Guarding Against Symbols

September 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A mosque at Ground Zero in New York is already a reality. Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” report on the controversy showed dozens of Muslims praying in a room of the building that now stands on the contested tract of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center. “Sixty Minutes” did not report on the anguish these daily prayers were inflicting on the souls of the dead or even on their living relatives and friends.

The mosque, as many have noted, is not exactly “at” Ground Zero. It’s a couple of blocks away, and you can’t see it from Ground Zero. But that’s not the point. The point, for the opponents, seems to be pollution. Anything that is at all connected with The Terrorists must be kept far enough away (just how far is never specified) so as to prevent any kind of symbolic contact.

Something similar is going on with the proposed Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania. Back in 2005, a jury of family members, local leaders, and designers reviewed proposals and selected a winner. Now, there’s a big protest.

The problem, I think, was not in the design – a circle set in the naturally occurring bowl of land, one segment of the circle planted with trees, a tower with wind chimes.
It would have been built and unremarked if the authors had given it a different name, say “The Arc of Embrace.” But it was called “The Crescent of Embrace.”

Maybe you didn’t see it when you looked at the graphic. But, like priests trained in ferreting out all traces of sin, keen-eyed observers have discerned the unmistakable Muslim symbol, the crescent, lurking here. Look at this side-by-side that’s been circulating in the right blogosphere, with frequent suggestions that the similarity (I mean identical sameness) was intentional.

If you didn’t see it, that just shows how successful the terrorists have been in hiding their evil influence.

This emphasis on purity is part of the Us-vs.-Them mentality. They are out to destroy Us. We must constantly be on our guard. And any hint of Them, no matter how slight or symbolic, is a threat and must be rooted out.

Who is Them? In this clash of civilizations, Them is all of them. In America, you can’t come right out and say “Arabs” or even “Muslims.” So you have to be against “the Terrorists.” The vast majority of Muslims worldwide, and nearly 100% of American Muslims, are not terrorists. But that distinction is no more important today than it was when George W. Bush convinced most Americans that invading Iraq was a good way to fight Al Qaeda.

I just wonder why South Carolina decided to become a haven for terrorism.

I’m America, and So Can You

September 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some political columnists seem incapable of acknowledging that their own views are just that – their own (e.g., I don’t trust Obama). Instead, they prefer to attribute the opinion to “the public,” or “the country,” or even more immodestly “America” (“America doesn’t trust Obama.”)*

Here’s David Brooks in yesterday’s Times:
The public seems to be angry about values. The heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger rises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another. . . . What the country is really looking for is a restoration of responsibility.
I guess he never went to anger management or couples therapy, where they tell you to make “I statements” (“When you text at the dinner table, I feel ignored,”). Instead, it’s, “When you text at the dinner table, America feels ignored.”

I had thought that the restoration the country was looking for was more economic than moral, but then what do I know? I assume that Brooks has some evidence about what’s really on the public’s mind, but he’s keeping it to himself. So I rounded up the usual suspects – Gallup, Pew, etc. (“When you say the public feels some way, I check out the polls.”)

The entire category, for that last bar was “Ethics/moral/religious/family decline; dishonesty.” The proportion of people mentioning any one of those as the top problem was 3%.

It also turns out that while the subprime/CDO/CDS/MBS collapse had a huge impact on how Americans felt about the economy, it didn’t much affect their opinions of the country’s morality, opinions which were pretty low to begin with. Americans take a dim view of other Americans’ morality.
(Click on the chart for a larger view.)
Gallup did not ask specifically about the “responsibility” that the country is so concerned about. But the question was open-ended, and of the 76% who thought that values were getting worse, 7% mentioned something along the lines of “people not taking responsibility for their own behavior.” Seven percent of 76% is 5%

To sum up, only 3% of American think that morality is the top problem. When asked directly about morals, only 5% point to responsibility.But David Brooks says that what the country really wants is responsibility.

Who you gonna believe – David Brooks, or your lyin’ polls?

*This observation is not original with me. But I cannot remember who to tip my hat to. I think it was either one of the Monkey Cagers (but which one?) or Henry at Crooked Timber. The title of this post is a direct rip-off of Steven Colbert.

Living In the City

September 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“In the one block from the subway stop to your building, I saw a greater diversity of people than I see in my town in a year.” My brother lives in central New Jersey, in a town with not much racial diversity. “It’s like living in a Methodist wedding,” he once said. He doesn’t come to New York very often.

That was during the day. When New Yorkers go home, their neighborhoods become more homogeneous. Here’s a map that Eric Fisher posted, based on the cartography of Bill Rankin.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. To help you get oriented, I’ve made Central Park yellow. The truly diverse neighborhoods are out in Queens – Astoria, Jackson Heights.

If you think we’re living in post-racial America, or if you’re curious about racial patterns in where people live, you must take a look at Eric’s Flickr site. He has created similar maps for 102 cities, so you’ll probably be able to find yours. His maps also have a flash function that identifies the neighborhoods as you mouse over them, so you might even see your neighborhood by name.

HT: Peter Moskos

Just Enough For the City

September 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A New York Magazine cover in the late 1960s showed a fortyish man – pudgy, grey suit, white shirt, striped necktie – sitting on the sidewalk holding out a tin cup with a few pencils in it. A sign around his neck said, “I MAKE $80,000 A YEAR, AND I’M BROKE.”

At the time, $80,000 was about 8 times the national median, the equivalent roughly of $400,000 today. The point was that the “ordinary” expenses of ordinary New Yorkers ate up a lot of money. To be barely middle class, you had to be rich.

That cover came to mind because of the recent dust-up in the blogosphere set off by a post by Todd Henderson, a Chicago law professor. Henderson was complaining about the Obama tax proposal – to keep cuts for all but the rich, i.e, those earning more than $250,000. Henderson didn’t say how much his income was, but he did say
  • that paying for mortgages, student loans, children’s education (private schools), and other expenses leaves him no room for luxuries.
  • that he already pays $100,000 in taxes
  • he certainly does not feel rich
Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby.... [W]e have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income. We occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget. . . . [This is from an e-mail Henderson, or someone claiming to be him, wrote to Brad DeLong that DeLong reprinted.]
Henderson took a lot of flak. But there’s much to be said for his point, which is the same one that New York Magazine was making 35 years ago. Although these conclusions are not what Henderson intended, they still seem valid:
  • there is such a thing as society
  • society exerts pressure on people to spend their money on certain things
  • some of these are things which, if you could not afford them, you would feel that you were not a member of your society or social group
  • when income rises, so do these social “necessities.” Henderson sees private schools, two cars, and home ownership as necessities, not luxuries 
New York Magazine had the good sense to make the point with a touch of irony that Henderson utterly lacked. His sin was not that he feels strapped despite an income of $400,000 or more. It was that he seemed to have no feeling for the lives of those who earn half that, or those who have a merely average income ($50-60K), or those who scrape by on much less than the average.

As I recall, the New York Magazine story sketched out budgets for three different income levels. None of them, even the highest ($80K) left room for much in the way of savings or luxuries. A few years later, the great Stevie Wonder’s great album “Innervisions” came out, and I thought of writing a lyric based on its great song “Living For the City” (and I’m serious about all those “greats”). Here’s a slightly updated excerpt:
Six rooms on Central Park, the house out by the ocean.
He works at Goldman Sachs, he needs that next promotion.
His son’s at Yale, his daughters go to Brearly.
He only makes four hundred thousand yearly,
And it’s just enough, just enough for the city.
And so on.

Update: Since I started composing this post, Henderson has removed his original post “because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family.” (Full retraction and apology here, but you can still find links to his original, now deleted post. Or try waybackmachine.)

I don’t know Henderson at all, and I hesitate to draw inferences about his character. But his new post adds to my original take – that he might be a decent and well-meaning person but that perhaps he is a bit short on self-awareness. He just doesn’t seem to realize how what he says will be seen by others – others like people with average incomes, others like his wife.

Update, September 2019.  In the original version of this post, for the information on the New York Magazine cover and Innervisions, I was relying on memory, and I said that they came out around the same time. I also did not have an image of the magazine cover. I recently found that cover. It was not from the 1970s, as the original post said, but from 1968. Innervisions dropped in 1973. I have changed the text, correcting for these errors, and I have put strikethrough on some of the incorrectly remembered details of the magazine cover, which I have now also included.

Another Year

September 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m supposed to be reflecting on my sins of the past year, but the SocioBlog came on line in mid-September four years ago. So at bloggiversay time, I’m also allowing myself a bit of narcissistic reflection, going back over the year’s 180+ posts. There are some, no doubt, that I should be atoning for. But here, in no particular order, are ten I liked.* I’ve added some topic tags in parenthesis, but there’s no real logic or theme to the list – sort of like the blog itself.

1 Christian Is Not a Religion (and Jews Have a Cross to Bear) (hidden assumptions and invisible privilege)
2 It’s Your Funeral (US culture)
3 The Playing Fields of Landon (values)
4 Frisks and Risks (Crime)
5 Mitch Miller – Producing Hits (organization of culture)
6 Rich and Richer, Dumb and Dumber (economics)
7 Sandbox Sociology (nature/nurture)
8 It’s Your Decision (US culture)
9 The Real America (social psychology)
10 Summertime Blues (academics)

*I was tempted to include my post on truffles only because it used my own photo from a truffle marché, not something I grabbed off Google Images. The post on The Real America is on the list mostly because I liked the phrase about Sarah Palin’s real America as “Norman Rockwell, but with guns and NASCAR.”

More XBox, Less Crime

September 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Crime was down in 2009. When the preliminary data came out four months ago, newspapers ran headlines like
  • Crime Rates Fell in '09 Despite Economy (NYT)
  • Why is crime down, in spite of the recession? (CSM)
The idea that unemployment leads to crime hasn’t had much support from the data. Criminologists have known this for a half century or so. But everyone else won’t let it go.* Apparently, the idea just too appealing. The logic is clear and simple: people who are out of work will commit crimes to get the money they need.

But that’s not the way it works. If there is a link between unemployment and crime, it is indirect. More important, it works not at the individual level, but at the neighborhood level. Neighborhoods with persistent high unemployment will have higher rates of crime, but not because jobless people are turning to illegal sources of income (though no doubt some are), but because people in those neighborhoods cannot exercise the necessary informal social control; they cannot ride herd on the teenagers.

Anyway, here’s the graph from the UCR.

The decline is real – not just a CompStat-inspired suppression of data by the police. Murder and motor vehicle theft are the two most accurately counted crimes, so we can take those changes pretty much at face value; robbery too. So what’s going on?

I don’t know. But Lawrence Katz has an interesting explanation – video games. Those wild kids, instead of going out and stealing actual cars,** are playing Grand Theft Auto. Their behavior is more virtual, also more virtuous.

(David Leonhardt, back in May, discussed this and linked to some research on a similar effect of movies in his Times Economix blog.)

*Not quite everyone. Conservatives like the idea that crime is unrelated to economics. They see crime as a product of bad people with bad morals. Crime rises when insitutions that instill morality (church, family) decline; and crime falls when those institutions gain strength. I suspect that conservatives also reject the economics-crime link because it implies there are no social costs, the government need not do anything about unemployment and poverty.

** Also, cars have become harder to steal thanks to various technological advances – criminologists call this “target hardening.” Car theft is becoming a crime better left to professionals.

HT: Mark Kleiman

Mosques, Danger, and Purtiy

September 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marty Peretz concluded his recent anti-Muslim rant with this.
I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
This is blatantly wrong. Freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion are not privileges that the government grants to “worthy” people and faiths. These are the rights of everyone, rights that the government is Constitutionally bound to protect.

Nine days later, after a New York Times column had called him out on it, Peretz realized his error and issued an apology. But how could someone who has spent his life writing about government, mostly US government, even teaching about it at Harvard, compose and publish that sentence in the first place?

Peretz was writing to decry a Times editorial that called for tolerance, specifically for the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, the one that is to be built a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero.

When it comes to the mosque, and to anything related to Islam these days, it seems that we are no longer in the realm of rational political discourse – discussions of policies and their effects. We are in symbolic territory, the realm of Purity and Danger. For Peretz and those of a similar mind, danger is paramount. He speaks of
anxiety about the dangers of Islamism, and anger at the refusal of certain politicians and commentators to adequately grasp those dangers,
Danger calls for a hardening of boundaries and a mentality of Us vs. Them. We need to be sure that everyone on our side is with us and that we have cast out all impurities, i.e, those whose loyalties are the least bit suspect. So Peretz refers to
Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and, yes, quite alien philosophies.
the increasing number of both naturalized and native-born citizens who enlist in the Islamic terror networks of our time, here and abroad.
As the Times says, this thinking equates all of Islam and all Muslims with terrorism. Or in Peretz’s words,
the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.
My only consolation is that we’ve been here before. Other religions and other ethnic groups have been similarly vilified and feared. You can probably go back through US history and find language that sounds like what we now hear from the Tea Party and Peretz and the rest, with feared alien agents not Muslims but Catholics, Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, and many others. But despite the antipathy of “real Americans,” these groups became mainstream, no longer the objects of fear and suspicion. You can even find some of them at Tea Party demonstrations or writing anti-Muslim screeds for right-wing publications.

The Peretz phrase I find most ominous, I think, is this one:
Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.
Ominous because when we say that some group thinks life is cheap or doesn’t value human life the way we do, it’s often prelude to our killing them in very large numbers.


September 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Quantitative methods for cultural analysis.

Jay Caspian Kang at The Awl:
. . . my crack team of consultants, statisticians and graphic designers have assembled DIVA-OFF 2010, a highly scientific (we used computers!) evaluation of the greatest divas of the past twenty-five years. A list of divas was evaluated on eleven levels of diva-ness, and, because each diva characteristic is not created equal, we scaled the values in the hopes of creating an aggregate diva number that will serve as a reference point for future generations.
Here, for example, are the results in the Hand Gestures category:

Admittedly, rater subjectivity may be a factor:
Of all the diva characteristics, Hand Gestures is the most open to personal preference. I certainly don’t like Celine’s slow-motion-deodorant-commercial hand gestures, but who am I to tell your mom that they aren’t cool? And while I always liked how Mariah would point out the notes in her runs, I can also see why your mother might find this to be a bit show-offy. One thing your mother and I can agree on, though: Carrie Underwood will never ascend to diva status because of her awful, awful work in this category.
Read the whole post (unless, of course, you’re a big Jordin fan), and watch the accompanying videos (with the sound off for the Hand Gestures).

Victims and Blame

September 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Blaming the victim.” William Ryan wrote the book and coined the phrase forty years ago to characterize explanations of poverty that ignored large social and economic forces and instead looked only at the behavior of poor people. If only they would anticipate the consequences of their choices in education, work, and family, theorized the victim-blamers, they would make other choices and rise from poverty. (My post on a very recent example is here.)

Now Courrier International, a Paris weekly with the tagline “L'anticipation au quotidien” takes blaming the victim to a new level. Here’s the English language version.

In the latest instance, Saatchi & Saatchi France used an image of the New York skyline with a shorter twin towers, two airplanes flying innocuously over the buildings. The tagline? “Learn to anticipate”.

HT: Polly, who, hélas, is no longer in Paris and not blogging so much.

Jesus, American Style

September 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

American Christianity has transformed the church and even Jesus into something that would have appalled the real Jesus and his followers. That’s the sermon David Brooks was preaching in the Times yesterday. Megachurches for congregations mirror the mega-houses and mega-SUVs for individuals.

Brooks’s inspiration is the recent book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream by David Platt, himself once the pastor of megachurch (N = 4300) in Alabama.
Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshiping ourselves.”
Sound familiar? Mr. Brooks, Rev. Platt (2010), meet M. Durkheim (1912):
[Religion] is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members . . .God is only a figurative expression of the society .

Employee Health Care Costs

September 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It always seemed to me that the loud and vitriolic opposition to health care reform wasn’t really about health care. (My earlier post on this is here.) I found it hard to believe that so many people were so rapturously pleased with the current system and its direction and so angrily opposed to any changes. I had only two explanations based on rationality:
  • Most people had no way to compare the current US system with the less expensive and often better health care in other countries
  • People who got health care via their jobs could not see the true costs of those plans.
On the second point, Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist reprints some charts from the Kaiser Family Foundation annual survey of employee health benefits. Here are two of them.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

A huge increase in prices, and people rallying in the streets NOT to change it? As Carroll says, the true costs of this increase are not easy to see.
employees actually pay the full cost of premiums (including the “employer” share) in the form of slower wage growth. Nevertheless, few workers understand this. The perception is that only the employee share is paid by workers. But that’s gone up too, so perception and truth align. Employees are paying more.

With a BA in Sociology

September 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How much of what you do on your job did you learn in law school?” I asked.

Morning coffee on the porch of a small inn across from the boardwalk at Ocean Grove earlier this week. My fellow guest – our families had just met, there on the veranda – was a lawyer, in charge of licensing for a healthcare group that includes some important hospitals in New England. He smiled and shook his head.

“None of it.”

“On the job?” I asked.

He nodded.

Then he said, “What I learned in school was how to learn, how to think.”

Which is exactly what I tell students when they ask the inevitable question, “What kind of job can I get with a sociology degree?” I have a standard answer: “College is not trade school; it’s not job training.”

Montclair students usually don’t believe me, and I can’t blame them. They know that they need a college degree to get a good job, so they figure each major must teach something that employers find useful. Different majors, different employers. So I say, “Ask your parents where they got the skills and knowledge they need for their jobs. Chances are they learned 95% of it on the job.”

I used to make an exception for post-BA professional training – law school, med school, etc. Now I’ll have to revise even that.

“What you’re learning in college,” I say, “is how to learn, how to think, how to read, and how to write.” Then I add, “You can do that in any major, so you may as well choose the department with the ideas or courses or professors that you really like or where you’ll have the best time.”
Making important school choices based on the enjoyment of learning?? That probably clashes with just about everything in their experience of the previous twelve years. In any case, I usually get the feeling they still don’t believe me.

My colleague Yasmein Besen-Cassino, who sometimes teaches statistics, has a different and probably more effective strategy. “Go to and enter ‘SPSS,’” she tells them.