AKD - The Sociology Honors Society

April 28, 2007
posted by Jay Livingston

As ceremonies go, it’s not a big deal. Every year, some of our best students choose to join Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society, and we have an official induction. We announce the student’s name, and he or she comes up and receives a rolled-up sheet of paper tied with a red ribbon (the real certificate comes in the mail). This year, twenty students elected to join, the most we’ve ever had at Montclair.

Unfortunately, our photographer was not very skillful, nor did he “work the room” properly and get photos of all the students. (He claims that he was busy reading names, handing out pseudo-certificates, and being chair of the department, but that’s a pretty lame excuse.)

The speaker for the evening was Bill DeFazio of St. John’s University. Bill’s an ethnographer. Ethnographers do what the research methods textbooks call participant observation.
That means they hang around. Bill has hung around with longshoremen, with juvenile delinquents in Brooklyn (white, criminal, violent), and with theoretical biologists. They biologist project was the hardest, he says, much harder than hanging around with the delinquents.

Most recently, he spent years at the St. John's Bread and Life soup kitchen in Bed-Stuy, and the result is his latest book Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage. That subtitle— those are the words of a young homeless man describing the life he now lives.
I wish I could convey the sense of compassion and commitment of hope and despair that Bill conveys when he talks about the poor people in all their variety who came to the soup kitchen and about Sister Bernadette, who ran it. There’s nothing romantic about poverty, theirs or anybody else’s.

Forty-year-old male of the middle class, with twenty years of experience as a warehouse manager, hasn't worked in a year. “You should see the people that I have to compete with. I'm waiting for a job interview in a moving company. A beautiful operation. They liked me but they said they didn't want to train me. It's not because I'm obese, at least not this time. It’s a computerized operation, and I would have to be trained on the computer. But, I’m sitting waiting for the interview. The other guy waiting to be interviewed is an MBA, also my age, knows how to use the computer but was laid off from Wall Street and a $80,000 a year job. He's competing with me. I told him I just applied for a warehouse job at Bush Terminal. He asks me for the information and if I mind that he’ll apply for the job, too. I have all on-the-job experience but only a two-year college degree. How can I compete for warehouse jobs with MBAs?”

Poverty, Bill kept reminding us, is ordinary. In the United States of America, the richest country in the world (as Bill also kept reminding us), there are at least 37.5 million people living in poverty. That’s the official count, the real number is much higher. What is so surprising and disappointing is how badly our government and society treat them.

Acceptable Risks — a rant

April 25, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Apparently it’s not easy to think like a social scientist. Most people prefer to think in terms of individuals and absolute certainties. But social science doesn’t deal in certainties, at least not about individuals. We think in terms of probabilities or risks. For example, we don’t know precisely which smokers will get lung cancer and which will not; we know only that lung cancer rates will be higher among smokers than among non-smokers. That is, smoking raises the risk.

If you smoke, you are saying in effect that lung cancer is an “acceptable risk.”

Many of the stories in the press after the Virginia Tech shootings were about what the school might have done after the first killings to prevent the ones that occurred later. Many others were about “the mind of the killer.” Behind these stories lay the assumption, the wish really, that somehow it was possible to have predicted what Cho would do, and therefore the killings could have been prevented. The trouble is that such prediction is impossible. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around with minds very similar to Cho’s, but who will never kill anyone.

But we could have reduced the probability that such a person could kill on such a large scale. If automatic handguns hadn’t been so easy to get, we would have greatly reduced the risk. Not eliminated it—a determined killer would find a way— but reduced it.

By allowing such easy access to weapons, we are saying that the Virginia Tech killings were an “acceptable risk.”

We cannot predict campus or workplace will be hit; we cannot predict which crazed person will be the shooter. But we can no longer dismiss such a shooting as a one-of-a-kind event — not after Columbine and the many other school shootings, not after the many cases of an employee “going postal.” (Only a few days after Virginia Tech, a NASA worker, upset over a performance evaluation, killed a supervisor and then himself.)

Legislators have been proposing stricter handgun laws for nearly a half century now. But congressional majorities have either voted these down or diluted to then insignificance. If they had been passed, we cannot say that there would be no mass shootings. But we can say that there would have been far fewer of them.

2. A week after the Virginia Tech shootings, the New York Times ran an article on infant mortality in Mississippi. In order not to raise taxes, the governor, Haley Barbour, cut state spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). “Locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent. As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years.”

The infant mortality rate in Mississippi rose from 14 per 1,000 births to 17 per 1,000. It’s possible that Gov. Barbour didn’t know what effect his policy would have, but he knows now. If he continues this policy, he is saying in effect that those additional 481 dead infants are an “acceptable risk.”

Gov. Barbour is strongly “pro-life.” But don’t bet on him restoring the cuts to Medicaid and CHIP.

The Times also cites a private church-run program in one county where the population is poor, rural, and largely black. Yet the infant mortality rate is only 5 per 1,000, and it has remained that low for the past 15 years. If similar programs were instituted state-wide, it would save the lives of 1,600 infants per year.

If a parent starves an infant and deprives it of medical care, and the child dies, that’s a crime, probably some level of manslaughter. If a governor and legislature deprive thousands of children of food and medical care, and several hundred of them die, that’s just good tax policy.

The New York Walk

April 22, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The weather was perfect Saturday for the informal and unofficial semi-annual Sociology Department New York Walk. And walk we did. We started at Port Authority.

The new murals in the subway station there deserve a better picture than the little thumbnails here.

When you get out on the street in New York, you miss a lot if you look only at eye level. A lot of the interesting things to be seen are up above — the ornamention at the top floors of the buildings, the gargoyles, the windows.

Of course, at street level too you can run into interesting things. Here are two of our walkers, Priscilla and Miriam, with a guy they seemed to recognize and who was kind enough to pose for a picture.
(Full disclosure: Samuel L. was not really there. Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum on Forty-second St. has this likeness outside.)

The great economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling once gave a roomful of law students in New York the following problem: You have to meet a stranger in New York City today, and you have no way of getting in touch with him. The trouble is that you don’t know the time or the place. All you know is that he wants to meet with you, and you want to meet with him. Where and when do you go? Students weren’t allowed to consult with one another, yet most of them wrote the same answer:

The information booth under the clock and Grand Central Station at noon. (As you can see, we were a bit late, and whoever the stranger was, apparently he didn’t wait around for us.) Schelling was interested generally in how one person’s decisions affect those of other people and how those decisions in turn affect yet others. The where-to-meet problem is about the coordination of behavior, and the lesson Schelling offered is that some places are more important than others as “focal point[s] for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.”

What he should have added was that even if the other guy doesn't show up, you can have a great time just wandering around in this grand piece of architecture.

We took the subway down to the Lower East Side and had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place. Here are George, Joanne, and Tanya standing just outside.

We've been doing the New York Walk for decades now, and for us old timers, it's about change — the Disneyfication of Forty-second Street, the rehabilitation of Grand Central, the gentrification of just about everywhere. Those changes are invisible to city-walkers who are seeing these places for the first time. But sometimes you can see the neighborhood in transition. In the 1970s, when we first started doing this walk, The Lower East Side looked and felt much like it must have fifty or sixty years earlier — the stores with cheap clothes displayed outside. The stores were still owned by Jews, though the many of the customers and sales people were Hispanic. You can still see some of that. But now much of the sidewalk space seems to be take up by cafes like this one.

You can't read the street sign, but this is at the corner of Orchard and Stanton. Orchard Street, a name once synonymous with tenements and pushcarts. And now you can get a burger here blackened with Cajun mayonnaise or with chipotle pepper and avocado. Oy.

That’s why I particularly liked this fabric store that has probably been around for most of a century. It's squeezed into a narrow space on Stanton Street and doesn’t look like much. Inside, the store goes back forever, with bolts of fabric in every color and texture you can imagine randomly lining the wall. I mean it looked random to me. But I’m sure that if I'd asked this man in charge for some particular item, he could have taken me directly to it in two seconds.
But stores like this one are glimpses of a fast-fading history, and they are quickly giving way to boutiques (two of our walkers, Tanya and Joanne, were particularly taken with a black cotton top that was only $275), cafes, pricier restaurants, cell-phone stores, and real estate offices.

And now, as I think about Thomas Schelling, I realize that my decisions are part of the reason for the change. I'd never buy fabric; I don’t sew my own clothes, and neither does anyone else I know. Sewing machines are all computerized now, and a good one costs thousands of dollars. When I look at the labels in the clothes I buy, they all say made in places on the other side of the globe.

Has Anybody Here Seen a Kelly

April 20, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social context influences how we judge and respond to a piece of art (or anything else for that matter). That was the message of the previous post in this blog. It was based on a Washington Post article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the DC metro. Everybody who was in on the stunt thought that people would recognize Bell or that at the very least, some people would recognize the quality of the performance. In fact, almost nobody stopped to listen, and many commuters, when interviewed later, didn’t even recall that there was a violinist in the station that morning.

But one person wasn’t surprised and did realize the importance of context—Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery of Art.

Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: “Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.”

One reason for the art curator’s wisdom might be that in his field, the connection between artistic value and monetary value is so tenuous. And he knows it. Monetary value is based on what collectors are willing to pay. They’ll pay $5 million because that canvas is a genuine Kelly. The same canvas painted by a nobody would be bring only $150.

Of course, if someone decided to hang the nobody’s canvas in a major museum or an upscale gallery, its price would skyrocket. Location, location, location.

It’s not about the art, it’s about economics. And in this case, as in Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, all you need to know about economics is “supply ana demand.” Here’s a Kelly print.

It costs $8,000 signed. Unsigned, it might go for less than $1,000. It’s from a limited edition, the supply is limited to 45. If Kelly had printed and signed several hundred, it would still be the same piece of art and have the same artistic value. But it’s price would be less.

(Maybe you think you yourself could produce these works with a $1.89 roll of masking tape and three cans of paint. But that just shows what a Philistines you are.)

People who work in the art world probably take it for granted that judgments and evaluations will be influenced by extrinsics — rarity, authorship, a signature, and location— rather than the intrinsic qualities of the painting. It’s a lesson the rest of us, social scientists included, are continually learning.

Contributions and Attributions

April 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social context is everything.

OK, maybe not everything, but it counts for much more than we usually realize. Listen to a comedian tell a joke. If it’s in the middle of a good set and the audience has been laughing, the chances are you’ll laugh. And if someone asked you why you laughed, you’d probably say it was because the joke was funny. Let the same comedian tell the same joke in exactly the same way in a dead room, and it won’t seem nearly as funny, maybe not funny at all. That’s why nearly all TV sitcoms include an audience laugh track. (In the old days, they didn’t bother with an audience but merely dubbed in “canned laughter.”)

Read a quotation about politics and rebellion. If you’re told that the author is Thomas Jefferson, you’ll be more likely to approve of the quote and see its essential wisdom. If you’re told that the quote is from Lenin, you might reject it. If asked why, as with the joke, you’d attribute your reaction to the content of the quote, not the context.

Listen to a Bach composition for unaccompanied violin. If you’ve paid $50 or more for your seat and the soloist is someone like the virtuoso Joshua Bell, you might give him a standing ovation and demand encores. But if you hear the same piece played by some guy in the subway station, his violin case on the ground open for contributions, you might toss in some coins to encourage him as you hurry off to work. You might think, “This guy’s not bad, but he’s no Joshua Bell” . . . even if it is Joshua Bell.

Which is who it was — at least that’s who it was if you were going through the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, DC one Friday morning last January around eight o’clock. And he was fiddling on a 1713 Stradivarius. (Just in case you didn’t know, that was the golden era for Strads, and Bell’s is worth more than $3 million.)

The experiment (or stunt) was hatched by the Washington Post, and reporter Gene Weingarten published an excellent article about it recently in the Post’s Sunday Magazine. It’s a bit long (7000 words) but worth reading. The two video clips that accompany the article require a very fast connection. But in them you can see and hear Bell playing the E major partita. This is no self-effacing performance. He’s playing the hell out of it. And nobody stops to listen.

Most commuters just walk by.

A few toss some money in Bell’s violin case.

Bell netted $32.17 in 43 minutes.

As usual, the experts underestimated the importance of context. Remember the Milgram obedience experiment? Before he ran the experiment, Milgram asked psychiatrists how many people would be obedient to the end. Their estimates were in the range of 0.1% to 1%. In fact, 65% of the subjects went on delivering more and more severe shocks right to the end. The psychiatrists were focusing too much on the individual (“What kind of person would do such a thing?) and ignoring the power of the situation.

Similarly, the editors at the Post focused on the central person. Joshua Bell playing in the metro station for free? Omigod!.
In preparing for this event, the editors at the Post magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. This seems like a close cousin of the “fundamental attribution error,” in which we attribute all cause to the individual and ignore the power of situational cues. The Post editors were thinking that the commuters would be influenced greatly by Bell’s performance and hardly at all by the context. But just as the audience affects whether we think the joke is funny, we take our cues for how great a violin performance is from the surroundings.

The whole set-up —playing for contributions in a metro station — affected not just the commuters’ thoughts and actions; it also affected Bell, much to the journalist’s surprise.
“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
Weingarten is a journalist, not a social scientist. He is surprised because he attributes too much to the personal traits he assumes Bell possesses and too little to the social context.

The Pursuit of Bada-Bing?

April 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why is the Mafia so popular?

“The Sopranos” ratings were off a bit for the season premiere, only about 6.7 million viewers. That’s still amazingly high for a show on a cable network that you have to pay extra for. In past seasons, it was getting 10-12 million viewers, way ahead of anything else on cable and much network TV as well. (“Entourage,” another HBO show, is considered a success with 3.8 million viewers.)

At the movies, “The Godfather” is one of the biggest box office films in history, and other Mafia films like “Godfather II” and “Goodfellas” have also done well. And it’s not just the general public who admire these gangsters. “The Sopranos” gets raves from the critics; gangster movies frequently turn up at the Oscars. Academics, too, are not immune to the seductions of Mafia media. Some universities offer entire courses on these films and TV shows.

Not everybody is cheering. There are always a few malcontents who don’t love the Mafia. Over at the Huffington Post, Philip Slater in this week’s column asks, “Why is it that so many of my countrymen seem endlessly fascinated with the activities of a bunch of dumb thugs?”

Slater, a former sociology professor, has an answer, one that’s not particularly flattering. “Americans love the mafia because it represents a totally authoritarian system in which mistrust, cynicism, slavish obedience, and rash, violent decisions prevail. That seems to be the kind of world most Americans are looking for today.”

Well, not exactly. I suspect that what Americans find attractive in the Mafia (at least in these media portrayals) is its moral clarity. Here is a system that rewards its virtues —loyalty, respect, honor — and punishes transgressions surely and swiftly. If your real world is full of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, if virtue is not always rewarded and wickedness not always punished, you might take comfort at the end of the day in the unclouded vision of the media’s mafias.

Movies and TV are like dreams — stories we tell ourselves in the dark — and their relation to real life is as complicated as the relation between dreams and waking life. Sometimes these stories reflect the reality we live, sometimes they reflect an ideal we are striving for. But sometimes they provide a taste of the social and psychological nutrients that we don’t get enough of in everyday life. Slater himself wrote a book forty years ago about America’s unfulfilled need for community —The Pursuit of Loneliness, a fine book, still in print and still selling. Does the success of a show like “Friends” tell us that Americans now have community and spend a lot of time hanging out together in groups, lovingly involved in one another’s lives? Or does it tell us the opposite — that the American culture Slater saw in Pursuit is still with us, that we are mostly bowling alone, and that our lack of community is what brings us back week after week to be vicarious members of NBC’s happy, friendly bowling team?

If “Friends” is a response to the felt need for community, Mafia movies may be a response to the desire for order and control. Our fascination with Mafia authoritarianism in the media may reflect the frustrations of freedom and democracy. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, “democracy is messy.” For some segment of the population, the neatness of a truly authoritarian government would be a tempting reality. But at some level, we also recognize that it’s a package deal, and that along with the clarity, honor, and other virtues, come the perils that Slater points out — the mistrust, rigidity, and lack of freedom.

Slater is obviously and justifiably disappointed with his fellow Americans these days. He sees a link between ratings for “The Sopranos” and the vote for George Bush. “Americans were so willing to elect and re-elect the most secretive, despotic, and anti-democratic administration in the history of our nation.”

Even if that’s what Bush voters had in mind (and most of them probably didn’t), Bush will still have been in office for only eight years, and in the last two of those years his power will be greatly checked. Undoubtedly, he will have been able to do considerable long-term damage to foreign policy and perhaps to the economy and the environment. But as for government, in the long run Bush may have done for the Republican party what Goldwater did for it in 1964, and he may have done for secretive manipulation what Nixon did for it in 1974. You can see reversal, the swing towards the democratic (and the Democratic) in the election of 2006.

Authoritarianism has always had some allure to some Americans, especially in times of crisis. In the Depression, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin played to this sentiment with some success. But in the end they failed, and most people today have never heard of them. To some extent, it’s because of the eventual good sense of the American people, who can distinguish between entertainment and reality. They may like to watch NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean that they want to go out on the highway and smash up their cars. But more likely, our success in avoiding a Godfather government stems from the enduring institutions of our society and government.

Where There's Smoke

April 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a campaign afoot to have movies rated R if they have smoking in them. I’ve seen signs on cabs, on bus stops. If a studio wants its movie rated PG-13, it’ll have to hide the cigarettes.

“What a dumb idea,” says my son the teenager.

I remember that a year or so ago I took him and a friend of his to see “Good Night and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow, CBS, and their clash with Sen. McCarthy. The boys were fifteen and thirteen (my wife took the friend’s sister, age eight, to see the unfortunate remake of “The Pink Panther” on another screen at the Cineplex).

“Good Night and Good Luck” did a great job of capturing the feeling of the early 1950s— the clothes, the hair, the political climate, the mores. Shooting the film in black&white helped too; the film was about television, and that’s what television in the fifties looked like. And everyone smoked.

The movie was rated PG (“for mild thematic elements and brief language”).

My sample of movies is hardly representative (my annual N rarely hits two digits). But now there’s a report documenting smoking in films in the last five years (hat tip to Eszter). The sample was just about every movie produced in the US, 1999 through 2006 (earlier studies had sampled only the most advertized or popular films). The researchers counted every tobacco “incident” (actual smoking, brand displays, or signs). They then multiplied the number of incidents by the box office sales to get a measure of overall “impressions.” These numbers were up in the billions. After all, if a movie that sold 5 million tickets had only 2 “incidents,” that’s 10 million “impressions” for that one film.

Here’s the trend for the last eight years.

I have no idea what caused the crash of 2003 (a 33% overall drop, 40% in PG films), but since then, the PG numbers have held steady. Still, the anti-smoking forces are worried since there’s evidence that smoking in films does push kids towards smoking in real life.

The article has much interesting information, with breakdowns not just by MPAA rating but also by studio. Disney, for example, especially in their PG-13 and R-rated movies, has been among the smokiest.

But it’s this chart that I find especially interesting.
The authors use it to argue for the effectiveness of slapping an R-rating on smoky movies. Since R films lose at the box office to movies with less forbidding ratings, studios will thank even their toughest characters for not smoking. Hollywood being what it is, studios would gladly sacrifice a little verisimilitude for a lot of ticket sales.

But something else in this chart should encourage the anti-smokers: apparently, non-smoking sells. In every rating category, movies without smoking have the larger box office gross. And the differences are nothing to sneeze (or cough) at— nonsmoking gives a boost of 50% boost in the R films, 25% in the G through PG-13 categories. Could differences this large — averages over all films released — be mere random variation? And if there is a real relationship, what’s the cause? More importantly, does Hollywood know about this? When studio executives are worried about the sales of some film they’re about to release, do they tell the director go back to the editing room and cut the cigarettes?

(Thanks to Max for catching my errors in the earlier version of this post.)

Real Simple Stuff

April 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Real Simple was #2 on Adweek’s “Hot List” of magazines, just behind O, The Oprah Magazine. Nobody beats Oprah. Seven of the top ten on the Hot List were women’s magazines. Adweek’s editor said, “Young women, older women, women obsessed with living more spiritual, less- cluttered lives — you name it, there is a magazine for almost any advertiser looking to reach women.”

I looked at the latest issue Real Simple. Advertising revenues are up, and the magazine sits on the newsstand shelf fat and prosperous with all those ad pages. It has articles on things like “Six Products for Organizing Your Laundry Room” and “Ten Organizing Problem-Solvers: Restore order in your home with these inventive products.” Suddenly, Real Simple seemed a bit more complicated. It’s an irony others must have pointed out, but since I can’t Google up anything along those lines, I’ll state the obvious:

Companies are rushing to advertise in Real Simple for the same reason they advertise anywhere — because they think the ads will get people to buy their stuff. So either the advertisers don’t know what they’re doing (unlikely) or Real Simple readers are caught in an apparent contradiction. In order to really simplify their cluttered lives they’re buying more stuff.

I admit that I don’t know any of these Real Simple readers, but the image I get is of an addict, a product junkie. The essence of addiction is the idea that the solution to your problem is more of what caused the problem in the first place. The heroin addict thinks he can solve his withdrawal symptoms with another shot of smack. The compulsive gambler thinks he can climb out of the abyss of debt that his gambling has put him in if only he can just make a few winning bets.

If I wanted to lead a more spiritual, less cluttered life I would be getting rid of the stuff in my house (and in my house that clutter includes a lot of magazines and other printed material). I would be cancelling magazine subscriptions, giving stuff away, throwing stuff out. If we have too much, it seems the solution should be less not more. Of course, there are few social rewards for having less, and our whole society and economy are geared towards encouraging the desire for more products. In fact, it seems that what Real Simple is offering is not simplicity but order.

The problem is not that you have too much stuff; the problem is that your stuff is not well organized. The ideal Real Simple reader (ideal from the point of view of the advertisers and probably the publisher, Time Warner) is the woman who tries to achieve a more spiritual and less cluttered life by buying the products featured in the ads and the articles in this magazine and using them to impose order on the chaos. Once the clutter gets organized, she’ll have room for more, more, more.

It makes sense, at least within the context of American culture. Appropriately enough, number four on the Adweek Hot List is a magazine called More.

American Idol - The Wisdom of Crowds?

April 3, 2007
Posted by Jay LivingstonI’ve posted here before about “prediction markets” and “the wisdom of crowds.” The Superbowl, the Oscars. Now it's American Idol time.

Many people wouldn’t have thought Sanjaya Malaker would still be on American Idol this late in the game. Now the odds on him have dropped to 18:1 (bet $100 and win $1800), more or less depending on which bookmaker. Melinda Doolitle is even money or better to win the whole thing (bet $100 and win $80).
Melinda Doolittle 4:5
Jordan Sparks 5:2
Blake Lewis 4:1
Lakisha Jones 5:1
Sanjaya Malakar 18:1
Chris Richardson 25:1
Gina Glocksen 30:1
Phil Stacey 35:1
Haley Scarnato 50:1

One of the things Sanjaya has going for him is Howard Stern. Yes, Mr. Stern isn’t just about strippers and sex toys. He takes a strong interest in culture and aesthetics, and recently he’s given a big boost to a grassroots movement that emerged from the website Vote for the Worst That site is encouraging fans to do just what the name says and vote for Sanjaya.

American Idol is resolutely democratic— the performers with the most votes stay. So if you can get the majority of Americans to vote for someone, he wins even if he’s the worst candidate. It might work for Howard Stern. It certainly worked for Karl Rove.

It works because American Idol is just that — American— and it exemplifies some of the curiosities and contradictions in American culture. To begin with, it turns something qualitative (the entertainment value of a performer) into something quantitative (a number of votes). Other contests do something similar, Olympic figure skating for example. But with American Idol, as Howard Stern is trying to show, that quantitative measure may have little to do with quality.

More interesting— and this is what seems peculiarly American about it— it is both democratic and egalitarian. The decision as to who is best is made not by experts but by anyone who sends in a vote. The assumption behind it is that we are all just as good as the so-called experts at making these decisions.

Americans don’t like people who come across as thinking they are better or smarter, and we especially don’t like those who claim to have more refined tastes. For a long time now, Republicans have won a lot of votes by attacking Democrats as the party of chardonnay-sipping, brie-eating, PBS-watching snobs. To be sure, on AI there is one critic who makes no bones about the superiority of his taste. But he’s the man we love to hate, Simon Cowell. And of course, he’s not an American.

There may also be something especially American in how we respond to these prizes. If we reject expert advice on matters of taste, if my judgment is just as good as anyone else’s, why don’t I just make my own decision? Can’t I decide for myself who’s the best and then buy his or her album?

But obviously Americans’ personal preferences are greatly affected by the outcome of these contests, whether the decision is made by a panel of experts (as in book awards), a larger vote of people in the business (the Academy Awards), or the general public (American Idol).

Surely in contests like these there cannot be very much difference between the winner and the entry that finished second. Or third or fourth for that matter. Yet the winner, no matter how narrow the margin, reaps large rewards at the box office or in album sales, while the runners-up are all but forgotten. Once the winner is decided, we all get in line.

There seems to be a contradiction between the American ideal of freedom and individualism on the one hand and the uniformity of our choices on the other. But that’s nothing new. As observers of American culture going back to deTocqueville have noted, Americans insist on their right to individual freedom, but they use that freedom to choose pretty much what everyone else is choosing. And they insist that others do likewise.