“Trainwreck” and Taboo

July 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie.  Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.

The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest. But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.

Here is the R-rated version of the trailer.

What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review (here), the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination” because . . . well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”

“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.

Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork.  And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.

As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things – body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter.  Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem. It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.” (See this earlier post on laughter.)  With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo..

Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used  tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.                        

The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive. Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order.  (I have added the boldface.)

Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness
the degradation of sex — and women

uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.

She enjoys a sexual license

Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men

. . . old-fashioned sense of shame,

It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer

Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.

This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,

she aims to acquire cultural power

Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics


I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one,”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor.  Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp – a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.

Mass Shootings – Definitions and Data

July 28, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few days ago, I wrote to date, since Sandy Hook, the US has had seventy-five “mass shootings.” I now put that phrase in quotation marks because taken literally, it’s misleading.

Here is the opening from a story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (here) posted Sunday night.

4 shot in assault rifle attack at Desire's Sampson park
A man armed with an assault rifle opened fire at a crowded park in Desire Sunday (July 26), shooting at least four people, including a man left critically wounded, New Orleans police said.
Is this a mass shooting? Not in most databases.

Literally, a mass shooting should be an incident where someone shoots a lot of people. The graph I used in that previous post included only public shootings. Or more precisely, public killings.  In the Lafayette movie theater, Rusty Houser killed two people and wounded nine. The FBI definition of “mass murder” sets the minimum at four deaths. By that definition, the Lafayette incident is not a mass murder.  If one of those two women had been seriously wounded rather than killed, the incident would not have been included in any database of multiple killings.

Most definitions also exclude gang killings. If gang members shoot and kill four members of another gang, even in a public place, it doesn’t get counted.  And then there are the domestic massacres – a family killed inside their home. These too do not make it into most definitions of “mass shootings.”

Now, broadening the definition, Guns Are Cool has created a Mass Shooting Tracker – a list of incidents gathered mostly from local news reports.  It includes all incidents where four or more people were shot, whether or not they died and regardless of setting.  As of yesterday, July 26th, the Tracker lists 207 shootings this year. July 26th also happens to be the 207th day of the year. You do the math.

In the assault rifle shooting above, nobody died. That’s not unusual. In 40% of the shootings, there are no deaths. In another 32%, only one person dies.  Multiple deaths are relatively rarer.

But guns are dangerous. Even when the victims are not in close range, and even when the gunman is not especially accurate, a gun can still do a lot of damage. The wounded in these shootings far outnumber the dead nearly three to one.

The Tracker’s criterion for a mass shooting is a minimum of four victims – killed or wounded. It looks like the typical incident in their database involves no deaths and enough wounded to meet that minimum.

Since the database uses news reports, when a victim is seriously wounded and dies days later, the Tracker probably does not include that in the deaths tally. For the same reason, in a large majority of cases (83%), the shooter is listed as “Unknown.” If the shooter is later identified, the Tracker database might still not pick up that story.

So the tally for this year: 207 mass shootings, 172 dead, 761 wounded.  Of course, those numbers will be dwarfed by their counterparts in non-mass shootings. Still, it illustrates one of the essential truths about guns: you can kill and wound a lot of people with them. Yes, if you have only a knife, you  can still slash several people, some maybe even fatally. But you have to get so close – literally within arm’s reach – and if they run away, you’re pretty much out of luck. Guns are so much more effective when it comes to killing and wounding. That’s why people buy them.

Bet on Obamacare, Cash in Big

July 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The standard conservative line on Obamacare was that it would be a disaster.  They still insist that it’s a disaster, despite much evidence to the contrary. I wonder if they put their money where their scowling mouths were.

As Alex Tabarrok says, a bet is a tax on bullshit. Did they bet against healthcare and insurance companies? Probably not. But if they had, their frowns would not be turning to smiles. Just the opposite.

A hedge fund, Glenview Capital Management, did bet, but they bet on Obamacare, not against it. In case you missed the Wall Street Journal’s story on this, here’s the opening:

Glenview Capital Management LLC made a bold decision when President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul was rolling out: Bet on it.

The result has been one of the most successful hedge-fund wagers in recent years. New York-based Glenview has realized and paper gains of more than $3.2 billion since it started making investments in hospitals and insurers four years ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of securities filings.

The idea was pretty simple. Obamacare was going to bring millions of new clients to the healthcare markets. Insurers would have more customers. Hospitals would have more patients whose bills would be paid. Less easy to foresee were the mergers (Athem and Cigna, Aetna and Humana) that added even more to the value of the investments.  The bottom line: “Glenview’s flagship fund has averaged a 26% annual return since the beginning of 2012 . . . much better than the industry’s 6% average.”

The irony is that the health of the healthcare industry under Obamacare puts conservatives at the WSJ and elsewhere in the unusual position of arguing that mergers and corporate profits are a sign of something bad.

Still Not the Time

July 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can we talk about guns now? I mean now that another angry nut has opened fire, this one in a movie theater in Louisiana. Is it finally time to talk about guns?

Of course not.  Just ask the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal.

Now is the time for prayer, now is the time for healing. As far as the political spectrum, this isn’t the time.

 Somehow, I don’t think that Jindal will tell us when it actually is time.

Last October I wrote (here):

Guns have become the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Even asking about access to guns seems unAmerican these days. . . When the elephant’s presence is too massive not be noticed – for example, when the elephant kills several people – the elephant’s spokesmen rush in to tell us that “No, this is not the time to talk about the elephant.”

How much time should we allot to prayer and healing before we can talk about guns? Two weeks?

Let’s do some math. Since the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren (December of 2012), there have been 75 mass shootings. That’s75 shootings in about 140 weeks. That averages out to less than two weeks between shootings. And that interval seems to be getting shorter and shorter, as this timeline of mass shootings shows.* (As I wrote, “timeline of mass shootings,” I wondered: is there any other advanced country where that phrase would even make sense?) 

The two-week “this isn’t the time” rule means that the time is, well, never.

I have nothing against prayer and healing. By all means, let’s sit shiva. But don’t let it become an excuse to avoid talking about doing something to reduce the carnage.
*The graph comes from Vox

Where’s the Swear?

July 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

1.  “Asshole is a wonderful word,” said Mike Pesca in his podcast, The Gist, last Friday. His former colleagues at NPR had wanted to call someone an asshole, and even though it was for a podcast, not broadcast, and even though the person in question was a certified asshole, the NPR censor said no. Pesca disagreed.

Pesca is from Long Island and, except for his college years in Atlanta, he has spent most of his time in the Northeast. Had he hailed from Atlanta – or Denver or Houston or even San Francisco – “asshole” might not have sprung so readily to his mind as le mot juste, even to denote Donald Trump. The choice of swear words is regional.

Linguist Jack Grieve has been analyzing tweets – billions of words – and recently he posted maps showing the relative popularity of different expletives.

Every county in the Northeast tweets “asshole” at a rate at least two standard deviations above the national mean. To my knowledge, Grieve has offered no explanation for this distribution, and I don’t have much to add. I assume that as with regional accents, historical factors are more important than the literal meanings of the words. It’s not that tweeters in the Northeast are generally more willing to use foul language, nor is this about anal imagery since the Northeast looks nearly prudish compared to other regions when it comes to “shit.”

2. Less surprising are the maps of toned-down expletives. People in the heartland are just so gosh darned polite in their speech. When Donald Trump spoke at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, what got all the attention was his dissing of John McCain ( “He’s not a war hero. ... He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”)

But there was also this paragraph in the New York Times’s coverage:

Mr. Trump raised eyebrows with language rarely heard before an evangelical audience — saying “damn” and “hell” when discussing education and the economy.

“Well, I was turned off at the very start because I didn’t like his language,” Becky Kruse, of Lovilia, Iowa, said. . . .  Noting Mr. Trump’s comment about not seeking God’s forgiveness. “He sounds like he isn’t really a born-again Christian.”

Aside from the insight about Trump’s religious views, Ms. Kruse reflects the linguistic preferences of her region, where “damn” gets softened to “darn.”

Unfortunately, Grieve did not post a map for “heck.” (I remember when “damn” and “hell” were off limits on television, though a newspaper columnist, usually in the sports section, might dare to write something like “It was a helluva fight.”)

You can find maps for all your favorite words at Grieve’s Website (here), where you can also find out what words are trending (as we now say) on Twitter. (“Unbothered” is spreading from the South, and “fuckboy” is rising). Other words are on the way down (untrending?).  If you’re holding  “YOLO” futures, sell them now before it’s too late.

The Ferguson Effect and Cop-Killing – Update

July 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On May 29, Heather MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal (here): 

A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest . . .have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.

I don’t know why MacDonald was apparently so eager primed to see an increase in cop-killing following protests and some rioting about cops killing unarmed people. In a post three days later (here), I offered some numbers showing that there was no Ferguson effect in the deaths of police officers.

Yesterday, criminologist and former cop Peter Moskos blogged (here):

July 13, 2015
Headline you won't see:

Police officer line-of-duty deaths are down 15 percent this year.  Gunfire deaths are down 38 percent.

Odd, because a lot of reporters were calling me last year when the numbers were up.

“Is it Ferguson?!” “Is it Obama?!” “Are criminals less brazen?!” “Has training gotten better?!” “Are criminals worse shots?!”

Those imagined questions aren’t so different from the questions reporters were asking about the 2014 increase. Reporters work on deadline. They want an explanation – any explanation will do – and they want it before 3 p.m. Maybe criminologists at the Manhattan Institute writing for the WSJ are under similar pressure.

Peter’s answer would, I assume, be that these are fairly small numbers, so short-run percentage increases can look misleadingly huge, and those increases can be created by a few isolated events that have nothing to do with long-term trends. As plain-spoken Peter puts it, “For the record, just like I said last year, I don't think it’s a big deal.

Microaggresions and Cultures of Social Control

July 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why these calls for trigger warnings? Why all this magnifying of microaggressions?

Most of the time, it’s more useful to save the “why” for last and to start with the other “reporter’s” questions – who, when, where. In a post two months ago (here), I speculated that the loudest voices making these demands are those people in categories that have gained in power but are still not dominant, notably women at elite universities.  What they’re saying in part is, “We don’t have to take this shit anymore.” Or as Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning put it in a recently in The Chronicle, “offenses against historically disadvantaged social groups have become more taboo precisely because different groups are now more equal than in the past.” (The Chronicle article is a lite version of the authors’ 2014 article in Comparative Sociology, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” It’s nice to have one’s hunches seconded by scholars who have given the issue much more thought.)

Campbell and Manning make the context even broader. The new “plague of hypersensitivity” (as Todd Gitlin called it, here) indicates a cultural transformation – from a “culture of dignity” to a “culture of victimhood.” More specifically, the aspect of culture they are talking about is social control. How do you get other people to stop doing things you don’t want them to do – or not do them in the first place?

In a “culture of honor,” you take direct action against the offender.  Where you stand in society – the rights and privileges that others accord you – is all about personal reputation (at least for men). “One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor.” The culture of honor arises where the state is weak or is concerned with justice only for some (the elite). So the person whose reputation and honor are at stake must rely on his own devices (devices like duelling pistols).  Or in his pursuit of personal justice, he may enlist the aid of kin or a personalized state-substitute like Don Corleone.
In more evolved societies with a more extensive state, honor gives way to “dignity.”

The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others. Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor.

The new “culture of victimhood” has a different goal – cultural change. Culture is, after all, a set of ideas that is shared, usually so widely shared as to be taken for granted. The microaggression debate is about insult, and one of the crucial cultural ideas at stake is how the insulted person should react. In the culture of honor, he must seek personal retribution. In doing so, of course, he is admitting that the insult did in fact sting. The culture of dignity also focuses on the character of offended people, but here they must pretend that the insult had no personal impact. They must maintain a Jackie-Robinson-like stoicism even in the face of gross insults and hope that others will rise to their defense. For smaller insults, say Campbell and Manning, the dignity culture “would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue,” which still keeps things at a personal level, “or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”

In the culture of victimhood, the victim’s goal is to make the personal political.  “It’s not just about me. . . .”  Victims and their supporters are moral entrepreneurs. They want to change the norms so that insults and injustices once deemed minor are now seen as deviant. They want to  to define deviance up.  They pose with signs illustrating the remarks they find offensive in hopes that others will think so too. Some may even contrive hate-crime hoaxes – more serious versions of the genre of insult – in order to call attention to the more general problem.  In other cultures of social control, this tactic that would be useless or worse.

It’s not clear how the conflict between dignity and victimhood will develop. I would expect that those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo and none of its drawbacks will be most likely to resist change. Don Corleone and similar justice brokers probably resented the state encroaching on their deal, coming in with some depersonalized, universalistic system of laws and enforcement. So too in the current cultural conflict, people like Campbell and Manning (and me) will be more sympathetic to the culture of dignity, though perhaps not so strongly as some. Campbell and Manning quote UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, for example, who wrote “Well, I’m happy to say that I’m just going to keep on microaggressing,” as though insulting people were a virtue to be bragged about.


July 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

As we all know, President Obama, at the end of his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, sang “Amazing Grace.” It was something of a last-minute decision.  The Times yesterday (here) referred to an account by Valerie Jarrett, family friend and White House senior advisor.

“When I get to the second part of referring to ‘Amazing Grace,’ I think I might sing,” he told them, by Ms. Jarrett’s account.

“Hmm,” Ms. Jarrett recalled responding.

Mrs. Obama was a little more pointed. “Why on earth would that fit in?” she asked.

But sing he did.

Much has been written about that speech, but what struck me were two things that few people mentioned. First, the discovery that the leader of the free world has a somewhat uncertain relationship to pitch. Maybe that’s what the First Lady had in mind (“Why on earth . . . ?”)

Many who watched him that day noted that he paused a long time before beginning to sing.

“So later I said to him, ‘Were you thinking about whether or not to sing?’” Ms. Jarrett recalled at Aspen. “He said, ‘Oh no, I knew I was going to sing. I was just trying to figure out which key to sing it.’”

It took the musicians even longer to figure out what key that was.  If you watch the video (here), you can hear that after Obama’s first few bars a capella, they try to come in with some accompaniment, and there seems to be some tacit negotiation between them and the president over whether they can pull him to E-flat, the key he seems closest to.

The other thing “Amazing Grace” reminded me of was the amazing power of the pentatonic scale. Five notes, most easily visualized as the five black keys on a piano. You could play “Amazing Grace” without using your fingers just by rolling an orange over the keys.

You could also play the melody of all these other songs. And note the variety. Some are folk songs (other Scottish and Appalachian tunes, less well known, might be included), but there are also spirituals, pop, and rock:

Amazing Grace
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Coming Through the Rye
Auld Lang Syne
A la Claire Fontaine
Wayfaring Stranger
Camptown Races (Stephen Foster)
If I Had a Hammer (Pete Seeger, Lee Hays)
Use Somebody (Kings of Leon)
4 Real (Avril Lavigne)
We Didn’t Start the Fire (Billy Joel)
My Girl (The Temptations)
Stay ft. Mikky Ekko (Rihanna)
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (Jim Croce)

I’m sure there are many others.*

Watch Bobby McFerrin lead an audience in the pentatonic scale completely impromptu. He gives no direct instructions, and yet the audience intuitively gets it. So do McFerrin’s audiences all over the world. As he says, “The pentatonic scale for some reason . . . .”

I nearly forgot – one other pentatonic song: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

* Several songs are pentatonic except for the bridge, i.e., for 24 out of 32 bars – the theme song from “All in the Family,” for example,which adds one more tone, or “Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise”. I have omitted them.

Can Republicans Talk About Race Now?

July 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A blogger I know (his post is here) caught Garrison Keillor in a historical inaccuracy at the beginning of last Saturday’s episode of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Commenting on recent political events, Keillor said,

Republicans came out against the Confederacy after 150 years. They came out against it. It was not a good idea. It was not a good idea: A war in behalf of the institution of slavery.

Keillor was confusing the Republicans of today with those of 1860.  Back then, anti-slavery forces were Republican, and they elected Lincoln. The war on behalf of slavery was a Democratic venture. 

In 1860, the South was pro-slavery and solidly Democratic. The vote in the presidential election makes this split very clear.

(Click on a map for a slightly larger view.)

Following the war, in that brief decade when Southern Blacks could vote in meaningful numbers, they voted for the party of Lincoln, and the South looked more Republican.  With the end of Reconstruction, the Southern vote returned to being White and Democratic, and it remained that way for a century. In 1960, the South elected mostly Democrats to the House of Representatives.

The politics of the last 50 years have reversed those colors. In 2000, all Southern electoral votes went to Bush.

There still are Democratic districts in the South, but they are blue islands in a sea of red.

One of the main reasons for this party realignment is race. Race has become a Democratic issue. It’s mostly liberals who have argued that we need to have a “conversation” about race. Only Democratic politicians speak of race as a problem requiring change. (Analogous Republican issues include taxes and defense.) Republicans have refused to acknowledge that racism still exists at all – a deliberate blindness parodied by Stephen Colbert in his right-wing persona: “I don’t see race.”

This allergic reaction to race usually comes across as callous but occasionally as just stupid. The day after the murders in Charleston, a reporter asked Jeb Bush if he thought the Charleston killings were racially motivated. The only reasonable response would be “duh” and a comparison to questions about bears’ preferences in toilet location or Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s religious affiliation. But Jeb said, “I don't know.” (story here)

We can’t be certain what Jeb had in mind at the time, but my guess is that he feared that to answer “yes” would be to admit that racism existed and was a problem. And that’s an idea you don’t want to mention if you’re trying to get Republicans to vote for you. After word of Jeb’s flub got out, a spokesman tweeted that “of course” Jeb thought the killings were racially motivated.

After the Charleston killings, some prominent Republican politicians went on record favoring the removal of Confederate flags from official sites. Some of these politicians, like Gov. Haley of South Carolina, had only a few months earlier been defending the display of that flag. Apparently, they no longer fear offending the blatant racists in their constituencies, a number which seems in any case to be declining. 

Perhaps now Republicans will be willing to enter that conversation about race. The question is: what will they say?

UPDATE July 8: When I posted this, I was unaware that the day before, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for president, had given a speech acknowledging that African Americans had been badly mistreated in the past (he described in graphic, grisly detail the lynching of a Black man in Texas 100 years ago). He also said that “there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights.”

As I suggested in an earlier post  about taking down the Confederate flag, Republican politicians may be realizing that their long-held ideas about the political dangers of acknowledging race are based on pluralistic ignorance.