The Revenge Fantasy - Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave

October 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic  points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.
Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.  The classic example is the Charles Atlas ad that used to grace the back page of those comic books.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

For the sake of brevity and clarity, here is the Reader’s Digest version in three frames – one before the magic transformation, two after.

As I’m sure others have pointed out, this scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of US foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach. 

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully. 
12 Years a Slave though, doesn't present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.
Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):
 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.
From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it. 

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life, the results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

Separate Ways

October 15, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six years into a marriage is about the peak year for divorce.

Six years ago the ASA proposed to Malcolm Gladwell.  We gave him the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, which
honors individuals for their promotion of sociological findings and a broader vision of sociology. The ASA would like to recognize the contributions of those who have been especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives and research.
We were virgins. Malcolm was our first.  He swept us off our feet. He was cute and funny, and famous - he had TED talks, he’d been on NPR! But more important, he made us feel good about ourselves.  It wasn’t just the flattery of his beautiful words and clever phrases. He really paid attention to us, we thought, gazing deeply into our articles. He told us that what we did was important, relevant.

It was too good to last, and now the break-up seems imminent.  You can see it coming in tweets like this one by Matt Salganik of Princeton sociology.

Christopher Chabris, the author of the linked piece in Slate, is not a sociologist, he’s a cognitive psychologist, but you sense that sociologists too are seeing the same flaws. 

Oh, why didn’t we see them before. It’s not as though anybody has really changed all that much. The faults were always there. In fact, some sociologists did see them.

Here’s a clip of Robb Willer telling his social psych class about his experience as a panelist at the ASA session where Gladwell was given the award.

Chabris, in his deposition, speaks of our naïveté. Oh, yes, maybe we sensed that Malcolm wasn’t always telling the truth, but we rationalized.
perhaps I am the one who is naive . . . I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights.
But he was playing us for a fool. He lied to us
according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth especially when your audience is so vast . . .?*
Oh well, these things happen. Life goes on.  We try again and again, kissing frogs (remember that date with David Brooks back in 2011?)** and hoping for a true prince.

* Chabris here is echoing Macbeth:
“I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.” (V, 8)

** The list of award recipients is here.

The Vaper’s Drag

October 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

A question in the Social Q’s column of the Times today asks about the etiquette of electronic cigarettes at a dinner party.  In his answer, Philip Galanes expains what e-cigs are ( “battery-powered vaporizers . . .that deliver synthetic nicotine Users exhale an odorless white vapor”).  He continues,
The “vaper” (yes, that’s the colloquial term for users) should have asked your host and tablemates . . .
I don’t really care what the answer is, but I love vaper.  I just wonder how many people will get the reference.  It hark back to viper, which in the first half of the twentieth century was slang for a marijuana smoker.  The term did not survive the marijuana boom of the 1960s, though I have no idea why. Reefer and pot survived as terms for marijuana, but boo disappeared. So did viper. Sill, some historical artifacts remain, notably Stuff Smith’s 1936 song “If You’se a Viper,” which begins,
Think about a reefer five feet long.
Wikipedia says that it’s “one of the most frequently covered songs about marijuana.”  The best-known of these covers is probably the one by Fats Waller (himself the compser of “Viper’s Drag”).  Fats cleaned up the grammar (“If You’re a Viper”) and slowed down the tempo.  But here’s the original.

As the song says,
When your throat gets dry, you know you’re high.

Fearing Democracy

October 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Let’s give Michelle Bachman her due. She speaks her mind. She also speaks the minds of other Republicans who won’t: Her words are what oft was thought but ne’er so outrageously expressed.

Yes, she likened Obamacare to crack.
President Obama can’t wait to get Americans addicted to the crack cocaine of dependency on more government health care.
Some keen-eared liberals detected subtle racist overtones in that metaphor. Heavens no. I’m sure Rep. Bachman’s intentions were pure. But let us ignore the possibly offensive metaphor and look at the substance of what she said.  After all, her idea, even without that metaphor, is something you can hear in many Republican hangouts. 

Taken at face value, her statement is saying that in a democracy, the people cannot be trusted.
 Because, once they enroll millions of more individual Americans it will be virtually impossible for us to pull these benefits back from people.
All they want to do is buy love from people by giving them massive government subsidies.
What she’s saying is this: If the government does something that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of the people, it will be impossible to undo that policy using democratic means.

It may seem odd, at least to those of us raised on an ideology of democracy, that there’s a danger in the government enacting programs that people like. But that seems to be what Bachman and other Republicans fear.  Their worst nightmare is that once Obamacare is fully implemented, it will be successful; people will like it, and they will vote for the party that created that program. 

That fear about the electoral consequences of a successful Obamacare is overblown if not downright incorrect. But that fear does reveal a deep distrust of democracy and of ordinary voters. 

The Redskins — No Offense

October 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Redskins have been in the news lately  – on the front page of this morning’s Times, for example –  and not for their prowess on the gridiron (they are 1-3 on the season). It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so.  “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.

President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”

Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive,* and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it.  I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities.  The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.

The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos.  And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.”  This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American.  His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by Russell Means of the AIM: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”

HT for the hats: Max

* Football fans of a certain age may remember Washington’s running back John Riggins, who had a few good seasons but is most remembered for his comment at a 1985 National Press Club dinner. He was seated next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and he was drunk. He passed out, slid to the floor, and slept  through Vice-President’s Bush’s speech. But before that, he told the justice, “Loosen up, Sandy baby. You’re too tight.” I’m sure his remark was not intended to give offense.

Pointless Post in Useless Blog

October 9, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Post this morning had me at hello, or rather, at headline.

It’s an allusion to one of the Post’s most famous headlines, from 1983.

(This was long before the era of the Kristal-pouring, gold-card strip club, with sports stars and hedge-funders tossing out benjamins for lapdances. In 1983, a topless bar was most likely a seedy joint.)

Today’s headline was an homage to Vinnie Musetto, author of the “Headless” headline. He had been freelancing at the Post since his retirement in 2011, but in August, the Post cut him off entirely, claiming budgetary constraints. Among Post headline writers, he’s gone but not forgotten.

The news story (here) has relevance not just for headline writing but for matters of criminal justice, law, and culture as well.

Jessica Krigsman, who had been arrested for being topless in a Brooklyn park back in the summer of 2012, is now suing the city for violating her rights.  Her encounter with New York’s finest wasn’t exactly like “Law and Order.” She knew her rights, and the cops didn’t.
“I’m like, what? Haven’t you heard of People v. Santorelli?” Krigsman said she told the cops. . . . “This has been legal since the ’90s. Call your supervisor!”

One of the cops told her to “stop mouthing off” and threatened her with arrest, court papers say.
The cops put her in pink handcuffs and took her to the precinct.

Krigsman’s knowledge of relevant case law comes with her professional territory. She’s not a lawyer, she’s a stripper – “a burlesque dancer who performs a fire-eating bondage act.”  The Post explains:
She stripteases and eats fire while straddling a man whose hands are tied and is bound to a chair.

A description for the event reads: “Prepare to be strange, prepare to be altered! There will be nudity, blood, vulgarity and many other unspeakable things.”
Even the Post can’t make this stuff up.

It’s Not About Obamacare

October 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why are some Republicans willing to shut down the government and to force the US to default on its debts in order to prevent a health care system very much like the one instituted in Massachusetts – a plan designed by a conservative think tank (the Heritage foundation) and instituted by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney)?

Maybe it’s not about health care.

Four years ago, in the early days of the fight against Obamacare, it seemed to me that healthcare was a symbolic issue, a matter of status politics. (That post is here.)  For many of the protesters, the question was not which healthcare policy would be good for who. The question was: whose country is this anyway?

These were Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” – older, white, non-urban – and they had long assumed that it was their country.  And they were right.  But the 2008 election was a rude reminder that they were becoming a minority – less influential, less powerful, less respected. The passage of Obamacare would somehow inscribe that diminished status into a law.  So Obamacare became the decisive battle in the fight to “take back our country.”* If we lose, if Obamacare takes effect, it’s their country.

In this apocalyptic style of thinking, Obama and Obamacare balloon from political opponent into something close to absolute evil.  And if you’re fighting evil, compromise is not an option.

Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s recent book, Change They Can’t Believe In, fills out this picture of the adamant Right. The Tea Partistas are not just a more strident versions of traditional conservatives.  Issues that engaged the traditional right – e.g., a muscular foreign policy – are not so important to them.  They are much more likely to emphasize the illegitimacy of the Obama administration. 

Parker and Barreto found differences like these by comparing the postings on Tea Party websites with those of National Review Online. (The National Review has long been the voice of conservatism – and not even “moderate” conservatism – but it’s not Tea Party).  The NRO posts were mostly devoted to policy matters. But on the Tea Party sites, over half the content had a flavor that Parker says is “more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics” – conspiracy theories, and attacks on Obama.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The data come from graphs posted at a WaPo Wonkblog interview with Parker (here). I don’t know what their coding scheme was, and I wonder about some of the absent topics. Immigration is the only domestic policy issue on the charts.  No guns, no healthcare, no taxes, etc. 

When Republicans think about Obama, legitimacy is the overarching issue.  Here is a word cloud of focus groups of Republicans – from Tea Party to moderates – asked about Obama.**

While all saw Obama as a liar, the Tea Partistas and Evangelicals said that what the lies and deceit were hiding was a socialist-Marxist agenda and that Obama himself was a Muslim and a tyrant,a non-citizen, a supporter of terrorism, and a “masonic Devil Illuminati.”  In fact, the word cloud shows devil turning up with the same frequency as dumbass (though for all I know, those could be n = 1).

In sum, the hard-core right views the Obama government as illegitimate and corrupt, and they fear that its success will mean total transformation of American society, a transformation in which they and people like them will lose status and power. That success, they fear, will come from the new health care law. As Andrew Sullivan says, “nothing represents their sense of loss and anger more powerfully than Obamacare.”

So don’t ask why some people are willing to shut down the government and to have the US default on its financial obligations, with all the damage that may bring to the economy of the nation and the world, in order to thwart a change in healthcare policy.  It’s not about Obamacare.

* In my “Repo Men” post (here), I offered some data showing that his imagery of “taking back our country” is much more a staple of out-of-power Republicans than Democrats.

** A pdf. of the report by Stan Greenberg and James Carville is here .

The Daughter Also Rises

October 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I still recall a Times wedding announcement from a few decades ago. The bride’s given name was Scarlett.

Why, I wondered, would someone name their daughter Scarlett? The text of the announcement pretty much answered that. Her debutante party had been a Gone With the Wind Ball, with the family’s estate transformed into Tara. 

Names are always, to some extent, a projection of parental ideas onto the child.* The question is: to what extent? It’s one thing to name your kid Jayden or Isabella because you think it sounds like a cool name – unusual enough to be hip, not so unusual as to be weird.  It’s another to saddle your child with your very specific fantasy derived from some novel or movie you imagine recreating in real life.  (Scarlett, I recall, had become an actress, so she may have been comfortable playing out other people’s fantasies, even her mother’s.) 

I had thought that this sort of naming had waned, so I was a bit surprised by this sentence in a post at The Monkey Cage, a political science blog:
First up is Brett Ashley Leeds, a professor at Rice University who has published widely on issues of international security, especially alliances.
I know nothing about Prof. Leeds or her work or her parents.  Nor do I have any idea what effect her Hemingway-derived name might possibly have had on her.  I expect that she has not taken up with journalists suffering from what we now call erectile dysfunction or with 19-year old toreros.  (I would also expect that she has long wearied of references like these.) I do note however that her post, “Why is work by women systematically devalued?” has a sentence about the effects street names might have on children. She writes, “from honorary names . . .they will receive messages that are likely to produce a subconscious bias.” I’m reluctant to make any such guesses about cause and effect.  But perhaps the messages that kids get from the names their parents give them is something Brett Ashley knows about.

* Names are parental projections, of course, only in societies where parents are free to choose the names of their children.

Chess Problem – In a Real Game

October 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

(No sociology here, just what Chris Uggen calls “self-indulgery.”)

I am not a chess player. I haven’t played since my kid was in grade school, and during  Saturday morning tournaments, when the kids were playing their matches in the lunch room, some of us bored parents in the auditorium would sit on the stage and play our patzer’s version of the game.

But last Saturday I was at the farmers’ market in Union Square, which also has a lane for chess players. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I figured these were canny players.  The match in the foreground above reminded me of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” – how many times had I watched our VHS of that movie – where a park hustler competes with a grandmaster for the chess soul of a young prodigy.

For a minute or so I watched this game.  When I got home and browsed through my photos – mostly of things like apples and radishes -- I took a closer look at the board.  It was white to move.:

Here’s a diagram of the position.

White pushed his pawn to h4, attacking black’s knight.

White Black thought for a while, too long in fact, for he made some move with his queen. He had been so lost in thought about the line of play following that move that he forgot that he was about to lose a knight.

But neither player saw the killer move that black had.  If you know anything about chess, you’ll see it immediately.  It’s the kind of position you might find in the chess problem corner of the newspaper (“Black has a crusher”), on the same page with the Jumble and Funky Winkerbean.  But there it was in a real game.

CNBC Values

September 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”

That was the preferred argument of Tommy Fiedler (not his real name but close enough), a classmate who lived across the street when I was a kid.  I sometimes would disagree with Tommy about the talents or behavior of some celebrity – a rock star or an actor.  Today’s equivalent might be Ke$ha or a Kardashian. Tommy’s response was usually, “He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”  And that settled the issue as far as Tommy was concerned.  A huge income trumped just about anything.

In sociology, we talk about values. Intro texts usually define values as abstract ideas about what is good, ideas that people use as guides to action.  Maybe. But the definition I prefer sees values as “legitimations” – ideas about what is good that people use to justify behavior or to win arguments.*  For Tommy, money was this kind of ultimate legitimation. His behavior did not evidence a strong value on money  – we were only about eleven at the time  – but his judgments did. Values are what we use to evaluate.

I thought of Tommy and values today when I read the transcript of a CNBC interview with Alex Pereene.  Pereene has recently gone on record (here) criticizing Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan. That bank currently faces an $11 billion fine for having dealt in shoddy mortgage-backed securities.  JP Morgan can afford it, of course, but $11billion begins to be real money.** The question on CNBC was whether Dimon should continue as its CEO. 

Pareene says no. The CNBC anchor, Maria Bartiromo then says.
Legal problems aside, JP Morgan remains one of the best, if not the best performing major bank in the world today. You believe the leader of that bank should step down?
Or as Tommy Fiedler would have put it, “His bank is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”

Here’s Pareene’s response:
 If you managed a restaurant, and it got the biggest health department fine in the history of restaurants, no one would say “Yeah, but the restaurant’s making a lot of money. There’s only a little bit of poison in the food.”
CNBC then brings in a Dimon booster, Duff McDonald. Asked to respond to Pareene’s charge of corruption, McDonald says,
It’s preposterous. The stock’s touching a ten-year high. It’s a cash-generating machine. Sure they’ve had their regulatory issues . . .
In McDonald’s view, the charge of corruption is preposterous because JP Morgan is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see. 

Bartiromo’s reaction is especially telling. She seems to take Pereene’s criticism of JP Morgan personally. I thought that anchors were supposed to be neutral and try to draw guests out. But Bartiromo is openly hostile. She loudly interrupts Pereene and demands evidence of the bank’s questionable tactics. When Pereene gives an example, she defends Dimon by again appealing to the value on profits above all else.
Even with all these losses, the company continues to churn out tens of billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of millions in revenues. How do you criticize that? [emphasis added]
Her assumption is that anyone who makes so much money cannot be criticized. Such criticism is immoral. The reporting about JP Morgan’s shortcomings is, she says,  “a witch hunt.”

[A video of the interview is on Felix Salmon’s blog (here). Must-see TV.]

The problem with legitimations is that they work only if everyone in the room shares the same values. Members of the same culture, almost by definition, share values; effective arguments appeal to those values. Americans, for example, are suckers for arguments based on appeals to individual freedom. We find them very hard to resist. But people in other cultures might not find those arguments so persuasive.

This brief CNBC interview hints at cultures or moral worlds in collision. In the CNBC world, people take the value on making money for granted. When they encounter someone who does not share that value, who is not persuaded by arguments based on it, they act as though threatened by some uncomprehending and dangerous alien, a creature from another world. It is a clash of cultures, a clash of values, and the way we discover those values is not by watching what people do (values as guides to action)  but by listening to how they justify what they and others do (values as legitimations).

* I think this idea about values originates with Berger and Luckman (1966), The Social Construction of Reality.

** Other fines JP Morgan has paid were far less. For its part in rigging the LIBOR, for example, they paid $450 million – pocket change.

The Dean's Speech

September 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

After the Navy Yard massacre, David Guth, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, posted an intemperate tweet.

The university put him on leave, and Guth consented. The debate – in the comments section at InsiderHigherEd for example, and on various blogs rehashes issues of gun control, the NRA, free speech, and academic freedom.  But it was this response from an administrator, as reported by IHE (here), that struck me.
Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in a separate statement that while the First Amendment allows free expression, "that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others. That’s vital to civil discourse. Professor Guth’s views do not represent our school and we do not advocate violence directed against any group or individuals.”
I guess Deans at KU are not hired to offer clear and incisive thinking, because even these few sentences have some standout mistakes. 

First, Dean Brill converts free speech from a right into a privilege.  Perhaps she does not recall that the First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Privileges. Then she claims that this right must be “balanced with the rights of others.” But she does not specify who these others might be, what these rights might be, or how Prof. Guths’s tweet violated those rights. Obviously, some people were outraged and offended. But whose legal or Constitutional rights did the tweet violate? There is no Constitutional right not to be offended.

Dean Brill also implies that the tweet advocated violence directed at some group or at individuals.  That too is quite a stretch. Guth was not issuing a fatwa calling for the slaughter of innocent children. He was saying that the next time a mass shooting happens, he hopes that the victims will be the children of the NRA, presumably so that the gun lovers might suffer the negative consequences of the policies they support.

I can only assume that the Dean’s objective in this statement was not to offer a cogent analysis but to assuage the anger of state legislators and other people that the university has to make nice with. 

Arguments Going to Extremes

September 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Extreme comparisons must be irresistible.  Why else would people argue that same-sex marriage is no different than marriage between a man and a dog or that aborting a 12-week fetus is as the moral equivalent of killing a twelve-month old child?  And then there’s Hitler.   
Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
But it’s not just online. It happens in print, and it happens in face-to-face discussions. Perhaps in math puzzles, the extreme hypothetical can be an effective strategy. But people are not math puzzles, and in the real world, those extremes rarely happen.

Despite its attractiveness to the speaker, the extreme comparison rarely convinces anyone who doesn’t already agree, and it can often backfire. The person who makes the extreme analogy looks morally obtuse, unable to tell the difference between Hitler and Obama, or Hitler and Bush, or Hitler and economic and social change.*

Recently, Greg Mankiw, a prominent economist not given to immoderate language, didn’t summon Hitler, but he used an equally silly analogy in a paper defending the very rich and attacking government aid to the poor.  He began,
government has increasingly used its power to tax to take from Peter to pay Paul. Discussions of the benefits of government services should not distract from this fundamental truth.
Hence the next subhead:
The Need for an Alternative Philosophical Framework
Mankiw then used that alternative philosophy to draw an analogy between the money we pay in taxes and our precious bodily organs:
Thus, the same logic of social insurance that justifies income redistribution similarly justifies government-mandated kidney donation.
Give them an inch, and they’ll take a kidney.

And now we have Robert Benmosche, top guy at AIG, going Mankiw one better in defending the huge bonuses that banks and financial firms paid out while they were crashing the economy.   The uproar over bonuses,  says Benmosche,
was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.
Yes, you read that correctly. Complaining about those bonuses is “sort of like” lynching, and the executives and traders sitting on their multi-million dollar bonuses are like Black people killed by racists. Sort of like lynching and “just as bad.”

The Wall Street Journal tactfully omitted this quote in their article (here) lauding Benmosche (“At AIG, Benmosche Steers a Steady Course”). The WSJ probably thought that Benmosche’s comparison would draw attention away from the idea that the bonus-critics were misguided and focus that attention instead on questions about the CEO’s moral universe.

Only three days later did the WSJ print the fuller version of the interview ( “AIG’s Benmosche and Miller on Villains, Turnarounds and Those Bonuses” )

HT: Ryun Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review

* During the 2008 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton, talking about the decline in good jobs, said, “They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. . . .” an obvious reference to ““First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Jews . . .”  (The NYT story is here. I remember this one because I blogged it at the time.)

UPDATE Sept. 25: As I was writing this, Ted Cruz was on the floor of the Senate arguing against funding Obamacare. Giving in to the President on healthcare, he said, was like  – you guessed it  –  appeasing Hitler in 1938.

How to Misread a Graph (It’s Not Easy, but The Heritage Foundation Finds a Way)

September 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

My post of a few days ago (here) showed The Heritage Foundation presenting a graph and deliberately drawing a conclusion that the graph clearly showed to be wrong.  Apparently, that’s something of a specialty at The Heritage Foundation.

Here’s their graphic purporting to show that preschool programs don’t work. (The original is here.)

The problem in the Oklahoma graph is the lag time between cause and effect.  For example, the baby boom began in 1947, but we would not look for its effects on healthcare and Social Security costs until much, much later.

Most people know this, but  Heritage seems to be lagging behind. “Fourth grade reading achievement scores in Oklahoma have actually declined.” True, they are lower now than in 1998, when universal preschool started. But is that the year should we use for a starting point for data on fourth grade reading scores?

Pre-school kids are three or four years old.  They don’t take the fourth-grade reading test until six or seven years later – in Oklahoma, that would be 2005 for the first cohort.  Amazingly (amazing to Heritage, I guess), that was the year reading scores began to increase, and despite a slight dip last year, they are still above that level.

As for the Georgia graph, anyone glancing at it (anyone except for people at The Heritage Foundation) would see this: reading scores in Georgia began increasing in 1995, two years after universal preschool began, and continued to rise when the first preschoolers reached fourth grade; scores have continued to rise faster than the national average.  Georgia was behind, now it’s ahead. Something good has been happening.

Heritage, however, manages not to see this and instead complains about how long it took Georgia to reach that point. (“Georgia’s program was in place for 13 years before scores caught up to the U.S. average.”)

A simple graph of scores is not really an adequate assessment of universal preschool. Those assessments, which include many other relevant variables,* have been done, and they generally conclude that the programs do work.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that Heritage is again misreading its own graph. So again I repeat, “Who you gonna believe, the Heritage Foundation or your lyin’ eyes?”

HT: Philip Cohen, who apparently thinks the Heritage deliberate obtuseness is so obvious as to be unworthy of elaboration.


* These include the usual demographics, especially to see if preschool effects are different for different groups. But there’s also the problem of post-preschool education. A state might have great preschools, but if it also has lousy primary schools, the benefits of preschool will be eroded away by the time the kids are in fourth grade.

Another Year

September 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”  Dr. Johnson might just have easily said “blogger.”* 

This week marks my seventh year as a blockhead, and as has become my custom, I’m selecting a few of the posts from the last twelve months that I’ve liked.

Climate Denial and American Voluntarism
 “This is 40” –  Guilty Pleasures

Upwardly Mobile Beer
  (Rolling Rock)

Compete Your Way to Mental Health  (“Silver Linings Playbook”)

Abortion and Infanticide

Gun Laws and Crime in Other English-Speaking Countries (it seems relevant again this week)

No Satisfaction  (why liberal women want more sex – or why conservative women don’t)

* I used this quote three yearas ago in a post criticising (or as I like to think of it, skewering) Greg Mankiw for something he had written in the Times. (That post is here.)

If You Can’t Beat ’Em

September 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I already used the title “Game Over, Guns Win” in a post after Sandy Hook back in December. Otherwise I might have used it here.)
Aaron Alexis had been receiving VA help for paranoia and 'hearing voices.'
Alexis had also had run-ins with police over two shootings incidents -- one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle-- but was never charged. He had also been discharged as an active-duty Navy reservist for misconduct, perhaps related to the gun incidents . . . .
A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY that Alexis was armed with an AR-15, which is a light-weight semi-automatic rifle, as well as a shotgun and a handgun . . . .           

The official said Monday that Alexis . . . legally purchased at least some of the weapons used in the assault very recently in Virginia.
(from USA Today)

I can hear it already – the whining from liberals wanting stricter gun laws. They’re going to be complaining that someone with a history of “shooting incidents,” whatever that means, and hearing voices shouldn’t be allowed to buy those guns.  What nonsense. The Second Amendment guarantees everyone the right to bear arms.  It doesn’t say anything about paranoid schizophrenia, and it doesn’t say anything about what kinds of arms. Handguns, assault rifles, shoulder-fired missiles – it’s all good.

Thank God we live in a country with freedom-loving states like Virginia – places where a guy like Aaron Alexis can go into a friendly gun shop or gun show, plunk down his money, and walk out with an AR-15, a shotgun, and a handgun.  That kind of weaponry is the best way to protect yourself and your family from evildoers, and it’s the best way to protect yourself from the government. And make no mistake, this Obama government and its liberal allies want to send their jackbooted thugs into your house and walk out with all your guns. So-called background checks are just the wedge, the ruse that allows them to put their jackbooted foot inside the door.

The truth is that the only thing that will to stop a paranoid schizophrenic with an AR-15 is a non-paranoid-schizophrenic with an AR-15 or some other suitable firearm. If everyone in the Navy Yard had been carrying a gun, maybe Alexis would have killed only a half dozen or so people (those AR-15s can fire off a lot of bullets in a few seconds) before someone picked him off. I hope the NRA comes out with another sensible and well-reasoned proposal like the one they had for schools. Every workplace – every factory, every office, every restaurant, etc. – will have a designated and well-armed shooter. 

This will be far more effective than statist gun-control laws. In the Navy Yard shootings, just like the Newtown school shootings and many others, the killers got their guns legally, which shows that gun laws don’t protect you or reduce mass shootings.

Besides, as the reaction to Newtown, Aurora, and other massacres shows, stricter gun laws ain’t gonna happen. So why don’t you liberals just stop your elitist sniveling and start arming yourselves with some serious firepower?  Remember, when guns are made criminal, only people will kill people, with their cold, dead hands.

UPDATE, September 18, 8 a.m.:
1.    Earlier reports that Alexis used an AR-15 may be incorrect.
2.    CBS reports that “Alexis tried to buy an AR-15 assault rifle at a Virginia gun store last week after test firing one, but the story wouldn't sell it to him. The reason for the refusal isn't clear.” That’s encouraging on the one hand. It also means that the decision whether to sell massacre-ready weapon to a paranoid schizophrenic is at the discretion of a gun-store clerk.
3.    A lawyer for the place where Alexis bought the shotgun says, “In accordance with Federal law, Mr. Alexis' name and other applicable information, including his state of residency, was provided to the Federal NICS system and he was approved by that system.”  That supports the NRA’s claim that background checks don’t work. Of course, the NRA has vigorously opposed legislation aimed at strengthening that system.
4.    Alexis used that shotgun on his first victim, a guard. He then took the guard’s semi-automatic handgun. So much for my NRA-inspired proposal to have an armed guard in every workplace. 

Racist Memorabilia

September 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Memory – for individuals and groups – is selective.  But what happens when we come face to face with memories that we would rather not select?

At a local flea market yesterday, one of the sellers market had this page displayed on his table along with a three-fingered fielder’s mitt from the 1940s, a safety razor with blade sharpener from the 20s or 30s, and much other Americana. The seller said that the page is from an 1880s book, probably a children’s book, though it could be even earlier.

(Click on the picture for a larger view. 
I added contrast to improve the visibility. The colors of actual page were considerably faded.)

The word racism often evokes images of vicious attitudes and behavior – the pictures from Little Rock 1954, white adults spewing hatred at seven-year-old children for doing nothing more than going to school.

What this page documents is not hatred but instead a set of taken-for-granted assumptions and ideas. Today, the racism of Ten Little Niggers is so obvious that I felt uncomfortable just looking at it. I would much have preferred it if this bit of memorabilia were forgetabilia. But I doubt that people a century ago – good people, people like you and me – would have seen it as marker of anything unusual or wrong. To them it was probably just an amusement of no significance.

Here is the flea-market seller displaying the cover page.

He told this story:  He said that he used to sell his wares out of a shop in the Bronx. One day Bill Cosby came into the store and bought just about all the items like this, memorabilia from America’s racist past.  The tab came to $7000 dollars. Cosby then left the store and dumped all the stuff he’d just bought into the garbage.

I was a bit skeptical, but I said nothing. Checking the Internet later, I found this:
About seventy per cent of the collectors are black and they include Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, whose mantel is lined with Mammy figurines, and other entertainment celebrities.  (more here)
Why would a collector throw away the memorabilia he collects?  Still, maybe the story is true. Or maybe he is doing what most people and nations do: constructing the past to make it more palatable, more consistent with the way we see ourselves now.

The Art of Translation

September 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociological Images ran a slightly edited version of my post of a few days ago about the ritual aspects of the US Open finals. Sociological Images has a much wider readership – 50,000 hits on a good day – and items there get picked up and reposted on still other websites.

Those websites also do some editing. Maybe some translating too. I followed a pingback to to find a version of my post that seems to have been machine translated into some other language and then back into something that seems sort of like English.

Sociological Images
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS. I saw a compare too. When we got home from work, we incited on CBS.
I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3. we would theory that many of a people there would select even a so-so final over a close, well-played compare on an outward justice in Round 3.

Hmm- “an outward justice.” Nice turn of phrase.  File it for use later in a different context.
For the full version, including puzzlers like “What creates a sheet value all a income afterwards,”  go to time2sports.  And for the version at Sociological Images, well, here’s how time2sports linked it:
This post creatively seemed on Sociological Images.*

*I have cleaned up this link. The link in the time2sports versions – all the links on the post there – take you to advertisements and dubious downloads.

Your Lyin’ Eyes

September 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

What will drive health care costs up in the next decade?  According to the CBO,
  • Medicare costs will increase by $513 billion
  • Medicaid costs will increase by $303 billion
  • Obamacare costs will increase by $135 billion
(The CBO does not use the term Obamacare.  It prefers “Health insurance subsidies and related spending.” The full report is here.) 

Here’s a simple bar graph.

If you put the data on a graph showing the same increases over time, what title would you give to the chart?  If you’re the right-wing Heritage Foundation , it’s obvious.

Yes, the Heritage Foundation looks at the chart and finds that the blame for the increase in healthcare spending goes to Obamacare.*

Who are you going to believe – the Heritage Foundation or your lying eyes? Healthcare costs may be driven to $1.82 trillion, but Obamacare, accounting for less than 10% of that, will not be doing much of the driving.

(HT: David Leonhardt)
*The huge irony in all this is that Obamacare, like Romneycare in Massachusetts, is based substantially on the individual-mandate model originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage praised it in Massachusetts but now opposes it even to the extent of mislabeling their own charts.

The Elementary Forms of the US Open Finals

September 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Some sociologists went to the US Open final yesterday and posted about it on Facebook.  Here’s what they saw. Notice the size of the court.

(Photo by Jenn Lena)
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS.  Here’s what I saw.

On my 40" flat-screen Samsung, I could see the match as though I were in the box seats, nothing between me and the court. I could see the grimace on a player’s face, the sweat stains on his shirt. I sat on an upholstered chair. And it cost me nothing. 

How much was a plastic seat in the top rows of Arthur Ashe Stadium? I don’t know. My grounds pass on Day 3 was $66.  So, $200?  More?   Seats for the finals were $95. I have sat up there near the top. The players are colorful miniatures moving around on the green rectangles. The distant perspective allows – forces – you to see the whole court, so you are aware of placement strategies and patterns of movement you might otherwise not have noticed. But tennis isn’t football; strategy, especially in singles, is fairly obvious and not complicated.*

From way up there, the players are so far away.  It's as though you were looking at your TV through the wrong end of a telescope. You see the game differently, and you hear it differently. A player hits a solid backcourt shot, and for a noticeable half-second or so, you hear silence. Only when the ball is clearing the net do you hear the impact of the stroke. 

Why go out to Flushing Meadow? It’s ridiculous to think about this in the narrow economic framework of money and tennis narrowly defined.  My $0 view of the match was far better than that of my FB friends in their expensive seats high above the court.  Close that micro-economics book and open Durkheim.  Think about the match as ritual. It’s not just about Nadal and Djokovic whacking a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth for a couple of hours. A ritual includes everyone. If you’re there, you are part of that group. You are one with the with the people in the stadium and with the charismatic figures in center court

That’s why, if something is a ritual, being there is so important. Showing up is more than just 80%. It’s everything. If you’re there, you are part of our group. You go to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diane’s house not because the food is good. You might get better food and more enjoyment at home with take-out Chinese and a TV.  You go because your presence defines you as a member of the group. Not going is tantamount to saying that you are just not part of this family.

The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches) after the match.  I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3.  Because this match is so important, it generates more mana. And that energy is created by the crowd.  Of course, the crowd’s perception is that it is the players who are creating that special feeling, and it helps if the match on the court is close and well-played. But the same match – every shot exactly the same – played in an early round in a nearly empty stadium would not create that same feeling for the handful of spectators who showed up.

What makes the ticket worth all the money then is not the quality of the play. It is the symbolic meaning of the ritual and the strong feeling you get from being part of that ritual. You were there, with Nadal and Djokovic. That ritual exists in sacred time, linked to other great finals matches.  So maybe you save your ticket stub or your program as your link to that sacred past.

I saw the same match, and I had a better view. But I’m not going to save my cable TV bill.

* One of my favorite tennis quotes – I don’t remember who, only that he was not a native speaker of English. In a post-match interview, a reporter asked him a question about strategy, with the assumption that he must have had some complicated game-plan. The player didn’t understand.  “I heet the ball to heem; he heet the ball to me.”  That’s a fairly good description of what happens in most singles matches.

Fed Lines and Headlines

September 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fed has been optimistic about the economy and has been hinting that it might scale back its aggressive bond-buying program.  But the jobs report on Friday was not encouraging – an estimated 169,000 jobs added. The really bad news was the shrinking of the labor force.  Apparently a lot of people are giving up the search for a job. 

Did the new data on jobs make the Fed reconsider its plans?  It depends on which  headline you read – the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s a larger version of the Times headline:

Is the Fed undeterred, or have its plans been muddied?  Once you get past the headlines, the stories say pretty much the same thing.  Four sentences after that headline about “muddied” plans, the WSJ said, “Friday’s jobs data did little to move the needle in either direction.”  Which is pretty much agreeing with the Times that the jobs report did not “deter” the Fed.

Habits of the Holland Heart

September 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I spent a week in Holland, Michigan at the end of August (family, wedding), but I didn’t find out until now that also in August, the Atlantic was running a series of blogposts (here, for example) about Holland by James Fallows, who was also hanging around town. 

Fallows writes admiringly of Holland.  A strong sense of civic engagement has kept the downtown vibrant while elsewhere in the US, downtowns have had their life sucked out by the malls and bigbox stores at the periphery. That civic sense probably has something to do with Holland’s history as a conservatively religious Dutch town.  It’s hard to miss the Protestant presence. Churches and church schools abound. So do Dutch names. Also windmills and tulips.

On Holland’s main street, this banner –  a spoof on “American Gothic” – conveys the dour Dutch Reform sensibility and the tulips. The civic engagement is less obvious, contained perhaps in the idea that the town can laugh at itself.
But Holland also has a healthy manufacturing sector – furniture, scrap and recycling, pickles – and Fallows attributes much of Holland’s vitality to the non-corporate ownership and therefore the non-corporate ethos and behavior of those companies. These are family-run companies, not large multinationals. For those big corporations, says Fallows. . .
. . . it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that ultimately they care most about dividend growth and "maximizing shareholder value." Toward that end layoffs, outsourcing, cost-cutting, cheese-paring, union-busting -- you name it, and if it can arguably lead to greater long-run corporate profitability, then by definition it is what management is supposed to do.

A family or privately run business can do things differently, for better and worse. Worse: management jobs for relatives, whether competent or not. Better: deciding in some cases to take a temporary loss, or settle for less-than-maximized profit, in exchange for some other goal. (The full Fallows post is here.)
In the schema of Habits of the Heart, Holland weaves the Biblical and civic republican strands of the American tradition. The other strands – utilitarian individualism (a.k.a. greed) and expressive individualism – are less in evidence.  Holland’s big businesses are firmly in the international economy, but while they act globally, their owners and executives think locally. They seem to see themselves as part of the local community. 

I hadn’t read Fallows’s articles when I was in Holland so I knew nothing of its economics, but one thing immediately struck me as we drove around. (Missing a turn and ranging far from your intended direct route can have its advantages.)  It was obvious that there was wealth here, but the homes in Holland were relatively modest by US standards.  Where in other places McMansion developments or individual new monstrosities would be rising, Holland had normal ranch and two-story houses with lawns of a size that you could mow even without industrial-scale equipment.*
It was as though the display of such opulence would violate community standards.  In fact, several people I spoke with mentioned the resentment that David and Carol VanAndel are incurring with their construction of a $3.6 million mansion overlooking Lake Michigan.  (VanAndel is heir to the Amway fortune.)

By standards of East Hampton and elsewhere, it’s not exactly a tear-down, but it’s certainly not top tier.  Yet for the people in Holland, it was literally enormous – outside the norm – even for the wealthy.  On top of that, VanAndel is indulging his individual wishes explicitly at the expense of the public. He is cutting off public access to Big Red, the landmark lighthouse.

The lighthouse and pier are public, but access goes through VanAndel property, and he wants to allow the public to walk that path only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That is not the civic-mindedness that Fallows finds just about everywhere else in Holland.


* Big problem with methodology here – journalistic impressionism rather than social science (I haven’t even scanned Zillow). Maybe Holland is rife with mansions, and I was just looking for conspicuous consumption in all the wrong places.

Reporting the News as You’d Like It to Be

August 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news media are supposed to report the news – things that actually happen, not things they would like to happen.  That requirement – being factual – can be pesky, but it’s easily sidestepped.  One effective head-fake is to put a statement in the form of a question.  The question headline, a staple of supermarket tabloids, has a long history going back at least to the gossip columns of newspaper days.

In 2006, Jon Stewart skewered FoxNews’s Neil Cavuto for his extensive use of this technique. (The Daily Show clip is here).

But Fox doesn’t need to resort to the statement-as-question.  As long as it can find somebody somewhere to speculate, it can report crazy stuff as though it were factual news.  It’s not the Fox newsreaders or editors who are saying these things; it’s “some” people. 

I don’t know if there is any research on the effect of these techniques.  Maybe these viewers are more likely to ignore and forget these  doubtful and hedged versions of “information.”  But I doubt it.  As the research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler*  has shown, ideas, even false once, are remarkably resilient.  Corrections of false statements don’t do much to change perceptions and can even have the reverse of effect –  strengthening people’s belief in the original untruth. 

A blogpost by Nyhan with a link to news coverage and academic papers is here.

Bird – in Context

August 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Charlie Parker was born 93 years ago today.

The conventional story is that in the 1940s, Parker and a handful of other musicians revolutionized jazz, with bebop taking precedence over swing.  The kernel of truth in that version is that Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, and others really were playing different notes and with a different sound.  “Go up to Minton’s and listen to how this kid plays Cherokee,” musicians would tell one another. And swing bandleader Cab Calloway told Dizzy to “Stop playing that Chinese music in my band.” 

But the Great Man version of history – great musicians getting together to create a new music – leaves out the economic, social, and technological context. For example, the 1942 musicians’ union strike primarily against the major record companies (RCA, Capital, Decca, and a few others) allowed smaller labels into the game.  Those labels recorded small groups, not the big bands.  So we get Bird’s legendary quintet and sextet sessions for Dial. 

Even the idea of the jazz-musician-as-artist (or even genius) owes much to the decline of big bands.  Big bands are the medium of the leader, the composers, and the arrangers.  The musicians are more or less interchangeable. But in small groups, it’s all about the soloists. The melody is just something the horns play in unison at the beginning and end, just to let listeners know what the tune is.  Far more important are the many choruses of solos in between.  Most people who listened to Duke Ellington didn’t know or care who the trumpeters were. But if you’re listening to Charlie Parker, you really want to know whether the trumpeter is Dizzy or Miles.* 

Also, what seems like revolutionary change often incorporates conventional ideas Here’s Parker’s 1953 recording of “Confirmation,” probably his best (and best-known) composition.**

The chord changes for first four bars are the substitute changes Parker often used for his solos on the blues – they’re sometimes known as “Bird changes.”  But they are just a logical way to get from F in the first measure of the blues to Bb in the measure five. 

F  | E-7 A7 | D-7 G7 | C-7 F7 | Bb . . .                   

Even this chord sequence is not completely new with Parker.  Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren used the same changes a few years earlier in  “There Will Never Be Another You.”

 * I think that Marc Myers covers this territory and more in his recent book Why Jazz Happened, but I have not yet read it

**To see Bird’s solo go by in real time note by note, see this animation, which for some reason is written in the key of G, not F – which is fine if you’re playing along on trumpet or tenor sax.

Unpack Your Discourses

August 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her “Ten Commandments of Graduate School,” published recently at The Chronicle, Tenured Radical* commands
Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas.
At the ASA meetings earlier this month, I didn’t hear much discourse.  But there were other trendy words.  Narrative, for example, has achieved widespread use even outside of academia, though most of the time the word story would do just as well.  (My post on this word  five years ago had the title “That’s My Narrative and I’m Sticking to It.”)  Both these terms had fallen into relative disuse until post-modernist, structuralist, post-structuralist writing pumped them with new life. 

(Click on an image for a larger, clearer view.)

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, learned people wrote discourses – Rousseau on Inequality, Dryden on Satire, etc.  Nowadays, anyone who speaks has a discourse just waiting to be analyzed.  And of course we all have narratives for just about everything we think about. 

A couple of words I heard several times at the ASA were newbies. They just did not exist back in the day.  These were the “ize” words.

Incentivize probably comes to us from the economists.  With contextualize and problematize, it’s harder to guess who’s responsible. 

Maybe it’s because academics travel to these conferences, but at the ASA, and apparently elsewhere, there was much talk of unpacking.  I even think I may have heard someone unpacking a narrative (or was it a discourse?)  Unpack, too, begins is rise in the 1970s.**

Finally, the ASA seemed a good place to look for your lenses. Speakers urged us look at something “through the lens of” this or that theory, or noted that a theory was “a lens through which” we might view some data.  The graph below shows these two phrases as a proportion of all uses of lens references (to avoid the possible effect of an increase in lens caused by “contact lenses”). 

I’m sure there are other trendy terms I’ve missed.  Maybe you have your own favorites.  It’s hard to predict which will sink in popularity as quickly as they have soared, and which will be with us for a while.                     

* Tenured Radical is the nom de blog of  historian Claire B. Potter, who looks like she might have an even more noted relative. Claire is the one on the left.

** “Unpack Your Adjectives” first appeared on Schoolhouse Rock in 1973, but although I love to hear Blossom Dearie, I doubt that she was responsible or all the unpacking going on at academic conferences in the following decades.

Cedar Walton, 1934 - 2013

August 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1980s, I used to go hear Cedar Walton at Bradley’s or the Knickerbocker in duos with bassists like Ron Carter and Buster Williams.  He was a musician’s musician.  Few jazz musicians become famous, but even among jazz pianists he was probably less well known than many of his peers.  Still, he played with most of the greats – Coltrane, Rollins, Hubbard, Gillespie. 

In the early 1960s as part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, he contributed several lasting compositions to the group’s book.  His tunes too are less well known, probably because many of them depart from the standard forms.  “Firm Roots,” “Mode for Joe,” and “Clockwise” are part of the jazz repertoire, but they’re not necessarily the tunes that you would call at a jam session.  His best-known tune is “Bolivia,”  with its simple but unmistakable opening bass line.

(Cedar's solo starts at about the 3:40 mark.)

(One detail of his biography that may not make it into the obits: When he first came to NYC from Texas in the 1950s, one of his day jobs was at the Automat. It was a different New York back then.)