Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts

Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 50s or 1960s at the latest. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris. But he is not so keen on getting back together.


I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been long enough before to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”



The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monkey Business

August 30, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is a “monkey” idiom used, however tangentially, in connection with a Black person always racism?

After he won the Republican primary for governor in Florida, Ron De Santis made a statement about the coming general election. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, is Black. Here’s what De Santis said.

Florida elections are always competitive, and this is a guy who, although he’s much too liberal for Florida, I think he’s got huge problems with how he’s governed Tallahassee, he is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views, and he’s a charismatic candidate. I watched those Democrat debates, and none of that is my cup of tea, but he performed better than those other people there. So we’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction, let’s build off the success we’ve had on Governor Scott, the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work. [emphasis added]

People on the left accused De Santis of using a racial dog whistle to get Florida racists to the polls. Those on the right disagreed.

It’s understandable that Black people would be offended. But the issue here is De Santis’s intent. If “monkey this up” is a common idiom – like “going ape shit,” or “monkeying around” with something – then maybe there was no racist intent. For example, in his response to De Santis’s comment, Gillum said, “What we’re trying to offer in this race is a north star for where we want to go as a state. [emphasis added]” Was this a dog whistle to Northerners who had moved to Florida or to other Floridians who want the state to be less Southern?

Unlikely. I’ve heard people use “north star” in this way, though I think its synonym “pole star” is more frequent (but then, Gillum is running in Florida, not Buffalo). But I don’t recall ever hearing “monkey this up.” Why would De Santis come up with it, especially when so many other words come readily to mind – mess this up, screw this up, undermine this, spoil this, and so on?

Mark Kleiman, a liberal, had a similar reaction. Responding to conservatives David French and Ben Shapiro. Shapiro (here ) had called the dog whistle accusations “wildly dishonest stuff.”


Was it just liberals like Kleiman and me who’d never heard “monkey this up”? I checked Google nGrams to see how often the phrase appeared in books. Instead of the usual graph, Google returned this.

Apparently “monkey this up” was as unfamiliar to Google as it was to me. (NB: our president has assured us that Google is biased against conservatives, and perhaps Google’s book-search function is similarly slanted. Fake nGrams.)

But that is not the whole story. I tried again, leaving out the pronoun.

Turns out “monkey up” really is a phrase. Its use has been falling since 1920, but only since about 1960 has it been outpaced by “muck up.” Maybe De Santis is old fashioned. Or is there regional variation? Maybe “monkey up” is more common in the South, like “coke” as a general term for soft drinks.

Gillum took “monkey up” as racist, but he also said that the problem goes far beyond ambiguous metaphors. “In the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls – they’re now using full bullhorns.”

Trump has taken us beyond the subtleties of language.  And yet, it’s probably unwise for Democrats to make accusations of racism. Trump supporters, understandably, don’t like being called racists, and if you point out the racism in their policy preferences, they probably won’t vote for you. So race becomes the issue that is hugely important but that can’t be talked about – the 800-pound gorilla.

I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say, “I’ll Have to Get Back to You on That.”

August 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen was in a colleague’s office when the phone rang. It was a man in the department asking the colleague to serve on a committee. She ran through the list of things she was already burdened with — thesis supervision, an overloaded teaching schedule, other committees. “There’s no way I could responsibly join another committee. Of course, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it, but honestly, I don’t see how I could add it to what’s already on my plate.”

When the conversation had ended and she had hung up the phone, she turned to Tannen. “I can’t believe it. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he put me on the committee anyway.”*

The problem, as Tannen sees it, is not that the man was inconsiderate but that the two people were speaking in different “conversational styles.” He was listening in a “direct” style; she was speaking in a more “indirect” style. The only “No” he would hear was a direct one – simple and without qualification or exception.

It’s as though they were speaking different languages. Language is a part of culture, and cultures have different ideas about directness. When I was in Japan long ago, people would sometimes comment on how “frank” Americans were. At the time I took it as a compliment. Only much later did I realize that what they meant was that Americans, including me, will just barge in and tell you what they think or what they want with not a thought to anyone else’s feelings or preferences. They are too obtuse to consider the harmony within the group.

Japanese culture and language are indirect. There are countless stories of Americans doing business in Japan thinking that they had been told “yes” when the Japanese had thought they had clearly told the Americans “no.” The Japanese, with their comment about frankness, were telling me to be more sensitive and circumspect. But they were saying it indirectly, and I just didn’t hear.

Even within our own frank culture, getting to No is hard. We all are reluctant to give an unequivocal No. “Not really,” is often as close as we get. But there’s a gender difference. Men are more comfortable with the direct style than are women, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. Women are more indirect. Tannen’s overburdened colleague thought she was being direct, and maybe she was — for a woman. A better example comes from a McSweeney’s list last week.

Nelles-Sager’s list includes, in part:
1. “Hmm… maybe.”
2. “We should look that up.”
3. “Totally.”
7. “Yeah, for sure, I mean, actually, it’s [right answer], but you’re right that it could be [wrong answer] if it wasn’t [right answer].”
8. “It’s possible.”
In many situations, gender overlaps with another variable that affects directness — power. In saying  “no” to someone higher in power, it’s probably better to be less direct.  Alternatively, those in power may take care not to be too harshly direct to those below them. Nelles-Sager doesn’t mention it, but three years earlier, McSweeney’s had another list : “Ways Teachers Avoid Saying ‘No.’” At least one entry — “I suppose it’s possible” — is identical to one of Nelles-Sager’s. Others include “I see where you’re coming from” and “I guess that’s an interpretation.”

The general point may be that when we are thinking about the feelings of others, we use the indirect style. The reason may be based in culture, gender, or power. It may even be a matter of personality, as illustrated by the passage that I cribbed the title of this post from.

The truth was that Pinchuck had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. “I want to be liked,” he admitted to Blanche. “Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no.” (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I'll get back to you.” This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)

 — Woody Allen, “By Destiny Denied”


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* This anecdote appears in Tannen’s recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.

The Tristesse of No Bonjour

July 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several years ago, I went to Paris with my family. When we got out of the airport, I couldn’t find the RER, the express train from DeGaulle to Paris. I went up to a man standing on the sidewalk and asked, in French of course.

 “Bonjour,” he said.

I repeated my question. “Bonjour,” he said again, this time as if cuing a dim-witted child. I got it. “Bonjour,” I said and again asked about the RER. This time he answered.

I had chalked it up to this guy just being a stickler for formalities. But now that I’ve started reading The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, I realize how wrong I was. Bonjour is not just a greeting. It’s like eye contact – a necessary start to any interaction. It acknowledges that you are in the same situation with the other person. Without bonjour, communication cannot begin.

As I read this first chapter about bonjour, I recalled a much earlier visit to Paris. I needed some Velcro to make a small repair on something. A piece of clothing? A bag? I don’t recall. A friend told me that I could find Velcro in the mercerie section of a department store.  I went to La Samaritaine and found the mercerie. Two sales girls were standing talking to each other. I stood there, waiting to be waited on. Any clerk in an American store would have turned to me and asked if she could help. But the two girls continued their conversation, facing one another and ignoring me as if I weren’t there. I can’t remember how I managed to interrupt and finally get the Velcro.*

The rudeness of the French, I thought, or at least young French women. But now, decades later, I wonder what would have happened if I had said, “Bonjour.”

Of course, it’s not just a matter of words. The bonjour requirement is the visible tip of an underlying difference in the way we think about service workers and customers and the relation between them. The definition of those roles in France is not the same as it is in America. Barlow and Nadeau explain:
When you enter a French store ore a restaurant or even walk up to an information kiosk, the first thing you have to do in France is acknowledge that you are entering their turf. That’s because you are asking for something from an employee who may have something more important to do. Whether or not that employee actually does have something better to do is not the point. You are interrupting him to ask for something. He does not owe you anything in exchange for you giving him your bounces. The French just don’t think that way. When you address a merchant or a clerk or a hostess or even a waiter, bonjour is not a word. It’s not a greeting or even a form of courtesy. Bonjour is code for “please allow me to indulge in your services.”


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* The French word for Velcro, I discovered, is Velcro. It was invented by a francophone Swiss. According to Wikipedia, the word is a portmanteau of velour and crochet (hook).

Multiple Negatives and Believable Lies

July 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Language Log (here ), Mark Liberman posted this sentence from a CNN interview with Michael Hayden, CIA director in the Bush 43 administration, about the Mueller investigation.
I would not be surprised
if this were not the last indictment we see
that- that doesn't mention
an American

[emphasis addded]
Does this statement mean that Hayden thinks more Americans will be indicted?

Jake Tapper quickly translated
so in other words there will be another indictment, and you think there'll be Americans involved
Oh those multiple negatives, cancelling each other out. Hayden has three nots.

You have to cut Hayden some slack. He was speaking extemporaneously. But what about writers? I’ve blogged before about problem of multiple negatives in multiple-choice test questions and even the GSS (here).

In today’s New York Times, Mark Landler (here) matches Hayden’s three-in-a-sentence construction. Here’s the second paragraph of Landler’s piece.

Mr. Trump’s declaration that he saw no reason not to believe President Vladimir V. Putin when he said the Russians did not try to fix the 2016 election was extraordinary enough. But it was only one of several statements the likes of which no other president has uttered while on foreign soil. [emphasis added]

I won’t say that Landler’s sentence is not less than incomprehensible. And maybe “Trump said he found Putin’s statement believable” is imprecise and overstates Trump’s credulity. Maybe — but not by much. Here’s what Trump said,

My people came to me, Dan Coats [Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. . .  So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.


Trump does not use multiple negatives. That may be because they pose problems of logic for the speaker, not just the listener. But whatever the reason, this avoidance may be one of the things that fosters the impression that he is a “straight talker.” What he says on a topic may change from one day to the next, but when he voices his view of the day, he states in absolute terms – no reservations, no qualifications.

Double negatives are ambiguous. If we say that someone is “not unfriendly,” we leave open the entire spectrum. from  “possibly somewhat friendly” to “absolutely the friendliest person in the world,” as Trump might put it, especially if he were talking about himself. Trump’s world has no ambiguity. Things that are not good are the worst. Things that are good are the greatest.

Maybe Putin’s denials to Trump about election meddling were similarly uncomplicated — no multiple negatives — allowing Trump to ascribe to Putin’s lies the same credibility that conservatives in the US give to Trump’s lies.

UPDATE:  The press conference happened yesterday. Today Trump issued a clarification that reinforces my point that he doesn’t know how to state ideas involving multiple negatives. In the press conference Monday, on the matter of who was responsible for the hacking and other meddling in the election, Trump said, “ I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Today, Tuesday, Trump corrected himself, reading from a script probably written by Stephen Miller:  “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,”

He’s probably lying about what he meant to say. But even if he’s telling the truth, he’s saying that the logic of that double negative is a bit too complicated for him, which is why he couldn’t speak it correctly at the time.


Blaming the Baby — The Language of Medical Infallibility

June 11, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent article at Vox (here), Julia Belluz says, “Only 4 percent of women give birth on their estimated delivery date. . . Medicine is surprisingly bad at measuring the precise age of a fetus or how far along a woman is into her pregnancy.” The rest of the article explains why doctors suck at predicting the date of delivery.

But that’s not the way we talk about it. We don’t say, “The doctor was wrong.” We don’t say, “The doctor made a really bad prediction.” Instead we blame the woman. We say she was “late.”  She “missed her due date,” as though childbirth was something akin to a term paper. I guess if she provides a good excuse, we’ll give her an extension till Friday. 

Or we blame the baby. Look at the opening sentence of the article, “A pregnant friend of mine is due to give birth on Saturday, but as she told me this week, she really has no idea if the baby will come on time, or two weeks from now.” [emphasis added.]
   
The kid is still in the womb, and already we are taking him or her to task for not arriving “on time.”  

It’s not just obstetrics. Talk related to most other areas of medicine also rests on the same charitable assumption of doctor infallibility, especially when the ones doing the talking are doctors. The patient “failed to respond to treatment,” not “the treatment we used didn’t work.”

I caught on to this trick long ago, when I was reviewing the literature on compulsive gamblers. There wasn’t much to review, and most of those accounts were from psychiatrists. One of them said that treating compulsive gamblers was difficult because they “do not make good patients.” At first, that tallied with what I had found. Many of the compulsive gamblers I was listening to had tried psychotherapy without much success. It took me a while see that if you translate this idea out of the language of psychiatric infallibility, it sounds very different: “We psychiatrists have no idea how to cure these guys.”

This way of speaking — the one we frequently use — places the blame for failure on the patient, not the doctor. Those compulsive gamblers don’t make good patients. And babies — don’t get me started. Totally unreliable. They just have no sense of punctuality.

Feckless Bunt — The C-word at Home and Abroad

June 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was browsing the New Book shelf in our library yesterday and noticed The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy, about differences between US and British English



One of those differences is the word cunt, a word which, by coincidence was very much in the news that same day. Samantha Bee had called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.”  Conservatives especially fell into an angry swoon. But Bee’s remark was the top story in news feeds across the political spectrum.

In the US, cunt is the worst thing you can call someone. If Bee had called Ivanka a “clueless asshole” or a “heartless fuck,” I doubt that the reaction would have been as swift and strong. As for bitch and pussy, we know that Trump supporters, thanks to “Access Hollywood,”  have long since made peace with those terms.

Bee’s comments would also not have drawn so much attention if she’d been speaking to a British audience. Cunt is different in the UK. As Murphy says (not in the book but on her blog), “The British can be amused by how much this word offends many Americans.”

Because cunt is less offensive in Britain, it can be used more casually and therefore more often. Even in the formal world of books, cunt appears more frequently in the UK, as Google n-grams shows (hat tip: Philip Cohen, who tweeted a similar graph).


The word is less offensive in the UK because it has a different meaning. In the US, only a woman can be a cunt. But in the UK, the term is applied to both genders, perhaps more often to males.  Murphy used a corpus of Internet sources (blogs, news, etc.) and found, “two unique instances of this phrase in the American data. Both refer to women. There are five in the British data and they refer to: a male athlete, a male friend, and fans of a certain football team or football magazine.”

It’s sort of like pussy – demeaning the man’s manhood.  “In the UK, the word is thrown around rather easily among men. It can be used among friends in a playful way, but more often (as far as I can tell) it is a term of abuse for men they don't like.”

In the US, if a woman is a cunt, she is a horrible person. But in the UK, the term can suggest just a general inefficacy or stupidity, not cruelty and evil. I don’t have the Internet corpus, but I do have the Monty Python Travel Agent sketch, which dates back to the 1960s.



Here’s a transcript.

Bounder: Anyway you’re interested in one of our adventure holidays?
Tourist: Yes I saw your advert in the bolor supplement.
Bounder: The what?
Tourist: The bolor supplement.
Bounder: The color supplement?
Tourist: Yes I’m sorry I can’t say the letter ‘B’
Bounder: C?
Tourist: Yes that’s right. It’s all due to a trauma I suffered when I was a sboolboy. I was attacked by a bat.
Bounder: A cat?
Tourist: No, a bat
Bounder: Can you say the letter ‘K’?
Tourist: Oh yes, Khaki, king, kettle, Kuwait, Kings Bollege Bambridge.
Bounder: Why don’t you say the letter 'K’ instead of the letter ‘C’?
Tourist: what you mean.....spell bolor with a ‘K’?
Bounder:Right.
Tourist: Kolor. Oh that’s very good, I never thought of that. What a silly bunt.


No American man would refer to himself as a “silly cunt.” Or rather, a “silly kunt.”

Clinton-Patterson — The Copy Editor Is Missing

May 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Entertainment Weekly has posted an excerpt from the new novel co-written by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.


Here is the opening of that excerpt.


Everything I did was to protect my country. I’d do it again. The problem is, I can’t say any of that.

“All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will.”

I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I keep eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We think—we hope—that we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case—[emphasis added]

I confess I have never read any books by either of these authors. I voted for one of them, and the other has given a fair amount of money to the school where I work. But despite these considerations, I cannot shirk my duty to point out the mixed metaphors. Maybe they’re the result of mixed authorship. Did Clinton like the “balls” and Patterson* the “shoe”? And where was the copy editor who is supposed to spot these kinds of miscue?

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* Multiple authorship is nothing new for Patterson. He does not actually “write” his own books, in the usual sense of write. “Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines, sometimes running 80 pages, to co-authors, . .  a stable of writers that rivals this year’s field at the Kentucky Derby. ‘It may be a factory,’ Robinson says, ‘but it’s a hand-tooled factory.” (WaPo)

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.)

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use them. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Lots of artists get ideas that they consider for a while – in this case apparently for a few hours one morning – and then reject. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)

Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties

May 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A “traitor to his class” – that’s what wealthier Republicans and conservatives called FDR. Here was a man who came from wealth yet whose policies were more directed at helping the poor and unemployed, even at the expense of the rich.

Tom Wolfe’s most famous work is probably “Radical Chic,” the 25,000-word piece that ran in New York Magazine in June, 1970. It was about “a party for the Black Panthers.” Wolfe too casts a cold eye on wealthy people coming to the aid of people who were on the wrong side of the social system, in this case, twenty-one Black Panthers accused of a variety of offenses including conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, police stations, the New Haven Railroad, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Thirteen of the accused had been arrested and bail was set at $100,000, in effect denying them bail. They had been in jail for over a year. Leonard Bernstein had been persuaded to hold a fund-raiser for them in his apartment. Wealthy people, some of them famous, were invited. So were the lawyers and some members of the Black Panther Party.


You’d think that a journalist covering the event would pay extensive attention to the legal side of things – the charges, the evidence, and so on. You’d also think that in reflecting on the article years later in an interview with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the journalist would mention, at least in passing, that the eventual trial had lasted eight months (New York’s longest and most expensive ever at the time) and that the jury took only a couple of hours to return not-guilty verdicts on all 156 charges (twelve crimes x thirteen defendants).

You might think that, but if the journalist is Tom Wolfe, you’d think wrong. Wolfe didn’t really care about the legal charges. He didn’t care about the issues of justice or race or politics that the people at Bernstein’s apartment were talking about. What he cared about was Style.  His goal in the article was to mock these rich White people, many of them Jewish, for trying to incorporate elements of Black style. For Wolfe, the gathering – the discussion and donations – was not primarily about justice. It was merely one more attempt by rich people to appear hip. As Wolfe told the Nieman interviewer

This is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — [. . .] They’ll never be a starker contrast between, to use a fancy word, two sensibilities.

The cover for this issue of New York Magazine captures Wolfe’s message –three wealthy-looking White women (I have no idea who designed their dresses; Wolfe, no doubt, would know) raising their fists in the Black Power salute.


Wolfe is very good at style and status. Nobody does it better. The article is awash in observations of clothes, colors, fabrics, objects.

The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.

No detail is too trivial.

Lefcourt and Quat [lawyers for the Panthers] start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . . 

You might think that devoting this much attention to a mint – a mint for godssakes – serves mostly as a vehicle for Wolfe to show off his knowledge of merch (Marthinsen bowls) and his prose. But the Nieman interviewer, tells Wolfe. “This is a beautiful thing, the way you puncture the tension with a mint.” Shows you how little I know about journalism.
                                                               
There’s another problem with Wolfe’s New Journalism – the almost imperceptible shift from the reporter’s observation to the novelist’s omniscience. I hope to say more about that in a later post.

What Have You Got Against Progress?

April 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to find a liberal politician these days. Hillary? Nope. Bernie? Not him either.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and others of their generation used to be Liberals. No longer. They’re Progressives. And of course, so are newer faces like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Is there a difference? In a NY Times op-ed today, “When Liberals Become Progressives,” Greg Weiner of Assumption College says Yes there is. He’s wrong. Or rather, if he’s right, he’s right only in his own particular definition of these words.

“Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.” He sees Progressives as uncompromising, almost totalitarian. Progressivism is a steamroller flattening anyone and anything in its path to social improvements – tradition, the Constitution, individual rights; nothing is safe. “It supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.”

I’m sure that Chuck and Nancy, Hillary and Bernie, Cory and Kamala and the rest would be surprised and delighted to learn that their power was so awesome.

Of course, Prof. Weiner knows what’s really going on. It’s a change of name, not of policy.* “In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use.” Even as a name change, Weiner says, it “augurs poorly for Democrats.” He’s wrong. It was a brilliant bit of renaming and rebranding. It trades a label that was at best peripheral to American ideas and ideals for one that has a more central place in American culture.

The pantheon of American values includes ideals like Freedom, Equality, Success/Achievement, Democracy, Patriotism, and others. But no observer of American culture has ever seen Liberal as one of these terms that have such deep resonance in the hearts of Americans. That may have made it even easier for Republicans to turn “Liberal” into a slur.

But Americans do believe in Progress. Politicians can rail about ideas and policies that are liberal. But who will speak out against Progress? Back in the 20th century, the term was so unassailably positive that General Electric made it the core of their brand.** Progress was their most important product.


Yes, that’s conservative saint Ronald Reagan pitching progress. The idea of progress may have lost some of the sanctity it had in the 1950s, but it’s still highly positive. Not to Prof. Weiner. He still loves the “liberal” label. He says that those on the left “would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it. I wonder how many politicians (and their brand consultants) who are trying to win elections would agree with him?

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* Weiner does not mention any actual policies. Nor does he specify what he means by “the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.” Presumably, he means the right to discriminate against LBGTQ people.

** Back then, we spoke of “image” rather than “brand.” It’s really the same thing – how the public perceives the company. The main difference is that the word “image” suggests that the whole thing is a fake, an imaginary facade that PR guys have created to manipulate the public. “Brand,” by contrast, is as honest and unpretentious as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. This change from “image-mongers” to “brand consultants” is itself one of the great examples of rebranding.

“Mi Amor” — My Larry David Moment

April 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Larry David, in his pre-”Seinfeld” standup years, did a bit about familiar and formal pronouns in Romance languages.* “I’m glad I wasn’t the owner of a big hacienda in some South American country [pause] because I’d never know whether to address the workers as tu or usted.” And he would explain the delicacies and conflicts associated with each pronoun.

David did not exactly kill as a standup. Or as he put it, “I sucked.” But when I read about that line, I thought – it’s pure sociology. It’s Goffman, it’s social class, it’s culture. By choosing one pronoun you are, as Goffman says,  “projecting a definition of the situation” and the role relationships within that situation. We Americans, with our ideals of equality, do not feel comfortable with vertical relationships. We don’t like to admit that social class distinctions exist. Economic inequality, that’s OK. But cultural inequality, that’s evil elitism.**

Fairway, my local grocery store, is not a hacienda, but I had that same Larry David moment this morning.

Let me back up. I’ve been shopping there for years. The long-time workers there  – we recognize one another and exchange brief pleasantries. I try to use what little Spanish I have. A while ago, I noticed that the workers, at least in male-female exchanges, address one other as “mi amor.” There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s very casual –  the equivalent of the British “luv” (“Care for a cuppa cha, luv?” asks the waitress.)

I wanted to be “mi amor.” After all, I’ve known these cashiers for ages. Some of them ask after my son, who they remember from when he was a toddler. I comment, always favorably, when they change their hair style. When I pay in cash, I tell them to keep the pennies. (I told you this was very Larry David.) Hey, what about me? Why can’t I be “mi amor”?

And then, a year or so ago, it happened. One of the cashiers, Arelis, a woman of at least fifty, started calling me “mi amor,” and I did likewise to her. A dream fulfilled. I was “mi amor.”

This morning, I wound up at Arelis’s register. “Buenos dias, mi amor,” etc. I had only a couple of items (three red peppers and a slice of manouri cheese, if you most know). On the screen, it said $5.00. “Five dollars,” said Arelis. “Exactly?” I said and then added “En punto,” She was surprised and said something in Spanish about how much Spanish I know.

I demurred. The only reason I know “en punto” is that it’s in the one line of Spanish poetry I know –  “Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde,” from a famous poem by Garcia Lorca. But could I recite the line to Arelis? Is the poem famous enough to be recognized by a grocery store cashier from the Dominican Republic? If not, I feared that explaining how I knew “en punto” would come off as elitist. I would become the over-educated Americano, and that elevated status – like using usted rather than tu –  would disqualify me forever from being “mi amor.”

I handed her the $5 bill, said, “Buen dia,” and went on my way.

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* For a short video of David, somewhat older, doing this bit, go here

** Donald Trump’s supporters don’t mind that he has a ton of money – who wouldn’t want a ton of money? – because he shares not just their political views but their cultural preferences. Speaking about “Rosanne” to a rally of his supporters, Trump said, “It’s about us,” as though Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago were just slightly spiffier versions of the Connor house in Ohio. The crowd cheered. 

This Is Not a Pipe . . .

March 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . .  But what is it? Is there a word a statement that contradicts the assertion in the statement?  For example, one of Trump’s better lines at the Gridiron Club was this.

"My staff was concerned that I couldn't do self-deprecating humor, and I told them not to worry, nobody does self deprecating humor better than me. It’s not even close.

Not a new joke, but a good one, especially for Trump.

Self-contradiction does not really convey the delightful irony. Trump contradicts himself all the time but the contradiction is not inherent in the statement itself.

It’s kinda sorta like apophasis (my favorite rhetorical term), but it’s different. I posted about it last summer (here) with Magritte’s painting and this unwitting example that was going around the Internet.


I still haven’t found le mot juste for it.

The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.


From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.



Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list includes: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.



Here’s a slightly edited transcript


Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does, “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we’ll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don’t fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.


[A few months after I posted this, I had second thoughts about language anachronisms in contemporary TV shows. That post is here.]

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* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.

Harley Barber Was Right

January 20, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harley Barber’s Finsta video – the one where she repeats the word nigger a dozen times in a minute – went viral. But in all the criticism, nobody (as far as I know) bothered to note that she is essentially correct: Language norms vary from region to region and from group to group. Or in Barber’s formulation of this idea:

I’m in the South now, bitch so everyone can fuck off.  I’m from New Jersey. So I can say nigger as much as I want.

Here’s the entire video.



She could have been more specific. She’s not just in the South. She’s in Alabama, and even more specifically, she’s in a car surrounded by her University of Alabama Alpha Phi sorority sisters. Her point is that if she had been in New Jersey, the people around her might have said, “You know Harley, we don’t think that way or use that word these days. And even if you do have those sentiments, it’s not a good idea to make a video of yourself expressing them, especially with that word. And if you do make a video, it’s a really bad idea to post it on Instagram.”

But her sorority sisters seem to be in complete agreement with her. That’s to be expected. Alpha Phi has a reputation for its retrograde mentality regarding race and gender. Their 2015 recruiting video looked like a casting call for The Bachelor except that all the girls are White.




As a writer at AL.com (the newspaper/media consortium) put it, Alpha Phi in this video presents itself as “all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition.” (The sorority soon took down the video, though you can see it here in a TV news story.)

The message was not lost on Harley Barber. Her video begins,

I’ve wanted to be in Alpha Phi since fucking high school and nobody fucking understands how much I love Alpha Phi

A couple of other observations about the incident:

1. Language norms change. Barber says fuck or fucking more times than she says nigger. As far as I know, nobody has voiced any objections.

2. Money makes it OK. In Barber’s reasoning, wealth and conspicuous consumption justify morally questionable attitudes.

And if anyone else wants to snake me for saying nigger on my finsta, I’m a in a fur vest. I want you to buy my fur vest. Cause fuck you. Go to Neiman Marcus and buy my fur vest

Neiman-Marcus fur vests go for as little as $600, but most are $2500 and up. Barber is not alone in resolving moral questions by looking at financial success. (See this earlier post about similar defenses of chicanery by JP Morgan during the financial crisis)

3.  Ideas and essence.  A day or two later in her fifteen minutes of fame, Barber issued an apology: “I’m an idiot. There’s no excuse. I did something really bad.” I would guess that if you asked Barber, “Are you a racist?” she would say No, and she would be sincere. Many other people are calling her a racist, and they are just as adamant. The trouble is that the question “Is she a racist?” is the wrong question. First, it assumes that ideas and attitudes are permanent and essential. Second, it also assumes what we might call the racism-binary – that each person either is or is not a racist. Both those assumptions are questionable if not flat out wrong. Much of the reporting about the incident got it right. Headlines referred to a “racist video” or “racist rant,” not a “racist co-ed.”

What Becomes of the Broken Norm?

January 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norms are fragile things, especially when they apply only in select situations.

In the 1970s, Bill Weeden and Dave Finkle worked as a comedy duo in clubs like the Improv in New York City. They billed themselves as “A Couple of Guys With Class,” which was also the title of their opening song. As best I can remember, it stared like this:

We’re a couple of guys with class,
Up to our ears in class.
If you looking for vulgar,
Boy we’re not it,
We never say “fuck”
And we never say “shit.”

The joke of that last line – it always got a laugh – was in the apophasis (saying something while saying that you’re not saying it). But it also put the audience on the side of the performers in recognizing that the norms about proper language were arbitrary and situational. The message was,“We all know we’re not supposed to say these words, but we also know that we all actually do say them.” We were laughing at our own hypocrisy or at least our inconsistency from one situation to another.

If you lean on that situational norm, pretty soon it gives way. Twenty years earlier, Weeden and Finkle could have been arrested for violating New York’s obscenity laws (as Lenny Bruce fans and viewers of Mrs. Maisel know). Many “fucks” and “shits” and a few court cases later, that had all changed. Today, it’s rare to hear a comic who, like Seinfeld, does not say “fuck” and “shit.”

A few weeks ago, news outlets with class – the New York Times and NPR, for example – would not use the word “shit” even as part of a compound word – a word like, say, “shithole” – even though the word  “shit” was in wide use elsewhere. Season two of NPR’s podcast “Serial” was about an Alabama man who referred to his local community as “Shittown.” NPR called the podcast “S-town.” That was a year ago.

Now Donald Trump’s characterizing some nations as “shithole countries” was just too important to ignore. Some publications continued to censor or Bowdlerize the word. You would see “S**t” in print or hear Wolf Blitzer talk about “s-hole countries or bleep-hole countries.” Much of the mainstream media put the phrase in quotation marks, as if to say, “Trump’s word, not ours.” But in today’s Times, Paul Krugman, writing about anti-immigration in the 19th century, says, “Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day.” The quotation marks are implied but not visible.

I expect that from now on, the censoring of other quotes that include “shit” will decrease. Then before long, op-ed writers will be able to use the word even when it carries no reference to what someone else said.

The norm once breached is now broken. Like Humpty-Dumpty, it has been pushed off the wall and lies shattered on the sidewalk. Of course, Trump has violated far more serious norms (as noted in this Atlantic article  among many, many others). Will the social forces (i.e., people) upholding those norms be resilient enough to re-instate them?

Special People

November 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I never thought that Trump’s “Pocohantas” joke was offensive. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought it was pretty good. It made fun of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to some slim strand of Cherokee lineage.

It’s as though, after one of Trump’s many statements about being highly intelligent (“I’m, like, a really smart person”), Sen. Warren had referred to him as “Einstein.” The slur is not against physicists. It’s against Trump for claiming to be something he is so obviously not.

At the ceremony to honor the Navaho code talkers yesterday, Trump hauled out the Pocohantas dig again though it is long past its use-by date. The truly appalling part was that he used the ceremony as an occasion to make a personal derogatory remark about a political enemy. Is that what the Navahos came for? Appalling, as I say, but not unexpected. And no doubt, Trump supporters will see it as more evidence that Trump is their kind of guy.

The more offensive line from Trump is what followed.

You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people. And from the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country.

Trump is being complimentary. But underlying the praise is the assumption that the Navaho are not like regular Americans. Imagine a politician addressing a gathering of Jewish leaders and saying, “You know, you Jews are special people. You’re incredible people.” My guess is that the Jews being honored might suddenly get kind of interested in their shoelaces.

“Special-needs” kids, “special ed” – we recognize these as euphemisms. But even when “special” is supposed to designate something positive, it still draws the line between “you” and “us.” And it’s “you,” you special people, who are different.