We Are the World

December 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ISIS threat to carry out terrorist attacks on New Year’s Eve celebrations shows what a unique holiday this is.

As Durkheim pointed out long ago, the underlying purpose of a ritual is group solidarity.  Rituals mark group boundaries. That’s why participation is so important. To take part in the ritual is to define yourself as a member of the group. To stay away is to declare that you are not a member. “Why do I have to go to Grandma’s for Christmas?” “Because you’re a member of this family.”
Because they define the group’s boundaries, rituals draw the line between Us and everyone else. “Us” might be a family, a team, a religion, a nation, or any other group. New Year’s Eve is unique in that the group it defines is the whole world. The year changes for everyone. On television we can see people in Sydney or Singapore, Mumbai or Madrid, celebrating the same festival. We are all taking part in the same ritual, therefore we are all part of the same group – the world. An attack on a New Year celebration, no matter where, is like an attack on a global sense of community.

That sense of community might be phony, or at least fragile and fleeting, but on this one occasion, we get a feeling of it as an ideal. We rarely articulate it specifically; instead, it is the unspoken assumption behind the celebration. As the announcers in the media say, “Tonight, people all over the world are celebrating . . .” This year, the Global Us becomes clearer because of those who have declared themselves to be on the other side of the boundary marked by this ritual.

Happy New Year!

Of Schlongs and Schmucks

December 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cultural appropriation was in the news this week.  Students at a couple of universities had complained that their school, in a highhanded Eurocentric fashion,  had stolen and debased something – yoga classes, cafeteria food – from another culture. The news reports framed this mostly as yet another example of wrongheaded campus political correctness, something that sensible people regard amusement or alarm or both. In this view, the students and their ideas are silly but also pose a grave danger to freedom of speech if not universities and education as we know them. A good representative of this view is“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic (here), which notes the rise of terms like “microaggession” and “trigger warning” and a few instances of students protesting the invitations extended to certain speakers.

Cultural appropriation is different. With microaggressions and trigger warnings and other controversial issues, the goals of the politically correct align with widely held values – respect and equality for the vulnerable. It’s good to be against racism, sexism, cultural insensitivity, etc. Those are bad things. But cultural appropriation is a good thing. New sources and ideas, variations and combinations, keep the culture from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They make it vibrant and dynamic.

The trouble is that the appropriators, at least at the beginning, get it wrong.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” (Daily Beast)

It’s hard to be accepting of cultural variants, especially if you’re the one whose culture is being debased. And speaking of cultural debasement, here is Donald Trump misappropriating a Yiddish word.        


It’s a clear case of cultural appropriation, offensive and incorrect both politically and linguistically. Schlong is a noun, not a verb. It means penis. It does not mean to defeat badly, to rout, drub, shellac, trounce.  At least not yet. But in time, if enough people culturally appropriate it and use it to mean those things, then English will become richer by one additional meaning of one word, while the Yiddish purists out in the hall mutter and rend their garments. For the moment however, the consensus is that Trump misused the word.

Also that he’s a schmuck.

Personal note: The use of schlong that I best recall is in this scene from “Last Tango in Paris.”

Here’s the transcript.

 What's this for?    
 That's your happiness and
my... my ha-penis
 Schlong. Wienerwurst. Cazzo.
Bite. Prick! Joint!

I saw “Last Tango in Paris” in Paris – subtitles, no dubbing (v.o. comme on dit) – in a theater on the Champs-Élysées. When Brando says “schlong,” I laughed and was suddenly aware that nobody else in the theater had made a sound. The translation appeared on screen a split second later. General laughter. But for that moment, I felt a bit awkward in my solitary and unappropriated cultural knowledge.

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  Schlong in the cinema, one more time. Charlie Pierce reminds me that “My Favorite Year” has a great line built around this word. In fact, I blogged it two years ago in a post with the title “My Favorite Line” (here).

Risk and Worry

December 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age four, my son and his friend at pre-school thought it was great fun after pick-up to run down the sidewalk and hide just around the corner on the stoop at the front of a Japanese restaurant. The other boy’s mother would invariably get upset. “No, Alexander. Stop,” she would shout and then run after them.

“Janet,” I said once, “How many kidnappers are there in New York? And what are the chances that one of them is waiting at 11:47 today at the southeast corner of 69th and Broadway?”

I could tell that this mollified her only slightly. This was before Google. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. I could not easily look up the actual numbers. But I’d read Joel Best on Halloween sadism, and I knew that these numbers had to be small.  Of the tens of millions of kids in the US, maybe 100 abductions by strangers each year.

Alexander’s mother was not so unusual, then or now. A recent Pew survey (here) asked parents about their worries concerning their children.

Even among middle-class parents,* four out of nine worry about kidnapping. I would blame this inflated fear on the media, but the Internet and TV do not bring us daily stories about kidnappings. Besides, if the eleven o’clock news were the source of our perceptions of danger, we’d all be terrified that our homes will be consumed by fire.

But what about the fear that your child will be shot? I was surprised that so many high-income parents – more than one in five – worried about shootings. And among the poor, more parents are worried that their kids will be shot than that they will have problems with drugs or alcohol. The constant stream of stories in both the national and local news media along with the consequent debate over gun control – the frequent mass shootings, the statements from the president; I don’t know the evidence, but I would expect that these elevate parents’ perceptions  and fears.

Pew did not ask about serious or fatal injury from accidents, a much greater risk than either kidnapping or shooting, but I would guess that fewer parents would say that they worry about these. Parents are not actuaries, and in any case worrying is not the same as estimating risk. Parental worry probably involves some combination of probability, seriousness, strangeness, and control. It’s not very likely that your child will be shot, but if it does happen the consequences – physical and perhaps psychological – are far more serious than those of a skateboard accident. In addition, we don’t feel so  threatened by the familiar or by things that we feel we can control even if they are potentially very dangerous, like our cars.

Kidnapping combines the elements of seriousness, lack of control, and the unfamiliar,
at least in our minds. In the real world, abductions by family members far outnumber those by strangers. So if we’re like Alexander’s mom, we worry, even when we know that the probability is so small there’s nothing to worry about.

* The Pew high-income group starts at $75,000, $20,000 above the national median family income.

Magic Words

December 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Voldemort. There, I said it.

I can’t remember why all the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say “Voldemort” and instead refer allusively to “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But I had the impression that if only someone did speak the name, then Voldemort would be finished. Like the Wicked Witch when Dorothy empties the bucket of water on her, he would dissolve into a harmless puddle. Of course, the person who speaks the name would have to be very powerful and brave. But if only we had such a hero would would dare say the magic word, evil would vanish from our world, and we would no longer live in fear.

Such is the power of language, at least in stories for nine-year olds. Maybe on Fox TV as well, and maybe for Republicans generally.  Here is a tweet last month from their most preferred candidate for president:

Other GOP candidates and right-wing Webistes offer a similar analysis. Only if our leader speaks the magic word will the problem be solved.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece by Rudy the Brave.

Giuliani begins:

In 1983 when I was the U.S. attorney in New York, I used the word “Mafia” in describing some people we arrested or indicted. The Italian American Civil Rights League—which was founded by Joe Colombo, one of the heads of New York’s notorious five families—and some other similar groups complained that I was defaming all Italians by using that term.  In fact, I had violated a Justice Department rule prohibiting U.S. attorneys from employing the term Mafia.

See, I told you he was brave – defying the IACR and DoJ by using the forbidden word. He explains why this was both justified and essential in slaying the monster.

This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.*

He goes on to make the same complaint about Obama that Cruz, Trump, et al. are making. Obama will not say the magic words “Islamic terrorism.”

Obama uses the acronym ISIL or ISIS. The IS stands for Islamic State, a phrase that Obama has no trouble uttering. In this, he is doing what Giuliani says he did with “Mafia” – using the term that they use to describe themselves. 
But with “Mafia,” Giuliani has picked the wrong analogy. What if instead of using the term “Mafia,” Giuliani had said “Italian gangsters” or “Italian criminals”? Why did he not use those terms? After all, as he says, the names in the Mafia membership book all ended in a vowel. Non-Italians may have worked with the Mafia, but none were “made men.”

Giuliani didn’t say “Italian gangsters” for the same reason that Obama doesn’t say “Islamic terrorists.” The terms imply something about all Italians or all Muslims. It is no more accurate to suggest that there is something inherently terroristic in Islam than it is to suggest that something about Italians makes them especially prone to become gangsters.Saying “Mafia” draws the distinction between Italian Americans on the one had and Italian-American gangsters on the other. That’s an important distinction.

Aside from the problem of inaccuracy, there’s the practical aspect. Had Giuliani spoken about “Italian mobsters” he might have pissed off lots of Italians, and not just the mobsters, who in any case were not his biggest fans. He would have alienated Italians whose votes and campaign contributions he would someday need. In a similar way, Obama does not want to alienate the billion or more Muslims whose help or at least neutrality the West needs in the fight against ISIS.  And for Obama and the US, the stakes are much higher than they were for Rudy and his political ambitions.

Yes, words are important, and a phrase that others find insulting can be especially effective in turning them into enemies. But ISIS is already a sworn enemy, and no phrases that we could come up with will change their willingness or ability to continue their war and terrorism.

Conversely, choosing the wrong words could make things even harder for us, and not just over there.  After all, when it comes to letting just about anybody get very deadly weapons, U.S.A., we’re number one. The shootings in San Bernardino showed us just how easy it is for an alienated, radicalized person to get a couple of assault rifles and then do what assault rifles are designed to do – kill a lot of people.

Shouting “Islamic terrorism” may be personally satisfying, even cathartic. It may play very well to the home crowd during its two minutes of hate. But for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the leader in the war against ISIS – maybe it’s not such a great idea.

*Giuliani does not explain why using the magic word “Mafia” made his prosecution successful or why the same evidence without the magic word would not have persuaded juries to convict. He says only that his predecessors’ avoidance of the word “created the impression” that they couldn’t get convictions.

Trump – Not Here to Make Friends

December 14, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve revised my theory of Trump. My old version was based on the idea that what motivated Donald Trump was the profound fear that somewhere in the world there was someone who had not heard of him. (This assessment was not original with me. I can’t remember who I’m stealing it from – Gail Collins probably) The corollary is that Trump does not really want to be president. Being president is hard work, and of the sort that Trump has little talent or taste for. But running for president could bring untold publicity, most of it free.

That explains the outrageous statements – about Obama, about McCain, about Mexicans, about Megyn Kelly, et al. This kind of talk guarantees the attention of the media and therefore the public. Everybody’s going to be talking about Trump. But ultimately these calumnies also assure that he will not win the presidency and probably not even the GOP nomination. For the Donald it’s win-win. He gets tons of publicity, and he doesn’t have to worry about being president. It’s also much easier than running to win since you don’t have to worry about how every word you say might affect your ratings with the electorate.

Now comes Ezra Klein with a variant explanation. Ezra takes the candidacy at face value and assumes that Trump is in it to win it. But the model for the Trump campaign is not traditional politics, where he has no experience. Nor is it the real estate business. Instead, it is the area of Trump’s greatest success – reality television.*

Donald Trump is what would happen if you took the skills of a reality television star and put them in a presidential campaign.

In reality TV, the goal is to become famous. You become famous by getting air time, and one of the ways to get air time is to be outrageous even if that means being offensive. As the famous trope goes, “I’m not here to make friends.” (A video montage of this phrase from dozens of reality TV shows is here.)

In politics – unfortunately for Ezra’s take on Trump, though fortunately for the country – winning and getting publicity are not the same thing. In reality TV, you can win even if you lose. Everyone who watched Season One of The Apprentice remembers Omorosa, the villain of the show, even though she was fired in Week 9. Does anyone remember those who outlasted her including the winner, someone named Bill Rancic? By TV criteria, Omorsa was the winner. She was the one invited back for two other editions of the show. (Of the original cast of Season One, she is the only contestant to have a Wikipedia entry. She is also the first one shown in the clip linked to in the previous paragraph.)

One other difference between reality TV and politics (and real business as well): in politics, having friends and being able to make friends are great assets.

* You can hear this discussion on the latest episode of The Weeds (here starting at about 49:00), a podcast from Vox.

Short Con, Long Gain

December 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Erving Goffman wasn’t much of a football fan, but he would have loved this play that the Patriots pulled off against the Eagles yesterday. It’s all about self-presentation.

(If YouTube prevents the embedded video from running, click here and watch it there.)

It’s a con basically, and Goffman loved con games. The con man:
  • makes a presentation of self that . . .
  • projects a definition of the situation. . . .
  • so that others will act on that definition. . . .
  • and behave towards him the way he wants them to.

Why do the Eagles leave Brady uncovered?  A guy I know who saw the play said, “At that point, Brady looks just like a running back in the slot position (in fact, that’s what he is), so there should have been a linebacker covering him.”

But  “what he is” is what people define him to be, and at first, he projects the definition of himself as the quarterback. He goes down the line yelling at the linemen as though he is calling an audible or shouting instructions. That’s what quarterbacks do, and there is no information to suggest that he is not the quarterback. Then he stops for at most a second. The announcer says that he looked confused. The ball is snapped, and even then Brady just stands there. He is no longer projecting a definition of himself as quarterback, but he is not acting like a slot receiver either. The Eagle defenders cover the usual suspects, a list which does not include Tom Brady the famous quarterback.

Finally, he runs his pass route without an Eagle anywhere near.*

Goffman liked con artists because they provide a clear example of what we all do. The main difference is that the con man is doing deliberately and consciously what the rest of us do unawares. In fact, most of us would deny that we are trying to manipulate others’ impressions of us. It’s only when some mistake happens and we fear that others might get the wrong impression that we can see how much work goes into making sure that they get the right impression.
[A similarly Goffmanesque football deception, though at a less professional level (middle school), was the subject of this blogpost  of five years ago.]

*This sneaky stratagem, unlike others in the Belichick-Brady book, has the virtue of not violating any NFL rules. With this reception Brady was making a good gain but not smashing any records, not even those on his cell phone.       

Whose Outrage?

December 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Moral outrage is the stock in trade of tabloids. They love stories of the indefensible, the Inexcusable – stories that offer us the gift of  easy moral clarity.

In New York this week both tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, have focused on the same outrage – the San Bernardino shootings. But the two tabloids have been duking it out over how to frame the event. Do we focus on guns or on Muslims? What is the real outrage?

On the day of the shootings, it was religion that was taking it on the chin, and from both sides.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The Post headline reflected the idea, very popular on the right, that Islam is inherently a religion of terror and that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Or as Keith Ablow on Fox put it, “If somebody named Syed leaves your party, you know what, call the cops.”* In an early edition, the Post headline was “Murder Mission,” but the editors changed it to “Muslim Killers,” shining the beacon of blame on an entire faith.

While the Post might have been out to offend Muslims, the Daily News was jabbing if not at God Himself, at everyone who believes in God, or at least those who believe in a kind and beneficent God. More specifically, the news was sticking it to big-name Republican lawmakers (Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, et al.) who refuse to make laws restricting guns and whose only response to each mass shooting is “thoughts and prayers.”

(In case the News print is too small to read, it says in part, “Cowards who could truly end gun scourge hide behind meaningless platitudes.”)

Two days later, both tabloids had the story about the woman in the San Bernardino shootings and her allegiance to ISIS.

The Post front page was all about Tashfeen Malik and ISIS. But the News gave pride of place to a local story about the serious weaponry that a Long Island man had stockpiled in his house. (I guess it’s just coincidence that both well-armed homes – in San Bernardino and in Syosset – are “lairs.”) If you read the Post, the danger to Americans is ISIS and by implication all of Islam. If you read the News, it’s guns and ammo.

A good front-page tabloid story paints the moral boundary line in bright unmistakable colors. We are one side, the evildoers on the other. What kind of story can do that? Sometimes the crime is so horrible that no defense is possible. The perpetrator is not even human – a “monster.” Sometimes, the crime may not be so horrible, but the perpetrator’s wealth, power, or privilege eliminates any defense. No mitigating factors for celebrities.

Then there is the derivative or secondary outrage – the failure of authorities to condemn or adequately punish the original outrage. That’s the gist of the News front page both on Thursday (“meaningless platitudes”) and Saturday (“and the cops say he ISN’T A THREAT.”)

Today’s front pages repeat this theme of the outrage of insufficient outrage.

The Post tells us that the ISIS is praising the killers – clearly outrageous. But the message in smaller print is that the president’s reluctance to use the language of moral condemnation is also a moral outrage. (“But Obama thinks it’s only ‘possible’ they were Islamic terrorists.”) For the News, the outrage is the refusal of the NRA to condemn weapons whose main virtue is that they can kill a lot of people quickly.

Today we have a divided New York – the Jets v. the Giants, the News v. the Post. The football game will have a clear winner. The tabloids are playing on a much larger field: the national debate over which is the greater threat in our midst – guns or Muslims.

 * On his podcast “The Gist,” Mike Pesca does an excelllent takedown of Ablow. Go here  and start at about the 24:00 mark.

Smile Darn Ya Smile

December 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Fashions come and go, some rapidly, some slowly. Some have economic forces behind them. With music and clothing, whole industries push us to regard last year’s songs or shoes as oldies to be replaced with something more current. But nobody is promoting Olivia and Noah as baby names or telling us not to give our daughter a name like Barbara. Nobody encouraged us to use the word “issue” where we once said “problem” (“Houston we have an issue”?) or “needs to” instead of “should.” (See this post from 2012.)  Most of us didn’t even notice those changes in language.

What about fashions in faces? Here are four high school yearbook photos, two from the 1960s, two from the current decade. Guess which two are from each decade.

Not too hard, right? The hair is the giveaway, not the faces. B and C are from the 60s, A and D from the 2010s. 

A team of researchers – Shiry Ginosar and four others at Berkeley and Brown – has been looking at yearbooks to see how looks have changed over the years.* They’ve got big data – well, pretty big: 37,000 yearbook photos across the decades since 1905. (To make historical comparisons, they used only full-face pictures – they edited out the three-quarter views that became popular in later years.) They then created clusters of similar photos in each decade, and from those clusters created a sort of visual average. Of necessity, these composites – blended photos – look a bit fuzzy. Here are the clusters for the 60s and the 2010s. The left-most picture is the composite.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Even in the composite, the hairstyle is notably different. If I’d included the girls with glasses, the historical differences would be obvious. None of the 21st-century girls are wearing glasses. They prefer contacts. Or lousy vision.

But there’s another difference that you might not have looked for. Try another quiz. Here are four sets of pictures – girl-boy pairs from the 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, and 2010s. Put them in chronological order:

The answer is D, A, C, B. The order shown above is 1970s, 2010s, 2000s, 1960s.

The key is the smile.

You probably noticed that the girls smile more than do the boys. That’s true for all decades. But the researchers also found a nearly continuous increase in the amount of smiling by both sexes.  Here are the composites for each decade.

And here are actual photos that are most representative of each period.

The researchers quantified the degree of smiling. They created a measure based on the degree of curvature of the lips.

The graph makes things even clearer than do the photos. Smiles have been trending for over a century.

Ginosar et al. have only one explanation for the upward trend – technology. In the early 20th century, they say, photo portraiture was still under the influence of 19th century technology. Those old cameras required an exposure of several seconds, sometimes as long as half a minute. When you have to be motionless for that long, a neutral expression is easiest to maintain. Besides, photo portraiture began as a cheaper alternative to oil painting, and the convention in portrait painting, where subjects had to maintain a pose for a long time, was that people should look serious.

The trouble with this explanation is that the Kodak camera was introduced in 1888. By 1900, everyone was taking snapshots rather than posing solemnly for photographs taken by a man hiding under a black cloth with a large wooden box resting on a tripod. The snapshot was to 1903 what the selfie was to 2013. But perhaps old poses hang on even though they are no longer technologically necessary, and fashions in yearbook poses diffuse gradually.

But why the decline in smiles from 1950 to 1965? These were, by some accounts, the most contented years of the century, free of conflict and turmoil, even boring. And why did the trend turn upward again in the early 1960s as things were starting to go downhill? (“It all began in about 1963. That was the year, to overdramatize a bit, that a decade began to fall apart.” James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime).

I have no idea. You lovers of zeitgeist explanations, feel free to speculate. I’ll just add that the song and Disney cartoon that provide the title of this post (video here) were created in 1931 at the depths of the Depression, and the smiley face was invented in 1963.

Have a nice day.

*The article, with many more yearbook photos, is here.)