Pies and Pieties

April 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes, a pie in the face is just what’s called for. Say you have a pompous speaker about to declaim his important truths and an audience all too willing to believe that the speaker is in fact the font of all wisdom on the subject. A pie in the face deflates this folie à deux.

A pie does no real harm, nor does it prevent the person from speaking. It’s just that you just can’t listen with the same level of unquestioning awe. You see not the great thinker, but just another guy, a guy who only a few minutes ago was wiping cream pie off his face, and even now as he begins his lecture doesn’t realize that he still has bits of cream clinging to his earlobe. A good pie is the equivalent of the little boy calling out that maybe the emperor’s sartorial ensemble isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

So when I read that at Brown University Thomas Friedman had been the target of what Inside Higher Ed described as “a pie-like substance,” my faith in America’s youth was restored. Sure there are other speakers more deserving of a pie than Friedman; I just can’t think of any right now.

But my elevated mood didn’t last long. For one thing, the pie throwers had not planned well, and Friedman easily dodged them. The pie never came near his face; it barely got onto his sleeve.

More disappointing was how seriously the people at Brown took the whole thing. A biology professor chased the pie throwers, who had run from the building, and caught the female of the pair. He told the Brown Daily Herald proudly, “She didn't get very far. I told her she was caught, I held her hands behind her back, made a citizen's arrest.” What a guy.

The audience of Brown students was no better. According to the Herald, “The attendees applauded loudly not when the pie was thrown, but rather when Friedman regained his composure and started to return to the lecture podium.”

Then there was the newspaper itself. The next day it ran an editorial “Rudeness Isn’t Effective” that I could swear was channeling my high school principal (I come from a WASP, conservative Republican suburb). The pie throwers, it said, “lost any chance to pursue constructive dialogue with [Friedman].” Duh.

It continued, “Protests should not be an event but rather a sincere effort to start constructive dialogue . . . . A pastry to the face is not an invitation to exchange ideas.” Again, duh.

Hey, Brown, lighten up. As it says in the Bible, there’s a time to be born and a time to die; a time to rend and time to sew; a time to get and a time to lose; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to “pursue constructive dialogue” and a time to throw a cream pie in Tom Friedman’s face.

Please Stand By

April 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a Scatterplot post called Songs About Sociology, Belle Lettre asks for “songs that make you think of sociology.”
I can
t think of any songs literally about sociology. But there are lots that provide grist for our mill. I wrote the following – about country music in general and “Stand By Your Man” in particular – nearly two years ago, before this blog got started. In the spirit of Earth Day, Im recycling my garbage.

Nearly fifty years ago, C. Wright Mills defined “the sociological imagination” as the ability to see the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues.” Mills might have added, although as far as I know he didn’t, that this feat of imagination comes easier when you yourself are not enmeshed in the system—when you are a stranger, an outsider.

Suppose, for example, we find that many Saudi women feel stifled and frustrated, inferior and unworldly, that their sex life is unrewarding, and that they frequently get into jealousy-loaded arguments with co-wives. We probably would not say, “What’s wrong with these pathetic malcontents? Lots of other Saudi women are perfectly happy and have learned to get along with their co-wives and to do without things like driving privileges.” Instead, we’d be much more likely to say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system of polygamy and purdah and no possibility of divorce or independence?” We would see those personal problems as directing us towards a critique of the system.

But when it’s our own system, we’re much more likely to think of problems at the personal level and much less likely to use those problems to conclude that the system is basically flawed.

These thoughts are prompted by an article that appeared in the National Review and then received a write-up in the Times. The author, John J. Miller, compiled a list of 50 rock songs that, in his view, espouse conservative ideas. Number one on the list is The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” because it is “skeptical about revolutionary idealism.” The Beatles’ “Tax Man” and “Revolution” of course, but also just about any song that is against government regulation (“I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar). At number 50 was “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette, with reference to a cover version by Motorhead.

It’s that last song, Number 50, that got me thinking. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can see Ms. Wynette lip-sync to her own recording here.) My first thought was that it didn’t belong in the list at all. Even if rockers have covered it, the song is pure country, just like Tammy Wynette, and country is the domain of red state conservatism, heavily in favor of guns and bellicose patriotism, against liberal niceness and government regulation, and staunchly traditional about male and female roles. Miller could have picked hundreds of songs from the country catalogue that echoed the ideas of “Stand By Your Man.”

But are these songs conservative?   All those stock phrases, images, and ideas suggest something more subversive. On the surface, the message is that you should stand by your man and stand by the traditional ideas about men, women, and love. Just below that surface is a much different message: that these roles and ideas are seriously flawed. If you play by the rules, especially if you’re a woman, you are doomed to unhappiness. Take a look at the lyric.

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times and he'll have good times
Doing things that you don't understand
But if you love him you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him
Oh, be proud of him
Cause after all he's just a man

Stand by your man
Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely
Stand by your man
And tell the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man
Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man

It doesn’t specify what the man is doing — those “good times doing things that you don’t understand” — but here’s a hint: they cause the woman “bad times,” and they are things it’s up to her to forgive him for. No doubt, they are the things that have long provided material for the Country-and-Western songbook. When you piece together all the lyin’, cheatin’, drinkin’, and heartbreak that women in country songs have to endure, you begin to get a picture of a system that doesn’t work, at least not for women. Love doesn’t work, and marriage doesn’t work. (See also Ms. Wynette’s other huge hit, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”)

Perhaps a Saudi who had to listen to a few hours of country radio might say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system where a woman has to stake her entire sense of self on a romantic relationship with one man, especially when she expects him to mirror that romantic attitude? Of course a lot of women are going to wind up disappointed and devastated. And then, to make matters worse, they are told to uphold the system or risk social disapproval (“show the world you love him”) and hope against hope that their devotion will transform him.”


April 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last night, we held our annual induction ceremony for AKD, the sociology honor society. Sixteen students joined – that’s a pretty good number for us.
Brian Brenner
Courtney Burbridge
Natalie Cancio
Angelica Carrion
Sabia Choudhury
Suresh Dhanraj
Sabrina DeStefanis
Christina Drugac
Randi Fejnas
Patrice Fuschin
Hannah Gibello
Jennifer Hernandez
Agnes Kucsora
Michelle Newton
Elizabeth Quijano
Megan Snow

Our speaker was Gilda Zwerman (shown here talking with Peter Freund), who took us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the Weathermen and Black Liberation Army were taking radical and violent acts that seem almost incomprehensible now and which got them locked up in prison for a long time. Gilda has been trying to understand the process of this kind of radicalization particularly with regard to the broader social context of the late 1970s and early 1980s – the decline of the Left, the turning of government towards the right and towards repression.

I’m not sure that kids born in mid-1980s could get a sense of that context. I myself found it amazing that I and my peers didn’t just dismiss Weather ideas out of hand. Instead, even though we might not have agreed with them, we took them seriously enough to debate them long into the night.

Holiday Entrepreneurs?

April 22, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A writer for a local newspaper sent me an e-mail asking about the mainstreaming of Cinco de Mayo. She seems to think that it has become an American holiday.

I had no information for her, but I’m curious about how holidays get assimilated into the dominant culture and how they are transformed in the process. Christmas is making its way into Japan, at least the non-religious aspects of the holiday like lights and decorations. Valentine's Day is now big in Turkey.

My first thought was that the acceptance of a holiday depends on its attractiveness to the culture. But on second thought, I began to wonder about the role of “holiday entrepreneurs” (something akin to Becker’s moral entrepreneurs). Who are they? Ethnic leaders, probably. Promoting the holiday Especially in the current climate of concern, fear, or resentment about Mexican immigration, might be politically helpful.

One hundred fifty years ago in this country, the Irish supposedly needed not apply, and even in the 1880s they were the target of the Lou Dobbs types of the time campaigning against “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” (Maybe there were Harvard scholars, the counterparts of Samuel P. Huntington, warning that the growing Irish presence was undermining the true and good American culture and identity.) Today there are St. Patrick’s Day parades in most US cities, and everyone wears green. But the assimilation of the Irish and the parade didn’t “just happen.” It took work, it took entrepreneurship.

Who knows, maybe the folks at Hallmark are already at work on a line of cards.
I know I’m just a gringo
In Shaker Heights, Ohio
But best wishes, mi amigo,
For a great Cinco de Mayo


April 19, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brooklyn. The name evokes images of working-class New York. When Hollywood wants a no-nonsense, urban guy, they give us a cab driver with a “Brooklyn accent.” (Oddly, this is true even of movies set in Chicago or Los Angeles.) Brooklyn is the Dodgers, dem Bums.

Why then are people naming their daughters Brooklyn?

In Utah of all places, it has become one of the top ten names for girls, passing Ashley and Alyssa, and separated from Madison by only 17 little Utahennes. Nationwide Brooklyn was last seen in 67th place. That’s far behind Emily, of course, but until 1990 Brooklyn wasn’t even in the top 1000.

I have no explanation. Did some celebrities name their kid Brooklyn while I was out of the room? Well, yes, it turns out – a footballer and a Spice Girl. But that was in 1999, when the name had already climbed into the top 200.

Was Brooklyn a character in a movie? (The best explanation for the Madison boom is Splash. The movie came out in 1984; the name started taking off in the early 90s, when girls who had seen it as teenagers started having babies.)

There certainly seems to be something geographic going on. The places where Brooklyn has become popular – states like Utah and Idaho – are far from New York. As for parents in Canarsie, or Flatbush, or even within a few hours drive of the real Brooklyn, naming their kid Brooklyn, well, as the sign says . . . .

Science and Power

April 17, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Statistician Miron Straf on the difference between statisticians who work in academia and those who work in Washington for the government.
Academic statisticians convince others of their conclusions by proof. Government statisticians convince others by power. That is one reason meetings are so different to them. Academic statisticians don’t need meetings to develop proofs. . . . Government statisticians need meetings so they can control the agenda or write up the report of conclusions.
“Mr. Statistician Schleps to Washington,” Chance, vol. 20, no. 4, 2007 ( no online version, at least none that I could find)

Government scientists relying on power rather than evidence – I wonder if this tendency holds not just in the social sciences but even in the hard sciences. And I wonder if it has become even more true during the Bush years. I suspect, of course, that the answer to both questions is Yes.

Hat tip to my brother Skip for sending me this article.

Who You Callin' Sophisticated?

April 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We are all ashamed,” he said, about the president’s lack of interest in culture . . . . “Look, we need a president who is cultivated.”

Obviously, the speaker is not American. He’s French, a writer, and he wistfully “recalled the sophistication of earlier presidents.” (The story is here in today’s New York Times.)

Sophistication doesn’t play well in American politics and culture. Consider Obama’s recent gaffe in saying that some Pennsylvanians were “bitter.” The attacks by critics who most wanted to score points claimed not that Obama was incorrect (which he may have been) but that he was “elitist.”

Here, being sophisticated, cultured, or intellectual translates to negative qualities – snobbishness and phoniness. “Puttin’ on airs,” as a distant generation might have said. In America we have to think that all tastes are equal, that none is superior to another. Since everything is equal, the person who pretends otherwise, the person who prefers Chateau Margaux to Bud Light, is being a phony and doing so only for purposes of making himself seem superior. And that’s just un-American.

Here in the land where more is better, it’s O.K. to have more money, a lot more money. It’s O.K. to have bigger and more expensive stuff (cars, houses), a lot bigger, a lot more expensive. It’s even O.K. to have a lot more power. But it’s not O.K. to suggest that what you have might be inherently better, at least not if that implies sophistication. If you argue that Timbaland is better than Celine Dion, that’s cool. But if you prefer Brahms to Celine Dion, you’re a pretentious snob, an elitist.

I was reminded of this anti-elitism last week in class when I asked students to bring in artifacts of American culture for show and tell. One girl brought the DVD of “The Nanny Diaries.” She clicked on the scene where we see Annie (the nanny) in the kitchen struggling to prepare the complicated French recipe that her haughty employer has demanded. It’s the Cinderella scenario basically, but in the US version what makes the wicked stepmother figure really wicked is that she affects sophisticated tastes.

Annie also has to take care of the woman’s son, an insufferable brat (what else could he be with a mother who has such pretentious tastes?). Yet, in the span of this three-minute scene, Annie manages to transform the brat into a good , plucky American kid. How? She has him eat peanut butter. None of this fancy French food, and no plate or bread either – just peanut butter directly out of the jar. The moral is clear (though it’s spelled out again later in the film in case you didn’t get it): simple American kid-food, good; sophisticated French adult-food, bad.

Of course, things change – cultures are not monolithic, nor are they static – and there may some gradual movement towards convergence on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, they elected Sarko l’Americain, President Bling-Bling, who, shortly after taking office, married Carla Bruni, a pop singer with a relaxed-fit relationship to pitch. More recently, he visited the Vatican in company with “an exceptionally crude French stand-up comic.” For our part in the US, we now have Starbuck’s just about everywhere selling expensive coffees with names that we once might have rejected as too foreign sounding. “Latte” is becoming as American as pizza.

Smart – and Successful – People

April 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Smart People” is not a great movie, but if you’re an academic, I guess you have to see it if only for Dennis Quaid as a paunchy, pompous, florid, self-absorbed, dyspeptic, ill-groomed, and thoroughly unlikeable English professor at Carnegie Mellon. (If they can do this to Dennis Quaid, is anybody safe?) It’s not like looking in the mirror (I hope), but it might be like looking around the Faculty Senate meeting.

The movie is full of improbabilities. How could such a man ever have attracted a woman pretty as the wife, now deceased, whose pictures we see and whose memory he clings to, Adrian Monk style? And what could Sarah Jessica Parker, an emergency room doctor, now see in him?

The substance of the movie is in the characters – how they are revealed to us, how they interact, how they come to some self-awareness, and how they even change. But then why inject the element of career success into everything? American movies have a concern with success that borders on obsession or compulsion. About a year ago, I noted that “Music and Lyrics” a romantic comedy, pretended to be about love but was really about success.

The people who made “Smart People” felt compelled to make it about success, not just for the professor, but even for two supporting characters. (Sarah Jessica Parker is already a success.) I don’t want to give the plot away, so I’ll just say that in the case of the professor and his son, the success is both improbable and not at all necessary for the story. (The same improbable, unnecessary success haunts Steve Martin’s “Shopgirl,” which starts off being about very ordinary people, as the title implies, but eventually even the secondary characters become stars.) Only Thomas Haden Church, as Quaid’s ne’er-do-well adoptive brother, remains resolutely unsuccessful. (And what’s with Ellen Page in yet another film about an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy carried to term? I guess she’s not going to be NARAL’s woman of the year.)

Give the professor a less successful, less pretty love interest, give him a more modest bit of success, take away the improbable accidental pregnancy and let the relationship develop on character rather than circumstance, and you’d have a better movie. Of course, such changes might be downright unAmerican.

Faber (not the pencil)

April 12, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed reviews Betrayal by Houston Baker. Baker’s book is a less than persuasive rant (in McLemee’s view) against other black intellectuals. Here’s the gotcha that McLemee uses to drive the stake through the heart of Betrayal.
Baker points out that in the 1940s, Irving Kristol, the founding father of that neoconservatism, abandoned the constricted world of left-wing politics “in search of a more expansive field of intellectual and associational commerce (one in which he would be ‘permitted’ to read Max Faber)....”

That parenthetical reference stopped me cold. I have a certain familiarity with the history of Kristol and his cohort, but somehow the role of Max Faber in their bildung had escaped my notice. Indeed, the name itself was totally unfamiliar. And having been informed that this book was “the product of “a rigorous, scholarly reading practice” — one “seasoned with wit,” mind you, and published by Columbia University Press — I felt quite embarrassed by this gap in my knowledge.

Off to the library, then, to unearth the works of Max Faber! And then the little light bulb went off.

Anybody who’s ever taken Intro Soc will know what the little light bulb was illuminating. If you haven’t already caught on, I’ll add some spoiler space before printing the next sentence of the review


Baker (who assures us that he is a capable judge of social-scientific discussions of African-American life) was actually referring to Max Weber.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

April 11, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The orgheads may correct me, but I think that in principle and practice, it’s usually a bad idea for the top people in an organization to insulate themselves from contradictory or unpleasant facts and opinions.

Ed Koch, when he was mayor, used stop New Yorkers in the street and ask, “How’m I doing?” He may even have listened to the responses. It was sort of like the king in the fairy tale who disguises himself as a commoner to walk among the people to find out what they really think of him.

That’s not George W. Bush. His “public” appearances have been before audiences selected for their favorable views. So for a moment, when a substantial number of the crowd at National’s Park booed him as he walked to the mound to throw out the first ball of the season, he seemed truly puzzled and upset, almost petulant and sulking. I’m no Paul Ekman, but I think you can see what I mean about 57 seconds into this video.

There’s a lesson in sampling here too. Whether you heard more boos or cheers depended on where you were sitting. The above clip is from the broadcast feed, and the boos are clearly audible. But a few people who had camcorders and recorded the moment have posted their videos to YouTube. If your seats were in the less expensive outfield sections, you heard a higher ratio of boos to applause. But one of the YouTube clips was posted under the title “Bush CHEERED at Nationals opener, throws first pitch.” Sure enough, the sound in this clip is almost all cheers. And what kind of tickets did this citizen-videographer have? The third base boxes.

Of course, it’s significant that the jeerers were so numerous that there was even any question, especially since the announcer did not speak the name Bush but referred only to the majesty of office: “the President of the United States.” Even to me, it seemed not quite right to have the president booed on a ceremonial occasion, rituals being moments of solidarity, not conflict. And for better or worse, our political head of state is also our ceremonial figurehead. In fact, in one of the videos, taken from deep center field, you can hear the guy with the camera comment, “I’ve never heard anything like this.”

Better Off?

April 9, 2008

Posted by Jay Livingston

American middle-class optimism seems to have taken a hit lately. For several years, leftish economists have shown that even though something called “the economy” may be doing better, most people – all but those at the top – are running hard just to stay in place. The data are now reflected in subjective feelings.

The Pew Center just issued a report on the middle class, and it begins with Gallup Poll data on Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” (OK, Gallup uses five years, not four, but who’s counting?)

Are You Better Off

When Reagan asked this question in the 1980 presidential debates, most people, according to Gallup felt that yes, they were better off – 52% vs. 25% who felt they were worse off. That’s puzzling, considering the apparent success of Reagan’s question – he won the election handily.

The interesting result from the Gallup numbers is that when Reagan left office – after the “Reagan recovery” cherished by anti-tax, anti-regulation conservatives – the numbers were identical. If you look at actual changes in median family income, you see a slight decline in the Carter years and an increase in the Reagan years. But these changes aren’t reflected in how people felt, at least not as measured by Gallup.

This year’s numbers show optimism at its lowest ebb since Gallup started asking the question in 1964. “Better off” still tops “worse off,” but by only 41% to 31%. Even more surprising to me was the proportion of these self-identified middle-class Americans who rate their quality of life as low (five or less on a ten-point scale). That contrasts with the results on job satisfaction – 89% of these middle-class people say they are “completely” or “mostly” satisfied with their jobs.

How do you rate your present quality of life?

Graph: How the Middle Class Sees Their Lives

The report is full of other interesting data, and it’s worth a look.

Biography, History, Evidence

April 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can you account for the Obama effect, especially the enthusiasm he generates among the young? Accounting for the reaction against Obama and his supporters is it a bit easier. It’s that old parental ambivalence. We encourage our kids to be independent, but then we feel uneasy when they actually behave independently of us.

The New York Times has a front-page story today, “Obama’s Young Backers Twist Parents’ Arms.” The tone is ambivalent-affectionate – those gosh darned kids again.

Often, the reactions are nastier. Typically, they accuse the kids of not being independent enough; that is, the kids have become dependent and mindless followers, in a word (the word much favored by the anti-Obamists), a cult. From the left-hand side of the Times op-ed page, Paul Krugman points a finger and says that the Obama campaign is “dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.” (Historical note: the phrase Krugman chooses for Obama came into currency when Khrushchev used it to refer to Stalin.)

On the right-hand side, David Brooks slips into a character so that he can dismiss Obama as “the Hopemeister” doing “schtick,” a “messiah” whose supporters are like Moonies: “soon they'll be selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings.” The “Yes We Can” video shows celebrities in “escalating states of righteousness and ecstasy.”

Joel Stein in the LA Times is worried that he felt moved by an Obama speech. “Did I want to be some dreamer hippie loser?” The title of his article is “The Cult of Obama.” That word again. Here’s Charles Krauthammer: “ABC's Jake Tapper notes the ‘Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities’ of ‘Obama worshipers.’” (Historical note: Helter-Skelter is an allusion to mass-murderer Charles Manson.)

Stalin? Manson? I hadn’t realized how dangerous it is when young people get involved in mainstream politics. This is the Democratic party we’re talking about, not Lyndon LaRouche. And these are the same young people whose apolitical apathy scribblers – perhaps some of these very same scribblers – were wringing their hands about just a few years ago.

The Obama phenomenon is real, and of course it’s about Obama. But it’s also about the people supporting him. We need to look at the demographics. I don’t have the data, but it appears that the people Obama has energized are young middle-class whites, who have the luxury of idealism, and blacks of all social classes.

I also wonder if there is a generational factor, whether the historical circumstances and experiences count for much of the energy. C. Wright Mills said, sociology is about the link between biography and history. But I’m not sure how you get data to show how historical events affect people. We assume a connection. The conventional wisdom is that the Depression and World War II shaped the consciousness and behavior of “the Greatest Generation.” Stories of the 1960s feature the Pill, drugs , and Vietnam, though perhaps demographic facts – cohort size, suburbanization, economic prosperity, etc. – also counted for much.

What historical and demographic forces shape the consciousness of those who are now in their teens and twenties? We assume that 9/11 is important, but do we have any good evidence of how? The same goes for other obvious possible factors: Eight years of George W. Bush and five years (and counting) of Iraq and all the stains these have brought upon the idealized image Americans might have had about their country – Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, “intelligence” (a.k.a. lies) about WMDs. Awareness of global warming. The widening gulf between the very rich and the rest of us. The Internet.

These are the sorts of things a David Brooks can toss off a 750-word column about before breakfast and not have to worry too much about systematic evidence (something like the first paragraph of this blog entry). But how do we do real research about the effects of unique historical events?

The Phantom Chasm

April 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
An article by David Sirota in In These Times (a solidly southpaw monthly) has been getting a lot of attention lately, mostly for this graph.

Sirota says, “when you chart Obama’s margin of victory or defeat against the percentage of African-Americans living in that state, a striking U trend emerges.” Sirota calls it “the race chasm.”

Now Brendan Nyhan has offered a much more detailed look at this question using more refined data. His blog offers a critique that might serve as a unit in a methods course. For one thing, if you look closely, you’ll see that the X-axis plots the states according to rank order on percent-black. If you use the actual percentage, the U-shape becomes much less U-ish.

Second, Sirota’s graph makes it tempting to talk about “white voters” in these states. But as I hope my students remember, to use state-level data to draw conclusions about individuals is to commit the ecological fallacy. So Nyhan uses exit polls to estimate the percentages in each state of whites voting for Obama. The scatterplot is not U-shaped at all. In fact, a straight regression line yields a correlation of -.53.

Not a U-shape at all, but a straight line: the greater the percentage of blacks in a state, the less support Obama gets from that state’s white voters. Nyhan has much more analysis and more graphs. You can find them all here.

Why Don't You Go Play Outside?

April 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Teenager-in-Residence assures me that everyone already knows about this game. Everyone, obviously, did not include me. I found it today at Orbital Teapot, who in turn found it someplace else, so maybe Teenager is right.

Ethnocentrism of the Relativists

April 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Other sociologist bloggers have offered their take on Stuff White People Like and why it’s so popular. kristina b picks up on its message not to take ourselves too seriously. Whole Foods, for example, risks becoming not just a place to shop but an “attitude and style . . .that’s just… um… annoying. dogmatic. preachy.”

A word of clarification. By “white people,” clander (the Stuff White blogger) doesn’t mean all white people. He doesn’t even mean most white people. He does not, for example, mean the people who subscribe to Field and Stream (and certainly not to Guns & Ammo). His list will never include line dancing or NASCAR, probably not even bowling. No he’s referring to us – educated, mostly urban, cosmopolitan rather than local, politically liberal. In many ways, he’s just expanding on the “chablis-sipping, brie-eating, Volvo-driving” stereotype that Republicans have been using for years to denigrate liberals and even Democrats in general.

Stuff White, when it’s on target (or on Target), exposes our ethnocentrism. That’s an odd tag to hang on liberals; usually, liberals get taken to task for their cultural and moral relativism. But I think that ethnocentrism is similar to what kristina means by “dogmatic”: we think our own preferences are objectively right even when they are merely preferences. We like to think that the stuff we choose to spend our money on is good – better than other stuff – and that this inherent quality is why we choose it. But Stuff White reminds us that there’s nothing inherently better about sushi or snowboarding. We’d like to think that Michel Gondry films are better than Sylvester Stallone movies, but there’s no objective way of converting that preference into a fact.

The trouble with ethnocentrism is not just that you can’t prove that one taste is superior to another, and it’s not just that making such a claim pisses people off. But if you’re a social scientist, ethnocentrism gets in the way of understanding. Sure, it’s tempting to dismiss line dancing as an inferior and ridiculous form of movement for the rhythmically challenged. But that’s not going to help you understand what’s in it for the line dancers or anyone else.

But there are times when you stop being a social scientist, when you have to make judgments or choose policies. And when you do that, you do have to impose your values and say that one thing is right and the other wrong or that some goals are better or more worthwhile than others. Goals like keeping the planet livable and the air breathable.

The preference for recycling (#64 on Stuff White’s list) is different from the preference for Sarah Silverman (#52) or giving dinner parties (#90).