Chillin’ With Lenny, Yo

December 31, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tonight the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will offer its annual New Year’s Eve Peace Concert.  The announcement notes that “The late Maestro [Leonard] Bernstein inaugurated the annual New Year's Eve Concert for Peace more than a quarter century ago.”  More precisely, it was in 1983.  I was there. [Not quite.  It was the Dec. 31 1986 concert that I attended.  See the update below.]

Bernstein’s performance that evening combined two elements that had earned him some disdain: liberal politics and popular music.   Conservative commentators and serious music critics had scoffed at his enthusiasm for leftist causes and youth culture.  “Radical chic,”Tom Wolfe called it, implying that what motivated Bernstein was not the desire for justice or equality but the personal desire for the approval of the hip and the young.  To those critics, Bernstein’s political activity was all about style, not substance. So were the rock-music examples in his lectures. 

Bernstein was undeterred. Hence, the Peace Concert (among many other efforts).  He also remained open to the music of the young, the gifted, and the Black; he refused to dismiss it out of hand as inferior or as unworthy of the attention of serious people. 

Here is my memory of what Bernstein said that evening, New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Bernstein said that he one day when was working in the studio in his apartment, he went to get something from another room.  As he was passing the kitchen, he heard the radio that his housekeeper was listening to.  It was a loud and rhythmic but without much actual singing. 

“What is that?” he asked.  The housekeeper offered to turn the radio off.   “No, no,” Bernstein said, “don’t turn it off.  But what’s that you’re listening to?” 

“Oh, Mr. Bernstein,” she said, “that’s hip-hop.”

It was 1983, and Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC had crossed over into the general culture.  Still, I suspect that for most of the audience in St. John the Divine that evening – over thirty and overwhelmingly white – hip-hop was not exactly familiar territory.

But Lenny had listened and learned, and he delivered a speech in rap – a Jeremiad against Reagan, the arms race, the Pentagon budget, SDI (Star Wars), etc.  I think Lenny may have even had a recurring tag line or refrain, something with the word “hip-hop” in it.   Unfortunately, though I have searched the Internet, I have been unable to find a transcription or even any reference to Lenny rapping that night.  Still, I’m sure I did not imagine it. *

Peace Out.

UPDATE: Jenn Lena called out the troops to help where memory failed.  Jonathan Neufeld found the references.  Bernstein’s hip-hop speech did happen on New Year’s Eve, but the year was 1986, not 1983. 
* It’s the timing of this incident that I’m unsure of.  I’m sure I heard Bernstein tell this anecdote in St. John the Divine and continue with his sermon in rap.  I remember it as a chilly winter evening.  But was it New Year’s Eve?  The few references to Bernstein’s speech that night say nothing about hip-hop.  The closest thing I can find is the title of a lecture, “How Leonard Bernstein Invented Hip-Hop” given by Joseph Schloss at Middle Tennessee State University.  But I cannot find an e-mail, phone number, or Facebook page for Schloss, and besides, his take on the Bernstein/hip-hop connection is different.  In my anecdote, Bernstein does not invent hip-hop but rather discovers it years after its creation.

Gun Laws and Crime in Other English-Speaking Countries

December 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great Britain and Australia, according to the title of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, provide “Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control.”  In both countries, the government responded to a massacre by passing more stringent gun laws. 

The author of the “Cautionary Tales” op-ed is Joyce Lee Malcolm, and she surely knows more about this than I do. She’s a professor at George Mason, and she’s written a book, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, published by Harvard. And she provides some data.  For example, she refers to the UK “Firearms Act of 1998, which instituted a nearly complete ban on handguns.” 
Within a decade of the handgun ban and the confiscation of handguns from registered owners, crime with handguns had doubled according to British government crime reports. Gun crime, not a serious problem in the past, now is.
I’m not sure which government report she’s referring to, but here’s a graph from one I found, the Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

(Click on the graph for a larger and clearer view.)

For two years following the Firearms Act, handgun crime increased.  But a decade later, in 2008, handgun crime was only slightly higher than it had been a decade earlier.  Today it’s lower than it was the year of the Firearms Act.*  Prof. Malcolm must have been looking at some other government report.  In this graph, starting in 2000, handgun crimes decrease markedly.  At the same time, the number of crimes committed with “imitation guns” increases.  I don’t know about you, but if I had to face a robber, I’d much prefer one armed with a fake gun than a real one.  So if this is a substitution effect caused by the law, that would seem to be a positive outcome.  Here in the US, we accept no substitutes. When it come to guns, our robbers have the real thing.

The stricter gun law in Great Britain was passed after a school shooting similar to Newtown.  The law, Malcolm says, was the result of  “media frenzy coupled with an emotional campaign by parents [of victims].”  You know how .parents can get emotional when their kids are slaughtered. The media too can devote a lot of coverage to that sort of thing, especially in a country where it rarely happens. To see the effects of the law, what crime should we look at? As Malcolm implies, what gets the media in a frenzy and causes the parents of victims to be emotional is murder.  So  I would have thought that to check on the effects of the law, the first crime to look at would be homicide.  But curiously, in her WSJ article, Malcolm makes no mention of it.  Still, I was curious, and I managed to find this graph showing the trend in homicides.

I’m not sure which “cautionary tale” these numbers are telling.  The downward trend in the graph in the last decade is hardly support for the idea that the gun law has made things worse.**  The British are killing each other less often – 550 last year, about 10% of them with guns.  The 550 homicides translate to rate of 9 murders per million.  The comparable rate in the US is five times that, about 48 per million.

Australia too passed a strict gun law following a mass murder in 1996.  Malcolm summarizes the crime data:
In 2008, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported a decrease of 9% in homicides and a one-third decrease in armed robbery since the 1990s, but an increase of over 40% in assaults and 20% in sexual assaults.

It’s hard to see how the gun law might have affected assaults and sexual assaults, and in any case, the rise in these crimes began before the gun law, as did the decrease in gun homicides.  On the other hand, it’s much easier to imagine how the gun law could have led to a reduction in armed robbery.

Here is Malcolm’s conclusion from all the evidence.
Strict gun laws in Great Britain and Australia haven’t made their people noticeably safer, nor have they prevented massacres.            

As I say, Malcolm must know much more about crime in Great Britain and Australia than I do. But the graphs do make it look as though people in those countries are in fact safer than they were twelve years ago.  As for mass murders, gun restrictions cannot “prevent massacres” if that phrase means “prevent all massacres.”  The question is whether gun laws that restrict the availability of guns, especially guns that can shoot a lot of bullets, can reduce the number of such incidents and the number of victims.  I don’t have the trends in those numbers for Great Britain or Australia.  I wish Malcolm had provided them in her op-ed, but she did not.

* The Home Office report shows data going back only ten years.  The numbers for 1998 and 1999 are slightly lower than in 2000.  Also, these are numbers, not rates.  In that decade, the population of the UK increased by about 2.5%.  A graph of rates per population would show a somewhat larger decline.

** As the fine print under the graphs says, the highest bars in the graph, 2002-3, include 172 victims of a serial killer, Harold Shipman.  The Home Office apparently assigned all these to the year Shipman was convicted, though the murders happened over the course of many years.

What Would You Do?

December 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

When you ask a “what if” question, can you take people’s responses at face value?

A student sent me a link to a study that asked whether Americans or Turks were more likely to act on principles of universalism as opposed to particularism.

I had talked in class about universalism (apply general rules to everyone) and particularism (decide based on the needs, desires, abilities, etc. of the actual people in some real situation).  My five-cent definition was this: With particularism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the rules.  With universalism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the people. 

One of the examples I used to illustrate the difference was shopping.  For most items, we prefer universalism – a fixed price.  Everyone pays the amount marked on the price tag. You have only two options: buy it or leave it.  In Mediterranean cultures, buyers and sellers are much more likely to haggle, arriving at a price based on the unique utility curves and bargaining skills of the buyer and seller.  This winds up with different people paying different prices for the same item.

The researchers asked American and Turkish students about a “hypothetical situation”:
You are a professional journalist who writes a restaurant review column for a major newspaper. A close friend of yours has invested all her savings in her new restaurant. You have dined there and think the restaurant is not much good. Does your friend have some right to expect you to hedge your review or does your friend have no right to expect this at all?
I assumed that the study would find Americans to be more universalistic.  But I was wrong, at least according to this study.
Turkish American Total
Particularistic 8 (19%) 85 (65%) 93
Universalistic 34 (81%) 45 (35%) 79
Total 42 130 172

Four out of five Turkish students said they would write their review according to universalistic principles.  Two-thirds of the Americans said they’d give their friend a break even if that meant departing from the standards of restaurant reviewing.

I was surprised.  So was my Yasemin Besen-Cassino.  Not only is she Turkish (though very global cosmopolitan), but she sometimes teaches a section of our methods course.  She added, “I am not a fan of hypotheticals on surveys.”

And oh boy, is this hypothetical.

  • IF you were a reviewer for a major paper and
  • IF the restaurant were bad and
  • IF the owner were your friend and
  • IF she had invested all her money in the place
    what kind of review would you write?
The more hypothetical the situation, the more I question people’s ability to know what they would do.   “IF the election were held today, who would you vote for?” probably works.  The situation – voting – is a familiar one, and there’s not all that much difference between saying the name of a candidate to an interviewer and choosing that name on a ballot.   But how many of us have experience writing reviews of friends’ restaurants? 

Nearly all my students say that if they were in the Milgram experiment, they’d have no trouble telling the experimenter to take a hike.  And all those concealed-carrying NRA members are sure that when a mass murderer in a crowd started firing his AR-15, they would coolly identify the killer and bring him down.  But for novel and unusual situations, we’re not very good at predicting what we would do. 

When I present the Milgram set-up and ask, “What would you do?”  sometimes a student will say, “I don’t know.”  That’s the right answer.

“Hyde Park” Speaks to the Future

December 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Hyde Park on Hudson” has one jarring anachronism.  I’m sure the art design crew and the costume people worked hard to make everything authentically 1939.  The room decor, the clothing, that 1939 copy of Collier’s, the photographer’s cameras and hats, the cigarettes, and of course the cars.

But then why this?

(Click on the except for a larger view.)
No wonder Missy has to ask what Daisy means.  We wouldn’t have metaphorical things on our metaphorical plates for another fifty years.* 

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The only plates in 1939 were the literal ones, the kind that keep crashing in the Hyde Park dining room.   It’s as though when FDR turns on the car radio, instead of the Ink Spots, we hear Kanye West – and intsead of a radio, an iPod.

* I think “Mad Men” too used this same plate cliche, but that was rushing things by only 30-40 years.  Also, in “Hyde Park,” when Eleanor offers an unflattering view of the British royals, FDR says, “Let’s give them a break, can we?”  That sounded anachronistic to my ear, but Google N-grams shows the phrase rising in popularity starting in the late 1920s.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)