Steeler Nation

September 30, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s nice to have your ideas confirmed in the newspaper of record.

Last November, after the Democratic win in the election, I blogged to the effect that the Steelers had replaced the Cowboys as America’s team. I had thought of doing a follow-up post on the same topic, but I’ve been scooped. On Saturday, the central piece on the New York Times op-ed page was an essay about Steeler Nation.

The author, fashion writer Holly Brubach, writes about finding Steeler fans at bars in Rochester, MN, San Francisco, Toronto, and other cities. “Steeler nation seems to outnumber the fans of every other franchise.”

“Seems.” As a social scientist, I know not “seems,” lady. I was waiting till I found some data. And when I do, I’ll blog the Steelers again.

But I admit what inspired me was something like Brubach’s personal experience. A couple of weeks ago, my son, who has become something of a Steelers fan, was prodding me to find a sports bar where we might watch the game. I Googled local sports bars and called the closest one.

Yes, said the woman who answered the phone, they have football games that the regular channels don’t.

“Will you have the Steelers game?” I asked.

“This is a Steeler bar,” she said, surprised, almost offended, as though I’d asked whether they served beer. She added, however, that all the tables had been reserved long ago, though if I showed up early enough, I might be able to squeeze in at the bar.

On Sunday, we walked past that bar. It was about 15 minutes till gametime, and outside on the sidewalk, where smokers are now exiled in New York City, a woman in a Jerome Bettis jersey was talking with a Mean Joe Greene. Through the large front window I could see that the bar area was packed with people in Steeler regalia.

(On days when the Steelers play the 4:15 game, Steeler Nation waits on the sidewalk for the one-o’clock game fans to clear out of the bar, as in these pictures.)

We went to a less crowded bar three blocks further on. Only two people were in black-and-gold jerseys. But even there, pride of place (i.e., the large projection screen and the audio) was given to the Steelers. They crushed the Bills, 26-3.

The Institutionalization of Hysteria

September 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the Republican debate Thursday Ron Paul called for an end to the war on drugs. OK, Ron Paul isn’t a very prominent candidate. The leading Republican candidates didn’t show up – after all, the debate was to focus on racial issues, and the audience was predominantly black. Still, Paul’s statement is noteworthy.

Back in the late 1980s I was visiting in Washington, DC. I don’t remember the circumstances, but some people I didn’t know were giving me a ride, and somehow the topic of drugs came up. These people, husband and wife, were lawyers – maybe they worked for the government – and one of them started to say something about the current atmosphere surrounding the topic. He stopped in mid-sentence, searching for the right word, as though a misstatement might be very costly.

“Hysteria?” I offered.

Well, they wouldn’t put it quite like that, they said. But two things were clear to me. One, they agreed that policy and public opinion on drugs had gone way past being rational. And two, they were afraid to let others know their views. It would have been like someone in Salem in 1692 saying that maybe we’ve gone a little overboard on this witch thing.

Here we are two decades later, and at least in the public mind, drugs have been replaced by other fears, notably terrorism. It’s hard to keep two moral panics going simultaneously. (See last December’s entry “The War on Drugs.” )

But we are still living with the consequences of that hysteria. Emotions come and go. Institutions and laws are much more durable. And the fears and moral panic of decades past has become institutionalized. The sentences written into law are the most egregious consequence. Judicial precedents and rulings are usually less glaring, but they are part of the same process.

A couple of days before Ron Paul made that statement, an appeals court upheld the strip search of a 13-year-old Arizona schoolgirl. School authorities suspected her of carrying drugs – prescription-strength ibuprofen. Basically, a double dose of Advil. The strip search was perfectly legal, said two of three judges interpreting the law.

Once the hysteria gets written into law, the original emotion becomes irrelevant. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is about the least emotional person you could imagine. Yet when he was an appeals court judge, he wrote a strictly legal and technical opinion that would have allowed the strip search of a 10-year-old girl.

For what it’s worth, in neither strip search did the authorities find drugs.

The Greatest Drummer in the World

September 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Students are so young now. I remember when they were only a few years younger than I was, and we knew the same movies and music. We could talk.

That was then.

Now on the first day of class, I pass out index cards for students to put their vital information – names, e-mail, phone numbers. I ask them to put down the name of their favorite movie, book, and album.

I’m hoping that knowing a bit about such preferences might help me learn their names more quickly. But it’s also my desperate attempt to keep up in some small way with pop culture, which slips further and further away from me each year. Especially music. It’s not just that I don’t know the songs or what these singers sound like; I often don’t even recognize the names of the performers. I’ve made my peace with it; I’m resigned to the fate of never again being cool.

But this semester provided an opening I couldn’t resist. As I went through the cards calling names, talking briefly with each student, I came upon one that listed “Journey.”

“The group?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “anything by them.”

Now in one of those strange accidents of proximity that can happen when you live in New York, I recently got to know the guy who played drums with Journey back in the day. So I asked, “Do you happen to know who the drummer with Journey was?”

No, she said, she just liked their music.

I was standing there debating whether to play my trump card right then – maybe it would appear too desperate – when another student called out, “It’s Steve Smith.” Then he added definitively, “the greatest drummer in the world.” After a pause he elaborated further, “Not so much his rock drumming, but the later stuff.”

“You mean the jazz fusion stuff with Vital Information?” I asked, not so much looking for agreement as just displaying this one slender wisp of cool.

By the Numbers

September 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does Montclair Socioblog have a reader at CBS TV?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about all those numbers on the covers of women’s magazines.
Today, CBS Sunday Morning led off with a piece about the same thing.

It turns out I wasn’t quite right. The numbers are everywhere, not just on women’s magazines. Twelve steps, seven habits, a thousand places to see before you die. And that’s not counting all those ten-best list. Men’s magazines too find numbers irresistible. The CBS piece showed the guys at Men’s Health kicking around ideas. “'Ten or 15 signs she's cheating' is always a great one.” And the editor tells CBS, “When we put lists or numbers on the cover, our newsstand sales go up.”

Sure enough, at the Men’s Health website today you can find
  • 5 ways to get her into your bed
  • 10 foods you should eat every day
  • 10 muscles she wants to see
The lists and numbers appeal to two strong themes in American culture: self-improvement and rationalization. Self-improvement is a theme in American magazines date back at least to the late nineteenth century. It’s an idea that expands rapidly in a culture of optimism and an ideology of individualism and social mobility.

As for rationalization, it seems there is nothing so personal and ineffable that we can’t try to reduce it to a prescribed number of steps, Power Point list of bullet points. Like workers on a Taylorized assembly line, we can all follow the same routinized procedure to find success, raise happy children, be physically fit, have mindblowing orgasms, overcome our fears, or find the perfect hair style for this fall.

Kids and Danger - II

September 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Matilda’s mother apologizes for calling so late, but she wonders whether Caroline might be free for a playdate?

Like, tomorrow? “Matilda’s had a cancellation,” she says.

Liz searches the kitchen drawer for Caroline’s Week-at-a-Glance.
It’s ten already and she’s had her wine; down the hall the baby nurse, Lorna, is asleep with the twins and Caroline; Ted’s out of town. What the hell is Matilda’s mother’s name, anyway? Faith, Frankie, Fern—

“We could do an hour,” Liz says. “We have piano at four-thirty.”

That’s the opening of “Playdate,” a story by Kate Walbert published in The New Yorker several months ago. It fits with my previous post about parents and children, control and protection.

Is this the way we live now, I wondered as I read these paragraphs – six-year-olds with planner appointment books, mothers scheduling playdates because a child had “a cancellation”? A nurse for the kids even when mom is at home? (The twins, we learn later in the story, were conceived in vitro with another woman’s eggs.)

Sometimes fiction captures the culture and social structure well before the sociologists move in. For freshman English long ago, I had to read J.D. Salinger’s much anthologized story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” At the time, I didn’t appreciate its sociological imagination, its showing the connections between private troubles and social structures. Nor did I appreciate how ahead of its time it was in applying this sociological imagination to women. (If you have a copy of the story, take it off the shelf and read it now. It won’t take long.)

The postwar years in the US seemed prosperous and problem-free. The principle criticism of the period at the time was that it was dull, dominated by conformity. But Salinger’s story gave us the underside of middle-class prosperity – the frustrations of the bright, educated woman trapped as a housewife in suburbia. That suburban context makes us understand and sympathize with her cynicism, her drinking, her anger at her husband, and even her anger at her child.

Salinger’s story was published in 1948. Sociologists and psychologists began exploring this territory in the fifties and didn’t begin thinking seriously about women until at least a decade later.

“Playdate” is obviously based on “Uncle Wiggly.” (I suppose there are fine lines between being inspired by, writing in homage to, and just plain ripping off another author.) The New Yorker blurb puts it this way: “Short story about two Manhattan mothers getting drunk and confiding in each other while their daughters are on a playdate.” Which would work for “Uncle Wiggly,” except that there’s only one daughter, and the setting is a Connecticut suburb rather than Manhattan. The rhythm of the events in the stories is the same, some of the images are identical (a woman lying on the floor balancing her drink on her chest), even the flow of the final sentence.

In both stories, the women sense that something is missing from their lives, something they can’t quite identify. In the 2007 story, that sense is symbolized in the pet cat’s “hot spot”: “Their cat . . . recently contracted a hot spot. A hot spot, she tells Liz, is an itch that can’t be scratched.” A problem you literally cannot put your finger on.

But while the mood of Salinger’s postwar story is isolation and anger, the tone of “Playdate” is not as bleak, and its central feelings are anxiety and uncertainty. The mothers have attended a talk at school: “Raising a Calm Child in the Age of Anxiety; or, How to Let Go and Lighten Up!” Walbert is spoofing pop psych here, but the “anxiety journal” the professor tells the parents to keep becomes a significant item in the story.

“We are living in the Age of Anxiety,”says the professor. But several eras in the last century have been the age of anxiety – the phrase itself originates (I think) in a 1948 poem by Auden, and an Internet history guide applies the phrase to the 1920s. What’s different from one era to another are the causes of the anxiety. This is the post-9/11 era. “Helicopters,” the mother lists in her anxiety journal along with Thieves, Crowds, and Playdates. Twice in the story we hear the subway warning announcement: “Protect yourself. If you see a suspicious package or activity . . . .”

There may also be differences in how we react. Salinger’s suburban postwar mother chose sarcasm and alcohol. The Manhattan mothers in 2007 deal with anxiety by trying to schedule uncertainty out of their children’s lives. They hover like helicopters.

Too Safe for Children?

September 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The city went about its business, and in many ways the place was heady and wide open in ways that just aren’t possible now.”

The New York Times devotes its entire City section to the idea of being seventeen in the city. This sentence is from a nostaligic piece on being seventeen in 1980. The author, Christopher Sorrentino, has the uneasy sense that kids today are more sheltered. “Apron strings were untied a lot younger then,” he says. “Parents didn’t hover so much,” says the Times blurb.

Sorrentino adds, “I should confess that I can’t imagine making a similar arrangement with my own kids . . . Are you kidding? The kid’s going to be 12, and my heart’s in my mouth if I send her out for a quart of milk.”

This dilemma isn’t confined to New York, this nagging thought that in giving kids more safety we've also deprived them of something important. Alongside all the news stories about the dangers of toys and priests and candy and everything else, there has been a small but noticeable backlash. Sorrentino’s article is part of this ambivalence – the sense that protection is becoming overprotection. The Dangerous Book for Boys has been a best seller, largely because its title and publicity promise a more rugged, less cautious ideal of childhood. Elsewhere, Jeff Zaslow in a Wall Street Journal article – linked to by a couple of sociology bloggers (Ezster, Anomie) – complains that the concern about child sexual abuse has poisoned the atmosphere. Children are taught to fear men, and men are afraid to go near children other than their own. Last Halloween, I contrasted today’s trick-or-treating with that of my youth, when kids would range far from home unaccompanied by parents.

Apparently, it’s not just in the US that childhood has become more circumscribed.. The London Daily Mail posted a map showing the roaming area of children over four generations in the same family in roughly the same part of Sheffield. Back in 1919, Great-grandfather at age eight had a range of six miles. Today, the eight-year-old in the family is allowed to walk 1/6 mile – to the end of the street.

Ready, Aim . . .

September 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I should really have passed this one off to Dan Myers, who is developing urinal blogging into something of an art form or at least he was until he ascended into the lofty area of peace studies. Or maybe I should have passed it to Chris Uggen, who has blogged about the American tendency to deal with problems by criminalizing them. But I’ll do the reporting myself, even though the story is old news. I discovered it only recently on, of all places, a food blog.

Ten years ago, the powers that be at JFK airport signed a Dutch company, Schiphol, to run the International Arrivals Building, probably because the Amsterdam airport, run by Schiphol, is one of the world’s finest. JFK was one of the worst.

In Amsterdam, they had a clever solution to a men’s room problem. No, not the Larry Craig kind of problem; the Dutch are very open-minded about sex. The Dutch are also very clean. And the problem was that jet lagged travelers, men at least, tended to be, how shall we put it, careless? aimless?

I imagined what the American solution might be. Signs posted on the walls: “No Spillage or Spraying. Penalty $500 fine.” But where Americans tend to frame problems in moral terms, the Dutch have a more practical approach, focused on solving a problem rather than on punishing evil. At the Amsterdam airport that meant improving aim by providing a target.

If you go to the men’s room in the Amsterdam airport, you’ll see a fly in the urinal.

If you’d look closely, which you probably wouldn’t, you’d see that it wasn’t a real fly but a trompe l’oeil black outline. The idea was that men would aim for the fly - the stream would go from one fly to another (I’m sure this pun doesn’t work in Dutch) – and the men’s room would stay cleaner.

It worked. A study by Schilpol’s social science team found that fly urinals had an 80% reduction in spillage.

Road Rage

September 11, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Blue Monster, Dan Myers is trying to rein in his road rage. Now that he’s doing a course in peace*, he’s trying to practice what he teaches. Dan, if we believe his self-report, is apparently the kind of driver who not only drives fast but curses out the other drivers on the road whose driving isn’t up to his standards.

He’s not the only one. I’ve ridden with people who on foot were eminently reasonable and polite but on the road became ogres. What is it about driving that makes us forget ourselves? My friend Gail, for example, forgot she had her young nieces in the car with her and slipped into her usual driver monologue, a running dramatic commentary on the inadequacies of other drivers. “Oh Auntie, you said the A-word,” came the voice from the back seat. The A-word and probably worse. But why?

Goffman has the answer. Because we’re locked in our steel-and-glass isolation tanks, we can’t engage in the little interaction rituals that validate and uphold the self of each person in the situation. When we can’t perform those rituals of repair, things can spiral further towards anger. Neither driver can hear the other, so we think we’re invulnerable to any reaction from the other guy. That may account for this anecdote told me by a state trooper (also an adjunct professor in sociology at the time): In one of these highway ego-contests – dangerous enough when you’re going 70 mph – one of the disputants pulled alongside the other and brandished a pistol. In his anger and isolation, he’d forgotten that the other driver might have a cell phone and that he might use it to call the troopers.

My son has the solution. The next generation of cars should come equipped with a menu of messages that you can flash on your rear window. With the touch of a button, you can say, “Sorry for cutting you off there. Won’t happen again.” Or “My mistake, I should have signaled earlier.” And so on.

* I highly recommend the student entries in the Peace Blog for the course.

Hey, Larry Summers - Read These

September 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why do men’s shirts have the buttons on the left side, but women’s blouses have the buttons the right? Someone posted this question at the Teaching Sociology listserv/GoogleGroup. Robert H. Frank’s poses this same question in his book The Economic Naturalist, and I blogged about it not long ago. I thought again of converting Frank’s economics assignment into a sociological one: find something curious or paradoxical in everyday life, something you’ve seen with your own eyes. Todd Bern at Broward Community College calls this assignment “The Inner Sociologist,” and requires students to peg their questions to the topics in the readings for the current segment of the course.

I haven’t assigned this yet. But in keeping with my principle of not asking students to do something I hadn’t done first, I tried coming up with some questions. Turns out, it’s not all that easy. But here are a few.

Why do college/university courses meet two or only one time a week but high school courses meet five days a week?

Why do baseball players throw the ball around the infield after they make an out?

Then I went to the newsstand this morning, and this is what I saw.

Men’s magazine covers have pictures of attractive women, but women’s magazine covers have pictures of . . . attractive women. Why not attractive men?

And what’s with the numbers? (Larry Summers, BTW, is the former president of Harvard. He was forced out for several reasons, but one of those was a talk he gave suggesting that compared with men, women were by nature less inclined towards math.)

Cosmo is the piker here with only 4 and 5. Glamour raises with 12, 39, and 101. Vogue outbids them with 840, but Lucky comes in with 863 and looks like it’s going to win.

But then Bazaar leaves them all in the dust with a bid of 1,015 New Looks. Beat that.

But why? You don’t see numbers like these on other kinds of magazines.

Good Neighbors

September 4, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Where can we put this terrific little toxic waste dump?

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a short article reminding us that poisonous facilities --power plants, waste-transfer stations, truck fleets, refineries – usually get put in poor neighborhoods. Poor people pay the price with their health.

Conservative, individual-based explanations of poverty often blame the poor for their condition. Those people don’t work hard enough, don’t get enough education, aren’t smart enough, spend their money foolishly, have too many kids, don’t stay married, and so on. Some explanations blame the victims for their poor health as well. If only they’d practice good health habits, eat the right foods, etc.

It’s hard to see how conservatives can apply this logic to environmentally caused diseases like lead poisoning. But they try.
“It’s neither possible nor desirable in a free society to have all groups living equally close to everything — be it libraries or landfills,” argues Michael Steinberg, a Washington lawyer with clients in the chemical industry.” The mere fact of disparate impact, he says, is not evidence of intentional discrimination in the placement of polluting facilities — it’s just economics.
See, it’s economics. Polluters choose the cheapest locations. So if a polluter puts a waste dump next door, don’t blame the polluter; blame yourself for not having the money to move to a better neighborhood.

Social Organization of Newsgathering - Larry Craig Department

September 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Larry Craig was arrested in June, but the story didn’t hit the news until late August. A US Senator arrested for soliciting homosexual acts in a public restroom – not the sort of thing that would normally go unnoticed.

Mark Kleiman
has a link to the Minnesota newspaper that should have caught this one. The Star Tribune ran an article explaining how it missed the arrest.
The story, worth reading in its entirety, gives an idea of how crime news is normally reported and why normal procedures didn't work this time. The important factors were:
  • the place – the crime desk doesn’t expect much to happen at the airport
  • the commonplace – the name Larry Craig is so ordinary that it didnt ring a bell with the people who monitor the police blotter
  • structure of police reports – the arrestee’s occupation doesn’t appear until page 3
  • other news – Craig’s guilty plea occurred just after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which still commanded most of the media’s attention.