Murder in the Cathedral

May 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Operation Rescue issued the following statement regarding the assassination of Dr. George Tiller as he served as an usher at his Kansas church.
We are shocked at this morning's disturbing news that Mr. [sic]Tiller was gunned down. Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning. We pray for Mr. Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
I like “shocked” with its inadvertent Casablanca allusion. For years they have been calling Dr. Tiller a murderer, a mass murderer. They wanted him “brought to justice” even though he had committed no crime. And now they are shocked, shocked, to find that one of their followers got the message.

In 1170, King Henry II, frustrated by Archbishop Thomas Becket’s refusal to cede any church jurisdiction to the crown, called out to his underling knights, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest.”* Four knights rode to Canterbury and killed Becket.

The next day, King Henry issued a proclamation. (My memory is hazy here. I think the lines below may be from T.S. Eliot’s version.)
At this disturbing news we are shocked, shocked,
That the Archbishop has been killed by swords.
We wanted on his head to bring down justice
But through peaceful means. We’re not to blame – trust us.

*That is the most famous version of the quote. More recent scholarship has Henry taunting the knights: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!”

White Is Not a Race

May 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and others on the far right are calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Before she was nominated, when Obama said that “empathy” was a quality he would look for in a Supreme Court justice, Republicans picked up the word and waved it like the red flag of danger. Even David Brooks, who enters stage right to play the role of the calm and thoughtful, but always reliable, conservative, suddenly remembered that “emotions are an inherent part of decision-making.” In his column yesterday, Brooks asks of Sotomayor,
Can she process multiple streams of emotion? Reason is weak and emotions are strong, but emotions can be balanced off each other. . . . Is she aware of the murky, flawed and semiprimitive nature of her own decision-making, and has she accounted for her own uncertainty? If we were logical creatures in a logical world, judges could create sweeping abstractions and then rigorously apply them. But because we’re emotional creatures in an idiosyncratic world, it’s prudent to have judges who are cautious, incrementalist and minimalist.
The role of emotion and the “semiprimitive” nature of decision-making – Brooks says that these affect all humans. It was a mere oversight that he never mentioned these factors in his writings about other justices or nominees. But faced with the nomination of Sotomayor, Brooks seems to be seeing he as Penelope Cruz as the hot-blooded Latina in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

These Republican reactions and arguments rest on the basic assumption that white male is the default setting. White is not a race, male is not a gender. Only blacks, Hispanics, and others have race. Only women and gays have gender. Because white males do not have race or gender, race and gender cannot affect their decisions or perceptions. But for a Latina, awash in race and gender, these qualities will distort her views. Therefore, she must prove that she can overcome race and gender – in other words, that she can think like a white male.

Situation Comedy

May 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“If there’s one second of spare time, and if you look away from him and lose eye contact, he immediately whips it out and starts looking at it,” she said.
“She” is Evvajean Mintz, speaking about her husband, Richard, a partner in a Boston law firm. His annoying bit of dinner-table behavior is the subject of an article in the food section of the yesterday’s New York Times. The “it” she is referring to, as you have no doubt guessed, is his Blackberry.*

Cellphones and Blackberries are the new normative battleground. The rules are far from clear. Adults think it’s rude to text at the dinner table; obviously many kids think otherwise. In fact, I wonder if there are any situations at all that these kids would redline for texting.

Most people think that you shouldn’t make cellphone calls in a theater – most, but not all, for the management has to remind people of the rule. But what about on public transportation? Some buses ban them; others don’t. Some commuter trains have cellphone cars the way they used to have smoking cars. How about sporting events? My sister-in-law complained about cell-phone users at the Yankee game.

Sometimes our reactions are personal and rational. We can’t enjoy the play or movie if we have to listen to competing cellphone conversations. We know that the kid who is busy with his Blackberry is not giving us his full attention. But more often our reactions are social. We are acting not as individuals but as members of society. We resent the texter or talker not out of self-interest but on behalf of the social situation. As Goffman says, we have a stake in the situation that we find ourselves in, and even though we may have absolutely no personal connection to others in that situation, we think that they too should show their commitment to it. The cellphone/Blackberry user is saying to all those present that despite her physical presence, she herself is not part of the situation. Her allegiance is to others elsewhere.

The Times reporter talked with danah boyd (or as the Times style sheet insists, Danah Boyd), who says that teenagers are
just doing what they’ve always done: hanging out with their friends.
The cellphone makes it possible to bring your social circle to the dinner table. “You don’t really have to disconnect,” she said.
That’s putting a smiley emoticon face on it. The teens are not bringing their social circle to the table. Instead, what the others at the table see is a teenager who has disconnected from interaction with them in favor of some distant, private, and invisible friend.

I don’t mind if the woman on the bus is reading the newspaper or listening to her iPod or talking to the person next to her. I don’t mind if the guy at the Yankee game is yelling out his assessment of the players’ abilities. But if they’re talking on their cellphones, that’s just not right.

*Seinfeld viewers may be reminded of a bit of dialogue from The Stand-in episode (1994). Elaine is explaining to Jerry what happened on a first date: “He took it out.” (Watch it here .)

That was then. But if it were now, and if the guy, just prior to a possible first kiss, had taken out his Blackberry and started thumbing it, Elaine might have similarly decided that she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Update: Randy at Potato Chipping has a nice post noting that the Times seems to be on a moral-panic campaign to turn texting into a social problem. The texting-at-table article is a sort of follow up to a more
“serious” article that appeared in the health section a day or two earlier.

Young /Old Differences - Age or Generation?

May 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some years ago, a colleague of my brother offered this example of mistaking generational differences for age differences. If you took a cross-section of the Miami population, you would conclude that when Miamians are young, they speak Spanish; as they get older, they switch to English. And when they get very old, they speak Yiddish.

I was thinking about this recently – not just because I’ve been in Florida for the past few days, but because of two articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The first was about Southern schools that hold segregated proms even though the student body is integrated.
“Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no. … They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”
The other was Matt Bai’s column on a similar difference in attitudes towards homosexuality.
The gist of the disagreement now isn’t partisan or theological as much as it is generational. Unlike their parents, younger Americans and those now transitioning into middle age have had openly gay friends and colleagues all their lives . . . . They’re less inclined to restrict the personal decisions of gay Americans.
At first, I thought the articles offered two parallel branches of the same trend – a generational shift towards liberalism on social issues. But when you have differences between young and old, there are two possible explanations – generation and age. If the difference is generational, then the kids of today will retain their liberal attitudes in the same way that they will probably retain their musical preferences. My guess is that Bai is correct and that today’s teens and twentysomethings will continue to support gay marriage.

But what about those segregated proms? It’s possible that the differences are a matter of aging, not of generation. If so, when today’s kids are older and have teenagers of their own, they may come to adopt their parents’ views. The separate black and white proms may continue even though nobody can justify them in terms of rationality or values. As one teenager quoted in the article says, “It’s how it’s always been. It’s just a tradition.”