“La La Land” – Hooray for Hollywood

December 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The second movie I ever blogged about, nearly ten years ago (here), was “Words and Music,” a forgettable romantic comedy with several original songs and two big stars – Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. What I saw was a movie that was less about romance and more about career success.  In fact, I wondered if maybe all American movies were about success.* 

Yesterday, I saw “La La Land” and had the same reaction. The trailer, intentionally or not, makes this same point. It starts with the two stars – Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) – being hit with abrupt career setbacks. Mia is rejected at an audition after she speaks one line. Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano in a restaurant because he plays one song of his own in addition to the simplistic Christmas song arrangements on the owner’s playlist.

In that earlier post, I said, “In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.” That’s not where “La La Land” goes.

In “La La Land,” what most concerns the lovers is not their relationship; it’s the other person’s career. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her passion to write and star in her own autobiographical play. Mia encourages Sebastian to pursue his passion – creating his own club as a home for mainstream jazz. In their most passionate scene, Mia tries to persuade him to be true to his dream rather than take a lucrative deal to go on the road with a pop-funk group headed by John Legend. Given these well-worn ideas, the dialogue is predictably predictable.

Fortunately, that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s not primarily concerned with telling you about Mia and Sebastian’s careers, or about their relationship. What “La La Land” wants to tell you about is movies – Hollywood musicals of the classical era. “La La Land” is full of the cinematic cliches (maybe tropes is the better term) of that period, and there are deliberate allusions to specific films. That’s what makes “La La Land” so enjoyable. It’s like pulling a school yearbook off the shelf and paging through it, recognizing old friends you haven’t seen in a long while and remembering what they were like. From the  opening scene – a freeway traffic jam that becomes a huge production number – you’re hooked. Sebastian and Mia are not real people; they’re movie characters. So if their motives and feelings are familiar cliches, that’s part of the game.

It’s not just Hollywood musicals that inspire the film. The Jacques Demy musicals of the 1960s – “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” with their bright colors – also get a large wave of the hand. At least one of the songs seemed like a deliberate attempt to emulate Michel Legrand. And the plot at the end strongly resembles that of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” though with an added Hollywood-ending variation that may be the best thing in the film.

The wrong note, to my ear, was Sebastian’s piano playing. Big props to Gosling for learning to play the piano – that’s really him playing, they never used a piano double – but when he plays solo, it does not sound at all jazzy. He has a photo of Bill Evans that appears twice for a split second, but there’s no Evans in his sound, nor is there a hint of bebop-tradition pianists from Bud Powell on. The writer-director of the film, Damien Chazelle, has an obvious affinity for jazz. His previous film “Whiplash” centered on a young man trying to become a jazz drummer, and the film had several moments of solid big band jazz. (For more on “Whiplash,” see this post from four years ago.) The combo scenes in “La La Land” do sound like real jazz, and it looked to me as though they used real musicians, not actors pretending to play to the pre-recorded music we hear.

But to repeat, the movie is not about playing jazz or opening a club; it’s not about auditioning and acting and writing a play; and it’s not about love. It’s about exactly what the title says – Hollywood.


* The first movie discussed in this blog (here) was clearly a critique of the American ideology of success – “Little Miss Sunshine.” It too, like
“La La Land,” seemed like an homage to a movie of the 1940s – “The Grapes of Wrath.”

You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma

December 27, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How should a liberal think about Oklahoma? It’s just about the most politically conservative state in the Union. Oklahomans voted nearly 2-1 for Trump. Hillary got only 29% of the vote. Oklahoma was just as conservative a half-century ago. They don’t like liberals now, and they didn’t like them back then. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey got 32% to Nixon’s  48%. And 20% of the vote went to George Wallace, an avowed racist. Only five years earlier, Wallace had famously declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Times change. The arc of history, at least American history of the last 50 years, bends towards those liberal policies once hated by conservatives. Even in Oklahoma, nobody is campaigning to bring back Jim Crow. Other attitudes too look a lot like what Sooners opposed a half-century ago.

Claude Fischer makes this point at his excellent Made in America blog (here) by offering a retrospective on an important conservative Oklahoma document of 1969 – “Okie From Muskogee,” the Country-Western hit (with some crossover popularity) by Merle Haggard. It was a culture-war statement, defending traditional ways and attacking the 1960s urban, college-educated liberals, the counterparts of the people who today are the objects of so much resentment among Trump supporters. They resented us then, and they resent us now. But the ideas they resented us for back then they have now come to agree with. 

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

We don’t make a party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

Times change. Hairstyles change – “long and shaggy” is now country.

Left: Chris Stapleton with his armful of CMA awards.
Right: Georgia Line, CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, who will
perform in North Carolina despite the LBGT laws.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Drugstyles change too. Even in Oklahoma, marijuana is now legal for some medical purposes. Non-medical weed and other illegal drugs, notably oxycontin and opioids, have achieved at least a niche market of country users. As Fischer notes, current C/W hits refer openly to getting stoned and rolling joints.

As for old-timey romance (“holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo”), the percent of rural and small-town residents who say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all” has doubled since the 1970s and is now the majority opinion.

Perhaps as a consequence of this relatively recent change in attitudes, rates of teen birth, including births to the unwed, are higher among country folk than among city folk. I guess with this premarital sex thing it takes a while to figure out how to do it right.

Maybe in fifty years, Sooners will look back on Trump the way they now might see George Wallace or Nixon and the Vietnam war, which they once supported.  Merle Haggard himself had a change of heart. “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song,” he said. He supported Obama, and he supported Hillary.

Meanwhile, I know that I am supposed to realize that the good people of Oklahoma are in fact good people and that we should not deplore their ideas and political choices. The recent books by Arlie Hochschild and Kathy Cramer paint a sympathetic and understanding picture of Trump supporters in Wisconsin and Louisiana, respectively.

A similar book could probably have been written about Oklahomans – now or in 1969 – and liberal readers might have regretted their lack of empathy for the heartland. But they would also have found it hard to separate the political views from the people who held them. Would such a book back then have led liberals to think that these Oklahomans who supported a very wrong war and who opposed civil rights were actually fine people?

I keep thinking of what an old friend, an Oklahoma native, said many years ago. He had grown up in Tulsa and still spoke with that Southwest twang. But he had left the Southwest and wound up going to universities in the great cities of the North (New York, Chicago). He never looked back. He became an educated, urban liberal. One day, there was a front-page story about a natural disaster in Oklahoma, a tornado that had killed people and destroyed homes. I noted that he seemed unconcerned, almost hard-hearted, about it. 

“It’s Tornado Alley,” he said. “That’s where the tornadoes come, and those people keep building and rebuilding their houses there.” I imagine he might be saying the same thing about the Oklahoma earthquakes today. If you keep voting for politicians who give the oil and gas companies free rein, don’t complain to me about the earthquakes their fracking causes.
“Still,” I said, “don’t you have some sympathy for their loss?”
“No,” he said.
“Why not?”
“ ’Cause they’re a bunch of fuckin’ Okies.”

“Manchester by the Sea”

December 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is very good movie, not just for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. That is, it avoids several cliches of American movies; and for that, it is more honest and more powerful.

Lee Chandler (Casey Afflek), is a troubled man, forced to become guardian of his 15-year old nephew Patrick when Lee’s brother Joe (Patrick’s father) dies. Lee was not always troubled. The opening scene, seven years earlier, shows  Lee, Patrick, and Joe fishing on Joe’s boat near Manchester, north of Boston. It’s all good family fun. It’s also the opening of the trailer, which sketches the plot of the rest of the movie as well.

In the intervening years, tragedy has befallen Lee, and he lives with its pain. He works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy south of Boston. He lives alone in a single room there. He is withdrawn – asocial with flashes of anger.

We know how this will go. The Lee-Patrick relationship will be rocky at first, with arguments and misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, Lee will not only become a good and willing surrogate father, but with Patrick providing subtle advice and help, he will become a better person. He’ll be more sociable and less angry, he’ll find a good woman, he’ll get a better job.

Not quite. That’s the scenario we’d expect from Hollywood, where children are in most ways better than adults. Adults become better people by dealing with kids (“Kramer vs. Kramer”).  Or kids help the adults overcome their silly problems (“The Parent Trap,” “Sleepless in Seattle”).  Even teenagers are more capable than adults at dealing with life’s problems. (See earlier posts on “The Descendants”  and “The Kids Are All Right.”). In fact, “Manchester” has what seems like a deliberate comment on films where children manoeuver adults into an eventually successful relationship.

As the two sit in the car outside his girlfriend’s house, Patrick asks Lee to come in and talk with the girl’s mother. (“Can you at least hang out with her so I can be alone with Sandy for half an hour without her mother knockin’ on the door and askin’, ‘How’s it goin’?’every twenty seconds?” “This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says. The Hollywood formula would prove Patrick’s wisdom. It would be good for both of them. Lee would sit with the girl’s mother and talk, awkwardly at first, but gradually, her kind openness would draw him out of his shell. But in “Manchester,” Patrick is wrong. It’s good for neither of them. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation with the girl’s mother. His refusal of even minimal, polite small talk seems childish, petulant, not deserving of our sympathy.

In the end, the relation with Patrick brings Lee not some grand transformation but maybe a glimmer of hope. He will still not become Patrick’s guardian. But he does move to Boston, a half-hour closer to Manchester, and he takes a two-room apartment so that Patrick can visit. But Lee is still a janitor, he is still alone, and he still gets drunk in bars and starts throwing punches.

The other anti-Hollywood virtue of the film is its honest treatment of working-class people. “Manchester” refuses to portray them as noble in the face of adversity à la Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” And as A.O. Scott says (here), comparing it with other Boston working-class films, “This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives.” Nor is upward mobility an issue. You could imagine Lee insisting that Patrick go to college – trite dialogue like “You don’t wanna end up like me.”  But when Patrick says in passing, “I’m not going to college,” nothing more is said. 

The world of “Manchester” is White working class and largely male. But these are not the people at Trump rallies, resentful, on the attack, vowing to take back their country. Lee is just a man trying to come to terms with the challenges and sorrows of his life, some brought on by his own actions, some handed to him.

Call Me, Maybe. Or Maybe Not.

December 3, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The big news today is that the president-elect called Taiwan. Big mistake. The American Conservative (here) calls it “the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior.” That’s our next president – impulsive and ignorant. Not a good combination for the leader of the free world. Those traits were not a liability in the election campaign – maybe they were an asset – but foreign governments are not the US electorate, and every gesture carries great meaning.  If the US talks with Taiwan, China will be upset. In fact, they just lodged an official diplomatic complaint.

I sympathize with Trump’s ignorance on this one. The story reminded me of one of the early posts in this blog (here), ten years ago, about a similar issue of who could talk to who.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved.

It was like those disputes from my childhood.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine Trump’s reaction on being told that the phone call was a major blunder. “What, you mean I have to pretend that Taiwan doesn’t exist? That they don’t have phones? They’ve got terrific phones, the best. Believe me. And I know they exist, bigly. Great economy. That’s why I want to put up hotels there. Fantastic, classy hotels. Besides, it was just a phone call.”

A State Department official tries to explain the rules about talk and that if you really want to communicate with Taiwan, you have to go through other channels. As I said at the end of that 2007 post

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.

Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.

Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.

* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).


November 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him.

This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here).

Here is the transcript.

BARNEY FRANK: I was nervous. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, but I was not certain.

STEPHANIE BUTNIK: Have you ever seen anything like this before? Is there anything that you can compare this to?


BUTNIK: Unprecedented?

FRANK: Well, that’s what not being able to compare it to means.

The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass.

* “Unorthodox” bills itself as a “fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Power and Information

November 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Trump’s selection of Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff signals some hope. After all, he might have picked the White nationalists’ favorite, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart anti-Semite, who maintained Breitbart as a platform for anti-Semites. Priebus is a more mainstream Republican. Instead Bannon will be chief strategist.

My guess is that in the Trump White House, the chief of staff will be a crucial position. I asked a colleague in the political science department about this. She leafed through a textbook looking for an “org chart,” but couldn’t find one.  Here’s my stripped-down version of what it might look like.

The diagram shows the power arrangement, the chain of command. The president tells the chief of staff what he wants, and chief of staff converts these ideas into specific directions for those lower down the line.

But if you think of system as an information network, then the more information a person controls, the more power he has, regardless of the title associated with his position. Here’s another diagram.

Who’s in charge? It’s the same diagram – the same lines of communication. But relocating the circles shows more clearly the central position of the chief of staff. If all communication has to flow through him, and if he is the one who decides which information to pass along to others, he has the most power.

With a high-information president who seeks out information from a variety of sources, the chief of staff’s position is not so central, and its power is less. But if a president has little curiosity about facts, the person who controls the facts that he does get is the one who is really calling the shots. My impression is that George W. Bush was that kind of president, though in his case, at least during the first five or six years of his tenure, the central position was not the chief of staff but vice-president. “I’m the decider,” Bush famously said. But if Cheney was giving Bush the options to choose from and the information about those options, Cheney was the most powerful person in the administration.

Our current president-elect does not show much interest in the details of policy. It seems that he is delighted to be the president but that he does not really want to do the work of directing an administration. Given Trump’s meager knowledge of most issues, especially foreign policy, and his impulsiveness, a more centrist party hack like Priebus as chief of staff looks like a good thing, relatively speaking. Trump’s image of his administration will be Diagram A above. The reality will be Diagram B.

Majority Rules? Not in the US

November 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Correction (November 14): I misread the House returns, reversing the totals for Republicans and Democrats. The Republican House candidates got a higher total vote --51.4%. They won 55% of the seats.

Update (November 23): The popular vote for president now shows Clinton ahead by 2 million votes.

It’s official. The US government is now in full control of the less popular political party. More Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans, but the minority party now controls all three branches of the federal government.

President: The Democratic candidate got more votes than did the Republican candidate.
    Clinton 60.1 million 62.4 million
    Trump 59.8 million 62.2 million

The Republican will be in the White House.

Senate: More votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans.
    Democrats 45.2 million
    Republicans 39.3 million

The Republicans have a 51-48 edge in the Senate.

House:  More votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans.
    Democrats 56.3 53.2 million
    Republicans 53.2 56.3 million

In Congressional seats, Republicans have a 237 - 193 advantage.

Judiciary: At the Supreme Court level, two justices – Alito and Thomas – were confirmed by Senators who represented a minority of the electorate. More Americans voted for Senators who voted Nay than for Senators who voted Yea. That pattern will likely hold for whoever Trump nominates for the seat that is currently vacant. That seat is vacant because Republicans refused to allow Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to come up for a vote. Many of them hinted that if Hillary had won but Republicans still controlled the Senate, they would continue this tactic for four more years.

They have taken the same delaying approach to lower-level federal judgeships, so Trump will have many of those to appoint. In these too, the Republicans have shown themselves willing to trash long-standing norms for the sake of GOP hegemony. As Nina Totenberg explained (here) the day after the election,

If history is any guide Republicans will abandon — as they have before — traditional protections for the minority party, meaning that the views of opposition party senators will not be considered in the appointment of judges, even from states where both senators are Democrats. Senate Democrats, even when they controlled the Senate, did honor those GOP views, but Republicans have forsaken that traditional accommodation in recent times.

In my mind’s ear, the phrase “ruling minority party” calls up images of Saddam and the Ba’ath party in Iraq, or the Assad regime ruling Syria despite the Alawites being very much a minority— not exactly governments to emulate. I do not know if this strange and anti-democratic arrangement – the party with the most votes frozen out of power – has ever occurred before in US history. But for at least the next two years, the minority rules, and you can be sure that they will do everything in their power to keep it that way

Do Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

November 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economist Justin Wolfers tweeted yesterday.

By “economic & fiscal conservatism,” he’s referring to the Republicans’ often-voiced concern about The Deficit.  As I said in this post  three days ago, when Republicans are in power and want to spend a lot more than they take in, their “deficit scolds” stop scolding.*

The deficit data from the Federal Reserve (here) shows this pattern. The graph below charts the ratio of surplus or deficit to GDP.  In years where the government had a surplus, the line goes above the 0-point. The farther below the line, the greater the deficit relative to GDP. (The coloring and text identifying the presidents and their party are my own addition.)

(Click on the graph for a slightly larger view.)

Compare the first and last years of each administration. In all cases, deficit-to-GDP  under Democrats was less when they left office than when they entered. (For Carter, the difference is too small to see in this graph:  -2.57 in 1977, -2.46 in 1981.) In all Republican administrations, deficit-to-GDP was higher at the end of their terms than at the beginning. Democrats reduce the deficit; Republicans increase it.

The main reason is fairly obvious, though Twitter’s 140-character limit makes the tweet from Wolfers a bit misleading. He refers to “Trump’s tax and spending program.” What he means is “Trump’s less-tax and more-spending program.”  Trump’s people have said that one of their big priorities for the first 100 days is tax cuts. Steven Moore, Trump’s economic advisor, says that these will result in increased revenues. Cut tax rates, and tax revenue will magically increase. Hmmm. Where have we heard this before?

The answer is: Reagan and Bush II. (Bush the first, until Reagan selected him as his running mate, famously referred to this idea as “voodoo economics,” which it was. Costs of the tax cuts were not offset by increased revenue.) Bush II, in his early months in office, seemed to be touting his tax cuts, which of course would benefit mostly the wealthy, as the solution to everything. As Rick Herzberg in The New Yorker said at the time, Bush seems to think that the number one problem facing the country is that rich people don’t have enough money.

The Republicans in 2017 will follow in this tradition – lower taxes, especially for the rich, increased spending, and instead of deficit scolding, a reaffirmation of faith in voodoo economics.

* In the Bush years, some senators who had been elected as Republicans (e.g., Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords) stuck by their deficit guns. Instead, they changed their party affiliation. They were no longer Republicans, leaving the GOP entirely to those whose concern with the deficit was selective and inconsistent (which is a nice way of saying “hypocritical”). 

Men At Lunch – Then and Now

November 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw these construction workers on Broadway at 79th St. today and took the picture mostly because of the color – those neon yellow vests.

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

When I was looking at the picture later, it reminded me of another photo, “Men At Lunch” by Charles Ebbetts – men working on the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1932.

The men in 1932 sit on a girder high above the streets, not on the sidewalk. They wear caps, not hard hats. They smoke. But the difference that most struck me was what they were doing. In 1932, men at lunch are sharing those papers (blueprints?). Except for the guy on the right end, they are all talking to another man.

In 2016, every man is on his cell phone. 

Is There Any Good News?

November 9, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The next four years are likely to be, in many ways, a disaster (to use a favorite word of our president-elect). But maybe there are some bright spots.

1. Deficit scolds. That’s Paul Krugman’s term for politicians and conservative think-tankers who opposed many of Obama’s policies on the grounds that they would drastically increase the deficit. What we needed, so the argument went was “fiscal responsibility.” In many situations, that argument was not just bad policy, it was bad economics.

But once Republicans are in power, they will no longer cry wolf. As we saw during the Bush years, when it comes to spending lots of money on stuff that Republicans really like – tax cuts for the wealthy, for example, or a nifty little war in Iraq – their worry about the deficit vanishes. No more scolding.

2. Sexual sophistication. European voters don’t care much about what their political leaders do in their private sex lives. They see that sphere as separate from the public world of policy. Conservative Americans, especially the religiously conservative, have usually taken a different view – that a man who is sexually immoral cannot possibly govern wisely.

As I showed in a recent post (here), Trump has gotten these conservatives to lighten up. They have now become cosmopolitan, almost European, in their separation of sex and statesmanship. Their votes yesterday have given us a president with two divorces, several affairs, and a penchant for grabbing women by the pussy (if they are attractive enough) and walking in on naked teenage girls. We are now a nation where each of us is only a click away from nude photos of our First Lady.  Makes the French seem prudish by comparison.

3.  Re-moralization. Four years ago, Charles Murray called our attention to the demoralization of the White working class. They had become disaffected and no longer attached to the dominant institutions of society – work, education, family. They felt that they had been screwed by the system, a system run by a distant and disdaining cultural elite. That feeling, said Murray, was accurate (more here). Their America had been taken from them. 

This sentiment was the basis of Republican political strategy during the Obama years. If you want to take back “your” country from these usurpers, vote Republican. (See my post “Repo Men” from five years ago.)

Now that they have taken it back, perhaps these White working class people will feel more a part of society. They will stay in school, get married and stay married and raise their children in traditional families. They will re-adopt the work ethic and stay in their jobs and in the labor force. Rates of drug use, suicide, and ill health will decrease.

Will any of these happen? Yes, but the changes will not be permanent. The first two are examples of people altering their ideas – about economics or morality – to suit their political preferences. Given a Democratic politician or policies, these people will revert to their former ideas, all the while insisting that fiscal responsibility and conventional sexual morality are rock-solid, inviolable principles.

As for the White working class, I suspect that the economy is far more important than their sense of political efficacy. If Trump can bring back industrial jobs to the heartland as he guarantees he will, their participation in work, family, and school may reverse its downward course. It is possible. But if we do not see a return to a 20th-century economy, the Trumpists will somehow have to resolve the dissonance. It will still be their country; the party and the man who represent them will still be dominant. But the reality of their lives may remain unimproved. The ways they might resolve that dissonance include some possibilities I’d rather not think about right now. These have been visible for a while, but if we lose the economic gains of the Obama years, things could get really nasty.

Straight Outta Wharton – Trump and Hip Hop Values

November 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jay Z and Beyoncé joined Hillary at a campaign rally, and Donald Trump attacked. (So what else is new?) Criticizing the language in Jay Z’s lyrics, he said. “My lewd language. I tell you what, I've never said what he said in my life.”

It’s the same argument that Trump’s surrogates have been making ever since the Access Hollywood tape became public. Instead of defending Trump, they criticized the critics, accusing them of hypocrisy. Here is Betsy McCaughey on CNN reading some lyrics from Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

McCaughey’s point is that it is hypocritcal for Hillary Clinton to pretend to be offended by Trump’s remarks while at the same time claiming to admire Beyoncé. This same argument echoed rapidly around the right wing media sites, which all, by strange coincidence, used the same Beyoncé lyric. It’s a silly argument. As the others on the panel point out, Beyoncé is not running for president. Do we really want to apply the same criteria for choosing a president that we use for judging the persona of an entertainer? The comparison is ridiculous. Or is it?

In fact, Trump embodies many of the same values as rappers. Most obvious is the narcissism – the constant need for attention, the desire to be above others, to be the biggest, greatest, most successful, wealthiest. If others seem a threat to that status, attack them without regard for the usual norms of the situation. Modesty and non-violence, are decidedly not virtues – not for Trump, not for the rappers.

The corollary of this narcissism is conspicuous consumption. How do you make sure that everyone is aware of your greatness? For both Trump and the rappers, there’s a clear answer – bling. Lamborghinis, gold chains and grilles, Kristal champagne for the rappers. For Trump, a gold-plated motorcycle and helicopter. The National Review (here) describes his NYC home.

A Louis XIV-style Manhattan apartment features marble floors, walls, and columns; ceiling frescos; winged cherubs; and diamond chandeliers. Gold platters, lamps, vases, crown molding, and other 24-karat fittings decorate this ostentatious King Midas’s abode.

Trump owns a yacht and a jet and fancy cars. So does Jay Z. The parallels go further. Jay Z, in “99 Problems,” brags about exploiting legal technicalities for his personal advantage. His first album was “Reasonable Doubt.” Trump brags about his ability to use the law to avoid paying taxes (“That means I’m smart”). He’s got 99 problems, but the tax code ain’t one.

Does the rapper-Trump parallel extend to ideas about women? Yes, but I think there are important differences (I am necessarily oversimplifying here). Neither offers a very evolved attitude, but Trump has at least a fantasy of himself as a romantic. His discourse about women lacks the strand of pure exploitation and violence that runs through some rap lyrics. Rappers distinguish between bitches and hos – a distinction that seems based on the ways that a man can exploit them.  Trump’s view is more unidimensional – a scale of one to ten.

I am not all that familiar with rap lyrics, but this excerpt from Sheek Sheek on Puff Daddy’s “All About the Benjamins” seems to capture the similarities. With only a little rewriting, they might be something Trump could easily have said – except for the line about exploiting the woman financially (she pays for the skiing at Aspen).

But don't knock me for trying to bury
Seven zeros over in Rio Di Janeiry [offshoring income for tax purposes]
Stash in the buildin’ wit this chick named Alona (uh-huh) /
from Daytona, when I was young I wants to bone her (uh-huh) /
But now I only hit chicks that win beauty pageants (ahahaha) /
Tricking and taking me skiing, at the Aspens

With all these – language, attitudes towards women, narcissism, conspicuous consumption, attitudes towards the law – there are differences between Trump and the median rapper. The question is whether they are differences of kind (as Trump says about language) or differences of degree.

On Not Being Funny At the Al Smith Dinner

October 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have a modest proposal for the next Al Smith dinner: the writers for each presidential candidate get together beforehand and trade jokes.

Neither Trump nor Hillary is what you would call a master of stand-up.* But it wasn’t just the delivery and timing that brought boos from the audience. It was the nastiness of the jokes. Here’s Trump

I am told Hillary went to confession before tonight’s event, but the priest was having a hard time and he asked her about her sins and she said she could not remember 39 times. Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission.

How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission? Pretty corrupt.

The audience booed.

And here’s Hillary:

Donald wanted me drug-tested before last night's debate. And look, I’ve got to tell you, I am so flattered that Donald thinks I used some sort of performance enhancer. Now, actually, I did. It’s called preparation.

She also used this line, which got booed.

You notice there is no teleprompter here tonight, which is probably smart, because maybe you saw Donald dismantle his own. Maybe it is harder when you are translating from the original Russian.

People, this is not a roast. The awkward silences and audible boos are telling you that nasty jokes are off the menu. Gentle pokes, maybe. But what’s called for – and what previous presidential candidates have provided – is self-deprecation.

These jokes are nasty. And Clinton’s “prepartion” line is the opposite of self-deprecation. It proclaims her own virtue and Trump’s indolence.

Trump’s most successful joke – the only one to get applause – was the one that poked fun at himself. Well almost.

You know, the president told me to stop whining, but I really have to say, the media is even more biased this year than ever before. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech, and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. They think she is absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech and people get on her case. And I don’t get — and I don’t get it. I don’t know why.

OK, it was aimed not at himself but at his wife, but that’s close enough.

Clinton started with a couple of jokes that were about herself, though the first one was really about Trump’s characterization of her.

This is such a special event that I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here.

And as you have already heard, it is a treat for all of you, too, because usually I charge a lot for speeches like this.

If Trump had used these lines (“Hillary took a break from her rigorous schedule of naps”), they would have been a disaster. A disaster.

So I suggest that the writers from each side trade the jokes that are more appropriate for a roast and convert them into self-deprecatory humor. Trump’s writers turn over their e-mail joke.

Trump: I was not really sure if Hillary was going to be here tonight, because, I guess, you did not send her an invitation by email, or maybe you did and she just found out about it through the wonder of WikiLeaks.


Clinton: I nearly didn’t make it here tonight. The invitation must have been in my e-mail. If it hadn’t been for WikiLeaks, I’d still be in Cleveland.

Of take this Clinton joke

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants, a beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

Now imagine a Trump version.

People look at the Statue of Liberty and see a proud symbol of our history, a beacon of hope for people around the world. So true.
But let’s be honest folks. If you’re like me you look at the Statue, and you also see a 4. [pause] Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.

It would kill.

Of course, it’s an open question whether Trump would accept a deal that required him to swap retaliation for self-effacing humor.  Hillary, on the other hand, would go for it. . . depending on how the focus groups reacted.
* Videos of their performances are here  (Trump) and here (Clinton).

One Question Where Trump Turned Conservatives More Liberal

October 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most people agree that when this election is over, Trump will have changed American politics. Bigly,* perhaps. But one of the more ironic changes may be that he caused the most conservative sectors of the electorate to relax their views on the connection between a politician’s private life and his** fitness for public office.

Call it “motivated morality.” That sounds much better than hypocrisy. It’s like “motivated perception” – unconsciously adjusting your perceptions so that the facts fit with your ideology . But with motivated morality, you change your moral judgments. 
For religious conservatives, Donald Trump presents quite a challenge. It’s the sex,  One of the things that conservatives are conservative about is sex, and Trump’s sexual language and behavior clearly fall on the side of sin. What to do? Conservatives might try for motivated cognition and refuse to believe the women who were the recipients of Trumps kissing, groping, and voyeurism. That’s difficult when Trump himself is on the record claiming to have done all these things, and making those claims using decidedly unChristian language.

Instead, they have changed their judgment about the link between groping and governing. Previously, they had espoused “moral clarity” – a single principle applied unbendingly to all situations. Good is good, evil is evil. If a man is immoral in his private life, he will be immoral or worse as a public official.

Now they favor “situational morality” the situation in this case being the prospect of a Clinton victory. So rather than condemn Trump absolutely, they say that although he is out of line,  they will vote for him and encourage others to do likewise in order to keep Hillary out of the White House. For example, in a USA Today op-ed (here), Diann Catlin, a “Bible-thumping etiquette teacher” says

I like God’s ways .. . . I also know that he wants discerning believers to take part in government. . . .God has always used imperfect people for his glory.

God uses people like Trump and like me who are sinners but whose specific issues, such as the life of the unborn child, align with his word.

She includes the “we’re all sinners” trope that’s so popular now among the Trump’s Christian supporters (funny how they never mention that when the topic is Bill Clinton’s infidelities or Hillary’s e-mails).  More important is the implication that even a sinner can make good governmental decisions. That’s an idea that US conservatives used to dismiss as European amorality. In government, they would insist, “character” is everything.

It’s not just professional conservatives (op-ed writers and Jerry Falwell types) who have crossed over to the view that sex and politics are separate spheres and that a person can be sinful in one and yet virtuous in the other. Ordinary conservatives and Evangelicals have also (to use the word of the hour) pivoted. 

Five years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. PRRI asked the same question this year. The Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
(In the original of this post, I presented the data in bar graphs. These line graphs 
are much better for showing who changed and how much.)

The unchurched didn’t change much in five years. But White Catholics and mainline Protestants both became more tolerant of private immorality. And among the most religiously conservative, the White evangelical Protestants, that percent more than doubled. They went from being the least accepting to being the most accepting.

As with religion, so with political views.

People of all political stripes became more accepting, but when it came to judging a privately immoral person in public life, Republicans, like White evangelicals, went from least tolerant to most tolerant.

What could have made happened?

There’s no absolute proof that it was the Donald that made the difference. But those White evangelicals support him over Hillary by better than four to one. Those who identify as Republicans favor Trump by an even greater margin. There may be some other explanation, but for now, I’ll settle for the idea that in order to vote for Trump, they had to keep their judgment of him as a politician separate from their judgment of his sexual behavior – a separation they would not have made five years ago.***

* A post at Language Log (here) confirms that what Trump is saying is “big-league.” It attributes the confusion to “the ‘velar pinch associated with the final /g/ of big league.”

** Yes, “his.” Their ideas about the importance of a woman’s private sexual life may not have evolved in a similar way.
*** The change may turn out to be only temporary.  The next time a liberal candidate is revealed to have strayed in his private life, religious and political conservatives will revert to their former views.
The PRRI report is here.

Legitimacy in the Headlines

October 19, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How is Donald Trump doing in his campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency? He has been at it a while. His “birther” campaign – begun in 2008 and still alive – was aimed specifically at the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Most recently, he has been questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election and by implications all presidential elections.

If he is successful, if the US will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, that’s a serious problem. Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. We agree that the government has the right to levy taxes, punish criminals, enforce contracts, regulate all sorts of activities. . .  The list is potentially endless.

Legitimacy is to the government what authority is to the police officer – the agreement of those being policed that the officer has the right to enforce the law. So when the cop says, “Move to the other side of the street,” we move. Without that agreement, without the authority of the badge, the cop has only the power of the gun. Similarly, a government that does not have legitimacy must rule by sheer power. Such governments, even if they are democratically elected, use the power of the state to lock up their political opponents, to harass or imprison journalists, and generally to ensure compliance.

Trump is obviously not alone in his views about legitimacy.  When I see the posters and websites claiming that Obama is a “tyrant” – one who rules by power rather than by legitimate authority; when I see the Trump supporters chanting “Lock Her Up,” I wonder whether it’s all just good political fun and hyperbole or whether the legitimacy of the US government is really at risk.

This morning, I saw this headline at the Washington Post website (here).

Scary. But the content of the story tells a story that is completely the opposite. The first sentence of the story quotes the Post’s own editorial, which says that Trump, with his claims of rigged elections, “poses an unprecedented threat to the peaceful transition of power." The second sentence evaluates this threat.

Here’s the key evidence. Surveys of voters in 2012 and 2016 show no increase in fears of a rigged election. In fact, on the whole people in 2016 were more confident that their vote would be fairly counted.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The graph on the left shows that even among Republicans, the percent who were “very confident” that their vote would be counted was about the same in 2016 as in 2012. (Technically, one point lower, a difference well within the margin of error.)

However, two findings from the research suggest a qualification to the idea that legitimacy has not been threatened. First, only 45% of the voters are “very confident” that their votes will be counted. That’s less than half. The Post does not say what percent were “somewhat confident” (or whatever the other choices were), and surely these would have pushed the confident tally well above 50%.

Second, fears about rigged elections conform to the “elsewhere effect” – the perception that things may be OK where I am, but in the nation at large, things are bad and getting worse. Perceptions of Congressional representatives, race relations, and marriage follow this pattern (see this previous post). The graph on the left shows that 45% were very confident that their own vote would be counted. In the graph on the right, only 28% were very confident that votes nationwide would get a similarly fair treatment.

These numbers do not seem like a strong vote of confidence (or a strong confidence in voting). Perhaps the best we can say is that if there is any change in the last four years, it is in the direction of legitimacy.

The Trump Phenomenon Cracked Open

October 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The best social/cultural/political explanation that I have read of the continued support for Trump is at Cracked. Yes, Cracked. By David Wong.

Here’s the opening.

(Click for a larger view.)

It’s long for a blog post – two full screens – but worth reading.

[HT: Melanie Allen]

The Genuine Article

October 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump has a tell – an unconscious tic that divulges genuine ideas and feelings that are different from the views he consciously wants to convey. His tell is the word “the.”

“I will be phenomenal to the women, I mean I'lI want to help women,” said Donald Trump back in August of 2015, when he was one of many Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination. John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” had asked him why women should vote for him.

I bring this up not because women voters reject Trump’s own self-assessment, though reject it they do.  Here is Nate Silver’s estimate of what the election would look like if only women voted.

What struck me was Trump’s use of the definite article. “Phenomenal to the women,” rather than just “phenomenal to women.” On the surface, Trump was saying that when it came to women voters, he was on their side. But the definite article subtly the contradicted that assertion. As I blogged at the time (here),

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.. . . turning them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Linguist Lynne Murphy (here) heard something similar during the most recent debate, regarding not women but minorities.

One of the littlest words in the English language gives the biggest clue about where Donald Trump’s head is at: his use of the word “the.”

Trump promised, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

By using the definite article, says Murphy, the speaker builds a wall between himself and the group he is talking about. “The” turns them into the “other.”

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Nate Silver has not offered maps showing what the election would look like if only Blacks, Hispanics, and inner-cities voted, but I suspect they would resemble that of the women.

Murphy, a “reader” in linguistics at the University of Sussex, notes a similar “the” othering among her fellow UK linguists. This same tell reveals how they feel about those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Are we “Americans,” or are we “the Americans”?

British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

Hypocrisy – Public Virtue, Private Vice

October 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“What’s the deal with hypocrisy anyway?” asks my inner Seinfeld. The answer comes from La Rochefoucauld four centuries ago: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

I was never sure what this meant. But politicians’ reactions to Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks offer a perfect of example.

Mitch McConnell says that Trump’s comments are “repugnant and unacceptable.” Paul Ryan was “sickened” by what he heard. Reince Priebus gave the official GOP response:  “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”

I am not privy to the private conversations that take place among the men who are our political leaders. But I would bet a lot of money that Ryan, McConnell, and all the other guys on both sides of the aisle hear this kind of talk regularly. Poor Paul Ryan must be sick a lot. I would also bet that even those who thought that what they heard was sickening or repugnant ever said so at the time or called their colleague out on his sexism. Ever.

For them now to claim that they are shocked, shocked that the nominee of their party used such language and expressed sexist attitudes towards women – that’s hypocrisy.  It is also vice (holding or condoning degrading views of women) paying tribute to virtue (treating women decently and speaking about them decently).

Still, I wonder if La Rochefoucauld would join the Republicans who are now saying that they will not vote for Trump? (As Dylan Matthews points out, these politicians are also saying by implication that they were fine with all of Trump’s other statements and attitudes – the ones about Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, John McCain, et al.) Or would La Rochefoucauld say that the public world of politics is distinct from that of private life, and that personal virtue has little to do with the ability to govern?.

American politics seems to be unique in its demand for a perfect congruency of private and public personas. I would guess this demand is a legacy of our Puritan origins. These Puritan ideas still have a place in the public sphere, but their power is slowly waning. The publication of Trump’s privately expressed views about women will probably ensure and augment Hillary’s victory. But, like Bill Clinton’s surviving the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it may be yet another sign that America is loosening the constraints of the Protestant Ethic. In the meantime, we’ll just have to get used to hypocrisy.

Still Standing By

October 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

An op-ed in the Times framed the first debate, and by implication the entire presidential election, as “The Minivan vs. the Maserat.” I preferred David Plotz’s take – Bart vs. Lisa.

Like Bart, Trump is often the impish devil, the bad boy. He does things his supporters would like to do were it not for the stultifying forces of political correctness. He doesn’t care about being offensive. He lives to offend. He mocks and insults those who would try to inhibit him. He pranks the smugly superior. And he never apologizes.

This persona plays well to White working-class men. An ABC News poll from Sept. 22 shows that support growing.

If White working-class men were the only voters, Trump would be a shoo-in. Nothing can alienate them. As Trump himself said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” Well, he wouldn’t lose any of that core demographic.

But what about White working-class women? The ABC News poll shows them favoring Trump 52% - 40%, still pretty strong, but that poll was taken before the first debate. I have not found any post-debate data about those women, but I wonder how they will respond to Trump’s latest – defending his fat-shaming of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, then tossing some slut-shaming on top of that.

Will the Wal*Mart women appreciate Trump’s views on a woman carrying few extra pounds? Or will they sympathize with Ms. Machado? Might they see this as Trump’s version of political correctness? In both cases, working-class people are being measured against the standards of some cultural elite, and they resent it. If men resent having their attitudes characterized as “racist,” maybe women will resent having their bodies characterized as “disgusting” (one of Trump’s favorite adjectives).   

I also wonder how they will react to the new anti-Clinton strategy Trump just announced.  “She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be.” What is he going to be nasty about?

Will White working-class women appreciate nastiness the way men might? And will they support nastiness directed at a woman because her husband strays? Trump thinks so.

Trump defended his choice to bring up Bill Clinton's sexual infidelities by speculating it would steal away female voters from his opponent. (NY Times)

I have absolutely no poll data on how Trump-supporting women feel about other women whose husbands cheat. But I did find this document – a song that spent three weeks at #1 on the country charts and rose to #19 on the pop charts (behind, among others, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”). That was in 1969, but in the song had many subsequent covers. I am referring, of course, to Tammy Wynette’s classic “Stand By Your Man.”

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times,
Doin’ things that you don’t understand.

But if you love him, you’ll forgive him
Even though he’s hard to understand.
And if you love him, oh be proud of him
’Cause after all he’s just a man.

Stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely.
Stand by your man, and show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can.
Stand by your man.

Here is a very recent performance – Kellie Pickler at the Grand Old Opry last year.

Gone is the Tammy Wynette big hair and big mascara of nearly 50 years ago. But the sincerity of the performance and the reaction of the audience suggest that the underlying sentiment still resonates, especially in Trumpland.* Will Trump win votes by reminding women that Hillary stood by her man?

*The song is such an emblematic cultural artifact that I have used it before in this blog here) and here.)

Risk, Politics, and Group Alignment

September 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do we assess the different risks in our lives?

Her name was Paige,* but New Yorkers in the 1980s knew her as “the sign-the-petition lady.” She would set up at her anti-pornography display at various locations around Manhattan and chant endlessly, “Sign the petition. Sign the petition.”

In her right hand was some  offensive image from a porn mag (often, the meat-grinder cover from Larry Flynt’s magazine Hustler). Her other hand invariably held a lit cigarette. I was always tempted to say to her, “You know, you’re at greater risk from what’s in your left hand than what’s in your right.” But I never did.

Photo © richardgreene 2015
(Click to enlarge. The cigarette in her left hand will still not be clearly visible, but I’m sure it’s there.)

The recent bomb explosion in New York again raised the specter of terrorism and with it the question: how great is my risk from terrorist attacks? For some people, mostly on the right, the message was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Donald Trump said, “ “We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough,” though he did not specify what form this toughness would take.

By contrast, the mayor of New York insisted that “New Yorkers will not be intimidated. We are not going to let anyone change who we are or how we go about our lives.” He’s probably right. New Yorkers would find it difficult to change their daily lives. They could, for example, lower their risk by avoiding crowded places, but that’s where most of them work every day. The mayor’s comment makes sense because the risk of a terrorist attack is very low compared with other dangers, even bomb-like explosion.  We’ve had a few of them in the last decade, some of them fatal, but they were from gas mains.  And in that same period, at least 1000 people have died just walking the streets, the victims of automobiles.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, trying to estimate our risk from terrorism repeats the statistic from The Economist “the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade after 9/11 and up to 2013 was one in fifty-six million.” He then asks, “Why [do] we develop such a high level of fright about such a low-level probability. Why are so many still so easily panicked?”

Gopnik gives two reasons – politicians and human psychology. The political angle is obvious. If a politician can get people to fear some thing and then present himself as the person best able to fight that thing, he’ll get a lot of votes. So some politicians  like  try to amp up our perception of the risk, taking their cue from Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” (See this post from a year or so ago.)

Gopnik’s  second factor is “the eternal human propensity to overstate and overimagine risks and loss and underimagine and understate gains and benefits.”

Maybe.  But Gopnik misses the moral angle. People react on the basis of moral judgment, not just rational risk calculation. Causes of harm that are immoral inflate our perception of their probability. We think we have more to fear from bad people – people who do want to do us harm – than from bad drivers, who do not want to do us harm. This moral judgment also draws a line between Us and Them – and we perceive Them as dangerous to Us. Bad drivers do not constitute a Them. Neither do apartment owners who install illegal gas lines. They are not some group we are at war with.

This moral Us/Them basis of risk assessment may also figure in the Black Lives Matter response when someone points out that Black people are more at risk from Black civilians (Black-on-Black crime) than from White cops. That’s irrelevant to their issue, which is that They (cops) target Us (Black people).

In the same way, anti-Muslim politicians and their supporters dismiss statistics about risk. In fact, my impression is that people who live in low-risk places but who are more militantly anti-Muslim are more concerned about the risk of terrorism and more likely to demand anti-Muslim measures than are those who live in places most likely to be terrorist targets – cities like New York or Los Angeles.

And in the same way, the sign-the-petition lady would have dismissed my  suggestion that she had less to fear from Larry Flynt than from Philip Morris. **


* Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has more about her. A streetcorner very near where I live was one of her locations, so I often saw and heard her. But I never once saw anyone stop to sign the petition. According to one of the comments on the Vanishing New York blog, she used the petition mostly to get the names and phone numbers of women she could then hit on.

** There is an extensive literature in psychology on perceptions of risk which I am leaving out.