Torture and Killing as Virtue

April 28, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a 2008 post I wrote (here)
Sarah Palin was standing up for torture, and the Republicans cheered. It was then I finally realized: these people actually like torture.
She’s back, and things haven’t changed in six years except that the wingnuts have become more explicit in their exaltation of torture. It’s now a sacrament.  As Palin told the NRA
If I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists. [here at about the 7:20 mark]
The gunslingers of course cheered on cue. So far, not many Christians have voiced objection or even wondered what Jesus would do or who He would torture.

The reaction marches side by side with the “righteous slaughter”* fantasy, most recently enacted by the people who brought out their guns in defense of Cliven Bundy’s “right” to free government handouts. (The part about using women as shields didn’t quite fit with the machismo, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)  In the fantasy, it doesn’t matter whether you are the torturer or the torturee. The point is to test one’s manliness. 

Those who have experience with torture – even conservative Republican’s like John McCain – rarely entertain these romantic and cavalier notions. I wonder how many of the “citizen soldiers” who rushed with their guns to defend Bundy** had been real soldiers who had been shot at and who had seen battlefield death.

* My post with that title (here) was about the attempts to view George Zimmerman as a hero for his having killed Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, his virtuous deed does not seem to have had the ennobling effect on Zimmerman that some might have hoped for.

** Like Zimmerman, Bundy soon turned out not to be the hero that his champions (Sean Hannity, et al.) thought they had.

Meta-Op-eds (Phoning It In)

April 25, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not much of a coincidence, these two columns today from the Times’s regular Friday guys.  Besides, the headline writer may have been doing it deliberately. (Why do they put Brooks on the left of the page and Krugman on the right? That’s just confusing.)

The larger coincidence is that neither of these columns is about Piketty or Capital in the Twenty-First Century. They are the columnists reactions to reactions to the book. Very meta. 

Krugman’s main point is that “conservatives are terrified” and do not have any data to refute Piketty’s thesis about inequality and capital accumulation.  Instead, says Krugman, they resort to name-calling, as though calling Piketty a Marxist meant that we should all ignore everything he said.  (Krugman, to be fair, has written columns and blog posts about the substance of the Piketty book. )

As for Brooks,  he lays down his usual psycho-cultural snark on liberal intellectuals – their envy and resentment.
 It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause. . . .
Well, of course, this book is going to set off a fervor that some have likened to Beatlemania.
A 700-page work of economics and economic history as the equivalent of “Love Me Do.”

The Times pays, I would guess, at least $2500 for these 800-word columns.  And I’m sure that columnists, like all of us, have their off days when they’re too busy or uninspired to write something of substance.  But for my $2.50 on Friday, I’d like more than just a challenging crossword puzzle.  Yes, I know that these are “opinion” pieces, but opinion without evidence doesn’t go very far.  (And please, don’t bother making any comments about Maureen Dowd. I already agree.)

Reach Out

April 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

An article about a bread recipe in the Times today (here) has this sentence:
This recipe runs 38 pages in the cookbook “Tartine Bread”; when I began to I began to streamline it into the version you see here, I reached out to Mr. Robertson.
What struck me wasn’t the 38 pages.  (“Making the dough is also a two-day process. Resist the temptation to rush any of the steps” – assured me that I would definitely not be making this bread.) It was “reached out.”

We don’t call people, we don’t write to them, we don’t try to get in touch with them.  We reach out.  I get memos from the university urging me to reach out to students who are not doing well.  In response to a question about hiring, the dean tells me to reach out to someone in HR. New Jersey has a Reach Out and Read program.

To find other examples I reached out to Lexis-Nexis, limiting my search to today.  The Washington Times says the DoD “has come a long way to reach out to suffering soldiers.” This Times story  has the subhead “New York Police Reach Out on Twitter but Receive a Slap in the Face.” WaPo, writing about the choice of people to throw out the first ball at yesterday’s RedSox - Yankees game says, “we hope they didn't reach out to fellow Cabinet member John Kerry,” who threw one in the dirt back in  2004. 

Newsday has a picture from the same game

The caption" “David Ortiz reaches out and extends Fenway greeting to former Red Sox teammate Jacoby Ellsbury.”  Big Papi is literally reaching out, but the phrase implies something more. 

Others might not notice, but to my aged ears, all this reaching out sounds strange.  And in fact,  “reach out” is fairly recent.

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

What did people do up until the mid-sixties, before they could reach out to others? Yes, they “contacted” them, but that too goes back only fifty years. 

How did speakers of English try to communicate with others for those centuries before 1960? “Reach out” does not appear at all in Shakespeare (1564-1616, Happy Birthday, Will). Nor, I would guess, in Nabokov (1899-1977, Happy Birthday, Volodya)

What happened in the sixties that started us reaching out so much? Was it the general touchy-feely sensibility?  (AT&T urged us to “Reach out and touch someone” by running up our long-distance charges,* but that ad campaign didn’t begin till 1979.) I look at that curve with its turning point in 1966, and until a better explanation comes along, I go with the Four Tops. 

* Long distance is now a dim artifact now considered immoral. In this “Kids React to Technlogy” video , when the unseen adult explains about long distance charges, one kid says, “They shouldn’t do that.” Only one of the kids guesses what long distance was. On the other hand, the dial tone and busy signal are a complete mystery.

** At Seder last week, a ninth grade girl received as a gift a YA book with the title, “I’ll Be There.” The sederians of an older generation on seeing this were moved to a brief unison rendition of what we could remember of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).”  (We didn’t do very well on “Dayenu” either.)  Even at that, we got it wrong. It turns out that the book title referred to a different Motown song, the one by Michael Jackson.

Know Your Sample

April 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tim Huelskamp is a Congressman representing the Kansas first district. He’s a conservative Republican, and a pugnacious one (or is that a redundancy). Civility, at least in his tweets, is not his long suit. He refers to “King Obama” and invariably refers to the Affordable Care Act as “ObamaScare.” Pretty clever, huh?

He’s also not a very careful reader.  Either that or he does not understand the first thing about sampling. Tonight he tweeted.

(Click on a graphic for a larger view.)

Since polls also show that Americans support gay marriage, I clicked on the link.  The report is brief in the extreme. It gives data on only two questions and has this introduction.

The outrage might come from liberals. More likely it will come from people who think that members of the US Congress ought to be able to read.

Or maybe in Huelskamp’s view, only Republicans count as Americans.

Never Apologize, Never Explain

April 19, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In their research on celebrity apologies, Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane found that the most effective apologies are simple admissions of fault. “I did it. It was wrong. I won’t do it again.”  Forget about excuses, explanations, and denials.  Yesterday’s post gave two recent examples – an effective apology (James Franco), and a less effective denial (Jenny McCarthy). 

Unfortunately, Cerulo and Ruane did not include those celebrities who simply ignored the reported misdeeds, celebrities who followed the advice of John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” – “Never apologize and never explain – it’s a sign of weakness.”

That was almost exactly the strategy adopted by Zygmunt Bauman, distinguished sociologist, author of several dozen books. 


A graduate student at Cambridge, Peter Walsh, was reading one of Bauman’s recent books, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? and wondered why Bauman was not using more recent data. So he started checking out some of Bauman’s sources, only to discover not only that the distinguished sociologist had plagiarized but that he hadn’t been very careful about the validity of his sources.
He appears to have found [online] evidence to support his claims and stopped there. . . .  He hasn’t shown any desire to check the facts, statistics and quotes in his sources, and that is fairly elementary.

Rather than apologize or explain, Bauman went first for the denial – a carefully limited denial:
 [I] never once failed to acknowledge the authorship of the ideas or concepts that I deployed, or that inspired the ones I coined.
The accusation was not that he plagiarized ideas and concepts but passages from Wikipedia and other sources.

Then he pulled rank.  He got all huffy and supercilious, suggesting that his accusers were pitiful pedants and that the rules of plagiarism were, at least as concerned him, wrongheaded.
All the same, while admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60-odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues that Mr Walsh obviously confuses.
As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him.
Which is a fancy way of saying, “Following the rules about plagiarism does not improve the quality of your work.” The corollary is “My work is so great that I don’t have to follow the rules.”

We can’t know the general reaction to Bauman’s statements. The Times Higher Education article (here) has only five comments, but all of them are negative. One characterizes Bauman’s response as “really despicable.”

Sorry ’Bout That

April 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Were celebrity apologies much in the news this past week or so? Or is it just that Karen Cerulo’s talk at our AKD evening turned my antennae to pick up more of them?

The morning after Karen’s talk, James Franco was on “Kelly and Michael” talking about his too-well publicized Instagram exchange with a 17-year old girl he was trying to pick up.

 Franco got it right:
I’m embarrassed.  I guess I’m just a model about how social media’s tricky. It’s a way people meet each other today, but what I’ve learned is you don’t know who’s on the other end. I used bad judgment and I learned my lesson.
Almost no excuses. Mostly: I was wrong, and it won’t happen again. Gossip sites didn’t buy the media-naivete excuse, but they approved of the apology.

You have to give James some credit for going on TV and completely owning up to his mistakes. He got tripped up for sure, but he wasn’t afraid to admit it and we think he’s extremely brave for doing that. (
Then there was Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy has been outspoken in questioning vaccines, suggesting that they are dangerous and can cause autism. 
If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f*cking measles.
In other words, better to refuse vaccination and get measles than to get the vaccination and risk autism. Same thing for the polio vaccine.

But lately the news has been carrying stories about outbreaks of measles, mumps, and other diseases because of the increased numbers of parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.

This is a tough one for McCarthy. Can she apologize and say that her activism is partly responsible for the return of these childhood diseases?  “I’m sorry and it won’t happen again” would mean giving up her position that vaccines can cause serious harm.  Instead, she claims (here)  that she never suggested that parents refuse vaccination.
I am not “anti-vaccine.” . . .  I’ve never told anyone to not vaccinate.
This might be technically true (though several of her statements have recently disappeared from Websites that used to display them). Saying, “If you vaccinate, you are risking autism,” is not exactly the same as “Don’t vaccinate.” But this distinction will be lost on most people.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any poll data on public reaction to McCarthy, but I suspect that like other denials of what everyone knows (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), it will not win many followers to her side.

Polarization in Small Groups and in Politics

April 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In class last week, I tried replicating the “risky shift” experiments that date back to the 1950s. Groups discussed problems that pitted caution against risk. For example, down by three points on the last play of a football game, should you kick a field goal and settle for a tie, or try a play that might win but also risks a loss?* In the original studies, not only were group decisions riskier than individual decisions, but discussion persuaded more people towards risk than towards caution.

Later research showed that the risky shift was one instance of a more general effect – group polarization: When members of a group share a value, and they discuss something related to that value, group opinion will shift further out towards the pole on that dimension.

I hadn’t thought that the concept had much use outside of small groups, but now I wonder if something similar happens in politics.  “North Carolina Shows Strains with G.O.P.” says today’s Times (here) on page one.
 the divisions that are gripping the party nationally are playing out powerfully, expensively and often very messily.  And after haunting losses in 2012 in which far-right Senate candidates prevailed in primaries only to collapse in the general election, the Republican establishment is determined to stifle the more radical challengers.
Those divisions were always there. As someone pointed out even in the victorious Bush years, the party was an uneasy coalition of The Predators (pro big business), The Taliban ( religious and cultural conservatives), and NeoCons (foreign policy hawks). Now add the more populist, libertarian Tea Party, who accuse the others of being RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Republican primaries are basically group discussions among those who share conservative values. As in the small-group studies, participants are aware that others are evaluating them on their positions, so they move towards the valued end of that dimension. Those already further out provide an anchor – or perhaps a magnet – to pull the others further in that direction.**

Other things being equal, we might expect positions to get more extreme of the course of the primary season.  But of course, other things are not equal.  The difference between group discussion and politics is that in the small group experiments, all participants had an equal ability to voice their ideas to the group. In politics, thanks to the Supremes, the question is not just what someone wants to say; it’s who has the money to have his message heard most frequently. 


* In those days, college football had not overtime. The game ended after the fourth quarter.

** The question in the experiments asked, “What is the lowest probabiblity that you would accept in order to go for the win rather than the tie?”  The person who went in choosing a 5-in-10 option might have thought himself reasonably risky. But when he got in the group, he found that others would be willing to take a 3-in-10 or even 1-in-10 chance.  His original position no longer seemed so in tune with the tacit value on risk, and he might shift to a riskier alternative.

AKD 2014

April 8, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
This year, twenty-four students joined AKD, the sociology honor society. 

David Aveta
Paul-Anthony Baez
Ian Callahan
Megan Catanzaro
Yajaira Cruz
Khadijah Davis
Chelsea Durocher
Ailiceth Espinal
Jacob Forman
Ariana Glogower
Dawn Gruschow
Lauren Heavner

Patrick Hughes
David Koubek
Jennifer Miller
Jessica Munoz
Kalie Norko
Kiersten Parks
Renee Pikowski
Rebecca Rodgers
Monica Rodriguez
Noel Rozier
Rey Sentina
Maria Vallejo

Our speaker was Karen Cerulo of Rutgers, who talked about her latest paper (co-written with Montclair’s Janet Ruane), “Confessions of the Rich and Famous.”*

“Big Brother is Watching You” quality of the background image is misleading. It’s we who are watching the public figures as they offer apologies, and how we judge them depends on the rhetorical strategy of the apology.  When the “Bridgegate” story broke, Governor Christie first mocked those who said his administration might have been involved. When he finally did apologize, he began with a sentence of apology to the people of New Jersey and Fort Lee. But his next sentence shifted the focus to himself : “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”**

Bad strategy.

Apologies are built on different components – victim, offender, act, context. What distinguishes one apology from another is not just the selection of components but their sequential structure. We hear a different story depending on how the segments are arranged, as Cerulo/Ruane discovered when they looked at public opinion polls for estimates of which strategies were most effective.

The short answer is: apologize, don’t explain.  It’s about the victim, it’s not about you except for your mortification and remorse. Gov. Christie was claiming that he was the victim – his staff had “embarrassed and humiliated” him.  New Jerseyites did not care, just as basketball fans in Cleveland did not care if LeBron explained why moving to Miami was good for LeBron (“But I knew this opportunity was once in a lifetime.”)

This research was limited to celebrities, but you have to wonder if apologies among us mere mortals work the same way.

*In introducing the speaker, it occurred to me that for many in the audience the title of the paper would have absolutely no ring of familiarity. 

** The sample of 183 celebrity apologies went only through 2012 and thus missed the Christie statement.

The End of Society as We Know It (or, as they knew it)

April 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on social class, I sometimes show an excerpt from the 2001 PBS show “People Like Us: Social Class in America.”  Here’s a brief clip.

One semester, it dawned on me that for some of the words and images in this 35-second excerpt, my students haven’t a clue. 

“Those people on horses – does anyone know what that is?” Usually not. When I tell them, they are often incredulous that there could actually be such a thing as a fox hunt.  And it takes place only a twenty-minute drive from the Morristown Mall.

The man in the clip is identified as a “society columnist.” Few of my students have any idea what society here means.

The society columnist says that sometimes your social class is based on “if your mother came out at the Infirmary Ball in New York City.”  Coming out? Being presented to society at a debutante ball?  It might as well be a Kwakiutl potlatch.

The distance is not just one of class but of generation. These upper-class rituals seem to be going out of style. Even kids born in the 90s – even wealthy kids – may find them an anachronism.  Do newspapers still have “society columnists”? When I Googled that phrase, most of the hits seemed to be obituaries. This headline from 2006 is typical.
Washington Star Society Columnist Betty Beale, 94
Miss Beale and the Washington Star are no longer with us. Her profession seems to be headed for a similar fate.  As for being presented at a ball, we know precisely when that took a dive thanks to Google’s Wedding Crunchers. It’s basically their n-grams function, but the database is wedding announcements in the New York Times.*

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Being presented at a ball started its rapid decline in 1998. Five years later, it had disappeared. Even if you had been presented at a ball, it was not something you wanted to include in your Times announcement.

What new distinctions have arisen in place of balls? I dont know, but Wedding Crunchers might be a great resource for clues.

*HT: Andrew Gelman. There’s much more to be gleaned from Wedding Crunchers. The default page shows changes in bride ages (26 - 33). In 1993, the most frequent age was 26. Last year, 26 ranked seventh out of eight. Things change, even for the elite.

Snickers and the Last Laugh

April 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Advertisements echo with many reverberations and overtones. Different people hear different things, and with all the multiple meanings, it’s not always clear which is most important. 

Lisa Wade posted this Snickers ad from Australia at Sociological Images (here). Its intended message of course is “Buy Snickers.” But its other message is more controversial, and Lisa and many of the commenters (more than 100 at last count) were understandably upset.

The construction workers (played by actors) shout at the women in the street (not actors). “Hey,” yells a builder, and the woman looks up defensively. But then instead of the usual sexist catcalls, the men shout things like,
I appreciate your appearance is just one aspect of who you are
You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.
The women’s defensiveness softens.  They look back at the men. One woman, the surprise and delight evident in her smile, mouths, “Thank you.”

But, as the ad warned us at the very beginning, these men are “not themselves.”

Hunger has transformed them. The ad repeats the same idea at the end.

Here’s Lisa’s conclusion:
The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial. . . . I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.
I suspect that Lisa too feels betrayed.  She has bought her last Snickers bar.

It may be unwise to disagree with one’s editor, especially when the editor is a woman who studies sex and gender, and the issue at hand is sexism.  But my take is more optimistic. 

In an earlier generation, this ad would have been impossible. The catcalls of construction workers were something taken for granted and not questioned, almost as though they were an unchangeable part of nature.* They might be unpleasant, but so is what a bear does in the woods.

This ad recognizes that those attitudes and behaviors are a conscious choice and that all men, including builders, can choose a more evolved way of thinking and acting.  The ad further shows that when they do make that choice, women are genuinely appreciative. “C’mon mates,” the ad is saying, “do you want a woman to turn away and quickly walk on, telling you in effect to fuck off? Or would you rather say something that makes her smile back at you?”  The choice is yours.

The surface meaning of the ad’s ending is , “April Fools. We’re just kidding about not being sexists.” But that's a small matter. Not so far beneath that surface, progressive ideas are having the last laugh, for more important than what the end of the ad says is what the rest of the ad shows – that ignorant and offensive sexism is a choice, and that real women respond positively to men who choose its opposite.

*Several of the comments at Sociological Images complained that the ad was “classist” for its reliance on this old working-class stereotype.