We'll Always Have Paris

May 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

France is still playing its typecast role in the American imagination. At least in the imagination of many Americans, France remains synonymous with sex— illicit, tempting sex. Sex for pleasure.

I thought this view had pretty much disappeared now, forty years into the sexual revolution. In pre-revolutionary America of the 1940s and 50s, sex wasn’t American, it was French. If you wanted to imply sex, you alluded to France. There was a big difference between a kiss and a “French kiss.” To “French” someone was to give them a blowjob (pardon my French). American “underwear” was plain cotton, functional without a hint of sex; if you wanted something lacy and sexy, you needed a French word— “lingerie.” A woman’s “nightgown” was about as sexy as flannel pajamas, and she wore it to bed when her goal was sleep. But if she were going to bed for sensual pleasure, she put on her “negligee.”

It was classic Freudian repression and projection. The culture repressed its own sexual thoughts, projected them onto France, and then castigated the French for expressing these sinful ideas.

Apparently, old stereotypes never quite die. Mitt Romney provides the most recent example. Romney was governor of the cosmopolitan and liberal state of Massachusetts, but now he’s running for the Republican nomination for president, and he’s trying to get the votes of the religious right. (Religion in America, and many other places, packs a strong dose of sexual repression.) So on Saturday, he gave a speech at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. According to the Washington Post report

He also criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.

“It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking,” Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. “In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.”

Pure imagination. There’s no such thing. There was a French movie that came out in 2003, “7 Ans de Marriage.” And in 1955, “The Seven-Year Itch,” a very American film, gave us that famous image of Marilyn Monroe, a blast of air from a subway grating ballooning her white skirt.

But France has no official state-approved seven-year marriage. In fact, France and most other countries in Europe have lower divorce rates (i.e., higher rates of lasting marriages) than does the US.

Where did Romney get this idea? And why didn’t the Washington Post reporter and many others who heard or read about the speech think to check Romney’s “facts”?

It seems that this is a classic “urban legend” — an anecdote, almost always without factual basis, that nevertheless gets passed along, told and retold, as true. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, who coined the term, these false stories gain currency and resist skepticism in part because they resonate with existing images and ideas.

If we already assume that Europeans, especially the French, take a cavalier approach to marriage and that they care more about their own sensual pleasures than about the sanctity and stability of the family; and if we assume that not just their people but also their governments are out to undermine the American way and American ideas (as the French sought to undermine the American view that invading Iraq was a really nifty idea); then the seven-year marriage story is so obviously in keeping with what we already “know” about them that we needn’t bother to check and see whether it’s actually true.

Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community on the Romney story.

The NBA Referees Story: Turnovers and Steals

May 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Well, I was right about at least one thing in my previous post about NBA referees: the story was heavily blogged. For the next two days it was #1 on the Times website list of most blogged articles. Bloggers on race (blackprof.com), sports and all angles on sports (thesportslawprofessor), and especially economists. The authors of the original article are economists. Levitt and Dubner of Freakonomics fame blogged it in reaction to popular demand: “Never in the history of the Freakonomics blog have so many people sent e-mails requesting comment on a newspaper article.”

But wait a minute. Excuse me. Why is this economics? This is a multiple-regression analysis of the effects of race on perception. Sociologists and social psychologists have been doing this sort of thing for over half a century. In college we read about Gordon Allport’s classic study, the one that resembled the parlor game
telephone.” One person views a picture, describes it as fully as possible to another, who in turn describes it to another and so on down the line. In the original picture, there is a black man (in 1945 he was probably a Negro) and a white man. The white man is holding a knife. Somewhere in the chain of telling and retelling, the knife changes hands.

The idea of the NBA study is that white refs perceive fouls differently depending on the race of the player. The effects were so tiny as to be invisible except under the microscope of a very large sample size. But regardless of the results, this is not economics. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it.

This is merely the latest incursion of economics into sociology
s court. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt with Stephen Dubner, was a huge hit, a best-seller. But the topics in it often have little or nothing to do with economics: match-fixing in sumo tournaments; the popularity of baby names as a function of social class; the effect of black first names (e.g., DeShawn) on social mobility; the effect of Roe v. Wade on crime rates. Sounds like sociology to me.

Even sociologist Kieran Healy, in his Sociological Forum
review of Freakonomics, seems to concede the turf to the economists. Sociologists should pay attention to the substance of what he [Levitt] is doing, and then ask whether we think we have something better to offer in response. But the substance of what he is doing is sociology. And the same goes for the NBA study. I wonder if that unpublished paper would have gotten as much ink and bandwidth if the authors were sociologists and it had been submitted to a sociology journal.
Six years ago, Joel Best surveyed the history of sociological ideas that eventually became popular or practical: social work, public opinion polling, criminology, etc. It seems as though every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it. The title of Bests article was Giving It Away.” (American Sociologist, Spring 2001. Sorry, no link; it's not on line.)

But the NBA ref research and the kinds of studies in Freakonomics and elsewhere seem less like a clumsy turnover— dribbling the ball off our foot and into the other team’s hands— than an outright steal by the economist team. A take-away rather than a give-away.

I don’t think Best is asking for the refs to blow the whistle. But maybe more sociologists can get back on the floor and into the game.

Black and White in Black and White

May 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times had a front page sports story today. Not ARod’s homers, not Daisuke’s K’s. It was a story based on an unpublished paper by two academic economists. Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls,” said the headline.

“We find that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.”

Bloggers everywhere are going to be all over this story, but here's my take.

Are the NBA refs racially biased? The Times couldn’t find anyone in the NBA who would say so. Doc Rivers and Mo Cheeks—both black, both coaches— declined to comment, and Rod Thorn, president of the Nets said he didn’t believe it. There may be a difference between what guys in the NBA can say publicly and what they really think. Still, “no comment” is hardly ringing endorsement of the economists’ thesis, and you’d think the Times might have been able to get at least one or two retired players to say that maybe the white refs might have made some questionable calls against black players.

Why haven’t any players made the racism call against the refs? Why did it take two professors? Mostly because the racism, if it exists, is invisible to the naked eye. First, any racism on the part of the refs has to be unconscious. I can’t imagine a real racist anywhere in the NBA, certainly not among the referees.

More important, the bias effects are so small, you have to collect a mountain of data in order to detect them. It’s like a coin that you have to flip 10,000 times to detect its slight bias. The economists used thirteen NBA seasons with 600,000 fouls. And what did they come up with? A difference of at most 0.20 fouls per player per game. Five players, one-fifth of a foul. Imagine an all-black team playing an all-white team; at the end of the game, the black team would have been called for one more foul than the whites. (In my mind’s eye, I picture the all-white team, their shooting guard hacked while attempting a two-hand set shot, then going to the line and shooting his free throws using the old underhand scoop technique.)

In the real NBA of course, there are no all-white teams; blacks account for 83% of all playing minutes. How often do you see a team with even three white guys on the floor, even when the coach has gone deep into the bench? So with 17% white players, it works out to less than one extra foul every five games. It may be “statistically significant,” but statistically significant is not always meaningful.

The Celtics finished the 2006-07 season 24-58; they lost more than 70% of their games. They are not the Celtics I remember, the Celtics of the 1980s with Bird and McHale and Parrish. The difference is painful. But it’s not about the refs calling one extra foul a week.

Rereading James Baldwin

May 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
My son’s high school English teacher assigned James Baldwin’s Another Country. I had read this novel long ago but could remember absolutely nothing about it. Of course, that didn’t stop me from saying authoritatively that as a novelist Baldwin was a second-tier at best and that his greater contribution to literature was an an essayist.

The teacher should have assigned Nobody Knows My Name, I told my son, who didn’t seem to be much interested in my literary opinions. Still, for my own satisfaction, I went back to that book, and in the first essay I found this bit of sociology: Baldwin has returned from several years living in Europe, mostly in Paris; in comparing the US and Europe, he discovers
a rather serious paradox: though American society is more mobile that Europe’s it is easier to cut across social and occupational lines there than it is here. This has something to do, I think, with the problem of status in American life. Where everyone has status it is also perfectly possible that no one has. It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to just what his status is.

But Europeans have lived with the idea of status for a long time. A man can be as proud of being a good waiter as being a good actor, and, in neither case, feel threatened.

Baldwin wrote that in about 1960. I think deTocqueville said something similar 125 years earlier. Plus ça change.
Baldwin is particularly concerned for the way that the fluidity and uncertainty of American society affects the novelist.
The charge has often been made against American writers that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it. They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it. . . . But what is Anna Karenina describing if not the tragic fate of the isolated individual, at odds with her time and place?

The real difference is that Tolstoy was describing an old and dense society in which everything seemed . . . to be fixed forever. And the book is a masterpiece because Tolstoy was able to fathom, and to make us see, the hidden laws which really governed this society and made Anna’s doom inevitable.

What Baldwin says about writers might just as easily apply to sociologists, both as researchers and especially as teachers of undergraduates. In fact, where Baldwin uses the word writer, meaning novelist, we might equally substitute sociologist.

American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. . .
The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.

Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are.
Baldwin is best known as a black writer and for his writings on race, which are worth rereading. He was also a homosexual. He was born in 1924 and came of age in America of the 1940s and 50s, when being black and gay were even heavier burdens than they are today. Being an outsider, doubly so, does not guarantee that you’ll be a great novelist, but it does make you aware of the “laws and assumptions” that others take for granted and often do not notice