How Do You Know If You’re Really a Conservative?

October 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Are Conservative Republicans a breed apart? And are they getting even farther apart?

A recent Pew survey compared attitudes a year ago and last month on the subject of abortion. The 2015 survey was done in the immediate wake of those now-famous videos of Planned Parenthood officials, videos shot surreptitiously and edited tendentiously. The demographic that showed the largest swing in opinion was Conservative Republicans.*

Among people who identified themselves as Conservative Republicans, opposition to abortion rose from 65% to 79%. Four out of five Conservative Republicans now oppose abortion. No other group in the survey comes in at more than half.

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

The obvious explanation is that in the past year, an additional 14% of Conservative Republicans have become more conservative on abortion. The hardliners are becoming even harder. But there’s another possibility – that many of the Conservative Republicans who did not oppose abortion a year ago no longer call themselves Conservative Republicans.

That’s not as unlikely as it might seem. 


The Gallup poll shows that among Republicans, those who identified themselves as conservative on both economic and social issues – the largest segment of the faithful – dropped from 51 to 42 percent.  What if all the dropouts were abortion moderates?

I did some simple math.  I imagined 100 Republicans in 2014. Of those, 51 were self-identified conservatives, and of those 65% opposed abortion. That makes 33 who thought abortion should be illegal nearly all the time.

Last month, only 42 of those 100 Republicans said they were thoroughly conservative, 9 fewer than a year ago.  Of those left, 79% were anti-abortion. That makes 33. In my scenario, these were the same 33 as a year ago. The 9 who defected to the less-than-fully-conservative camps were the ones who were wishy-washy about making abortion totally illegal. Perhaps this is our old friend social comparison. These nine people looked at the hardcore, and the next time that a pollster asked them about where they stood politically, they thought, “If being a Conservative Republican means wanting all abortions to be illegal, maybe Im not so conservative after all.”



Conservative
Republicans
%Anti-
Abortion
Number Anti-
Abortion
2014
51
65%
33
2015
42
79%
33

I’m speculating of course. Besides, the data and calculations here are surely too simplistic; I am not a political scientist. But maybe the party purists are indeed forcing others who used to be close to them politically to rethink their identification as Conservative Republicans.


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* The drop in support among those 30-49 and 50-64 does fall just outside the confidence interval of 5.5 points, but is only half as large as the change among conservative Republicans.

Images in the Media vs. Poll Data

October 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes I get the wrong impression from what I hear and see in the media. In the news, Planned Parenthood has been taking it on the chin. A few liberals have come to the defense, but my impression these past few weeks is that this organization has fallen out favor with politicians and the public.

Donald Trump on the other hand seems to have been soaring. He keeps coming out on top in those polls despite all the offensive comments. He is, the pundits tell me, tapping into a rich vein of American populist resentment.

So I was interested to see the results of a recent NBC - Wall Street Journal survey asking people how favorably or unfavorably they viewed people and organizations in the news.  Here is what it shows.

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

Planned Parenthood did draw some negatives – 31% viewed it unfavorably – but these were more than offset by the numbers of people people whose view was positive. The chart below shows both the Favorable and Unfavorable.


Trump is the opposite of Planned Parenthood. He has his admirers, but while they play an important part in surveys of Republicans, when the survey includes the general population, those supporters are swamped by people less taken with The Donald. The same is true to a lesser extent of Hillary Clinton. Her 39% positive is higher than that of any other presidential candidate. But there are a lot of people out there who do not like Hillary.

Surely there are political scientists who can make better sense of this than I can.



Gun Laws – Paying for False Negatives

October 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:

1.  Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.

2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.


I had two somewhat different reactions.

1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.

2.  Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK.  The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.

But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws asssume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.

Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.

UPDATE October, 6You have to forgive the hyperbole in that last paragraph, written so shortly after the massacre at Umpqua. I mean, those politicians don’t really think that it’s better to have dead bodies than to pass regulations on guns, do they?

Or was it hyperbole? Today, Dr. Ben Carson, the surgeon who wants to be the next president of the US, stated even more clearly this preference for guns even at the price of death.  “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” (The story is in the New York Times and elsewhere.)

Phil Woods, 1931-2015

October 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston


The great alto player (and sometimes clarinetist) Phil Woods died on Tuesday. Here’s my favorite Phil Woods story. I’ve edited it down slightly from an interview he did at JazzWax.

I had just graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and was playing at the Nut Club on Seventh Ave. and Sheridan Square in the Village. After all of that great education, here I was playing “Harlem Nocturne” ten times a night. [The Nut Club, as the patrons’ preference in music shows, was a touristy joint. It sometimes featured cockroach races.] I was saying to myself: My god, I’m a Juilliard graduate, and I can play great jazz, and here I am playing “Night Train” and “Harlem Nocturne.” I didn’t like my mouthpiece. I didn’t like my reed. I didn’t like my horn. I didn’t even like the strap.

One night somebody came into the club and “Hey, Charlie Parker’s playing across the street. He’s jamming.” The guy was referring to Arthur’s Tavern, which is still there on Grove Street across Sheridan Square. It was a little tiny hole in the wall with a little bar.

When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long. His father was on drums using a tiny snare and little tiny pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie Parker—playing the baritone sax. It belonged to Larry Rivers, the painter. Parker knew me. He knew all the kids who were coming up.

I said, “Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to play my alto?” He said, “Phil, that would be great. This baritone’s kicking my butt.” So I ran back across the street to the Nut Club and grabbed the alto sax that I hated. I came back and got on the bandstand, which was about as big as a coffee table. I handed my horn to Bird and he played “Long Ago and Far Away.”

As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing was wrong with the reed, nothing was wrong with the mouthpiece—even the strap sounded good. Then Parker says to me, “Now you play.” I said to myself, “My God.” So I did. I played a chorus for him. When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.”

I levitated over Seventh Avenue to the Nut Club. And when I got back on the bandstand there, I played the shit out of “Harlem Nocturne.” That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing. That was quite a lesson.


He is often compared to Cannonball Adderly, and although I can hear the similarity, Woods was always one of my favorites while I never had all that much use for Cannonball. I first listened, really listened, to Woods when I bought the 1959 LP “The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess” – a big band playing arrangements by Bill Potts. The Otto Preminger movie had appeared that year, and lots of people wanted to ride its wake – Miles, Ella and Louis, and others. The Potts album was a fancy production with pages of photos of the musicians in the studio.

“Bess You Is My Woman” belongs to Phil Woods, from his section work in the intro to the final cadenza.


His sound is unmistakable. If you see the 1961 moive“The Hustler,” as the opening credits roll over a big band soundtrack, even though there is no alto solo, you hear the ensemble work and know that it’s Phil on lead alto.

His best-known solo, as I’ve noted before (here) is not in jazz. It’s the alto break in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” I imagine all the people who have heard that track countless times since 1977. They know all the notes but have no idea that they are hearing one of the greatest alto players of the post-Bird era.

Public Opinion, Prison, and Politics – Black Crime Matters

September 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives have finally begun to emerge from their nearly fifty-year long infatuation with draconian prison sentences as the solution to the problems of crime and, especially, drugs. It’s as though America has just discovered that that property in Glengarry Glen Ross we’ve been making huge payments on all these years is mostly an undeveloped marsh. How did this happen?  Who were those persuasive salesman, the ones who lived by the ABC slogan, “Always be convicting”? And why did we believe them?

The standard answer from the left has been: racists and racism. Starting in the 60s, politicians used “crime” as a code word for “race.” After all, you couldn’t say that you were against Black people, but you could say that you were against crime and for “law and order.” The strategy worked but not just because of American racism but because of the riots and the rise in crime in Black urban areas, then called “the ghetto,” now “the hood.”  In the leftish view, the new laws – everything from mandatory sentences for a first offense to life-sentences for a third conviction – were basically good old American White-on-Black oppression. Whites were comfortable knowing that most of the people being sentence to long terms and occasionally death would be Black. Mass incarceration, in the title of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.”

New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, were some of the first and harshest versions of the new look in criminal justice. Many other states took inspiration, and in the 1980s the Reagan administration’s launched federal war on drugs * – all with a predictable boom in prison populations. The increase was sharper for Black males. (Data from Pew here .)



But in Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner challenges the idea that the drug laws, and punitive policies in general, were a White regime foisted on Blacks. Black leaders in New York City – and the Black people they led – were, Fortner argues, a major force pushing for harsher laws.

The book is political history – how laws got made forty years ago. But it’s also relevant for the debate over the very recently arrived Black Lives Matter. Conservatives, in their reaction against Black Lives matter, often like to bring up the inconvenient fact of Black-on-Black crime. Here, for example, is Sean Hannity on Fox last month:

Don't we have to address the black on black crime numbers that, it's not cops. It's not white people. There are racists, everybody knows that, but the majority of deaths of young black males are coming from other young black males.

Fortner too argues that trying to explain criminal justice policy while ignoring crime
is like explaining Advil profits without mentioning headaches. In the 1970s, the highest rates of street crime were in urban Black neighborhoods. That’s still true, though those rates have decreased considerably in the last 25years. 

In 1982, noted penologist Richard Pryor offered his observations on the proportions of Blacks in the general population and in prison. He also speculated that the disparity in these proportions was related to crime and the desire of Black people like himself to be safer. (It’s Richard Pryor. Do I really need to put a trigger warning here about language, sex, and violence?)

 


But are Blacks really more punitive than Whites? Fortner has a lot of anecdotal evidence – editorials in Black newspapers saying things like,“I’m in favor of burning them alive.” I haven’t read the book (the release date was only two days ago), but according to the review by Marc Parry in The Chronicle , Fortner “cites a 1973 New York Times poll that found 71 percent of blacks supported life sentences without parole for drug dealers.”  I could not find that poll, but I did find a national Gallup poll from 1973 on the same question. Whites supported the drug laws 68-28%. Black support was less strong – 58-36%.

Other surveys too have found Blacks less punitive than Whites.  They have always been less supportive of the death penalty; except for the high-crime years of roughly 1985-2000, a majority have opposed capital punishment. As for other sentences, look at the GSS item “Courts”: “In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”


Some obvious points:
  • Attitudes about punishment have softened in the last 25 years, probably because of the great decrease in crime.
  • Blacks have always been less punitive than Whites.
  • In periods of high crime, Blacks were strongly in favor of harsher punishments. Even today among Blacks, those favoring harsher punishment are in the majority.

But what about the other option on this question?



While the White-Black gap on “Not Harshly Enough” has been consistent at about ten percentage points, in recent years far more Blacks have come to see sentences as too harsh. While Whites still favor harsher courts by nearly 8-to-1, among Blacks the ratio is only 2½-to-1. 

Perhaps these general attitudes help explain the differences over Black Lives Matter. The movement arose in response to several well-publicized killings of unarmed Black men by police. But even before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and others, a significant minority of Blacks in the US had come to feel that the punitive tactics of the criminal justice system were not making them safer and needed to be reversed.

Back to the Future

September 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Opponents of government aid to the poor often argue that the poor are not really poor. The evidence they are fond of is often an inappropriate comparison, usually with people in other countries: “Thus we can say that by global standards there are no poor people in the US at all: the entire country is at least middle class or better. ” (Tim Worstall in Forbes).  Sometimes the comparison is with earlier times: “‘Poor’ Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century.” (Robert Rector at Heritage. The quote is from 1990, but I doubt that Heritage has changed its tune.) 

I parodied this approach in a post a few years ago (here) by using the ridiculous argument that poor people in the US are not really poor and are in fact “better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.” I mean, I thought the toilet argument was ridiculous. But sure enough, Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute used it in an article in the Washington Times, complete with a 17th century portrait of the king.

Common Folk Live Better Now than
Royalty Did in Earlier Times

Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms. . .

Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg  has an ingenious way of showing how meaningless this line of thinking is. He compares today not with centuries past but with centuries to come. Consider our hedge-fund billionaires, with private jets whisking them to their several mansions in different states and countries. Are they well off?  Not at all.They are worse off than the poor of 2215.

Think about what the poor will enjoy a few centuries from now that even the 0.01 percent lack today. . . . “Imagine, they died of cancer and heart disease, had to birth their own babies, and even drove their own cars. How primitive can you get!”


Comparisons with times past or future tell us about progress. They can’t tell us who’s poor today. What makes people rich or poor is what they can buy compared with other people in their own society.  To extrapolate a line from Mel Brooks’s Louis XVI, “It’s good to be the king . . . even if flush toilets haven’t been invented yet.”

And you needn’t sweep your gaze to distant centuries to find inappropriate comparisons. When Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” goes from the 80s back to the 50s, he feels pretty cool, even though the only great advances he has over kids there seem to be skateboards, Stratocasters, and designer underpants. How would he have felt if in 1985 he could have looked forward thirty years to see the Internet, laptops, and smartphones?

Do people below the poverty line today feel well off  just because they have indoor plumbing or color TVs or Internet connections? Hardly. In the same way,  our 1% do not feel poor even though they lack consumer goods that people a few decades from now will take for granted. 

That Thing Thing Again

September 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing . . . [I] overhear from somewhere, ‘Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh’.” That was part of a rant posted in 2011 on YouTube by a UCLA student complaining about Asian students using their cell phones in the library when she was trying to study. The video went viral, and the PC police swarmed in with justifiable accusations of racism. She soon deleted the video.

My comment (here) was not so much about racism as about a single word –  “thing.”  Turning “the tsunami” into “the tsunami thing” says in effect, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.” Even The Language Log took note.

So I couldn’t help but notice this headline in today’s New York Times.


The story is about public relations agents whose efforts to get their clients’ events widely noticed these past two days were swamped under the flood of Pope coverage in the media.

But spare a thought for that handful of souls for whom the papal visit on Friday was less pleasure than plight. We speak of those who toil in public relations, and struggled to have their entreaties heard on this holiest of busy news days.

These are their lamentations.

Consider the 11 a.m. announcement of a new dog park in Astoria, Queens, a $1 million project sure to delight local canines and their owners, but less able to compete for headlines alongside Francis’ visit to the National September 11 Memorial, which was scheduled for roughly the same hour.

“It didn’t really cross my mind until yesterday how many reporters were going to be covering this pope thing,” said Shachar Sharon, communications director for Councilman Costa Constantinides, who hosted the event. [emphasis added]

“That kind of put a damper on things,” she added.

Adding “thing” to a noun insults those who take that thing seriously. You’d think that a public relations specialist would show some tact. But Ms. Sharon probably didn’t think that her choice of phrases would get into the newspaper. After all, she was merely talking to a reporter, not doing the PR thing.

Evidence vs. Bullshit – Mobster Edition

September 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maria Konnikova is a regular guest on Mike Pesca’s pocast “The Gist.”  Her segment is called “Is That Bullshit.” She addresses pressing topics like
  • Compression sleeves – is that bullshit?
  • Are there different kinds of female orgasm?
  • Are artificial sweeteners bad for your health?
  • Does anger management work?
We can imagine of all kinds of reasons why compression sleeves might work or why diet soda might be unhealthful, but if you want to know if it’s bullshit, you need good evidence. Which is what Konnikova researches and reports on.

Good evidence is also the gist of my class early in the semester. I ask students whether more deaths are caused each year by fires or by drownings. Then I ask them why they chose their answer. They come up with good reasons. Fires can happen anywhere – we spend most of our time in buildings, not so much on water. Fires happen all year round; drownings are mostly in the summer. A fire may kill many people, but group drownings are rare. The news reports a lot about fires, rarely about drownings. And so on.

The point is that for a good answer to the question, you need more than just persuasive reasoning. You need someone to count up the dead bodies. You need the relevant evidence.

“Why Do We Admire Mobsters?” asks Maria Konnikova recently in the New Yorker (here).  She has some answers:
  • Prohibition: “Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it [i.e., mobsters] were heralded as heroes, not criminals.” Even after Repeal, “that initial positive image stuck.”
  • In-group/ out-group: For Americans, Italian (and Irish) mobsters are “similar enough for sympathy, yet different enough for a false sense of safety. . .  Members of the Chinese and Russian mob have been hard to romanticize.”
  • Distance: “Ultimately the mob myth depends on psychological distance. . .  As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften. . . . Psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything.”
  • Ideals: “We enjoy contemplating the general principles by which they are supposed to have lived: omertà, standing up to unfair authority, protecting your own.”
These are plausible reasons, but are they bullshit? Konnikova offers no systematic evidence for anything she says. Do we really admire mobsters? We don’t know. Besides it would be better to ask: how many of us admire them, and to what degree? Either way, I doubt that we have good survey data on approval ratings for John Gotti. All we know is that mobster movies often sell a lot of tickets. Yet the relation between our actual lives (admiration, desires, behavior) and what we like to watch on screen is fuzzy and inconsistent.

It’s fun to speculate about movies and mobsters,* but without evidence all we have is at best speculation, at worst bullshit.

UPDATE:
In a message to me, Maria Konnikova says that there is evidence, including surveys, but that the New Yorker edited that material out of the final version of her article.

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* Nine years ago, in what is still one of my favorite posts on this blog, I speculated on the appeal of mafia movies (here). I had the good sense to acknowledge that I was speculating and to point out that our preferences in fantasyland had a complicated relation to our preferences in real life.

Another Year. That Makes Nine.

September 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The anniversary for this blog comes roughly at the same time as the Jewish New Year – bit daunting, nine compared with 5776. Atonement for the blog’s shortcomings will have to wait till Yom Kippur next week.  For now, I’ll toot my own shofar for a few posts that for one reason or another I liked.
           
Don Draper and the Pursuit of Loneliness. The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970) by Philip Slater was one of the best books inspired by America in the 1960s. “Mad Men” was one of the best TV shows inspired by America in the 1960s.

Shootings and Elephants(The post has nothing to do with Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant.”) My point is the obvious one – if you want school shootings to be more common, make it easier for schoolkids to get guns. I posted it only because so many people seem to be ignoring the obvious.

Poverty, Perceptions, and Politics  Another seemingly obvious idea – the more socially distant people are from the poor, the less compassion they will have for the poor. Yet some people were surprised by the evidence.
               
Chris Christie and Subjective – Very Subjective – Social Class If Chris Christie’s perception of himself is “middle class,” perhaps sociologists need to revise the ways that they define and measure social class.
       
Higher Ed as Cheerios One ill-chosen picture for a college catalogue cover reveals assumptions about race and gender but also about the basic purpose of a university education. Does anyone remember those old classic Cheerios ads? Does anyone remember those old classic ideas about education?

Cartwheeling to Conclusions

September 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

This post was going to be about kids – what the heck is wrong with these kids today – their narcissism and sense of entitlement and how that’s all because their wealthy parents and schools are so overprotective and doting. giving them trophies for merely showing up and telling them they’re so great all the time.

I’m skeptical about that view – both its accuracy and its underlying values (as I said in this post about “Frances Ha”). But yesterday in Central Park there was this young dad with a $7500 camera.


I was reminded of something from a photo class I once took at Montclair. We were talking about cameras – this was decades ago, long before digital -  and the instructor Klaus Schnitzer said dismissively: “Most Hasselblads are bought by doctors who take snapshots of their kids on weekends.”


Now here was this guy with his very expensive camera taking videos of his 9-year old daughter doing cartwheels. And not just filming her. He interviewed her, for godssake - asked her a couple of questions as she was standing there (notice the mike attached to the camera) as though she were some great gymnast. This is going to be one narcissistic kid, I thought, if she wasn’t already. I imagined her parents in a few years giving her one of those $50,000 bat mitzvahs – a big stage show with her as the star. My Super Sweet Thirteen.

Maybe it was also because the dad reminded me of the Rick Moranis character in the movie “Parenthood,” the father who is over-invested in the idea of his daughter’s being brilliant. 


(The guy looked a little like Moranis. I’ve blurred his face in the photos here, but trust me on this one. My wife thought so too.)

But here’s where the story takes a sharp turn away from the millennials cliches. My wife, who had been a working photographer, went over to ask him about his camera. It turns out that he works for “20/20,” and ABC had asked him to try out this Canon C-100. It was ABC’s camera not his, and as much as he was indulging his daughter, she was indulging him – agreeing to do the cartwheels and mock interview for purposes of his work.

OK, it wasn’t exactly the second-generation kid working in her immigrant parents’ vegetable store, but it wasn’t the narcissism-generating scenario that I had imagined. 

The point is that my wife was a much better social psychologist than I was. If you want to find out what people are doing, don’t just look at them from a distance or number-crunch their responses on survey items. Talk with them.

Pigskin Preview (i.e., Football Cliches)

September 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title - “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months. 

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league. . . .

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.


Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.”


Coach and Economy

August 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Illinois football head coach, Tim Beckman, was just fired after a ton of evidence showed that he forced Fighting Illini scholar-athletes to play hurt.

[A] player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a “lifetime of surgery” related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said. [Source: Inside Higher Ed.


In response, Coach Beckman said,

The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.

You can’t blame the coach for lying. What else could he have said?

The problem is not that the coach is a liar or that he callously ignores the risk of lifelong debilitating injury to his players. Beckman is surely not the only coach who pressures players this way, and it’s not because the coaches all lack moral character. Nor will firing one coach have much effect. Coaches “act like our bodies are just disposable” (as Cvijanovic tweeted) not because coaches are moral monsters but because the entire system of Division I football is focused on winning.

Deep Throat was right: follow the money. Winning teams at big schools can bring in big money – media deals, tchotchke sales, alumni donations, etc. That multi-million dollar contract that Illinois gave Beckman wasn’t for improving the health and well-being of the players. It was for winning.

As long as the team’s won-lost record was improving,* university officials were not concerned about what Beckman was doing. Or if they knew, they probably assumed, correctly, that this is how coaches coach. When the news first reported Cvijanovic’s accusations back in May, Coach Beckman’s boss, the Athletic Director, said that Beckman “has put the welfare of this young man above all else.” It was only after the investigation – triggered by the young man’s tweets – that the Athletic Director was shocked, shocked to discover that Beckman made footballers play hurt.

Will the NCAA now impose new rules on the treatment of injured players? If so, my guess is that the reason will not be an overriding concern with the health and well-being of players. I’m going with Deep Throat. The IHE story doesn’t mention it, but Cvijanovic has filed a lawsuit against the university. As with concussions in the NFL, a few successful lawsuits might lead to changes. Failing that, it will be the Humanitarian Impulses of the coaching staff versus the economic pressure on Winning. In that contest, Humanitarian Impulses is a big underdog. My advice: go with Winning and give the points.

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* When Beckman took over in 2012, the team went 2-10 and 0-8 in their Big Ten division. Two years later, they were 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the division.   

There’s a Place for Us

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival offers free screenings of operas in the large plaza at Lincoln Center- a different opera each night. Tonight it’s Carmen, and the operas to come are nearly as well known – La Traviata, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffman, etc.

For the opener last night the Met chose West Side Story – the 1961 movie.


The great irony is that we were sitting in what had been the setting for the story – a neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. Back then it was a “slum”; today it would be called a low-income, predominantly minority community. It was San Juan Hill even in the 1940s, when it was still nearly all Black, as it had been since the turn of the century. In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans began arriving, and some Blacks moved uptown or to Brooklyn. Gang violence was rife – fights between the Black (and later Puerto Rican) gangs of San Juan Hill and Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen just to the south.

DIESEL:  What do you say, Riff?
RIFF:  I say this turf is small, but it's all we got, huh? I want to hold it like we always held it.

In the 1950s, however, the real turf battle was not between the Jets and the Sharks. It was between the residents of San Juan Hill and a gang led by Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III – not exactly an even match. It wasn’t much of a rumble.The winning side demolished the slum and build Lincoln Center.



I wondered whether many of my fellow moviegoers knew this West Side history, but then the speaker who introduced the film mentioned it. Some of the film was shot right here on location, he said, and in fact the film’s producers (or was it Jerome Robbins, the choreographer?) asked the city to delay part of the demolition so they could complete some of the dance scenes. The speaker related these as interesting factoids, as if to say, “You’re sitting where Maria and Tony’s balcony scene might have taken place,” and expecting us to feel a Washington-slept-here sense of connection to history. 

Instead, I was thinking of class and politics. I was thinking of The Urban Villagers and Boston’s urban renewal destruction of the West End; I was thinking of other Robert Moses projects in New York. Working-class and lower-class people displaced for buildings or highways that benefit middle class people, promoted and partly financed by upper-class people. The audience at the free movie last night had few Marias or Bernardos, Riffs or Diesels. Or Blacks. The paying customers coming from the ballet at the New York State Theater David H. Koch Theater just to our left were even Whiter and older.

As Lincoln Center was being built, some critics like Paul Goodman suggested that major arts centers should be dispersed to different places in the city, maybe even different boroughs. Why put the buildings for the opera, the ballet, and the symphony together in one place? (I was reminded of this when the noisy crowd coming out from the ballet next door made it hard for us movie watchers to hear what was happening on screen.)

But these grandiose projects of megalomaniacs sometimes work. And once they are in place, it’s hard to imagine the city without them – Paris without the Haussmann boulevards and buildings. They add to the greatness of the city, though thinking about a city in terms of its greatness essentially cedes the argument to the megalomaniacs. The other question to ask is whether they make life better for the residents of the city – and not just residents who like opera.

Charlie Parker

August 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

He died in 1955 at age 34. He would have been 95 today.

I’m sure that there is much sociological to be said about Bird and birth of bebop. As Howie Becker has taught us, art is collective enterprise. That’s especially true of jazz, and Becker’s ideas about art in general originated in his own experiences working as a jazz pianist. But individual artists are important, and Charlie Parker remains one of the great figures in American music. 

“Man, you gotta go up to Minton’s and hear the way this cat plays ‘Cherokee,’” musicians would tell one another. As you can hear in these two studio takes, Parker decided to dispense with the melody of ‘Cherokee’ (a standard from the big band era). In the first take, after the 32-bar intro (unusually long for bebop), Bird and Miles play the melody for a few bars. Then Bird calls a halt. In the second take – the one that was issued – after the intro, he just starts soloing on the changes.  The tune was listed on the record as “Ko-Ko,’ and that’s the way Parker played it from then on.


The drum solo is by Max Roach. Curley Russell was on bass. The pianist was supposed to have been Bud Powell, but he didn’t make the session, so Dizzy Gillespie was called on to comp on piano.

Killing Gun Legislation

August 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to passing law,s do the gunslingers always win?

The father of one of the victims and the governor of the state have called for stricter gun laws. I’m sure they are sincere, but it all seems so familiar, part of usual post-massacre minuet.  The stylized and mannered sequence of steps: We need stronger gun laws. Now is a time for prayer not politics. Gun-death rates in the US are several times higher than in other countries. Second Amendment. And so on.


Laws are proposed. Then the gun manufacturers and their minions (NRA, et al.) get legislators to dilute the proposals or defeat them entirely.

Here’s a headline from eight months ago.


But the gun lobby does not get its way all the time. Yes, they win at the federal level. Yesterday’s on-air killings will not lead to any tightening of federal laws. By the time a bill is written and goes to committee, those shootings will be a vague memory. And although shootings hold the attention of the public, the grind of legislation does not.

But at the state level, gun-law advocates can sometimes make some headway. The anti-gun sentiments raised by the killings do not fade as quickly in places nearer to where the killing happened. Of course, in Texas or Wyoming, no amount of gun killing will budge the legislature. But in less absolutist states, a local massacre may enable gun law proponents to pass new laws. After Sandy Hook – an assault rifle massacre of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers – all newly proposed federal laws were killed by pro-gun US Senators. But Connecticut, where the crime happened, and neighboring New York passed stronger limitations or an outright ban on assault weapons.

The news media may also be a key element, and yesterday’s shooting expands the part they usually play. First, the shooting was broadcast live.  That immediacy may heighten people’s awareness of just how dangerous and deadly guns are. Seeing someone actually shot to death is far more powerful than seeing a reporter doing a stand-up against a background of yellow tape and parked police cars.  Second, because the victims were TV reporters, they were far better known than victims in other shootings, and local people may feel more of a tie to them. That closeness too may make people more sensitive to the danger of guns. Third, it’s also possible that the media themselves – now that two of their own have been killed – will be more sympathetic to anti-gun groups. If the armed and dangerous disgruntled employee might be not just a postal worker somewhere out there in America but a guy in the newsroom, the news editor might decide to give more coverage to the threat of guns.

I am just speculating of course.  I have to hedge with “may” (“X may have an impact”) and “it’s possible that . . .” because I do not know the published research on the connection between mass shootings* and the passage of gun laws more likely. I would expect that the variables to study include
  • the political climate of the state
  • the social position of victims – that is, the more similar that are to people who have the most influence on laws
  • the number of victims
  • the location of the shooting (public spaces or buildings vs. private)
  • the ostensible motive of the killer
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*By some definitions of “mass shootings,” the minimum number of deaths is four. So yesterday’s killings, even including the shooter’s suicide, do not qualify as a mass shooting. I guess it’s just another one of your ordinary, everyday American shootings.

The Tragedy of the Comments

August 19, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

That’s all. No post. Just the title.

It’s one of those titles that says it all – like Psychobabble (1977). If you were around in the 60s and 70s (and by “around” I mean Boston or Los Angeles, not Oklahoma), you read the title, and you knew. You didn’t have to read the book. The title crystallized all those vague doubts that had been lurking in your mind off  to one side – doubts about all the books and magazine articles and maybe even about what your own therapist was saying.

Comments – seemed like a good idea at the time. A way to enhance the discussion with new ideas and information. Maybe it still is for blogs with a small or a select readership.

You’re reading this blog, so you probably also read other blogs – big blogs, maybe newspaper sites.  Places with hordes of readers.  If you’ve ever scrolled through the comments, dominated by the loonies, the angries, and the illogicals;* if you’ve ever posted your own comment only to see it lost in the sea of 496 other comments, you don’t need me to write this post. The title is enough.


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 This American Life had a wonderful example last January in the episode “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” (here - read the transcript, or better, listen to the first 2-3 minutes).


This Isn’t About Race

August 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bill Clinton, facing impeachment in the Senate, chose former Senator and fellow Arkansan Dale Bumpers to make the closing argument for the defense. The impeachment charges were perjury and obstruction of justice. As the House Managers presenting the charges had said,

This case is not about sex or private conduct. It is about multiple obstructions of justice, perjury, false and misleading statements, and witness tampering - all committed or orchestrated by the President of the United States.   

Bumpers merely pointed out what everyone in America knew:

H.L. Mencken said one time, “When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.”
[Laughter, not much at first, but then building after a second or two as the Senators realize where it’s going.]
And when you hear somebody say, “This is not about sex,” it’s about sex.

[The video, with Bumpers looking very much like Atticus Finch, is here.]

Republican dominated states have been passing voting registration laws, both before and, in the South, after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby. For Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, the case was about federalism, especially since the South was no longer tainted by racism as it was when the Voting Rights Act was passed (“40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day"). Of course, as soon as the decision was announced, Southern states rushed to pass new voter ID laws. These laws, according to their supporters, are intended merely to reduce voter fraud. They have nothing to do with race.

Right. Where are Mencken and Bumpers when you need them? When someone says, “This isn’t about race,” it’s about race.

The current venue for denying what is in plain sight is jury selection.

Here are some reasons prosecutors have offered for excluding blacks from juries: They were young or old, single or divorced, religious or not, failed to make eye contact, lived in a poor part of town, had served in the military, had a hyphenated last name, displayed bad posture, were sullen, disrespectful or talkative, had long hair, wore a beard. [from today’s New York Times]

These facts are related to a death-penalty case that the Supreme Court will hear in the coming term. A Black defendant was convicted by an all-White jury. The question is why none of the Blacks in the jury pool were selected, or more specifically why the prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove all Black jurors.

It wasn’t about race, according to the prosecutor.

All the [Black] prospects were said to be some combination of confused, incoherent, hostile, disrespectful and nervous. Three did not make enough eye contact. A 34-year-old black woman was too close in age to the defendant, who was 19. (The prosecution did not challenge eight prospective white jurors age 35 or under.)

“All I have to do is have a race-neutral reason,” Mr. Lanier said, “and all of these reasons that I have given the court are racially neutral.”

The judge agreed. But it now turns out – surprise, surprise – that the prosecutor’s real reasons may not have been racially neutral.

Prosecutors worked hard to exclude blacks from the jury.

In notes that did not surface until decades later, they marked the names of black prospective jurors with a B. They highlighted those names in green. They circled the word “black” where potential jurors had noted their race on questionnaires.

The ball is now in the Court’s court. According to the Times, “Some legal experts said they hoped the Supreme Court would use the Georgia case to tighten the standards for peremptory challenges.”  I’m not sure what these experts are basing their hopes on. Scalia and Thomas have never met an execution they didn’t like. Alito “is probably the most pro-prosecution member of a pro-prosecution court” (Linda Greenhouse in the NYT here). Roberts, as he did in Shelby, can find lots of reasons to dance with the conservatives what brung him. That leaves Kennedy.

In Miller-El ten years ago, Kennedy sided with the defense. That case was egregious but instructive.

In support of his claim of systematic discrimination, Miller-El offered evidence that for decades, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office had used written discriminatory policies, including a 1963 treatise on jury selection prepared by a top aide to then-Dallas County District Attorney, which warned prosecutors to avoid “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race [from sitting] on a jury no matter how rich or how well educated,” and a treatise written in 1969 but included in all training manuals for prosecutors until at least the early 1980s, which stated that minority jurors were undesirable because they “empathize with the accused.”

The Court found this evidence to be persuasive, noting that “the prosecutors’ own notes proclaim that the [jury selection] Manual’s emphasis on race was on their minds when they considered every potential juror.” [source]

Just as the politicians writing and passing voter ID laws today know not to mention race, the writers of jury-selection manuals today know better than to specify race, and prosecutors today know better than to speak about it out loud. Like the lead prosecutor in this year’s case, they claim that their peremptories are based on the person being too young, or too old, or not making eye contact, etc. Yes, say the prosecutors in effect, “We use peremptories three times as often for Black jurors as for Whites. But racial intent? How could you even think such a thing? And yes, you may see lots of juries that are all-White. But who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”

Trouble

August 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston



Yet another article about microaggressions and trigger warnings and the like, this one in the Atlantic, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Oh dear, college students are demanding to be treated like toddlers. Worse, colleges and universities are giving in to those demands.


“The Coddling of the the American Mind” (here) follows the standard template for these articles. It grabs you by the lapels with news of egregious examples
  • “law students asking . . . professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress”
  • “by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American ‘Where were you born?,’because this implies that he or she is not a real American.”
Never mind that it was one law student asking one professor, not students (plural) asking professors (plural), and never mind that the professor apparently did not accommodate the request. (The New Yorker article they cite is here) Never mind that the “Where were you born?” notice is part of “guidelines,” not a formal regulation.

What these examples most remind me of is the song “Trouble” from “The Music Man.”


Well, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community. [You can see the entire song here.]



But the problem isn’t pool.

Well, you got trouble my friend, right here in Campus City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Political Correctness.


Trouble indeed. But how much trouble? Usually, if you want to know how big a problem something is, you try to measure how much of it there is. The you-got-trouble forces will usually provide numbers, and while these can and often do fall into the category of “making shit up” (“50,000 children kidnapped each year!”), at least the moral entrepreneurs recognize the obligation to estimate the size of the problem. Not the people decrying the microaggression mentality. Haidt is a social scientist, so I assume that if statistical estimates existed, he would have included them. Instead, the authors are left with anecdotes, probably from the files of Lukianoff’s organization FIRE.

We’ve been here before. The title of the Lukianoff-Haidt article alludes to a book of thirty years ago, The Closing of the American Mind, by Alan Bloom.* Bloom too told us we got trouble. Universities had abandoned the Western canon, putting materials from other traditions into the curriculum, and all for political purposes. The required non-Western course “in every case I have seen . . . has a demagogic intention.” It was all part of the liberal agenda, “the imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war.” And just as Prof. Harold Hill the music man railed about “ragtime – shameless music,” Bloom warned that “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire –  not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”

Lukianoff and Haidt are not bothered by sex, drugs, and rock & roll (or if they are, they keep their misgivings to themselves). But like Prof. Harold Hill, they want to arouse our concern about what will happen to the children – “the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves.” 

What are those effects? Well, you got trouble my friends. 

It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

The problem is that Lukianoff and Haidt provide not one bit of evidence to substantiate their claims that four years at a PC university has any of these long-range effects on the graduates.

So Lukianoff and Haidt provide no measure of the independent variables, nor do they offer even anecdotal evidence about the outcome variables.**

Instead, the article is about the horrors of trigger warnings, guidelines, regulations, etc. – certainly a legitimate concern. But mostly the article is about cognitive styles – different ways of thinking, some more useful than others. More specifically it is a critique of the cognitive styles that provide the basis for the protectiveness mentality. On this, Lukianoff and Haidt have much worthwhile to say, and I hope to get to it in a later post.


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* Every few years a conservative will publish a liberals-are-ruining-the-universities book – Cultural Literacy, Illiberal Education, Tenured Radicals, even back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  Conservatives often have the Presidency, usually dominate at least one house of Congress, have had the majority in the Supreme Court for nearly half a century, control most state governments, business, the military. You’d think that liberal influence at few dozen college campuses wouldn’t be such a big irritant. But you’d be wrong. Can you say “hegemony”?

** Lukianoff and Haidt do provide statistics showing that psychological and emotional problems are more frequent on campuses now than in the past. But they offer no comparisons between campuses that are more PC and those that are less so, or between students who have more of the protective mentality and those who have less. They don’t even provide comparative data on kids who didn’t go to college. And they caution, “We do not mean to imply simple causation,” the academic’s version of “Just sayin.’”

Trickling Down in the UK

August 12, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

An essential tenet of the creed of free-market economics is that the success of capitalists benefits everyone. The wealth created eventually flows through the entire society. Some nonbelievers scoff at this notion. They see not a flow but a trickle.  And sometimes even the trickle doesn’t trickle all the way down.

Tom Forth tweeted this graph showing how inequality and the income of the poor in the UK changed under the different governments since 1964. Each dot represents a year. To trace the chronology year by year, connect the dots. Years of the Conservative government are in blue, Labour in red (a reversal of the US color convention). 

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

In the Thatcher years, inequality as measured by the Gini index increased greatly increased, from about 0.26 to 0.34.  No surprise there given the Conservative ideology of Less government spending, more tax cuts. As Wikipedia says, “Thatcherism claims to promote low inflation, the small state, and free markets through tight control of the money supply, privatisation and constraints on the labour movement. It is often compared with Reaganomics in the United States. . . .” 

The UK economy as measured by GDP grew, though on the whole, the growth in the Conservative Thatcher years was no greater than it had been under the Labour governments of Harold Wilson. 


Clearly, the Thatcher years were very good for those at the top. But did the rising tide lift the boats of the UK’s poorest, the bottom 10%? Barely, according to Forth’s graph. Their annual income went from about £6100 in 1979 to about £6300 a decade later.The line on the graph moves upward vertically (the Gini co-efficient), but on the Income axis, it moves hardly at all.

By contrast, under the Labour government of Tony Blair, the Gini index of inequality changed little – a little up, then a little down – and the income of the poorest 10% grew from £6600 to about £8500 (adjusted for inflation). When inequality stopped increasing, the poor did much better.


The Donald and The Women

August 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
There’s so much to say about Donald Trump and about the reaction to Donald Trump. So it seems trivial to focus on one little word – “the.” But I found Clyde Haberman’s tweet fascinating.


The word Trump used was not “great” but “phenomenal.” [Added, 8/12: And the preposition he used was to, not for.] Either way, the point is that “I’d be phenomenal for to the women” is different from “I’d be phenomenal for to women.” But why? Why is that definite article so important? In many languages this distinction would never arise.

In English, “for the women” has always been the less common, at least according to Google n-grams.



In 1850 the “for women” appeared about twice as frequently as “for the women.” By 1965 that ratio had increased to about 8:1. Then came the resurgence of feminism. In 2000, that ratio had risen to more than 20:1.  True, the women’s movement did pay attention to language, but it focused on nouns – firefighter instead of fireman, for example – and honorifics (it’s Ms., not Mrs. or Miss).  I doubt that anyone was writing articles about articles.

What Haberman is suggesting, I think, is that when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.  Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.*

I don’t know why. But that’s the way it sounds to my ears.

UPDATE, August 12:  At Language Log Mark Liberman, who is a real linguist, agrees with me about the use of “the” here, but points out that I ignored the larger context of Trump's comments, which he provides in both audio and transcript. True. I was not interested in how Trump actually feels about women. I was not interested in whether or not he would in fact be phenomenal for them.  I was interested only in the linguistic question of how “phenomenal for women” differs from “phenomenal for the women.” 

The comments on Liberman’s post are worth reading.

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* Among Jews of earlier generations, the cardinal question that might be asked of any issue was “Ist gut fuer yiddin?”  Translated as “Is it good for the Jews?” it suggests a lesser degree of integration and assimilation. There are “the Jews,” and there are the others (“the goyim”).  But “Is it good for Jews?” reduces the barrier. They are people who happen to be Jewish, not a special and separate group.

Blood, Danger, and Power

August 9, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post “Trainwreck and Taboo” about Amy Schumer’s humor (here), I mentioned that some conservative men have a taboo-like reaction of disgust at her jokes about menstruation. Of course, the anthropology literature documents that such a reaction is widespread, especially in pre-industrial, agrarian and pastoral societies.

The Gopcanda observe powerful menstrual taboos.  Women’s menstrual blood is thought to have much dangerous power. A women in her menstrual period, according to Gopcanda thinking, can become deranged and especially likely to direct her fury at males.

Therefore women may not speak publicly of the menstrual blood. And men may not speak of it at all. If a man overhears a woman mention it, he runs in embarrassment to his fellows, and together they initiate the ritual of shaming the woman.  As for the men, they may freely denigrate women – and they often do – and they strictly enforce the constraints on women. But if a Gopcanda man even utters the taboo word referring to menstrual blood, he may be seen as unfit for responsible roles in the tribe.

        — Alvin St. Joigny, “Taboo and Power Among the Gopcanda” JPMS, 2002.


Compare that with today’s newspaper


Donald J. Trump’s suggestion that a Fox News journalist had questioned him forcefully at the Republican presidential debate because she was menstruating cost him a speaking slot Saturday night at an influential gathering of conservatives in Atlanta. It also raised new questions about how much longer Republican Party leaders would have to contend with Mr. Trump’s disruptive presence in the primary field.

        — Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. “Hand-Wringing in G.O.P. After Donald Trump’s Remarks on Megyn Kelly,” New York Times,  Aug. 8, 2015 


Covers and Cover-ups

August 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The title of Martin Haskell Smith’s new book pretty much tells you what it’s going to be about: Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World. The blurb on the author’s website adds:

Naked at Lunch is equal parts cultural history and gonzo participatory journalism. Coated in multiple layers of high SPF sunblock, Haskell Smith dives into the nudist world today. He publicly disrobes for the first time in Palm Springs, observes the culture of family nudism in a clothing-free Spanish town, and travels to the largest nudist resort in the world, a hedonist’s paradise in the south of France. He reports on San Francisco’s controversial ban on public nudity, participates in a week of naked hiking in the Austrian Alps, and caps off his adventures with a week on the Big Nude Boat, a Caribbean cruise full of nudists.

Note that the author is “Haskell Smith,” not “Smith” as he would be in the US (for example, see this LA Times story).  In American sociological writing, C. Wright Mills is “Mills.” In the UK, he’s “Wright Mills.”

But there’s another interesting cultural difference – the book jacket.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The US edition lets us peer through the letters to see the author – yes, that’s really Smith, or Haskell Smith (his head is in the “A”) – sitting on a beach chair, perhaps poolside on that Caribbean cruise, wearing only his glasses, his laptop atop his lap covering what Brits might call his willie, which in any case would be covered by the white space between the “L” and “U.” 

The UK and Australia editions are even more circumspect.


Michael Bywater in The Literary Review  compares the UK and US covers.

So that's the naked author, with his whacker and his Mac, and this is his book about nudists and what they’re like and what the hell they think they’re doing. So, not unreasonably, the book is categorised as social science. In the USA.

But not here. Here in Britain, there’s no nude author. The cover is whimsical, cartoony: there are little pink blobby people, sunbeds, a swimming pool and a very tanned woman with a poodle and a tent. And here in Britain, the category is travel writing.

And what of Australia? No hint of nudity. Without the title, the cover would be completely misleading. Perhaps the Aussie graphics designers thought that since the title conveyed so much information, they were free to go for an adolescent, Freudian joke.

(Other SocioBlog posts on covers and culture are here and here, and for the messages that covers convey, go here for a post on a child guessing the content of literary classics just from their covers.)

Are Things Bad Just Because People Think They’re Bad?

August 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the Republican debate tomorrow, race relations may be one of the topics. If so, someone will surely point to the recent polls that have been announced in headlines like these

Poll Finds Most in U.S. Hold Dim View of Race Relations

Here’s another sign that race relations in America
have gotten really bad

POLL: RACE RELATIONS BETWEEN WHITES AND BLACKS WORST SINCE 1990S

The first headline is from The New York Times, the second from the blog Townhall. Both are based on a CBS poll from late July. The third is from another right-wing blog, Breitbart, though it refers to a CBS poll from two months earlier.

The headlines seem to be saying the same thing. The Times headline is about what people think about race relations. The other two make claims as to the actual state of race relations. This difference raises an important question: Is the perception of race relations the same as the reality of race relations?

The Times headline –  about perceptions – is the most accurate. The survey asked, “Do you think race relations in the United States are generally good or generally bad?” The other two headlines assume that the perception is the reality.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

The timeline shows clearly one important factor influencing the answer to this question – front-page news. 

When people see a lot of footage of White cops beating and sometimes killing unarmed Black people, and when people see footage of Black people protesting and rioting in response, they think that race relations in the country as are generally bad. That’s what happened in 1992 with Rodney King and most recently with the killing by police of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. When people see the country elect its first Black president, perceptions about race relations improve. (However, the Gallup poll showed almost no change in early 2009.)   

The historical pattern is the same for Whites and Blacks, though Blacks are usually about ten percentage points more pessimistic.

(Because of the small number of Blacks in the sample, the margin of error is larger, and the changes from poll to poll may appear greater than they actually were.)

Big news events affect how people perceive race relations in the country as a whole. But does that response reflect the actual goodness or badness of race relations for most people? Someone might argue that in this case, perception is reality. If I think that race relations are bad – i.e., that Blacks don’t like me because I’m White – and if Blacks think the same way, then the mutual distrust or fear does constitute bad race relations.  

Two other questions in the same survey suggest that what people think about race relations generally in the US is not at all the same as the way they experience race relations in their own lives.  One question asks whether race relations in the person’s own community are good or bad. 


Two things are clear. First, people feel much better about their own communities than about the US. Typically, five times as many people choose “Good” rather than “Bad.” Even among Blacks, on average twice as many choose Good over Bad. (The ratio is more than double, closer to 2.5 - 1).


Second, those big news stories don’t seem to have a big impact on perceptions about things close to home. In March 2014 – before Ferguson, before Eric Garner, before Baltimore – 26% of Blacks said that race relations in their community were “Bad.” When the same question was asked after those events (December 2014, March and July 2015), that percent had risen by only 2 or 3 points, well within the margin of error.

Finally, there’s the question of progress on the race front. Here is the way the survey asks it:

“Some people say that since the 1960s there has been a lot of real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination against blacks. Others say that there hasn't been much real progress for blacks over that time. Which do you agree with more? Would you say there's been a lot of real progress getting rid of racial discrimination or hasn't there been much real progress?”


For both races, optimists outnumber pessimists, except in May 1992, two months after the Rodney King beating, when 68% of Blacks saw no real progress. But other national events, including Obama’s victory in 2008, caused no sudden changes in the overall assessment of progress. Instead, perceptions of progress show a steady but real increase in the 1990s, with only small changes in this century.

I can understand how someone looking at the CBS poll can conclude that race relations are worse (especially someone who wants to think that in Obama’s presidency everything has gotten worse).  With jobs or GDP or taxes or the number of people without health insurance, we can measure the increase or decrease. We have no similarly clear measures of the quality of race relations. So we are left with perceptions. And after all, perceptions of race relations and race relations themselves are both mostly about people’s reactions – their ideas and feelings.So why not equate the perception with the reality?

The trouble is that a person’s perceptions about what seems to be the same subject, race relations, can be very different depending on the frame of reference – the US as a whole or the person’s own circumstances, recent events or a longer sweep of history.