May 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you die in uniform, are you automatically a hero? 

On Memorial Day, the day for honoring our war dead, MSNBC newsman Chris Hayes said he had reservations about the way the word hero gets tossed around.  Some soldiers, he said, die in circumstances of  “tremendous heroism.”  But that implied that other soldiers deaths are not quite as heroic and that not all dead military personnel are heroes. 

Hayese also questioned the whole enterprise of hero-making.
I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.
As you would expect, the right wing swung into full battle vituperation, with the usual name calling – commie, collectivist, intellectual, effete – that tells us more about the fears of the name-callers than it does about Hayes.  (Politico has a summary of the reaction.)

Above all, the critics insisted that the military dead were, ipso facto, heroes.

Whether all are heroes comes down to definitions, and apparently some people’s definition of hero includes all dead soldiers.  More important is Hayes’s discomfort at the motives and the effect of all this hero-mongering: “justification for more war.” It’s sometimes called “waving the bloody shirt.” 

A way to think about this is to imagine other nations or groups doing something similar.  Imagine Al Qaeda, for example, having hero ceremonies for their own dead, saying what heroes all these dead Al Qaeda are and how wonderful and worthwhile their sacrifice.   Might we suspect that the motive behind these sentiments was to stir their followers to further acts of war? 

Imagine a Pakistani newsman saying that this waving of the bloody headscarf, despite the honorable motive of honoring the dead,  seemed to encourage even more war, more killing, and more death.  Would we think maybe he had a point?  Or would we say, “How dare he suggest that some of these fallen Al Qaeda were not heroes?” and then dismiss him as cowardly, effeminate, and disloyal?

Boosters and Bigots

May 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A commenter on the previous post equates Blacks who voted for Obama because of his race with Whites who voted against Obama because of his race. (This paraphrase cannot capture the tone of the comment, which should be read in its entirety.) If we phrase the issue that way, the equation is undeniable.  It’s practically a tautology.  Both are voting on the basis of race rather than policy.

But most people would see a difference – a difference between for and against, a difference between hope and fear, a difference between the desire for inclusion and the demand for exclusion, a difference between liking one of us and disliking (even hating) all of them. 

A minority group voting for one of theirs – especially the first time one of theirs has ever had the nomination of a major party – is different from a majority group voting against a candidate because of his minority status.  In 1960, 80% of Catholics voters supported John F. Kennedy – about 17 percentage points more than a non-Catholic would have gotten.  Most people (though apparently not the commenter) would not equate those Catholic voters with the anti-Catholics who voted against Kennedy because of his religion.  If a Jew is ever nominated, most people (though apparently not the commenter) would not equate his Jewish supporters with the anti-Semites who would vote against any and all Jews.  Most people understand the difference between a booster and a bigot.

In the case of Obama, the pro- and anti- votes are different not just in quality but also in quantity.  The 96% of the Black vote did not give Obama such a huge bump.

That Black vote for Obama was only six points higher than the Black vote for Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore.  (I was surprised that Clinton, “the first Black president,” got a lower percent of the Black votes than did these other candidates. )  That six-point boost is also much less than the anti-Black vote revealed in the map and graphs in the previous post.

Racism and Mind Reading

May 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

In recent Democratic primaries in Appalachian states, Obama lost 40% of the vote.  The anti-Obama Democrats voted for candidates like “uncommitted” (Kentucky), an unknown lawyer (Arkansas), and a man who is incarcerated in Texas (West Virginia).

Could it be that there’s racism at work in Appalachia?  Or is the anti-Obama vote based entirely on opposition to his policies? 

The 2008 Presidential election – Obama v. McCain – offers some hints.  For those with short memories, the Bush legacy – an unpopular war and an economic catastrophe – may have hurt the GOP.  In that election, the country went Democratic. The Democrats did better than they had in 2004, the Republicans worse.  But not everywhere. The Times provides this map:

(Click on the map for a larger view.)

Most counties were more Democratic in 2008 than in 2004.  But in that Appalachian arc, Obama got fewer votes than had Kerry in 2004.  Yes, it’s possible that those voters in Appalachia preferred the policies of candidate Kerry to those of candidate Obama.  As Chris Cilizza says in in a Washington Post blog (here), the idea that race had anything to do with this shift is
almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know.
Cilizza quotes Cornell Belcher, the head of a polling firm with the Monkish name Brilliant Corners:
One man’s racial differences is another man’s cultural differences.
Right. The folks in Appalachia preferred John Kerry’s culture.

I’m generally cautious about attributing mental characteristics to people based on a single bit of behavior.  But David Weigel, in Slate, goes back to the 2008 Democratic primaries – Obama versus Hillary Clinton.  A CNN exit poll asked voters if race was an important factor in their vote. In West Virginia and Kentucky, about 20% of the voters in the Democratic primary said yes.  Were those admittedly race-conscious voters more anti-Obama than other Democrats?

Clinton outpolled Obama among all primary voters in these two states.  But among those who said race was important, she did much better.  Race added another 20 points to her lead.  Or to put it another way,  Race-important took away half the Obama vote.  As Weigel points out, this was before Obama took office, before voters really knew what policies he would propose.  Besides, there wasn’t all that much difference in his policies and those of Hillary Clinton.

Cilizza is right that we can’t read voters’ minds.  But to argue that there was no racial motivation, you have to discount what the voters said and what they did.


May 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it an homage, or is it an outright ripoff?  That’s often hard to know, and maybe the difference lies not in the work itself but in whether the artist acknowledges the link.  In academic writing, we can be explicit – “As So-and-so pointed out in 1972 . . .” – and we can footnote scrupulously.   Or not.

But in the arts, a performer cannot stop the show and acknowledge the others whose material he is reworking or just plain copying.  (One of this blog’s first posts (here) was about the problem of plagiarism in comedy and magic.  ) 

Not long after, I ran across a short story in The New Yorker (Kate Walbert’s “Playdate”) that seemed, to me at least, clearly based on J. D. Salinger’s 1948 story in The New Yorker, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Homage or ripoff, I wondered at the time (here).

This week’s New Yorker brings us this opening to a short story by Lorrie Moore.

For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.  There was so little they were actually allowed to bring; almost everything could be transformed into a weapon, and so most items had to be left at the front desk and the, if requested, brought in later by a big blonde aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.  Pete had brought a basked of jams, but they were in glass jars, and so not permitted. “I forgot about that,” he said.  The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.  Just as well they’ll be confiscated, she thought. They would find something else to bring.
Moore makes no attempt to hide her source, though she cannot add footnotes (she’s not David Foster Wallace, and anyway that’s not the kind of footnotes he used).  To anyone vaguely familiar with Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” published in The New Yorker in 1948, the similarity is unmistakable.  Here is Nabokov’s opening paragraph.
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
(The full text of the story is here.)

Moore even gives her story the title “Referential,” a double (at least) meaning. In the Nabokov story, the son’s delusions are a form of “referential mania.”
“Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.
And of course, Moore’s story, from beginning to end, is referential, if not reverential, to Nabokov’s. 


May 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday’s post was the SocioBlog’s 1000th entry.  The blog took its first baby steps into cyberspace on September 20, 2006.  Here we are, 68 months and 1000 posts later. 

Thanks for reading.

They Work Hard for a Ton of Money

May 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m not very good at looking at a scatterplot and estimating the correlation. 

This morning’s Wall Street Journal had a front-page story  about CEO pay.  Here’s the lede:
Chief executives increasingly are being paid based on their companies' financial results and share prices, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
The WSJ even had an outside source check their calculations and conclusions.
Pay was “highly correlated with performance,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business who reviewed the Journal calculations.
Here’s the scatterplot showing the 300 largest companies:

(Click on the chart for a larger view.  Those wedge-shaped lines point to
very large photographs of individual CEOs, which I cropped out.)

I guess “highly correlated” is a term of art.  Unfortunately, the WSJ does not provide a regression line or correlation coefficient, but apparently the slope is +0.6.
On average, for every additional 1% a company returned to shareholders between 2009 and 2011, the CEO was paid 0.6% more last year, the analysis found. For every 1% decline in shareholder return, the CEO was paid 0.6% less.
I like that idea of considering the profitable CEOs separately from the CEOs whose firms lost money.  Here is the same scatterplot split down the middle. 

If you divide the Pay axis at $20 million, the relation becomes clear.  For every $20M+ CEO in a losing company, there are three in profitable companies. 

But here’s where my inability to look at the dots and estimate correlations messes me up.  To me, it looks as though among the losing firms, there’s no relation between CEO pay and how well the company did (i.e., how small its losses).  Same thing on the profit side, especially if you ignore the three $60M+ outliers.  (Timothy Cook of Apple, at $378M, lies out so far he’s not even on the chart.)  

I’m not sure to who to believe – the Wall Street Journal or my lyin’ eyes. 
The WSJ site has a chart listing the compensation of all 300 – from Apple down to Whole Foods, whose CEO didn’t even snag $1 million.

The story also heralds 2011 as showing huge improvement over the previous year in rationality, or at least the proportionality of pay to profits,
In 2010, there was no correlation; for every 1% decrease in shareholder return, the average CEO was paid 0.02% more.
Yes, you read that correctly.  The correlation was negative  – the smaller the profit (or larger the loss), the higher the CEO pay. 

She Works Hard For No Money

May 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

The politics of motherhood reared its head again last month when Hilary Rosen, who the news identified as a “Democratic strategist,” said that Ann Romney (Mrs. Mitt) had “never worked a day in her life.” (A NY Times article is here.)

“Worked” was a bad choice of words.  Raising kids and taking care of a home are work, maybe even if you can hire the kind of help that Mrs. Romney could afford.  Rosen’s comment implied that family work is not as worthwhile as work in the paid labor force.  That’s not such an unreasonable conclusion if you assume that we put our money where our values are and reward work in proportion to what we think it’s worth.  Mitt’s supporters use this value-to-society assumption to justify the huge payoffs Romney derived from those leveraged buyouts at Bain Capital.*

Even Mrs. Romney apparently felt that there must be some truth to the enviability of a career.   Why else would she refer to stay-at-home motherhood as a career?  “My career choice was to be a mother.”

Still, regardless of the truth of Rosen’s remark, it was insulting.**  Stay-at-home motherhood is work – a job. 

But is it a good job? 

A recent Gallup poll provides some more evidence as to why stay-at-home moms might be both envious or resentful of their employed counterparts.  Gallup asked women about the emotions, positive and negative, that they had felt “a lot” in the previous day.  Gallup then compared the stay-at-home moms, employed moms, and employed women who had no children at home. 

The stay-at-home moms came in first on every negative emotion.  Some of the differences are small, but the Gallup sample was more than 60,000 so these differences are statistically significant.   The smallest difference was for Stress – no surprise there, since paid work can be stressful.  Worry and Anger too can be part of the workplace.  The largest differences were for Sadness and Depression.  Stay-home moms were 60% more likely to have been sad or depressed. 

Gallup also asked about positive feelings (Thriving, Smiling or Laughing, Learning, Happiness, Enjoyment), and while the differences were smaller, they went the same way, with stay-at-home moms on the shorter end.  Still it’s encouraging that 86% of them had Experienced Happiness 86%; so had 91% of the employed moms.

Money matters.  As Rosen said,
This isn’t about whether Ann Romney or I or other women of some means can afford to make a choice to stay home and raise kids. Most women in America, let’s face it, don’t have that choice.

Gallup found a small interaction effect.  The stay-at-home mom-employed difference was greater for low-income women.

The Gallup poll does not offer much speculation about why stay-at-home moms have more sadness and less happiness. One in four experienced “a lot” of depression yesterday.  That number should be cause for concern.

Maybe women feel more uncertain and less able to control their lives when they depend on a man, especially one whose income is inadequate.  Maybe stay-at-home moms find themselves more isolated from other adults. Maybe they are at home not by choice but because they cannot find a decent-paying job. Or maybe money talks, and what it says to unpaid stay-at-home moms is society does not value your work.  Nor, in comparison with other wealthy countries, does US society or government provide much non-financial support to make motherhood easier.

The late Donna Summer sang,
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right

But how right are we treating women who work hard for no money?


* For example, Edward Conrad is a former partner of Romney.  In a recent article in the Times Magazine, Adam Davidson writes, “If a Wall Street trader or a corporate chief executive is filthy rich, Conrad says that the merciless process of economic selection has assured that they have somehow benefitted society.”

** Hillary Clinton committed a similar gaffe twenty years ago in response to a reporter’s question about work and family “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life”

The Glee of Fielding

May 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Wednesday night I had just finished The Art of Fielding.  I closed the book, thought about it for a few moments, and then for some reason I decided to watch “Glee.”  I’ve seen the show only a few times; when I do watch, it’s to see and hear which songs are being covered.  

In one of the first posts in this blog, I watched “Friday Night Lights” and wondered why so many American fictions culminate in some kind of contest or competition that magically resolves or dissolves all problems.  Internal personal troubles, moral dilemmas, social problems, interpersonal conflicts, romantic uncertainties – it all comes down to the big game. And once that’s over, win or lose, everything falls into place. 

Fielding and “Glee” both draw on this theme, though Fielding, a 500-page novel, has much more going on than does a 44-minute TV episode.  They also  trot out the same cliche of the underdog.   McKinley is always going up against a much more affluent, successful, and perhaps talented glee club that looks down their noses at our heroes.  In the championship game in Fielding, the struggling college baseball team meet the well-heeled Amherst, who arrive complete with mean-girl cheerleaders.

“Glee” and Fielding reprise another theme common in American fictions.  It combines “It’s Your Decision”  with “Taking One for the Team.”  A character’s conflict with another member of the team, or perhaps his struggle with his own internal demons, is jeopardizing the team’s chances for success against some powerful and nasty opponent.   Others drop hints, but nobody tells our hero what to do – this is America, after all, and individualism means that each person decides for himself.  But in the end, he or she sacrifices self-based motives and helps the team win (or if they lose, to do so admirably and with nobility). 

The more powerful opponent can be a sports team, a glee club, a gang, a political organization, or even, as in Casablanca, Hitler and the Axis powers.  In the end, Bogart (Rick) sacrifices his love for Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in favor of the war effort.  He takes one for the team.  As he explains to  Ilsa at the end on the tarmac,
It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.*

* As Michael Wood  has pointed out, Bogart here is repeating precisely the idea that Bergman has been trying to convince him of since she arrived in Casablanca

The Mirror of Privilege

May 16, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Privilege is invisible . . . to the privileged, though often not to others.  In the past (here for example ), I’ve used the analogy of “default setting.”   White, Christian, males assume that this is the default setting.  It’s  natural – it’s the way Nature thinks things ought to be. 

John Scalzi does a much better job with the default analogy.  He’s trying to get White males to look in the mirror without their invisibility cloaks and see their own privilege. 
Dudes. Imagine life here in the US . . . is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. . . . Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
(Read Scalzi’s entire post here.)

I don’t know if his strategy will work.  The privileged man stands in front of one of those distorting carnival mirrors.  He sees his legs and feet of privilege, but they are tiny.  The shoulders and head of his own accomplishment are gigantic.

I keep thinking of Molly Ivins’s line about George W. Bush – that “he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”*

A more recent example comes from the Romney clan.  Mitt himself was born to privilege and then made a ton of money. But he probably does not realize how being the son of a wealthy father, one who had been governor of Michigan and who could send him to fancy schools, had anything to do with his success.

And now the next generation.
Shortly after Mitt Romney's failed 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination his son Tagg set up a private equity fund with the campaign’s top fundraiser. One of the first donors was his mum, Anne. Next came several of his dad's financial backers. Tagg had no experience in the world of finance, but after two years in the middle of a deep recession the company had netted $244m from just 64 investors.

Tagg insists that neither his name nor the fact that his father had made it clear he would run for the presidency again had anything to do with his success. “The reason people invested in us is that they liked our strategies,” he told the New York Times. [emphasis added]
Want a good example of how privilege is invisible to the privileged? – Tagg, you’re it.

The excerpt is from an article in The Guardian  by Gary Younge.  Younge’s real target is not young Tagg but people in the UK who, despite their best efforts, keep having their names crop up in connection with the Murdoch phone hacking scandal. 
Such is the incestuous nature of the British ruling class and the gene puddle from which it draws its stock. Such is their brazen venality, complicity, contempt and mendacity. Eton, Oxford, Bullingdon, Westminster – if you’re looking for a tiny minority who are struggling to integrate, look no further than the cabinet.
This is not to say that class in the US is the same as in the UK.  But in both countries, although personal ties to well-placed people are important, those who use those connections to become wealthy and still more wealthy attribute their success to their own personal virtue. 

* Ivins has come up with the perfect simile.  If you’re on third, you are very close to scoring – all by yourself.  And of all baseball hits, a triple is the rarest.

France Politics: Pomp and Ceremony. Family – Not So Much

May 15, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

File this under “differences in political culture” (or “The French just don’t know how to do these things.”) 

François Hollande was sworn into office yesterday as President of France. 
Hollande invited just three dozen or so private guests to join the 350 officials at the event. His partner, political journalist Valérie Trierweiler, was present, but their children were not. (From The Guardian)
The halftime shows at French university soccer matches probably aren’t anything to write home about either. Don’t they get the idea of cheerleaders? 

Also note that Mme. Trierweiler is “partner,” not wife.  And by the way, those four absent children Hollande had with Ségolène Royal were all born out of wedlock.  President Hollande has never had a marriage or even a civil union. 

Can we imagine an American politician with similar family values being similarly successful – especially one whose platform included, as did Hollande’s, the “moralization” of politics?*

* I know, I know – Newt Gingrich, with his multiple wives and adulteries and his request for an “open” marriage.   His loyal supporters were willing to forgive and forget, and they cheered when Newt excoriated the press for asking him about it.  But his campaign for the GOP nomination was hardly a success.

Old Men and “My Old Man”

May 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I could never get away with that with my old man.”

I’ve blogged before (here) about the myth of the authoritarian past – the idea that in some ideal past, back before Hip Hop (now), or before Rock ‘n’ Roll (1960s), or before the automobile (1920s), or . . . kids were more respectful of their elders. 

The nostalgia goes back farther than that.  Kieran Healy  digs out his Latin copy of Livy’s history of Rome, and finds the historian bemoaning the lack of respect for elders.
This is due to the cheapened and diminished authority even of parents over their children in our day.  
Livy, on the cusp of BC/AD, was writing about a war 200 years earlier.  That’s a little while before Paul Lynde in “Bye-Bye Birdie (ca. 1960) was singing “Kids, they are disobedient, disrespectful oafs.”

This nostalgia for a non-existent authoritarian past mistakes personal change for social change.  Livy and Lynde remember the past as more authoritarian – when grown-ups were men of power that you didn’t mess around with – because they are remembering the past from their point-of-view at the time. They were children then, and from their perspective, a father was indeed a powerful figure to be feared and respected. They stood 4' 3" or so; they literally had to look up to their fathers.* 

But as grown-ups, they live in a more complicated world where they cannot control everything – not the choices of the younger men, not even the desires, abilities, and flaws of their own small children. 

*This post is more appropriate for Father’s Day rather than Mother’s Day.  But the same principle of nostalgia applies to softer sentiments as well – community instead of authority.  (My post on that is here).  But Happy Mother’s Day anyway.

Gay Rights Graphic

May 11, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

As the graph in yesterday’s post showed, support for gay marriage  is not uniform across age groups.  There is also wide variation by region and state in the laws on marriage and other matters.
The Guardian had a great graphic on gay rights in the 50 states.  Here’s a screen grab.

(Click on the image for a larger version.  Better, follow the link below to the original.)

For the full interactive version, go to The Guardian (here).  As you mouse across each state, it shows the details in the seven categories.  In the version above, the size of each state’s wedge is proportionate to its population.  But you can switch to an equal size version.

The Guardian has also published an article showing how they developed the graphic.

Which Side of History Are You On?

May 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post (here) on the anti-gay-marriage vote in North Carolina , I said that the tide of history – short-run history at least – was flowing quickly the other way.  Here’s the evidence from the Pew survey. In each age cohort, the percent favoring gay marriage has increase substantially since 2009.

(Click on the chart for a larger, clearer view.)

The young, who will make up more and more of the electorate, are twice as likely as the old to favor gay marriage.  On top of that, acceptance of gay marriage has increased among all age groups. In twenty years, when the youngest of the silent generation who are still alive will be close to ninety, most of the population will look upon these anti-gay efforts the way we now look at those old anti-intermarriage laws – as, depending on your point of view, quaint, puzzling, ignorant, or vicious.

The Pew Website has more charts – animated and interactive - on this topic.

The Lilies of the Street

May 10, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Felix Salmon (here) writes about using “neutrinos to transmit information, at the speed of light, right through the center of the earth.”  He continues:
If this was successfully implemented, price information from Sydney could reach New York in just 40.2 milliseconds, compared to the 84.4 milliseconds it takes to send that information on fibers around the surface of the earth. The difference is more than enough time for traders in New York to make real money arbitraging securities listed in both cities.
I don’t know enough about neutrinos, arbitrage, or Felix Salmon to be sure, but I think he’s being ironic. 

In 2009, we learned that Goldman Sachs was making untold millions by using computerized “high frequency” trading. 
Powerful algorithms — “algos,” in industry parlance — execute millions of orders a second and scan dozens of public and private marketplaces simultaneously. They can spot trends before other investors can blink, changing orders and strategies within milliseconds. (From the New York Times)
That year, Goldman paid its 30,000 employees year-end bonuses that averaged $700,000. That’s the average; many executives and traders took away millions

Those neutrino  arbitrageurs and derivative traders make up a fair chunk of the 1% (or really the half of one percent, according to Scott Winship)  They got rich and stayed rich by moving money around.  At warp speed. The Republicans tell us it would be disastrous and unfair to raise their tax rate from 37% to 39%, even though in reality, thanks to complicated tax laws, many of them pay a rate that’s half of what their office staff pay. Why disastrous and unfair?  Because they are “job creators.” 

Behold these job creators, the lilies of the Street. They manufacture not, they service not, they heal not, teach not, entertain not . . .  yet Solomon in all his glory never had the kind of moolah they have amassed. Goldman’s profits in 2009 were about $13 billion. 

Do we have an estimate of how many jobs they created? 

HT: Dan Hirschman

Tar Heels Do It Again

May 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is North Carolina once again lining up on the wrong side of history?

The citizens of North Carolina voted yesterday to prohibit gay marriage.  It wasn’t the first time North Carolina put marriage in its constitution.*

The text of 1875 constitution says that interracial marriages are “banned forever.”  Not quite. The ban lasted 92 years.  When North Carolina drafted a new constitution in 1971, the US Supreme Court had already declared state intermarriage laws unconstitutional. 

Will it take that long for the Court to take a similar view of laws banning same-sex marriage?  That depends on who appoints the justices.  But I suspect that public opinion will turn much sooner, even in North Carolina.  In 20-30 twenty years, most Americans will look at these laws the way we now look at those 19th-century anti-miscegenation statutes that survived until 1967 – with the binge-drinker’s  morning-after sense of embarrassment.  “Did I really do those things?” – as though the denial of rights to whole categories of people had been unintentional, not really harmful, and in retrospect maybe even kind of amusing. 

* I found this image at the Think Progress page on Twitter (here).  It can surely now be found in many other places.

Sendak and Childhood

May 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

All happy childhoods are alike.  Each happy childhood is unhappy in its own way.  Or maybe not.  But just as people differ in how they view their own childhoods, cultures too vary in their dominant image of childhood. 

I’ve posted before (here for example) that in American movies children are often morally superior to adults – wiser, more competent, and more honest.  They are also untainted by the complexities and troubles of the adult world. 

That’s not the way Maurice Sendak saw it.  Those monsters in Where the Wild Things Are were based on his own aunts and uncles. 

In 1993, Art Spiegelman visited Sendak “at his idyllic Connecticut estate” and drew the experience for The New Yorker.

Sendak and Spiegelman both work in the panel format. Both are children of Polish Jews and have family who were killed in the holocaust.  It’s possible that they also share an almost un-American view of childhood. 

(This probably violates the New Yorker copyright, but until they come for me, I’ll leave it up. You can see the full Spiegelman story here.)

Choosing Junk

May 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some people, many people in fact, prefer junk food. They buy it even when the food labels and the fast food outlets post the caloric counts and ingredients that tell them it’s junk 

If you assume that Google’s auto-complete reflects volume, many people also prefer junk news and information.
Andrew Gelman  links to this article comparing our media diet to junk food.  Here’s a screen shot of an excerpt, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Angry Birdbrains

May 7, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you don’t like the way the majority votes, it’s always tempting to attribute their behavior to ignorance, emotion, or some other nonrational or inferior mental state.  

Here is this morning’s Wall Street Journal headline about the election in France:

Voter Anger Sweeps Europe

Most newspapers headlines reported the French election as a matter of policy.  The voters rejected economic policies of austerity – not so illogical, since there was little evidence that those policies were working.  But the headline writers at the WSJ saw the French majority as letting their emotions get the best of them.  The WSJ story reports only on France, but the headline sees all of Europe as caught up in this contagious emotion. 

Voters do sometimes share emotions.  Hope and optimism characterized a segment of Obama voters in 2008, and there was probably systematic evidence for that description.  Two years later, the Tea Partiers were often angry (they still are).

Anger might have been the principle motive yesterday in France, but the WSJ story offers only two bits of evidence:
  • 20% voted for far-right candidate Marine LePen two weeks ago in the premier tour
  • only 81% of the electorate actually went to the polls
The WSJ writers assume that those they disagree with (LePen backers) must be voting their emotions.  The same goes for “center-right” voters who voted for Hollande.  According to the WSJ story, they were “angered by [Sarkozy's] swing to the far right.

Ah, what to do about those irrational voters?  In 1970, when Chileans democratically elected Salvador Allende, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, in a now famous quote, “I see no reason why we should allow a country to go Communist just because of the irresponsibility of its citizens.”

Unlike Kissinger, the WSJ is not underwriting a coup against the Socialists.  Not yet.

Fashion, Food, and Drink

May 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes the tide of fashion flows uphill. 

I heard Ruth Reichl speak at “Foodstock,” a mini-conference at Wesleyan University.  The interviewer, Faith Middleton,  asked her if food was subject to fashion.  Absolutely, said Reichl, and the fashions are always related to class.  Reichl is a wonderful food writer and editor, and I assume she knows her food social history.  The example she gave was from ancient Rome. 

After the onstage interview was over, I asked her if fashions in food, like those in clothing and names,* diffuse downward through the class system. 

Yes, she said, but sometimes it goes the other way.  Right now, chefs in high-end restaurants are drawing inspiration from the ethnic food trucks that have sprung up in the last few years.  She added that a similar trend sometimes happens with clothing – a street fashion gets picked up by trendy designers, who tweak it slightly and send it onto the runways, though with a price tag that would make the original wearers gasp. 

Right, I thought – blue jeans.  These had always been cheap and durable – qualities that made them ideal as work clothes for people who labored outdoors, or play clothes for kids.   Then in the 1970s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, and others reached down through the class strata, hauled them up, tightened the fit, and gave us “designer jeans.”

Another example might be beer, long an ordinary, working-class sort of drink with little cachet.  But now we have “designer beers” – more expensive “craft beers” from micro-breweries, ales and lagers that allow sophisticated people to show off their discernment.

I mentioned this idea to Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, as we stood in line at the Ethiopian food truck.  “Is there any equivalent in wine?” I asked. 

Maybe in France, he said.  The big name wine houses will buy a vineyard or wine from a region not known for “great” wines.  So you’ll see the more ordinary wine, carignan for example, but under the a more famous label. 

I doubt that these regional wines would be considered to be “better” that the Bordeaux and Burgundies.   But in their own way, they might become more fashionable

* (Update to the previous post).  In 2010, Isabella was among the top five names in all but two states (Idaho and Utah), but just eight years earlier, only seven states accorded her that place – Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, and Rhode Island.  In naming their daughters Isabella, states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Wyoming are Jacob-come-latelys.
I would guess that even within those vanguard states, the 2002 Isabellas were born to  more educated and wealthier parents.  Fashions in clothing follow a similar path.  By the time a style shows up in Target, the people who first bought it are looking for something else.

Twilight Timing

May 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Jacob and Isabella were the most popular baby names last year.  Some observers, even some sociologists, see this as the influence of “Twilight.”  (See here for example.) 
But Jacob, Isabella, and even Bella were on the rise well before Stephanie Meyer sent her similarly-named characters out to capture the hearts ,minds and naming preferences of romantic adolescents. 

(Click on the graph for a larger view)
The forecasters predict a bumper crop soon in Rue, Cato, and perhaps other names that are from Hunger.  Still, since the YA audience for these books and movies are more Y than A, I’m hoping for lag time of at least a few years before they start naming babies.  As I blogged earlier (here) “Splash,” the film with Darryl Hannah as Madison the mermaid, came out in 1984, but it was not until nine years later that Madison surfaced in the top 100 names. And if there’s a Hogwarts effect, we’re still waiting to see it.  The trend in Harry and Harold is downward on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hermione has yet to break into the top 1000.

Don’t look for any Katnisses to be showing up on your class lists for quite a while.