Flashback Tuesday — MLK - AOC Edition

January 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was on Colbert last night. Colbert asked her about accusations that she was divisive. Said AOC:

Today is Martin Luther King day, and people called Martin Luther King divisive in his time. We forget that he was wildly unpopular when he was advocating for the Civil Rights Act.

She was right, sort of. King’s “unfavorables” were in the 40-45% range in the years AOC is talking about, much lower than Trump’s “unfavorables” today. But the favorable/unfavorable ratio did not turn positive until after he had been assassinated.

Here is part of a blog post I did seven years ago. The latter part of the post, about Reagan and Buckley, is not exactly relevant, but I’m leaving it in as a corrective to possible inaccuracies about them too.

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In August, Gallup (here) published some of their polling from the 1960s. The contrast with opinions today, when only 4% are unfavorable, is remarkable.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

(Note: these results include all races. The data for Whites only would surely show a higher percent unfavorable and a lower percent favorable.)

Except for 1966, the total favorable and unfavorable are fairly close.  (The change in 1966 is a result of King’s opposition to the Vietnam war.  He was right about that too.)  But of those with strong opinions, the “highly unfavorables” always outnumber the “highly favorables.” 

The unfavorables weren’t just those rabid Southern whites so familiar from the historical news footage. The same ideas could be found among seemingly temperate, sophisticated, and intellectual conservatives. Affable Ronald Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

In 1957, William F. Buckley, Jr. supported the suppression of black votes in the South
The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.  (The full article is excerpted by Brad DeLong here.)
That was before the rise of the Civil Rights movement.  Six years later, when Dr. King had come to prominence, a black church in Birmingham was firebombed.  Four young girls died.  Here is how Buckley’s National Review responded.
The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice. [emphasis added]
The suggestion that the firebombing was committed by “a communist or a crazed Negro” is a fantasy of pure desperation and wish-fulfillment.  Note also NR’s concern for “the cause of white people.”  As for the church bombing, the beatings, the tortures, the murders, and other acts of terrorism (“convulsions” as the NR calls them), committed against blacks and civil rights workers, just blame it all on the Supreme Court. 

All this would be laughable if the events were not of such grave importance and if the commentary were from some obscure, racist corner.  But National Review, then as now, was the main voice of intellectual conservatism. 

Eugene Volokh, in an appreciation of Buckley (here), notes that it wasn’t until the late 1960s, after the passage of the major civil rights laws and probably after the King and RFK assassinations, that Buckley and NR finally gave up defending segregation.  Volokh also says, approvingly,
Buckley tried very hard to create a genial and friendly image for conservatism as opposed to one that projected anger, intolerance, and rage.
Michael Harrington put it somewhat differently:
William Buckley is an urbane front man for some of the most vicious emotions in this country.

Confidence Games

January 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Timing is crucial in comedy. In can be important in survey research as well. If you ask about satisfaction with government, and you take your survey at a historical moment when the Republican party controls the government, don’t be surprised if Republicans are more satisfied than Democrats. But also don’t write up your findings to imply that this means that Republicans have a deep and abiding faith in American institutions.

We’ve been here before, not with “satisfaction,” but with something similar — happiness. People who make claims about the relation between happiness and political views — people like Arthur Brooks, for example — often don’t bother to look at which party was holding sway at the time the survey they’re using was done. But that context matters a lot, especially now that the country has become so partisan and polarized, with people remaining loyal to their party the way sports fans are loyal to their team. In a post two years ago inspired by a Brooks column, I put it this way

When you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox fans without checking the AL East standings. [the full post is here.]

I had a similar reaction to a recent thread on Twitter about who has lost confidence in American institutions. The answer is: everybody. But some more than others.  Patrick Egan of NYU looked at the “confidence” items in the General Social Survey and created these graphs showing the average confidence in twelve different institutions.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Confidence has dropped among all categories. But the steepest decline has come among non-college Whites. Their overall level of confidence is the lowest of any of these groups. They are also the strongest supporters of Donald Trump. This reinforces the image of the core Republican constituency — Trump’s staunchest supporters — as dissatisfied, even resentful. They have lost confidence in traditional American institutions, and they acclaim the strong outsider who could bring sweeping changes.

In response, Joshua Tucker posted a link to a report he was co-author on — the American Institutional Confidence Poll (AICP) from the Baker Center for Leadership & Governance at Georgetown University. The AICP found that demographic characteristics didn’t make much difference. Politics did. Here is AICP’s Number One Key Finding:


Why the discrepancy between the GSS data the AICP conclusions? I wondered if it might be the sample. It wasn’t.

The interviews were conducted online from June 12 to July 19, 2018, by the survey firm YouGov. The sample includes 3,000 respondents from the U.S. general population. Additionally, the poll includes samples of 800 African-Americans, 800 Latinx Americans, and 800 Asian Americans.

Their sample, as they note elsewhere, is larger than that of most political surveys, plus the  oversampling of smaller populations they want to have good data about. No problem there.

But what about the timing? We know that on November 1, 2016, Democrats were much more likely than were Republicans to say that the economy looked good. Two weeks later, those positions were reversed. The economy did not change in those two weeks. The occupancy of the White House did.

The AICP survey was done last summer, months before the midterm elections, when the GOP controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. That seems like kind of an important fact, but to find it, you have to scroll down to the methodology notes at the end of the report. 

Even in the GSS graphs, Egan has drawn a trend line that smooths out these shifts that are possibly caused by electoral changes. Egan also has lumped together twelve institutions. Separating them in to categories (e.g,. government, non-government) might allow us to see even sharper demographic differences.

The AICP, on the other hand, does report about confidence in specific institutions, twenty in all. The authors conclude that “confidence in institutions is largely driven by party affiliation.” They neglect the corollary: who has confidence in which institution can shift quickly when an election changes the party in power. This volatility makes it a bit misleading to talk about confidence in “institutions” as though people were thinking about them in the abstract. For example, the authors say, “The executive branch is the institution in which Democrats have the least confidence, while Republicans rank it the fourth highest.” Surely this difference is not about what people think of “the executive branch.” It’s about Donald Trump. These days, isn’t everything?

“Cold War” — A Love Story

January 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like “Ida,” his 2013 film, Pawel Pawlikovsky’s new film “Cold War” is visually stunning. Like “Ida,” it is shot in black and white, often with high contrast, and in the old 4:3 aspect ratio. And like “Ida,” it departs from movie conventions we’ve come to take for granted. (My post on “Ida” is here.) The storytelling is elliptical. It skips over long periods of time, and the characters rarely explain their choices. The audience must fill in the gaps.

“Cold War” is set in Europe — mostly between Communist Poland and Paris, mostly  in the 1950s. That’s half the implication of the title.  It’s a love story, but not the kind we’re used to. That’s the other half. In “Cold War,” love is a powerful force of attraction between the couple, Wiktor and Zula. But while it brings them together, it brings them little joy. The main publicity picture for the film (the freeze frame below) shows a moment of happiness and tenderness between them. But in the film, such moments are rare.

The film spans fifteen years. For much of that time, the lovers are apart, in different countries having joyless, passionless affairs and marriages with other people. Yet when Wiktor and Zula are together, their relationship is marked by conflict, anger, and betrayal. They separate, sometimes for years, but they cannot escape the force that makes each reunion passionate and painful. That force could be called love, but it’s far different from the love played out in most American films.

In our movies, love makes sense. It brings together two people who should be together. It infuses their relationship with passion, warmth, contentment. Conflicts may arise, but love can overcome them. Usually those conflicts are internal — the person’s own thoughts or problems that prevent him or her or both from realizing their love for the other person. Or the problem may be external — another man or woman trying win one of them away. Usually this person is flawed, acting on some selfish motive, The main character eventually sees through it all and frees himself or herself from whatever hold this person has on them and returns to the one who was right for them all along. If the movie is drama and not comedy, the lovers might not wind up together in the end. One or both may die. They may go their separate ways. But they’ll always have Paris.

In “Cold War,” Wiktor and Zula have Paris, where the freedom of the West allows them to develop their music (he’s a pianist, she a singer). The folk tunes that in Poland they had to transform into large choral numbers and then hymns to Stalin in Paris become sultry, smoky jazz songs, notably the one in the trailer.


You can imagine how this would play out in an American film. With artistic freedom, the lovers blend their Polish traditional culture with jazz, find success, and live happily ever after. In “Cold War,” the transition from Poland to France brings little comfort. The translation of that song from Polish to French falls flat. (I assume the symbolism is deliberate.) The words are meaningless. “The pendulum killed time.” Worse, the translator is a woman Wiktor is sleeping with. Nor is Zula exactly faithful. (“Michel is great,” she tells Wiktor, “he fucked me six times in one night.”)*

Love in “Cold War” also has a decidedly unAmerican relation to the larger forces of government and society. In our films, these forces may keep the lovers apart for a while, but either the lovers fight against these constraints and win, or they escape. Even if they die, their spirit is undaunted. In “Cold War,” both Wiktor and Zula, in different ways, compromise themselves, or rather the state, personified by Communist bureaucrat Kaczmarek, forces compromise upon them. The solutions that are almost a cliche in movies set in the West are unimaginable in a totalitarian state, not even in the movies.

Bleak, yes, but well worth seeing. The film does not yet have wide distribution. It may not be coming soon to a theater near you. Currently it’s playing in only six theaters, three of them in New York. But if you have the chance, see it while you can.

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* The only other clip from the film that I could find on the Internet also gives the same sense of their relationship in Paris. Wiktor and Zula sit at the bar in a club. Wiktor talks to a man seated next to him, Zula looks bored. “Rock Around the Clock” comes up on the jukebox. Zula gets up and dances with one man after another and finally gets up on the bar, dancing solo, flouncing her skirt, while Wiktor looks on with what seems to be a combination of resignation and distaste. The video is here.

Mrs. Maisel — Expletives Then and Now

January 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the words that usually catch my attention are the anachornisms (see earlier posts here and here).  On Episode 7, which I watched last night, handsy, skill set, poster boy, and a few others sounded jarringly modern. But I also noticed a word that people in 1959 really would have used – goddam. The word stood out because on the show, it’s so rare.


The writers on “Mrs. Maisel” far prefer the word fucking. In fact, in the above scene, Susie’s brother-in-law has just said, “Give me the fucking chips.” The episode has just one other goddamn, but characters say fucking a total of sixteen times. That’s not unusual. Here are the totals for series.


In 1959, when educated, middle-class people wanted an expletive, fucking was not their go-to negative intensifier — especially among women and especially in mixed company. Think of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, stories set and written in the mid 1950s. (The Glass family lives just across Central Park from the Weissman apartment we see so much of in TMMM.) I found an extensive collection of excerpts from the Salinger stories (here ) – thirty goddamns and not a single fuck. Google nGrams searches all books and finds something similar.


In 1959, goddamn and variants appear ten times as often fucking. (The fucking boom that begins in 1965 continues. The lines cross in 1970, and by 2000 fucking is three times as frequent as goddamn. It’s possible that legal changes affected this trend. )

Apparently, goddamn, like damn and hell, is an intensifier that has lost its intensity. Two years I speculated (here) that these words derive their power from the power of the religion they blaspheme. As religion fades as a dominant force in American life, so do religion-based swear words. As I say, I just guessing. What the heck to I know about it?