the Coach, Ignoring the Context

March 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a Times op-ed today about kids and sports. “Your Kids’ Coach Is Probably Doing It Wrong,” by Jennifer Eitner (here).

Usually, these hand-wringing articles point their finger at parents. This time, it’s the coaches. Either way, this approach makes the mistake of focusing on individuals and ignoring the larger social context. For me, it was sort of a flashback to the early months of this blog, when I wrote about the same problem.

Seventy percent of kids drop out of youth sports by the time they are thirteen. And  according to Etnier, one of the most important reasons is the kind of coaching they get. “Coaches are doing it wrong.”

The problem of course is that “These inexperienced coaches often focus on winning rather than learning and development.”  A 1993 survey found that “a lack of fun, negative coach behaviors and an overemphasis on winning were among the top reasons children drop out of sports. [emphasis added]”

That may be true, but when a behavior is so widespread, maybe we should look for explanations outside of the individuals, in the structures —  the rules of the game —  that shape the situations that coaches and kids find themselves in. And if we are trying to change that behavior, if we want to keep kids from quitting sports, we’ll have more success by changing those external structures than by exhorting the individuals to think and act differently.

One of the great insights of sociology is that thinking and doing are not purely  individual matters. Thoughts — thoughts like the emphasis on winning — aren’t just inside people’s heads. They are also part of the situation. How that situation is structured makes a big difference in how the coaches and kids think and act. That structure, the one that Eitner is worried about, is organized sports. In unorganized sports — pick-up games at the playground — there are no coaches. Also no practices, no uniforms identifying permanent teams, no won-lost records or individual statistics, no traveling teams, no playoffs, no trophies. Given that structure, it’s hard to overemphasize winning since the final score of the game ceases to exist once the game is over.

Yes, coaches may stress winning above anything else, but it’s not because all these coaches are single-minded competition-freaks. It’s because the whole system pushes them to think that way. As I said thirteen years ago (here* and here), the way we organize something carries its own logic, and that logic often overwhelms our best personal intentions.

I’m reminded of a line from the British movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” based on the Jeanette Winterson novel. The protagonist, a young schoolgirl, has just done badly in some school competition (not sports), and a grown-up tries to console her: “Winning isn’t the important thing.”

“Then why is that what they give the prizes for?” asks the girl.

You may want the kids to have fun. You may tell them that the whole point of the game is to have fun.  But if you structure kids’ play as a formal competition, with teams and leagues and won-lost records, the message is clear: it’s all about winning. It’s as though parents had organized a military marching band for their musically inclined children, with uniforms and practices and every note written out, and then wondered why their kids weren’t jamming on the blues.


* Here is a long excerpt from that post. It’s a good example of how external contexts make some ideas unthinkable.

I happened to be in a park where a girls’ soccer match was just getting started. The girls looked to be about six or seven years old, incredibly cute, one team in shiny pink shirts, the other in blue. It was a scene you could easily imagine parents taking pictures of. But as it turned out, it wasn’t much of a match. The blue team had a couple of really good players, and the game was never close. The pink team would put the ball in play, but after a few seconds the blue team would get it, and one of the good players would take the ball downfield and kick a goal. 

After a few such scores, the girls in pink were becoming demoralized, and even the girls in blue didn’t seem very excited or happy. The coach of the blue team even benched one of the good players to try to even things up. It didn’t help. Mercifully, six-year-olds don’t play long matches, and the whole dismal thing was over in twenty minutes or so. 

What was wrong with this picture? For the purpose of making it easier for girls to play soccer, parents had organized a league with teams and uniforms and scheduled matches. But today, it wasn’t working very well. How might they have had a good match? 

In other circumstances, the solution would be so obvious that even six-year-olds could think of it: have one or two of the good Blue players switch sides with some of the weaker Pink players. But I doubt that this thought occurred to any of these intelligent and very well educated parents. 

Even if some of the soccer moms or dads had thought of it, what could they have done? The uniforms, the necessity of keeping won-lost records, and everything else based on the idea of permanent teams in an organized league make that solution all but impossible.

Pitchforks and Velvet Ropes

March 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“To: My Fellow Zillionaires.” So begins Nick Hannauer’s “memo” (a magazine article really)  “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats.” (His TED talk along similar lines is here.) 

Hannauer’s vision of angry peasants is a rustic and old-fashioned version of Nelson Schwartz’s more urban and up-to-date metaphor “the velvet rope economy.” (See the previous post.)

In this model, as the very rich pull away from the rest of the society economically and socially, those who are not wealthy will become increasingly resentful and moved to collective action. In politics, says Schwartz, the resentment rises on both sides of the political divide. “President Trump regularly inveighs against the elite,” and Bernie never fails to point his finger at “millionaires and billionaires.”

The only trouble with this is that the only elite Trump attacks is the mainstream media. His other targets and those denounced by his followers are not wealthy or elite. They are long-term government employees, immigrants, the undeserving poor, and generally anybody who disagrees with him. As for Sanders, if the Bernie bros and other youth were so angry, their turnout on Super Tuesday would not have been so disappointing.

The only systematic evidence Schwartz offers is a single study about the two-caste microcosmic society of the airplane.

When passengers boarded at the front of the aircraft and had to walk through the premium cabin to get to coach, the odds of an outburst in economy doubled. Nor was the anger limited to the back of the plane. On those flights where coach passengers traipsed their way through first class upon boarding, unruly behavior among elite passengers was nearly 12 times as likely.

That study understandably got much attention in the media when it was published, but as Andrew Gelman has pointed out, the study has serious methodological flaws. Worse, the authors would not make their data public so that others might re-analyze it. (See Gelman’s post and the comments here ).

Even at face value, these results don’t paint a picture of pitchforks. The passengers in economy got rowdy with one another or with the flight attendants, as did the high flyers. In fact, we Americans generally do not begrudge the very wealthy their huge fortunes. Nor do we often criticize what they do with all that money. If they want to gobble up sports franchises and get the best players that money can buy, more power to them. Boston fans of a while ago might have booed the Yankees, but they never booed Steinbrenner (“the Boss”). You wouldn’t go to the stadium and see a banner like this.

Dietmar Hopp, software billionare (SAP), owns the Hoffenheim team and has been spending carloads of euros to raise the standing of his team, much to the distaste of Bayern Munich fans. (The banner says in part “Hopp Is Still a Son of a Whore.”) It’s not just Bayern Munich. Hopp is generally despised. There were similar protests at Bayern matches in other cities. It gets complicated because the players on the pitch at this match then protested against the fans, spending the final 10 minutes of the match playing keepy-uppy at midfield. (I cannot figure out how to embed the video, but you can see it here.)

That’s Germany. In the US, wealth inequality is far greater and has been increasing more rapidly. But pitchfork sales remain flat.

The Rich Are Different from You and Me. But Are They a Caste?

March 4, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Online, the title of the Nelson Schwartz’s New York Times article (here) was “When It’s This Easy at the Top, It’s Harder for Everyone Else.” But in the print version of last Sunday’s Business section, it was “Is American on the Way to a Caste System?”

I remembered Bettridge’s law:
When the title of an article is a question,
a. the author thinks the answer is Yes, and

b. the better answer is probably No
  (Previous examples are here and here.)

Schwartz has been checking out the luxuries that money, a lot of money, can buy. He wrote a book called The Velvet Rope Economy.  But what troubles him is not just the expensive toys that the only the very rich can afford. That’s nothing new. But . . .

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.[emphasis added.]

Yes, the wealthy are getting farther and farther removed from the rest of us. We do not share the same space — economically and socially, even physically. They are in their skyboxes and private jets, or at the new private terminal ($4500 per year plus $3000 per flight) at LAX.

But are we “morphing into a caste system”? Caste systems have more than two castes; it’s not just the 1% or 0.1% and everybody else. Also, castes are rigid and hereditary. You remain a member of the caste you were born into for your entire life. So do your children. No doubt wealth in the US is hereditary and usually permanent, but not in the same way. The superwealthy do everything they can to make sure that they and their children remain at the top. But it is not guaranteed, and newcomers from the other side of the velvet rope regularly arrive.  As for the rest of us on the other side of the velvet rope, economic boundaries are fuzzy. Even sociologists cannot agree on the categories and criteria for social class.

Schwartz sees other consequences of inequality, like “shabbier services” for the non-wealthy. As the quote in the box shows, he conflates this with caste, but they are not the same and not necessarily connected. Are goods and services a zero-sum game, where the more the rich win, the more the rest of us lose? Or do we all wind up with better stuff — cell phones and 50" flatscreen TVs that only a few years earlier only the wealthy could afford? That’s an economic debate I’ll sidestep here.

As for the psychological and societal consequence Schwartz sees — anger, resentment, and the withering of social cohesion, I’ll leave that for another post.

White Cops and Black Cops in the ’Hood

February 26, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the early years of this blog, I wrote a post ( here) with the title “Racism Without Racists.” (I don’t think I originated the phrase, though I still don’t know who to credit it to.) The point was that racially discriminatory outcomes can result even when the people producing those outcomes are not racists.

That post looked at data showing that LAPD car stops, Blacks and Latinos, compared with Whites, were more likely to be ordered out of the car, frisked, ask to consent to a search, and arrested. The chief of police, Bill Bratton, insisted that the department did not have a policy of racial profiling. My guess was that you could get these racially skewed outcome even without a profiling policy and even if no cops harbored racist attitudes. Instead, it could result from our inability to “read” people of a different race.

That was car stops and searches. What about shootings?

For their recent NBER paper, Mark Hoekstra and Carly Will Sloan sifted through 2 million 911 calls in two cities in order to compare shootings by White and Black cops. The paper is behind a paywall at NBER, but here’s the key sentence from the abstract.

While white and black officers use gun force at similar rates in white and racially mixed neighborhoods, white officers are five times as likely to use gun force in predominantly black neighborhoods.

White cops in Black areas — five times more likely to shoot than are Black cops. In part, that’s because White cops are generally more violent (“white officers use force 60 percent more than black officers, and use gun force twice as often.”) But they may also perceive situations differently. Just as our cross-race readings of individuals is unreliable, so too may be our reading of cross-race social settings, especially in tense situations that require very quick decisions.White cops in Black neighborhoods may read a situation as extreme danger where Black cops see it as less threatening and less urgent

Trump — Working the Crowd, Working the Refs

February 25, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

When people criticize or oppose Trump, or even provide information that contradicts him, his main strategy is to try to discredit them, to challenge their legitimacy. They are, he claims, unfair and biased against him. So when Justice Sotomayor noted the unprecedented number of cases where the Court’s conservative majority had acceded to Trump administration requests to fast-track cases, Trump, unsurprisingly, issued a typical tweet. I found it in this NPR story today.

(Click on an image for a larger version.)

Here Trump was trying to discredit specific judges. He has done it before. But many on the left fear that Trump is also trying to discredit American institutions. That’s because he often puts it that way. He attacks not just this or that journalist but “the fake-news media,” by which he means all media except Fox News. He attacks not just a judge but entire courts. “The 9th Circuit is a complete & total disaster.”   

Is the Trump strategy is having the effect that progressives fear? It’s hard to know. The GSS shows a decline in confidence in the courts in 2018, but since the previous rates are from 2008, we can’t know when that change occurred.

The Gallup Poll finds a small decrease in 2018 for confidence in the Supreme Court, but generally the percent of those who have great confidence in SCOTUS has not changed much in the last decade, fluctuating between 30% and 40%.  Before that, going back to 1973, confidence in SCOTUS stayed above 40%.

Last May, I posted an audio clip from an interview with Michael Lewis, who had just launched a podcast about attacks on the legitimacy of all kinds of judges, not just those in courtrooms. Here is the relevant excerpt from that blogpost. (The entire post is here.)

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.

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.)

The Times Wedding Announcements They Are a-Changin’

February 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here are some more trends dredged up from Wedding Crunchers, the New York Times corpus of words in its wedding announcements. As I noted in the previous post about brides keeping or changing their name (here), these announcements are not a representative sample of couples. And while they are not even representative of couples in the Times’s corner of US society, I think they point to some general trends in that elitish slice of the world.

Take grade inflation. This well-documented trend is reflected in Times weddings as well.

 (Click on an image to enlarge it.)
From 1981 to 2019, the proportion of announcements with a summa more than doubles (from 4% top 10%) as does the magna rate (9% to 19%). It’s possible, though unlikely, that Times has raised its bar for putting your announcement in the paper. Or maybe today’s couples really were better students in their college days. We do know that more of them are going on to post-BA programs. But which?

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the MBA, the Wall Street “masters of the universe” in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or in real life the recently pardoned Michael Milken (MBA Wharton 1979, Pleasanton Federal Prison 1993). The 1990s was for lawyers. (I recall a New Yorker cartoon, which I cannot now find online, which shows a young woman and man at a cocktail party. She is saying, “How did I know you’re a lawyer? Everyone’s a lawyer.”)

As we head to the 21st century, two other phrases start turning up —  “hedge fund” and “start up.”

The numbers are small, never more than one announcement in 25 including either of them, but starting about ten years ago, start ups began to replace hedge funds as the choice of the adventurous and ambitious (and perhaps avaricious).

The other newcomer to the these pages is the dating app. The steep increase starts in 2013 or 2014. In only 5-6 years, about 20% of the wedding couples announce that they met via a dating app.

Finally, remarriage in the Times seems to run parallel with national trends.

The US divorce rate peaked in 1980, and since the most remarriages occur on average 5 years after divorce, we should expect the downward slope that begins in 1984. More curious are the upward trend 1996 - 2004 and the decline after that. Of course, remarriage in the Times is somewhat rare — the rate ranges from about 7% to 13% — so maybe we shouldn’t make too much of these fluctuations.

If you’re curious and what to explore your own key words, go to