Pies and Pieties

April 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes, a pie in the face is just what’s called for. Say you have a pompous speaker about to declaim his important truths and an audience all too willing to believe that the speaker is in fact the font of all wisdom on the subject. A pie in the face deflates this folie à deux.

A pie does no real harm, nor does it prevent the person from speaking. It’s just that you just can’t listen with the same level of unquestioning awe. You see not the great thinker, but just another guy, a guy who only a few minutes ago was wiping cream pie off his face, and even now as he begins his lecture doesn’t realize that he still has bits of cream clinging to his earlobe. A good pie is the equivalent of the little boy calling out that maybe the emperor’s sartorial ensemble isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

So when I read that at Brown University Thomas Friedman had been the target of what Inside Higher Ed described as “a pie-like substance,” my faith in America’s youth was restored. Sure there are other speakers more deserving of a pie than Friedman; I just can’t think of any right now.

But my elevated mood didn’t last long. For one thing, the pie throwers had not planned well, and Friedman easily dodged them. The pie never came near his face; it barely got onto his sleeve.

More disappointing was how seriously the people at Brown took the whole thing. A biology professor chased the pie throwers, who had run from the building, and caught the female of the pair. He told the Brown Daily Herald proudly, “She didn't get very far. I told her she was caught, I held her hands behind her back, made a citizen's arrest.” What a guy.

The audience of Brown students was no better. According to the Herald, “The attendees applauded loudly not when the pie was thrown, but rather when Friedman regained his composure and started to return to the lecture podium.”

Then there was the newspaper itself. The next day it ran an editorial “Rudeness Isn’t Effective” that I could swear was channeling my high school principal (I come from a WASP, conservative Republican suburb). The pie throwers, it said, “lost any chance to pursue constructive dialogue with [Friedman].” Duh.

It continued, “Protests should not be an event but rather a sincere effort to start constructive dialogue . . . . A pastry to the face is not an invitation to exchange ideas.” Again, duh.

Hey, Brown, lighten up. As it says in the Bible, there’s a time to be born and a time to die; a time to rend and time to sew; a time to get and a time to lose; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to “pursue constructive dialogue” and a time to throw a cream pie in Tom Friedman’s face.

Please Stand By

April 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a Scatterplot post called Songs About Sociology, Belle Lettre asks for “songs that make you think of sociology.”
I can
t think of any songs literally about sociology. But there are lots that provide grist for our mill. I wrote the following – about country music in general and “Stand By Your Man” in particular – nearly two years ago, before this blog got started. In the spirit of Earth Day, Im recycling my garbage.

Nearly fifty years ago, C. Wright Mills defined “the sociological imagination” as the ability to see the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues.” Mills might have added, although as far as I know he didn’t, that this feat of imagination comes easier when you yourself are not enmeshed in the system—when you are a stranger, an outsider.

Suppose, for example, we find that many Saudi women feel stifled and frustrated, inferior and unworldly, that their sex life is unrewarding, and that they frequently get into jealousy-loaded arguments with co-wives. We probably would not say, “What’s wrong with these pathetic malcontents? Lots of other Saudi women are perfectly happy and have learned to get along with their co-wives and to do without things like driving privileges.” Instead, we’d be much more likely to say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system of polygamy and purdah and no possibility of divorce or independence?” We would see those personal problems as directing us towards a critique of the system.

But when it’s our own system, we’re much more likely to think of problems at the personal level and much less likely to use those problems to conclude that the system is basically flawed.

These thoughts are prompted by an article that appeared in the National Review and then received a write-up in the Times. The author, John J. Miller, compiled a list of 50 rock songs that, in his view, espouse conservative ideas. Number one on the list is The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” because it is “skeptical about revolutionary idealism.” The Beatles’ “Tax Man” and “Revolution” of course, but also just about any song that is against government regulation (“I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar). At number 50 was “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette, with reference to a cover version by Motorhead.

It’s that last song, Number 50, that got me thinking. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can see Ms. Wynette lip-sync to her own recording here.) My first thought was that it didn’t belong in the list at all. Even if rockers have covered it, the song is pure country, just like Tammy Wynette, and country is the domain of red state conservatism, heavily in favor of guns and bellicose patriotism, against liberal niceness and government regulation, and staunchly traditional about male and female roles. Miller could have picked hundreds of songs country catalogue that echoed the ideas of “Stand By Your Man.”

But are these songs conservative?   All those stock phrases, images, and ideas suggest something more subversive. On the surface, the message is that you should stand by your man and stand by the traditional ideas about men, women, and love. Just below that surface is a much different message: that these roles and ideas are seriously flawed. If you play by the rules, especially if you’re a woman, you are doomed to unhappiness. Take a look at the lyric.

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times and he'll have good times
Doing things that you don't understand
But if you love him you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him
Oh, be proud of him
Cause after all he's just a man

Stand by your man
Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely
Stand by your man
And tell the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man
Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man

It doesn’t specify what the man is doing — those “good times doing things that you don’t understand” — but here’s a hint: they cause the woman “bad times,” and they are things it’s up to her to forgive him for. No doubt, they are the things that have long provided material for the Country-and-Western songbook. When you piece together all the lyin’, cheatin’, drinkin’, and heartbreak that women in country songs have to endure, you begin to get a picture of a system that doesn’t work, at least not for women. Love doesn’t work, and marriage doesn’t work. (See also Ms. Wynette’s other huge hit, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”)

Perhaps a Saudi who had to listen to a few hours of country radio might say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system where a woman has to stake her entire sense of self on a romantic relationship with one man, especially when she expects him to mirror that romantic attitude? Of course a lot of women are going to wind up disappointed and devastated. And then, to make matters worse, they are told to uphold the system or risk social disapproval (“show the world you love him”) and hope against hope that their devotion will transform him.”


April 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last night, we held our annual induction ceremony for AKD, the sociology honor society. Sixteen students joined – that’s a pretty good number for us.
Brian Brenner
Courtney Burbridge
Natalie Cancio
Angelica Carrion
Sabia Choudhury
Suresh Dhanraj
Sabrina DeStefanis
Christina Drugac
Randi Fejnas
Patrice Fuschin
Hannah Gibello
Jennifer Hernandez
Agnes Kucsora
Michelle Newton
Elizabeth Quijano
Megan Snow

Our speaker was Gilda Zwerman (shown here talking with Peter Freund), who took us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the Weathermen and Black Liberation Army were taking radical and violent acts that seem almost incomprehensible now and which got them locked up in prison for a long time. Gilda has been trying to understand the process of this kind of radicalization particularly with regard to the broader social context of the late 1970s and early 1980s – the decline of the Left, the turning of government towards the right and towards repression.

I’m not sure that kids born in mid-1980s could get a sense of that context. I myself found it amazing that I and my peers didn’t just dismiss Weather ideas out of hand. Instead, even though we might not have agreed with them, we took them seriously enough to debate them long into the night.

Holiday Entrepreneurs?

April 22, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A writer for a local newspaper sent me an e-mail asking about the mainstreaming of Cinco de Mayo. She seems to think that it has become an American holiday.

I had no information for her, but I’m curious about how holidays get assimilated into the dominant culture and how they are transformed in the process. Christmas is making its way into Japan, at least the non-religious aspects of the holiday like lights and decorations. Valentine's Day is now big in Turkey.

My first thought was that the acceptance of a holiday depends on its attractiveness to the culture. But on second thought, I began to wonder about the role of “holiday entrepreneurs” (something akin to Becker’s moral entrepreneurs). Who are they? Ethnic leaders, probably. Especially in the current climate of concern, fear, or resentment about Mexican immigration, promoting the holiday might be politically helpful.

One hundred fifty years ago in this country, the Irish supposedly needed not apply, and even in the 1880s they were the target of the Lou Dobbs of the time campaigning against “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” (Maybe there were Harvard scholars, the counterparts of Samuel P. Huntington, warning that the growing Irish presence was undermining the true and good American culture and identity.) Today there are St. Patrick’s Day parades in most US cities, and everyone wears green. But the assimilation of the Irish and the parade didn’t “just happen.” It took work, entrepreneurship.

Who knows, maybe the folks at Hallmark are already at work on a line of cards.
I know I’m just an gringo
In Shaker Heights, Ohio
But best wishes, mi amigo,
For a great Cinco de Mayo