Honor Not So Bright

August 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Restoring Honor” was the theme of Glenn Beck’s rally. No signs, no politics, no policies, just positive principles.

Honor is one of those values that we’re all supposed to cherish. But in most cases, I find it harder and harder to distinguish honor from narcissism and brittle pride, an overweening concern for what people might be thinking of you.*

When someone feels he has lost honor because of what he himself has done, the result can be a resolve to improve, or it can be depression, even suicide. But when he feels his honor has been lost because of what another has done, things can get nasty. Under those circumstances, people usually go about restoring honor not by doing something for someone else, but by doing something to someone else. Think “honor” killings.

I can’t see where our country has lost any honor since Obama took office. A lot of jobs and many houses, maybe some of our hope, optimism, and confidence. But not honor. Beck and his followers disagree. They feel we’ve lost our honor. I’m also sure that they do not see that loss of honor as stemming from anything that they themselves have done. Little surprise then that most Tea Party rallies seem to run on anger.

Ever since the anti-Obama forces fought so hard against healthcare reform, it seemed to me that what motivated them – more so than policies on healthcare, economics or anything else – was ressentiment. So despite the Beck rally awards for “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” despite Beck’s claiming to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (yes, that’s what he actually said), the theme of honor, especially coupled with the glorification of the military, suggests that what they want is something much less benign. They want revenge. As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, “This is going to be very, very ugly.”

* For more skepticism about honor as a virtue, see my post on the Landon school.

Choosing My Confessions (A Sunday Post)

August 29, 2010 Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to clergy who no longer believe?
It suddenly hit me: “growth” is a euphemism for “I don’t believe the same crap I did when I started my divinity school training.”
This quote at Missives from Marx provides one answer: they use psychobabble to turn apostasy into “growth.” But then what do they do? Who do they tell? Do they leave? How do they handle the contradictions?

The quote took me back to “Marjoe,” the 1972 documentary about Marjoe Gortner, child revivalist prodigy at age four. When we see him in the film, still preaching in his twenties, he has lost his belief. The film (go here for excerpts) follows him on his last tour.

I have used “Marjoe” in class to illustrate Goffman’s idea that what is crucial for a situation is the performance. Whether that performance is sincere or cynical is secondary or even irrelevant. Marjoe, alone in his motel room (alone except for the film crew), tells us that he doesn’t believe in God. But when he preaches – laying on hands, speaking in tongues, working the crowd, and generally doing a great job – we realize that his unbelief doesn’t matter.

It makes you wonder about the other preachers. They all have their gimmicks; after all, they do need to rouse the audience (and raise money). They may still believe strongly in God and Jesus and the Bible. Or they may not. There’s no way to know.
Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.
That’s not Marjoe 1972. It’s “Adam,” currently a minister in a Church of Christ congregation in South Carolina. The quote appears in “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Their sample is small (N=5), but that’s probably five more than anyone else has come up with as far as I know. Dennett and LaScola present the five as individual case studies, tracing both the institutional and internal aspects of their careers.

Nonbelieving preachers in 2010 have much in common with homosexuals (especially in earlier eras). For example, the authors note that “atheist ‘gaydar’ is not yet a well-developed sensitivity among the clergy”
Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries: “And I let on like I do have an uncle who’s a non-believer, and he always said, ‘You know, it’s…’”
An uncle -- yeah, right.

“Coming out” is difficult because of the web of institutions (work, family) that define them. So the preachers must devise strategies for handling their secret – practical strategies for dealing with others and psychological strategies for resolving the personal contradictions.

The article sounds much like Chicago sociology-of-deviance studies that go back nearly 100 years. Yet it was published in a journal called Evolutionary Psychology, though its links to that field remain hidden, at least to me. I guess evol-psych works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

Old and New Views of the Internet

August 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Shortly after Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody, his take on how the new technology is changing social organization, he was asked to meet with a TV producer who thought he might be a good guest for a show. Shirky reports on the meeting in his new book Cognitive Surplus.

The producer asked about social media, and Shirky told her about Wikipedia. Astronomers had recently decided that Pluto was not a planet after all. Wikipedians responded with a flurry of activity, many people putting a lot of effort into the intense and frequent rewriting of the page on Pluto. Shirky expected the producer to ask about how knowledge is constructed, who knows what, who has authority, and other problems of wikis. “Instead, she sighed and said, ‘Where do people find the time?’”

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question,” Shirky snapped.

Shirky doesn’t say whether she ever put him on her show. But the producer’s taken-for-granted assumptions are a good examle of the old-style view of the Internet and social media. She found it unremarkable, maybe even a good thing, that people spent an average of four hours a day sitting on the couch watching TV. (In a classroom of thirty-five students, that’s over 1000 person-hours a week in front of the tube.)

But when it came to active and intense involvement in a wiki conversation, she wondered where they find the time. She didn’t get it.

2. The newer world-view is represented by Ethan,* age 6, who does get it.

His grandfather was doing some work on the computer, and Ethan walked over to him, asking questions, as kids often do. “Grandpa, where do we go after we die?” he asked. His grandfather pretended to be busy with his work and said briefly, “I don’t know.”

Ethan pointed to computer screen. “Google it,” he said.

* Not his real name

Tocqueville Pop

August 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Right now, I’m reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s pretty heavy what he says about America. It could be an album.” – Iggy Pop quoted in Rolling Stone, July 29, 2010.

De Tocqueville as a rock album? I haven’t followed Iggy Pop’s career closely, so I won’t even guess as to what such an album might be like. But why not? Democracy in America is the basis for a recent novel, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

Carey takes liberties with Tocqueville’s biography, which is why he renames him – Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont. His traveling companion is not Beaumont but Parrot, hired by Olivier’s mother to be his servant and secretary but also to spy on the young Frenchman and report to her. Parrot is an Englishman, older than Olivier and far less aristocratic. So Tocqueville/Olivier’s reactions to his circumstances are personal, not just abstract.
My intuitions and sympathies were limited by the circumstances of my birth. A person like my servant was a foreign land.
Olivier is almost a caricature of a nobleman – overly delicate (he gets frequent nosebleeds) and effete. His relations with people (notably Parrot and an American girl he falls in love with) provide plot. They also, along with a detailed painting of the scenery – New York streets, shops, and houses, rural farms – provide the background for the more general observations. Carey seems to have lifted these directly from Democracy in America. For example:
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals,* the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. . . . The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture. (p. 161)
No doubt, Iggy Pop will do something similar, maybe tracking down what Tocqueville had to say about raw power.

*Like the real de Tocqueville, the fictional Olivier has come to America ostensibly to report on prisons, though Carey makes it clear that his mother was spiriting him out of France as a political precaution. Olivier’s grandfather, like Tocqueville’s, had been guillotined, and in 1830 there are rumblings of revolution.

Contaminated Chicken Feed

August 22, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A supplier in egg recall has history of violations

That’s the headline from this morning’s AP story. I suspect that the AP and newspapers keep that phrase “history of violations” as a single keystroke macro. Reporters can quickly plug it into any story about rotten eggs, mine disasters, oil spills, building collapses, worker deaths, etc.

It makes me skeptical about either regulation or tort liability as a way to prevent these things. Torts cases take years and years and may be hard to prove – those armies of lawyers on corporate payrolls are there for a reason. As the AP notes, “The FDA investigation could take months, and sources of contamination are often difficult to find..” There’s a similar problem in the most recent Massey mine disaster, where the precise cause has not yet been determined. And that’s with the government, not a few lawyers, doing the heavy lifting.

Also, as we learned in the Gulf, corporations have lobbied to have caps put on their liability. Had BP not voluntarily waived that cap, the most they could have had to pony up was a puny $75 million.

DeCoster, the bad egg people, had been fined in 1997 for unsafe and unsanitary conditions. But the fine, the maximum allowed by law, was $2 million – chicken feed.

Constructing Value - Virginity, Balls, and Art

August 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a post about “fake virgins” in China – women who have had “hymen restoration” surgery. This surgery, Hanson says, can harm men. As Dave Barry says, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. That’s what he says.
It seems to me many men really do have a strong preference for virginity, and are willing to pay a high price for it in a marriage bargain. This male preference for virgins seems as legitimate as the female preference for high status husbands. So it can do husbands a great harm to deceive them about virginity. [emphasis added]
The woman who fakes virginity is no different from a man who presents himself as wealthy when in fact he’s broke.
Imagine a woman [who] married a man in part because of his great job and income, and as soon as she has his first kid he reveals that it was a fake; his parents had paid for a temporary high-status job and big house/car/etc. so she could give them a high quality grandkid. Now that the kid has arrived, husband goes back to being a janitor with a bike and one-room apartment.
Hanson’s post got a ton of comments, many arguing that comparing virginity to wealth was ludicrous or worse.

But none of the comments made the point that immediately occurred to me: value is socially constructed. What something is worth depends entirely on what people think it’s worth. The baseball that ARod just hit for his 600th homer is indistinguishable from a baseball that anyone can buy at Sears for $12.99. But the value of the home run ball is far greater – just how much greater, we don’t yet know, but #500 went for $100,000.

(One of these balls is not like the other. One of these balls is worth $100K.)

The difference in value between real virginity and fake virginity (or no virginity) is like the difference in value between the ARod ball and the Sears ball. Or between a real Cézanne and a perfect copy. One isn’t inherently better than the other; it’s just worth more because people think it’s better.

(Click on the image for a larger view and see if you can tell which is the real Cézanne . . .*)

All realities and values are constructed, but some are more constructed than others. The reality of something depends on the degree of consensus and on the other practices and institutions that get built around it. The value of economic wealth seems like rock solid reality because we all agree on the value of money and because it is so central to so many other things we do.

The value of virginity, at least in our society (and maybe in China too), is much more obviously a matter of social construction. Not everyone agrees on its value, and it doesn’t affect much else in our lives. But in some societies, the value of female virginity has the same kind of reality that money has. The consensus is so unanimous that it’s impossible for people to see it as constructed. It seems entirely external to them. In those societies, virginity is also a central aspect of marriage, family, and gender roles.

For those societies, Hanson’s idea about harm may well be accurate. When there’s that much consensus, when everyone thinks that virginity is a treasure, then it really is a treasure, just like the ARod ball or the real Cézanne. The man who gets a fake can suffer harm, just like the person who buys the fake ball or the forged Cézanne.

Of course, in all cases, the deal harms the buyer only if he knows he got a fake, and the harm he suffers is greater if other people too know that it was a fake – more evidence for the idea that value is a social construction.

* . . . and which is by Joe Spooner.

Following the Money

August 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why do you have a cell phone? If you didn’t have one, what would be the cost to your work and social life? In other words, to what extent is a cell phone a necessity?

Mike Mandel
, an economist, looks at what Americans have spent more money on since the onset of the recession. Here’s the table.

(Click on the table for a larger view.)

Here’s Mandel’s take on it:

Right there up at the top is America’s love affair with mobile devices, where spending has soared almost 17% since the recession started. Also supporting my thesis of a communications boom–spending on wired, wireless, and cable services have risen by 5%.
Mandel seems to think that all spending is discretionary. We spend our money on what we love. If you want to know what’s in our hearts, follow the money.

It doesn't feel that way to me. If my landlord raises my rent and I don’t move out, does Mandel think it’s because of my “love affair” with my apartment? (Note: the increased spending on housing was more than 60 times that of telephones. )

Yes, cell phones show the largest percentage increase. But in actual dollars, that increase is pocket change compared to the increase in spending on healthcare including drugs. The phone increase was $1.5 billion. The increase in healthcare was more than 100 times that. Does this huge increase reflect “America’s love affair” with doctors and prescription meds?

Are the cellphone and wi-fi a whimsical purchase, like new pair of shoes when you already have more shoes than you can fit in the closet? Or are they like a car, almost indispensable for finding and keeping a job?

Here’s the other table – items Americans spent less on.

In some cases, the changes are caused by individual choices. But for many of the items in these tables, if you asked people why they changed their spending, they would probably see themselves as not having had much choice. My rent went up, the price of gasoline went down.

Flic Dans Le Hood

August 15, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Denis Colombi, who blogs at Une Heure de Peine (the phrase is an allusion to Bourdieu), was browsing the toys for kids and noticed that Playmobil has a new variation. In France at least, the Playmobil cops and robber set has been transformed into cop and rioter (émeutier).

I checked the Playmobil site for the US and could round up only the usual suspects – no masked, tattooed threats to the social order.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Remembering the toys of his youth (Lego not Playmobil, but sans rioters nevertheless), Denis concludes with a bleg (the flawed translation is mine),
Evidently, this is not a response to “demand” on the part of children; it’s a creation by the adults who think up and manufacture the games for the parents. It would be interesting to reconstruct the evolution of bad-guy toy figures. If you have any sources or photos, please send them – I’d really like to publish some of them.

Update, August 19. I shouldn’t have stopped following the orgtheory blog. Three weeks ago, Fabio posted that he had noticed the cop-and-anarchist Playmobil pair at a toy store store in Ann Arbor. See his post here.

Science Ink

August 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I can’t be in Atlanta for the ASA. But if I were there, I think I might be on the lookout for tattoos. Discover magazine has a collection of science tattoos.

(Click on the image for a larger view)

Is it cheating on your chemistry exam if you bring your forearm to class? The across-the-back formula is Schroedinger’s equation for the wavefunction of a particle (as if I really had to tell you).

You’d probably also recognize the finch beaks as Darwin’s, even without the signature.

The chemical on the right is Diazepam.

You can seem them all (there are at least 100) here.

What tattoos might sociologists get?

Burnt Toasts

August 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A writer at Politics Daily, Andrea Cohen, posted a sort of wedding toast – to an ex-boyfriend who was marrying someone else. Here are some excerpts

When we met, back in the spring of 2005, I was nearly 40 and had been dating off and on for two years following an unexpected divorce. I had lost faith in relationships. I had given up on love. He arrived, unexpectedly, and showed me what was possible. He raised me up from the emotional dead. He drew out of me the poison of divorce and betrayal.

I want to thank him for – it’s now such a cliché that I'm almost embarrassed to write it – making me want to be a better woman. He really did. It happens. He made me less judgmental and more open to new ideas. He gave me a confidence I had never felt before. He gave me incentive to reach out professionally into areas I had not yet gone.

That’s just another gift he gave me; the gift of knowing what is possible in a relationship; of refusing to settle for mediocrity where it counts, and of taking the chance when something inside tells you it could be love. I sound like a sap. I know. But it’s no less true. No matter what my romantic future holds, I know there will be no retreat from the standards he has set.

I want to thank him for all those times he stuck up for me – with his friends, with his family, with his work colleagues. It could not have been easy, explaining to all those cooler heads, why he was so devoted to an “old gal” who lived so far away. Yet he did it, even after he had decided that he would not throw down his lot with me. That’s the sort of character I’d like to instill in my son.

It’s the sort that we think is all around us but actually is rare. It is courage and self-confidence and the ability to see right from wrong.
Pretty bad, huh? Ozzie Skurnick, in his take-down of poor Andrea, admonishes her that
publishing, on his wedding day, a rundown that frames the man’s virtues almost entirely by how well he treated you falls somewhere between inconsiderate and catastrophically narcissistic.

Once you realize all this impressive agony you’ve left behind (scorched earth, my friend! Barren promontories!) doesn’t actually have anything to do with you, it makes it hard for a guy to hand over his hanky – especially when he’s trying to put the ring on his bride’s finger.
You’ve probably gotten the idea by now (especially if you clicked and looked at the originals). I switched genders, changed the pronouns. The original was written by Andrew (not Andrea) Cohen for an ex-girlfriend on her wedding day. The criticism is from Lizzie (not Ozzie) Skurnick.

I guess the point is that we are not yet in anything like a post-gender society. Sex matters. Context matters. When I read the original, I could easily see Andrew Cohen as the narcissistic schmuck that Lizzie Skurnick sees. But when I read it as “Andrea’s” statement, she seemed like someone I might want to get to know. I could even imagine Julia Roberts playing her in the movies.

The wedding toast consisted of just a few hundred words on the screen, but I was wrapping them in a gauze of expectations, gauze that had different colors for men and women, based on some vague sense of what I know (or what I think I know) about men and women generally in society.

It’s not just the sex of the writer that’s important. Reader demographics – sex (of course), marital status, age, and probably social class and race – make a difference here. For example, in the readers’ comments at Politics Daily, the women who said that they were “older” liked Cohen’s article. Younger ones, not so much. I just wonder how they would have reacted to my gender-bent rewrite.

Hat tip: Jenn Lena.

What’s in a Team Name?

August 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flip Flop Fly Ball has wonderful graphics about sports, mostly baseball. For some reason, I especially liked this Venn diagram of team names.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In football, only a couple of the oldest organizations have regional-industrial names – Packers, Steelers. In baseball, industry-based names are more typical of recent franchises. It’s also interesting to see what a team with a regional name does when it moves to a new location. The borough of Brooklyn was a tangle of trolley lines that street people (bums, the homeless, whatever) had to dodge. Not so the Los Angeles of the 1950s. Nor does LA have Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. The most egregious example of name retention is the New Orleans basketball franchise, named, appropriately, the Jazz. When they moved to Utah, they might have changed their name to The Choir (Tabernacle), but they didn’t, and so they play on as sportsdom’s greatest oxymoron.

Note: “Self-referential” names are those taken from a reference to the team. For example, when the Pittsburgh Alleghenys signed a player away from the Philadelphia Athletics, a baseball official referred to the deal as “piratical.” Similarly, a St. Louis sportswriter heard a woman refer to the color of the trim on the team’s uniform as “a lovely shade of cardinal.” He used the name in his column, and it stuck.

Sing-along v. Karaoke

August 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Technology gives, and it takes away. It changes the way we relate to one another, and it changes our motivations. Here’s a simple example, a sort of footnote to yesterday’s post:

Mitch Miller is sometimes called “the grandfather of karaoke.” According to Wikipedia, the Sing Along With Mitch records and TV show were the foundation for “what would become karaoke.”

But the difference between sing-along and karaoke is not just one of degree. It’s a difference in kind. Sing-along is not karaoke, and the technological difference between them makes for social, structural, and even psychological differences. In a sing-along, our goal, our motivation, is to do something together– in this case, sing the same song – and our pleasure comes from doing it together. Sing-along is less about performance, more about group activity, and we wind up sounding like, well, us.

Karaoke changes the roles. We are no longer all group members. One of us is the performer, the rest are an audience. Singing is not a group activity, it is a performance. The singer’s goal is to sing well, ideally to sound like the person on the original recording – Britney or Whitney or Pitney or whoever. The singer’s rewards are those of narcissism, but the narcissism resides more in the technology than in the individual psyche.

By conventional artistic standards, karaoke is “better”– nobody would want to buy a record of me and my friends singing, accompanied only by our own guitars or whatever was at hand or maybe nothing. In karaoke, by contrast, everything except perhaps the singer’s voice, sounds just like the hit recording. But in sing-along, what’s important is not the product but the process.

In this same way, a technologically advanced video game like Madden Football is “better” than a pick-up game of touch football. Madden looks like real pro football. It allows you to use complex plays and defenses. The non-technological pick-up game is more like sing-along. You use only your own resources, and the object is not so much to win as to go outside and have a good time doing something together.

MItch Miller – Producing Hits

August 05, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mitch Miller died on Saturday at age 99. His career might well serve as a shorthand version of the larger transformation of the music business in the 1950s. That decade brought changes in how we listened to music and changes in how music was made. Mitch Miller didn’t create those changes, but he took advantage of them and pushed them along. He started out as an accomplished musician, an oboist.* But he put down his oboe, and either by design or drift – I don’t know which– became a producer, one of the most important in the business. He went from playing music to producing records. It’s as though Ray Kroc had been a talented pastry chef but had taken off his toque to move into what we might call “other areas” of the food world.

As I said in the post about “Million Dollar Quartet,” the balance in the music we listened to shifted after the 1940s – less live performance, more records. But even within the recording industry, the social structure was changing. In the pre-Mitch era, records were a musician’s medium. The musicians came into the studio and performed the songs in their repertoire while someone in the control room ran the tape. “Million Dollar Quartet” depicts a simple version of this scenario – the Yellow Sun studio in Memphis. Bigger labels like Capitol and Columbia, recording big bands, did the same thing albeit with bigger studios and maybe more sophisticated technology.

In the 1950s, records became producer’s medium. The producer remained invisible to the audience, who still spoke of “a Tony Bennet record” or a “Rosemary Clooney hit.” But then, audiences also thought of the movies as belonging to the actors – a “John Wayne western”– when in fact, the film was largely a creation of the off-camera people who rarely achieved the name recognition of its stars – writers, directors, and others, especially producers or studios who assembled the team. In the record business, it was the producers who called the shots. Some of the obits for Miller mention how he forced even big stars like Sinatra to perform songs they would have preferred to skip.
The low point came when Miller had Sinatra join a comedienne in recording "Mama Will Bark," which featured a howling dog in the background.
That barking in the studio (it wasn’t a real dog) is significant, at least from the viewpoint of Elijah Wald, who almost a year before Miller’s death had an article in the Financial Times about the change in music. Wald doesn’t mention the dog, but he does say:
Record producers were also beginning to discover something filmmakers had understood for years: that studio productions need not have the same limitations as live performance.
The most influential of these record auteurs was Mitch Miller
Miller was an auteur in the sense that he had an overall idea for a record and went about assembling people to get the job done – not just the star singer, but the composer, arranger, back-up musicians, engineers, the occasional canine, and the rest.

Those combinations could be bizarrely imaginative. For example, in 1951 Miller took a song based on a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and an Armenian wedding melody, backed it with a harpsichord playing boogie-woogie, and handed it to a jazz singer named Rosemary Clooney. “Come On-a My House” stayed at the top of the pop charts for eight weeks.
Of course, his most famous creation as a producer was the one that put his name up front: the sing-along – first the records, then the TV show, where his all-male chorus would lip-sync to the heavily-reverbed studio recordings of old (and often public domain) songs while the words were flashed on the screen.**

Wald doesn’t like the shift from live performance to studio recording, as you might guess from the title of his book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll. That title, by the way, is not to be taken literally. Wald doesn’t really blame it on the Beatles.
when the Beatles quit touring in 1966, it was less a revolutionary act than an acknowledgment that the world had changed.

No one person or group, not even Mitch Miller or the Beatles, is responsible for that world-change. Again, I strongly recommend Richard Peterson’s work, especially “Why 1955?” for a fuller account of all the forces and changes – legal, economic, technological, social, etc.– that determined the shape of popular music.
* I first heard him on theCharlie Parker with Strings album, though at the time I had no idea that the oboe soloist behind Bird was the same guy responsible for those sing-along records I so detested. The hit from that recording session was “Just Friends,” and you can hear Mitch solo for four bars at about the 1:18 mark.

**I heard an interview with Miller just a few weeks ago. It was on a college radio station out on Long Island, though I don’t know where and when or with whom the actual interview took place. Maybe the legendary Mitch did agree to answer questions from some kid at an obscure radio station. What struck me was that, as I recall it now, Miller had little to say about the artistic or musical qualities of the records he had produced. He spoke instead about the technical and contractual problems, as though he saw the records not as a medium for music but as a commodity to be produced and sold.

Update, August 6. Shortly after I posted this, WBUR had a one-hour show devoted to Mitch Miller as a producer. Elijah Wald is one of the guests along with Will Friedwald (WSJ) and singers Leslie Uggams and Patti Page. (Listen here.) They point out that after Mitch, there were people who became known as producers
– Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, et al. (A propos the Charlie Parker recording, they also say that Bird specfically requested that Mitch be the oboist on that session.)

Sandbox Sociology – Sharing and Human Nature

August 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Are humans “naturally” selfish?

David Brooks had a column last month about the origins of morality in individuals. Referring to the work of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, Brooks said
If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share.
Ah, sharing. The word was not exactly a Proustian madeleine, but it did bring back the days when I used to take my son to the playground in Riverside Park. The problem of sharing was a prominent feature of the social landscape.

One morning, I was talking with a mom there, and at the other side of the sandbox, a child of two or three was strenuously holding on to a ball or truck or some toy that another child wanted to play with. I don’t recall if there was a scuffle or shouting or crying, but there might have been. I do remember the mother’s comment – she wasn’t Paul Bloom or David Brooks, but she might have been: “They’re just so possessive about their toys at this age. I guess it’s human nature.”

I nodded, but my inner sociologist winced. It did seem natural – many of the kids were indeed proprietary about their stuff, though there were certainly differences among kids. But at the same time, it occurred to me that I often heard parents say things like,
That’s Cody’s truck. If you want to play with it, you have to ask him.
That’s not your doll, that’s Emma’s doll.
Yes it’s your backhoe, but it would be nice to let Alex play with it too.
Sharing was a treasured virtue. Parents on the Upper West Side (and perhaps elsewhere) were constantly trying to get their toddlers to share. I dimly remember music videotapes (Kidsongs? Raffi?) with songs urging us all to share. But in the phrases I heard at the playground (and there were many variations on this theme) the parents were saying that the first order of business was to know who a toy belonged to.

Sharing, at least in our world, came only after the concept of private property had been firmly established. Much of the parental discourse at the playground was about ownership – informing kids which toy was the property of which child. Some parents had written their child’s name in permanent marker on each of the kid’s toys just to avoid any confusion or conflict. An unidentified toy left lying around for any length of time could prompt a discussion among the adults as to whose it was.

We were good Upper Left Side parents. Hell, a third of us would have voted for a socialist if we’d had the chance. We would no more try to inculcate in our kids the primacy of private property than we would buy stock in Halliburton. But still, all those messages about who each toy belonged to rested on the concept of ownership. Even sharing, though a noble ideal, was trumped by norms of private property. Parents seemed to follow the rule that while they could strongly encourage sharing, they could not absolutely require it. I often heard parents tell their kids that it was good to share, that it was nice to share, that you would want little Julia to share her toys with you, wouldn’t you? And parents effusively praised children who then shared.

But I never saw a parent force sharing on a kid who didn’t want to. After all, the toy did belong to the kid. It was her property – hers and not the parent’s – and property rights prevailed. It was her possession to do with as she pleased.*

The possessiveness of the kids in the sandbox may have been part of their nature, as Brooks, Bloom, and Zoe’s mom said. But parents, perhaps unwittingly, were putting considerable effort into cultivating that part of human nature.

What about children in societies that place less emphasis on individual, private ownership? I wonder what conclusions about human nature Paul Bloom would have reached if he studied 3-year old hunter gatherers.**


*The parents’ strategy here exemplifies a more general American solution to problems that arise when a culture places such a strong value on independence and autonomy. If those values mean that you cant force the kid to do the right thing, how do you get her to make the right decision? This post from two months ago discusses the problem as it occurs both in the real world and in sitcoms.

**  Prof. Bloom’s views on virginity too seem to ignore the way we humans have conducted ourselves for most of our time on this planet. (See this more recent post.)