Sic Transit Gloria

February 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 1970, the day after National Guard troops killed four unarmed protesters at Kent State University, students at Southern Illinois University went to the local McDonald’s and demanded that the flag be lowered to half staff.  The franchise owner complied.

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s got wind of this and told the franchise owner to raise the flag back up to full staff. When he conplied, the students threatened to burn the place down.

The whipsawed franchise owner phoned McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner asking what to do. If Turner’s response isn’t part of the canon of management courses, it ought to be:  “The next delivery truck that arrives, have him back in to the flag pole and knock it down.” [Source.]

Lands’ End now finds itself in a similar position but with no flagpole and no trucks.

You may have noticed that the most recent Lands’ End catalogue looks different from the other 273 they’ve sent you this year. Lots of people in a tableau rather than close ups of one model in merch. And palm trees. Palm trees? From Wisconsin? The paper too is less slick, with more of a matte finish. But what has landed Lands’ End in hot water is the four-page interview with Gloria Steinem wearing Lands’ End gear.

(The text in the upper right begins, “Introducing the Legend Series, our ode to individuals who have made a difference . . . .”)

Lands’ End is in trouble – profits and sales way down – and the new CEO wanted to change the look of the catalogue if not the clothes. But that was the beginning of more trouble. First, conservatives got word of it and started criticizing Lands’ End for celebrating a woman who not only spoke out in favor of legalized abortion but who had actually had an abortion and said so.

Lands’ End responded:  “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”

Besides apologizing, they also wiped the Gloria material from their website. (So far, they haven’t yet asked me to return my catalogue, but who knows?)

Then the pro-Gloria forces took to Facebook and Twitter.

“I don’t intend to teach my children that anyone should do business with a company that is ashamed to even talk about feminism,”

The Washington Post says that Lands’ End, in its attempt to retroactively duck the issue, is tacking away from the trend. Companies, says WaPo, have now become “unapologetic in their stance on social issues.” Big companies –Target, Gap, Visa, Cheerios, etc. – have supported the Supreme Court decision on gay marraige or criticized Trump’s denigration of Latinos. Sears and Wal-Mart came out against the Confederate flag.

The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even if it meant alienating some customers. Lands’ End, it appears, may have a different mindset.

Is it Lands’ End, or is it the issue? After the Charleston Church Massacre of June 2015, retreating from the Confederate flag became the majority view even in the South.

(Click on a chart for a slightly larger view.)

The trend on gay marriage has also made acceptance a safe bet.

But on abortion, the public is still split. and the issue is still salient.

Lands’ End was caught between equally strong opinions. Their dilemma on Gloria reflects their dilemma on clothing and clientele. Lands’ End wants to attract younger shoppers, who lean towards the pro-choice side, but not lose their older customers, who lean the opposite direction.
Here at the SocioBlog, we’re proud to show our colors – a bright orange Lands’ End sweater.

Donald’s Delegate Condition

February 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today carried this front page graph showing just how completely Donald Trump was routing the competition for the Republican presidential nomination. (I have re-created the page with the text blanked out so as to make the graph easier to see.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I’m not sure what to make of this. Trump certainly has by far the greatest number of the 125 delegates now committed. But the Republican convention will have nearly 2500 delegates. When you plot the current delegate count against the number needed to win, Trump’s current lead looks a bit less overwhelming.

Trump no longer looks like the obvious winner.  His 64-delegate lead over Cruz and Rubio doesn't look so insurmountable.

Maybe the Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina do reflect the sentiments of their counterparts in the other 46 states. The prediction markets now (I’m writing this just before this evening’s debate) have Trump as a heavy favorite, more than two to one.

Maybe the crowd is truly wise. Or maybe, now is the time to short Trump and buy Rubio, hope that Tuesday’s primaries reduce the gap, and take your profits.

Oh, Those Hypersensitive Students

February 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Liberals, as Jonathan Haidt has documented, argue on the basis of only two principles or “moral foundations”: Hurt and Fairness. Conservatives add other bases for their positions: Loyalty (vs. betrayal), Authority (vs. subversion), and Sanctity (vs. degradation). Also Liberty, which Haidt later added to the original five. (A summary of Haidt's moral foundations is here:

So conservatives have lots of ways to justify what they want. If hurt and unfairness are not in plain sight, conservatives can fight against betrayal or subversion. But liberals, absent real hurt or unfairness, must have recourse to finding micro-hurts and micro-unfairness from micro-aggressions.

This week’s example comes from Georgetown law school (source: Inside Higher Ed).  Justice Scalia was an undergrad at Georgetown and made several visits to the law school. Shortly after Scalia’s death, a law professor (Prof. G___ , to use a 19th century construction) sent out an e-mail to students and faculty eulogizing Scalia – his jurisprudence, his wit, his writing, and his refusal to trim his sails to the winds of political correctness. Scalia, said Prof. G____, stood steadfast in putting Constitutional principles ahead of the particular interests of classes of people, classes based on race, gender, or economic standing.

Some other professors objected to this e-mail, not for its content but for its effect on students.

Some of them are twenty-two-year-olds, less than six months into their legal education. Leaders of the Black Students Association, the Latino Law Students League, and two women’s groups reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor G____’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for those who disagree with Scalia.  How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

I think most people would doubt that students at a top law school would be “traumatized” by a professor stating his views about Scalia. Are these ambitious 20-somethings such delicate flowers that they must be protected from legal positions they disagree with lest they be “traumatized, hurt, shaken”? If so, maybe they should choose a different profession. Lawyering ain’t beanbag. And must a law professor, in the interest of fairness, pretend that all opinions are equally valid?

Conservatives will probably tell these students to stop their whining and sniveling and to man up (or attorney up). Conservatives could also argue on the basis of Liberty. People, even professors, should be free to expound their opinions; nobody should censor them.

There’s nothing new here, except . . .

It was the other way round. I reversed the actual facts. The Georgetown law professor who sent the e-mail, Gary Peller, came to criticize Scalia not to praise him. The faculty who then accused Peller of traumatizing the students are Scalia supporters. The hothouse flowers in need of protection are the student conservatives and libertarians.  (“Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students.”)

When the claims of injury and intimidation on one side and the accusations of hypersensitivity on the other are bouncing back and forth like this, it’s hard to tell the pot from the kettle.

Saoirse’s Choice

February 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a course I taught long ago, I would give students the set-up of a movie – act one – and ask them to write a plot summary of the rest of the film. When they had finished, I would tell them how the actual film went. It unfolded to something completely different from what they had thought up. That’s because it was French.

The students were very bad at thinking like a French cineaste, but they did a top-notch job of filling in the predictable character types and plot elements of American movies.

I remembered this after I saw “Brooklyn.” It’s certainly a pleasant hour and fifty minutes. The film is set in the early 1950s, but it cleaves so closely to America’s immigrant-story cliches that it could be taking place any time.  The trailer summarizes the story.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) must decide between two countries, Old Ireland and New America, and between two men, one in Enniscorthy, one in Brooklyn. In Ireland she lives in a small town and works for a particularly nasty shopowner, a snoop who uses her knowledge of everyone’s secrets as weapons. Eilis comes to America, an open land of opportunity where she works hard at her job and takes classes to improve her abilities. Predictably (i.e., just like in the movies) she keeps moving up.

The man she meets on her return trip to Ireland is at the top of the town’s social ladder. The man she meets in America is a working-class Italian, a plumber, but he has plans to start his own construction company (to build what we know will become the new suburbs). Like Eilis, Tony too is on the path to success.

In a post nine years ago (here) I speculated that all American movies, even romantic comedies, are really about achieving success. “Brooklyn” is firmly in that tradition. The movie presents both men as ideal, someone any girl would want to marry, and Saoirse Ronan is able to convince us that the choice is agonizing. But while Eilis may feel torn between the man who has already inherited a life of comfort and the man who is getting there through honest work, we in the audience, schooled on scores of American movies, know immediately who is preferable.

“Brooklyn” lays out its cards in such a familiar arrangement that the movie’s real achievement is in making us believe that the sides in this choice are nearly equal. It does that mostly with the pull of family obligations.  Eilis’s mother needs care, and now that Eilis’s sister has died, Eilis is the only family she has left. But that also means that an aging mother is the only family that Eilis herself has, her only real human bond to Ireland. Even if we weren’t Americans rooting for America, we know what the right choice is, and “Brooklyn” does not disappoint. To its credit, the movie avoids the impossibly perfect solution, the “Hollywood ending,” which might have been for Eilis to bring her mother to America to live happily ever after.

On the podcast “Culture Gabfest,” Julia Turner comments that “Brooklyn” could almost be a silent movie. This is said in praise of Saoirse Ronan’s acting – her face tells so much. But it could be a silent movie also because the plot and characters are so familiar – the spiteful shopowner, the kindly priest, the Italian family – that the dialogue doesn’t add anything to our understanding of them.

That said, the film is very good for what it is. It looks terrific, the story is well told, and Saoirse Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination. But “Brooklyn” is the movie equivalent of comfort food – familiar, pleasant, and easy to digest.