Race, Voting Laws, and an Old Joke

July 30, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A federal appeals court yesterday overturned North Carolina’s new Voter ID laws. The judges unanimously agreed that the laws “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The law, of course, did not mention race at all. Neither did its historical antecedents – laws that required a poll tax or a literacy test. Or the secret ballot.  Yes, as I was surprised to learn, the secret ballot too, in its early days, was supported and used as a tool to suppress the votes of minorities.

The voting that we now take for granted – privately marking a ballot provided by the government – did not become standard in the US until well into the 19th century. The first presidential election where secret ballots predominated was the election of 1896, which, not coincidentally, was the first year without an election-day killing. Earlier in the century, voters got their ballots from newspapers –this was back in the day when newspapers were highly partisan – and brought them to the polls. These tickets were long and brightly colored –  a different color for each party – and the only way to keep them secret was to fold them up and put them in your pocket. But that was considered unmanly.

Some of the first secret-ballot laws were passed in the 1880s in states where women had won the right to vote – Massachusetts, New York – and wanted to be protected from public scrutiny and possible harm. The other states that went for the secret ballot at this time were in the South. This was the post-Reconstruction era, the era of Jim Crow laws. The secret ballot also had support from Northern states that wanted to suppress the immigrant vote.

Historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, interviewed on by Terry Gross NPR’s “Fresh Air” back in February, explained:

LEPORE: It was a way to disenfranchise newly-enfranchised black men. None of them knew how to read – they’d been raised in slavery, lived their entire lives as slaves on plantations. The real success of the secret ballot as a national political institution had to do with the disenfranchisement of black men.

GROSS: So the secret ballot was a way of helping them get the vote. [Note that Terry Gross is so thoroughly modern that she doesn’t grasp what Lepore is saying.]

LEPORE: No, it was preventing them from voting. If you could cut your ballot out of the newspaper and knew you wanted to vote Republican, you didn't have to know how to read to vote. Immigrants could vote. Newly-enfranchised black men in the South could vote. It actually was a big part of expanding the electorate. But people in the North were like, hey, we don't really like when all those immigrants vote. And people in the South were like, we really don't want these black guys to vote. There were good reasons for the secret ballot too. [It was] very much motivated by making it harder for people who were illiterate to vote. It’s essentially a de facto literacy test.

[I have edited this for clarity. The full transcript is here.]
If you could not read, you could stilld clip your ballot of the newspaper whose views matched your own and put it in the ballot box. But if you had to go into a booth and choose candidates from a printed ballot, you were lost.

But what if some Blacks might be able to read the ballot?

Some counties in Virginia, in the 1890s print some regular ballots. But then they print ballots in Gothic type - like, deep medieval Gothic type. And they give all those ballots to the black men. Its a completely illegible ballot.

There’s a joke that I first heard during the campaign for voting rights in the 1960s. [The version I heard included a word too offensive these days to use casually, so I have censored it.]

On election day in Alabama, a Black man shows up at the polls. “Sure, you can vote, boy” the poll watchers tell him, “but you know, you got to pass the literacy test.” The Black man nods. “Can you read, boy?” He nods again. The poll watcher hands him a newspaper – the Jewish Daily Forward.

“Can you read it, boy?”

“Well,” says the Black man, “I can’t read the small print, but I can read the headlines.”

“Yeah? What’s it say?”

“Schvartzim voten nisht in Alabama hay yor.”

The official title of the North Carolina law when it was proposed was

An act to restore confidence in government by establishing the voter information verification act to promote the electoral process through education and increased registration of voters and by requiring voters to provide photo identification before voting to protect the right of each registered voter to cast a secure vote with reasonable security measures that confirm voter identity as accurately as possible without restriction, and to further reform the election laws.

The shorter title was

Schwartzim ain’t votin’ in North Carolina this year.

Honor and Politics at the RNC

July 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So far, the speakers at the Democratic convention have seemed much nicer than their Republican counterparts. The Republicans reveled in demonizing, insulting, and humiliating the people they disagree with. Trump of course, is the shining example, with his insulting names for his opponents. But that style is just a nastier variation on a theme that runs through Appalachia and the South – honor.

It’s not just Trump and the Trumpistas.

Maybe it was because I’d just been reading Honor Bound, Ryan Brown’s new book about “honor culture,” that I paid attention to this clip that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs tweeted from the Republican convention. Ted Cruz had just spoken at a contentious breakfast meeting with the Texas delegation. Trump had already sewn up the nomination and many Texans resented Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. Here's a screenshot. For the full 28-secod video click on the link.

The delegate on the left, a Cruz backer, tells the bearded delegate (Steve Toth).“You’re a coward” 

“I’m a Texan,” says Toth.

“No, you’re a coward,” says the other.

The Cruz supporter makes a reference to Trump’s statements to the effect that Cruz’s wife is ugly and that Cruz’s father was in cahoots with Lee Harvey Oswald.  “If he said that about your wife or your dad, I hope you’d do the same thing. I hope you’d have some character to stand for your family.” A few seconds later, Toth responds to the earlier accusation, “You’re calling me a coward, sir.”

If you’d asked actors to improv Southern honor culture in thirty seconds, you couldn’t get much better than this. The central element in the culture of honor is reputation. From that, the rest follows:
  • Hypersensitivity to insult, especially insult to one’s reputation and character or that of one’s family
  • Chivalrous defense of women (so long as those women are loyal)
  • Value on group loyalty
  • Formal politeness
  • Willingness to use violence to defend that reputation. (This does not make an overt appearance in this clip, but I could easily imagine that “You’re calling me a coward, sir,” being followed by, “Them’s fightin’ words.” Similarly, the Cruz supporter is implying that when a man scurrilously insults your family, you don’t then make deals with him. You challenge him. You fight him.)
The “coward, sir” line nicely embodies the aspect of the Southern culture that Dov Cohen calls “the paradox of politeness.” Cohen, along with Richard Nisbett, contributed much of the early thought and research on honor culture. Some of their experiments tested how men would react to a person who was being annoying and rude. Northerners showed their anger earlier on and increased their anger as the provocations continued. Southerners remained polite. . . up to a point. But when that point was reached, as Ryan Brown puts it, “Southerners went ballistic. Their reactions were so extreme, in fact, the researchers decided the study should be shut down.”

Honor culture extends beyond personal interactions. Its ethos gets written into l aws and policies. The most obvious examples are gun laws and stand-your-ground laws. States and regions where honor culture runs deepest are least likely to restrict guns and most likely to permit their use against other people. The arguments favoring these laws are always about protecting what’s yours - your life, your property, your family -even when you might safely retreat.

Those arguments rarely mention protecting your reputation and honor. And even in Texas, if you shoot a man for calling you a coward, you’re probably going to wind up in prison. But jurors, judges, and parole boards might be more sympathetic there might be more sympathetic than those where people are less burdened by the idea of honor.

Less Policing, More Crime?

July 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does crime go up when cops, turtle-like, withdraw into their patrol cars, when they abandon “proactive policing” and respond only when called? The Ferugson effect is a variant on this idea. It adds the reason for the police retreat into “reactive policing” – criticism from citizens and politicians, usually touched off by the police killing of an unarmed person.
The Ferguson effect is a corollary of another idea – “Broken Windows” policing. That policy is based on the idea that if police do not enforce laws on minor “quality of life” offenses, serious crimes will increase.

The Ferguson effect has been blamed for increases in homicides and shootings in Chicago, Baltimore, and perhaps other cities. In New York too, the police, angry at the mayor, drastically cut back on “Broken Windows” policing starting in early December of 2014. The slowdown lasted through early January. This change in policing –less proactive, more reactive – gave researchers Christopher M. Sullivan and Zachary P. O'Keeffe a natural experiment for looking at the effects of Broken Windows.

First of all, they confirmed that cops had indeed cut back on enforcing minor offenses. In the graphs below, the yellow shows the rate of enforcement in the previous year (July 2013 - July 2014) when New York cops were not quite so angry at the mayor. The orange line shows the next year. The cutback in enforcement is clear. The orange line dips drastically; the police really did stop making arrests for quality-of-life offenses.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Note also that even after the big dip, enforcement levels for the rest of the year remained below those of the previous year, especially in non-White neighborhoods.

Sullivan and O’Keeffe also looked at reported crime to see if the decreased enforcement had emboldened the bad guys as the Ferguson hypothesis would predict. The dark blue line shows rates for the year that included the police cutback; the light blue line shows the previous year.

No Ferguson effect. The crime rates in those winter weeks of reduced policing and after look very much like the crime rates of the year before.

It may be that a few weeks is not enough time for a change in policing to affect serious crime. Certainly, Broken Windows theorists would argue that what attracts predatory criminals to an area is not a low number of arrests but rather the overall sense that this is a place were bad behavior goes unrestrained. Changing the overall character of a neighborhood – for better or worse – takes more than a few weeks.

I have the impression that many people, when they think about crime, use a sort of cops-and-robbers model: cops prevent crime and catch criminals; the more active the cops, the less active the criminals. There may be some truth in that model, but the New York data shows that the connection between policing and crime is not so immediate or direct.

Sullivan and O’Keeffe have written up their research in the Monkey Cage section of the Washington Post website (here). I have copied their graphs. I do not know if their work has been published in any peer-reviewed journal.

Police-Speak, Again

July 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A recent post (here) noted that police departments often resort to contorted and vague language rather than say that a cop shot someone. “An officer-involved shooting occurred.”
The Washington Post this morning has this story.

The the man sitting up is autistic. He wandered away from his assisted living facility. The Black man lying on the ground is a therapist there and was trying to bring him back. The police showed up, heavily armed. The Black man lay on the ground, hands raised, and tried to tell the autistic man to do the same. He also shouted to the cops that the autistic man was holding a toy truck, not a gun.

One of the cops shot the Black man. Or as the statement from the North Miami PD put it,

“At some point during the on-scene negotiation, one of the responding officers discharged his weapon, striking the employee of the [assisted living facility].”

As someone (OK, it was me) tweeted, “I discharged my weapon striking the sheriff, but I did not discharge my weapon striking the deputy.”

Language is one of the less important aspects of this incident, but the other important details have not yet been reported, We do know that the bullet hit the man in the leg, that the police handcuffed him and kept him on the ground, still bleeding according to the Post, for twenty minutes.

The Presentation of Selfies in Everyday High School

July 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two - before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post (here), I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing your location in that social space.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. (The full episode and transcript are here ) As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) If you don’t need to hear what young teenage girls sound like, here’s the short version distilled from Ira Glass’s observations:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.
Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you're cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.


Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see -- like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole -- like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I'm understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments –you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

Character Contests

July 18, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, has been accused of sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, a Fox on-screen performer. Neil Cavuto, a Fox editor and anchor defends Ailes in an article at Business Insider.

. . . about a quarter-century getting to know a guy, so I think I'm a pretty good judge of character. . . .all this stuff I've been reading about Roger is a lot of clutter and a lot of nonsense. None of it remotely matches the man I've come to know over these recent decades.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, another Fox News anchor, tells the conservative website Breitbart (here), “in terms of Roger’s character, integrity, and credibility, I cannot stand up enough for Roger.”

Character is such an appealing concept. It allows us to think that we know someone to the very core. It gives us the illusion of prediction; if we know someone’s character, we know how they will act. It allows us to know, even without any real knowledge or evidence, how someone did act.

The problem is that character is often an illusion – a consistency that we paint onto people. It’s hard to for us to realize how much their character is something that we ourselves construct. For one thing, when we think about someone, we focus on that person, not on our own thinking. Second, we choose not to notice things that don’t fit with our portrait (confirmation bias). And third, we see the person in only a few different situations. The person’s behavior and reactions may be fairly consistent in those situations but very different in other situations we have not seen. Several times I have walked past the open door of a classroom where a colleague is teaching only to hear a professor who is not at all like the colleague I know. J. Edgar Hoover liked to dress up in women’s clothes.

I expect that people with some stake in the case on either side will be making conflicting testimonials about Ailes’s character, and Carlson’s. Cavuto, for example, not only defends Ailes’s character but attacks Carlson’s “Take it from a guy with an illness:* These accusations that don’t remotely resemble the Roger that I know — that WE know — are just ... sick.”

That settles it: Ailes – “tough but kind. . . disciplined but discerning”; the accusations (and presumably the accusers) “sick.”

If we know what a man is like as a boss of a news network, can we know how he will act when he is alone with an attractive young woman employee? If we could, life would be simpler. Sexual harassment lawsuits would be simpler. It would be nice if the Bill Cosby we came to know on TV, the Cosby many of the people he worked with came to know, had been the total Cosby in all situations.

I have no idea whether Ailes did and said what Carlson accuses him of. I’m just saying that character assessment and character assassination do not provide the answer. Character is our prediction about what someone would do. It is not evidence of what someone did.**       

* Cavuto says that his comments are more believable because of his recent health problems. “Seeing as I've just had open-heart surgery and deal with my share of illnesses, I'm free to speak my mind in a way and from a unique perspective others cannot.” Apparently, the pre-bypass Cavuto could not be trusted to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

** After writing this post, I remembered that I had posted something similar nearly five years ago, here, in connection with the reaction to fallen heroes (e.g., Joe Paterno). It’s worth looking at if only for the quote from Nabokov.

Abstruse Allusion

July 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A bit of pedantry, and you could find all this out from the Internet. But I couldn’t resist, and besides, what the hell, it’s my blog.)

The letters the Times published today were all about the Tesla.

How many people, I wondered, recognized the reference in the headline? It’s from the title of a 1964 novel, Drive, He Said, by Jeremy Larner. In 1970 it was made into a movie directed by Jack Nicholson. It’s about campus sports, sex, and politics. It has nothing to do with driving.

The title comes from a Robert Creeley poem, which serves as the epigraph for the novel. The poem too, I suspect, is not really about driving.

I Know a Man
By Robert Creeley

As I sd to my  
friend, because I am  
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his  
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for  
christ’s sake, look  
out where yr going.

Which brings us full circle back to the Tesla. Can you say those last lines to a self-driving car?

Language-involved Blog Post

July 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The simple active-voice sentence is good reporting. It tells you who did what.

There are worse ways of saying it.

Last September, McSweeney’s published a piece by Vijith Assar – “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar (here – that riffed through increasingly mealy-mouthed formulations of the fox and dog. One of the last versions was:

A quick brown fox and a lazy dog were involved in a jumping-related incident.

It sounds ridiculous, but it also sounds familiar. That’s what satire does. It makes you aware of inanities (and worse) that you have often seen but not noticed or thought about, so that in the future (or as we say now, “going forward”) you cannot miss them.

Today, I clicked on a link to a WaPo article from July 11 (here) about the numbers of Blacks and Whites shot and killed by police. Like most journalistic accounts, it begins with a single case. The third sentence says, “When [the police] tried to pull [the driver] over, the 19-year-old led police to a nearby gas station and then exited his car.” The story continues with a quote from the police department.

“The driver then turned towards officers with one hand concealed behind his back, and told officers he hated his life,” the Fresno police department said in a statement. “As he continued to advance towards officers, an officer-involved shooting occurred.”

No quick brown foxes in the Fresno PD.

An Epidemic of Narcissism?

July 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again, the panic about the narcissism of millennials as evidenced by selfies. This time it was NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain.

The show’s host Shankar Vedantem chose to speak with only one researcher on the topic – psychologist Jean Twenge, whose even-handed and calm approach is clear from the titles of her books, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. She is obviously not alone in worrying about the narcissistic youth of America. In 2013, a Time Magazine cover on “The Me Me Me Generation” showed a millennialish woman taking a selfie. (The article itself, by Joel Stein, was much more reasonable than what the cover photo implied.)

There are serious problems with the narcissism trope. One is that people use the word in many different ways. For the most part, we are not talking about what the DSM-IV calls Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That diagnosis fits only a relatively few (a lifetime prevalence of about 6% ). For the rest, the hand-wringers use a variety of terms. Twenge, in the Hidden Brain episode, uses individualism and narcissism as though they were interchangeable. She refers to her data on the increase in “individualistic” pronouns and language, even though linguists have shown this idea to be wrong (see Mark Liberman at Language log here and here) .

Twenge also warns of the dangers of “the self-esteem movement.” Self-esteem may be part of narcissism, but maybe not. When Muhammad Ali said, “I am the greatest,” he sounded like someone with high self-esteem. Also like a narcissist. But he was also being accurate. More to the point, the Ali described by people who knew him or even interacted briefly with him was far different from the public persona. That’s true of all of us. We have a diverse repertoire of behaviors and feelings, including feelings about ourselves, and these behaviors and feelings are often contradictory.

Then there’s the generational question. Are millennials more narcissistic than were their parents or grandparents? Just in case you’ve forgotten, that Time magazine cover was not the first one focused on “me.” In 1976, New York Magazine ran a similarly titled article by Tom Wolfe.

And maybe, if you’re old enough, when you read the title The Narcissism Epidemic, you heard a faint echo of a book by Christopher Lasch published thirty years earlier.

We have better evidence than book titles. Since 1975, Monitoring the Future (here) has surveyed large samples of US youth. It wasn’t designed to measure narcissism, but it does include two relevant questions:
  • Compared with others your age around the country, how do you rate yourself on school ability?
  • How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?       
It also has self-esteem items including
  • I take a positive attitude towards myself
  • On the whole, I am satisfied with myself
  • I feel I do not have much to be proud of (reverse scored)
A 2008 study compared 5-year age groupings and found absolutely no increase in “egotism” (those two “compared with others” questions). The millennials surveyed in 2001-2006 were almost identical to those surveyed twenty-five years earlier. The self-esteem questions too showed little change.

Another study by Brent Roberts, et al., tracked two sources for narcissism: data from Twenge’s own studies; and data from a meta-analysis that included other research, often with larger samples. The test of narcissism in all cases was the Narcissism Personality Inventory – 40 questions designed to tap narcissistic ideas.

A sample from a 16-item version of the Narcissitic Personality Inventory. Narcissistic responses are in boldface. (It’s hard to read these and not think of Donald Trump.)

1.    __ I really like to be the center of attention 
       __ It makes me uncomfortable to be the center of attention 

2.    __I am no better or nor worse than most people
       __I think I am a special person
3.    __Everybody likes to hear my stories 
       __Sometimes I tell good stories 

5.    __I don't mind following orders 
       __I like having authority over people 

7.    __People sometimes believe what I tell them 
       __I can make anybody believe anything I want them to 

10.  __ I am much like everybody else 
      __  I am an extraordinary person 

13. __ Being an authority doesn't mean that much to me 
      __People always seem to recognize my authority

14.  __ I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling    me so 
       __When people compliment me I sometimes get embarrassed 

16.  __ I am more capable than other people 
       __There is a lot that I can learn from other people

Their results look like this:

Twenge’s sources justify her conclusion that narcissism is on the rise. But include the other data and you wonder if all the fuss about kids today is a bit overblown. You might not like participation trophies or selfie sticks or Instagram, but it does not seem likely that these have created an epidemic of narcissism.

Jacques and Diane

July 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.

The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam.  Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.

Here are the results for the names with the highest percent of très bien. (Only names with 100 or more are included. Sixty-seven percent of those named Pavel, Louis-Raphael, and Hans got très bien, but there were only three of each.)

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

And here are the names with the lowest proportion of très biens. 

All the high-scoring names are female. At the bottom, the gender distribution is more even. What you can’t see from this is that these results are remarkably similar to those of previous years. French sociologist Baptiste Coulmont has posted interactive name-cloud graphs for the data each year (here) – no doubt the graph for this year will be up soon. Below is a non-interactive screenshot of the 2015 results. The x-axis is the percent of très biens, the y-axis the number of students with each name (names with fewer than 200 candidats were excluded). You can find Diane and many of her high-scoring peers from 2016 on the right; Bryan, Tiffany, and the other slower students are on the left.

(For a slightly larger view, click on the image. Better yet, go to Coulmont's Website)

The year-to-year consistency is striking. In 2016, Diane was fourth highest in percent of très biens. Last year, she was #2, and in the years before that, #13, #2, and #9. Alice, Josephine, and Clotilde, were also in the top ten last year. At the other end, Jordan, Dylan, Bryan, Anissa, Anthony, and Steven all scored in the lowest ranks this year and last. And to state the obvious,  the 584 (of 601) Dylans who scored less below très bien this year cannot be the same Dylans as the 956 (of 982) who did so last year.

Social class has much to do with it. The children of the wealthy get educational advantages. They also get different names. Coulmont identifies some upscale names too infrequent to appear in his graphs but which typically  have high rates of très bien – Guillemette, Quitterie, Anne-Claire, Sibylle, Marguerite, Domitille. I confess that I am not familiar with the class subtleties of French names. I didn’t even know that Quitterie and Domitille were, in fact, names. And then there were those names familiar to my American ear –Kevin, Cindy, Sandra, Alison, Kelly, in addition to those already mentioned. Why are all the Anglo-name kids sitting in the low end of the scale?

One explanation is that these names are chosen by parents who watch American soap operas on French TV, parents not likely to be found in Bottin Mondain (roughly parallel to the Social Register). Possibly. But that doesn’t explain Kevin, a name that has not appeared on any soap. Maybe Angle names just have a middlebrow appeal in the same way that French imports like Michelle and Nicole came to enjoy great popularity in the US.

If only we had a breakdown by name of SAT scores, would it show any consistent patterns?.

Arrogant and Proud of It

July 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gersh Kuntzman in the New York Daily News (here) listens to “God Bless America” in yet one more seventh-inning stretch and argues that it’s time to take it out of the ball game.

The song still embodies great things about America, but also our worst things: self-righteousness, forced piety, earnest self-reverence, foam.

The song, says Kuntzman, offends: some believers; atheists of course; and the folks who think that baseball games should be about baseball. Also foreigners.

I once went to a Brooklyn Cyclones game with a British guy named James Silver, who smiled when “God Bless America” was being played. “It’s exactly what I expect from Americans,” he said. “The self-righteousness, the patriotism. It’s always nice to see my opinions confirmed.”

One comment from one foreigner at a Class A game* is not exactly persuasive evidence. But many others have voiced the same opinion, and conveniently, last week Pew published its report on “America’s International Image” (here). The Brit Brooklyn baseball observation seems to be the consensus.  When people are asked if they associate the word arrogant with Americans, the majority in most countries say “yes.” That includes Americans.

Intolerance is the flip side of arrogance. It’s not just that we Americans, blessed by God, believe that we are the best, but that those who differ from us are wrong.

Americans view themselves as tolerant, more so than do other countries except Poland (what’s up with Poland?). Clearly, people in those other countries are wrong. But where could they have gotten that idea? Maybe from politicians like Marco Rubio, who at the last Republican convention, said of proposals like Obamacare, “These are ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world instead of making the rest of the world more like America.”

Or maybe they were thinking about the pronouncements, to great applause, of a more recent and more successful candidate for the office of president.

* For those not familiar with the baseball, Class A may sound good but is in fact fairly far down in the minor league hierarchy.

Producing Reality

July 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the end of the video about his famous prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo says, “Our behavior is much more under the control of situational forces and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits.” If you’re looking for a good example of what he means, try at least the first few episodes of  “UnREAL” on Lifetime.  The show is fictional, a behind-the-scenes look at a reality show called “Everlasting,” its fictional version of  the reality show “The Bachelor.” Are you still with me? A fictional, or simulated, prison and a fictional TV show about a fictional TV show are telling us something important about reality – not reality-TV but real life, real reality. (And yes, I am aware of Nabokov’s dictum that reality is “one of those words which mean nothing without the quotes.”)

The creator of “UnREAL”, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, worked on “The Bachelor” for three years, and   “UnREAL” is partly an exposé revealing how the producers of the show manipulate the girls (as the show usually calls them) into doing things that are good for the show’s ratings but disastrous for the contestants themselves. “Cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights,” the “Everlasting” show-runner Quinn yells to her producers.

(Vocabulary note. The “producers” are the assistants whose job is to manipulate the contestants and the “suitor” into doing what’s good for the ratings. The person in charge of the show, its creator, is the “showrunner.” The word produce is used unironically as a synonym for manipulate. In one episode, when the Suitor was pursuing his own strategy, Quinn, the showrunner, tells Rachel, a producer, to get him back in line, saying something like, “You know what to do. Produce him.)

The producer who serves as Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s alter ego is Rachel Goldberg. In the Season 1, Episode 1, we see her lying on the floor of a limousine full of beautiful, gowned contestants. She is out of camera range, wearing a t-shirt that says, “This is what a feminist looks like.” The t-shirt is frayed, threadbare, a relic from her student days at Vassar.

She’s a feminist, yet she knows that in the coming weeks, she and the other show staff will exploit these women psychologically and physically. They will make sure the girls get little sleep and much alcohol. They will tell them lies to bring about tears and fights. “The Suitor” is no place for female solidarity. As Shapiro put it in an interview, Rachel is like “a vegan working in a slaughterhouse.”

Shapiro says that her own morality suffered a similar conflict and quick erosion. Here’s a clip from that same interview.

(Here’s a transcript of the end of the clip.)

I went to Sarah Lawrence, and I remember some seminar where we were talking about what would it cost for you to torture another human being, and everybody was like, “twenty-five million dollars.” And I quickly discovered it was like fifteen hundred dollars a week without benefits was fine.

It’s not just the money. The show becomes its own world. The contestants are required to give up all contact with the outside world (no cellphones, no Internet) so that the staff can more easily manipulate their reality. For the staff too, 19-hour workdays leave little time for life off the set. So the world of the show, with its  overarching value on ratings, is their reality as well. Staff get not just money but admiration for producing heartbreak, catfights, and other drama. They also have contracts and career aspirations that make it difficult to walk away. And for the staff, there was the added attraction of power.

“What Would You Do?” asks ABC’s popular television show, which is basically a variation on a theme by “Candid Camera.” It contrives a situation, then sets the cameras running to catch the reactions of unwary people. What will they do when they see a bicycle thief in action, a rude barista, a drunken cab driver, a racist store clerk, etc.? We think that we are the kind of person who does the right thing even in the face of social pressure.

“What would you do?” The most accurate answer is , “I don’t know.” As we have learned from a half-century of social science experiments – the Milgram obedience experiments are the best known – we are not very good at predicting behavior in a novel situation. People wind up doing things that seem to go against their most cherished values. It happens in real life too, and the important difference from the the ABC show and the psychology lab is that real-life situations come with a longer history and a thicker context.

Of course, most of us do not spend our workdays trashing our moral principles. But is that a testament to our strong moral fiber? Or, as Zimbardo suggests, is it because the situations that life affords us do not push us in that direction.

Flashback Fourth

July 4, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

This is still my favorite Fourth of July photo.

I took it in 2008 in Lenox, Massachusetts and blogged (here) about liberals finally seizing the banner of patriotism.

Two years later, after I’d spent a day at Jones Beach, I posted this about Sarah Palin’s phrase “the real America,” which I summed up as “Norman Rockwell, but with guns and NASCAR.” She was confusing “real” with “ideal,” but maybe she had a point.
In 2012 (here) my Fourth of July post was again about patriotism and the flag. Or rather, flags. Specifically, it was about people who think of themselves as patriots yet nevertheless fly “the flag of a country that fought a war against the USA – a war that killed a greater proportion of the population of the USA than has any other war in our history.”