The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.

Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.

I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 


* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

You Can’t Argue With a Joke

January 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of all the responses I’ve seen to the Trump/Spicer claim that the inaugural drew the biggest crowds in history, this one – from a hockey game in Dallas –  was by far the most effective.

Whoever runs the Jumbotron for the Dallas Stars deserves a Peabody. The attendance figure pokes fun and deflates Trump’s assertions but without being derisive. The factual criticism that followed Trump’s and Spicer’s performances can be disputed, as Spicer tried to do.  Even if the “facts” that Team Trump presents are false, at least there’s an argument about who’s right. Besides, Kellyanne Conway may have gotten some sympathy for the way that journalists pounced on her “alternative facts.” How would you feel if a bunch of smart-ass reporters checked your every word? 

The Jumbotron avoids those traps. You don’t notice it right away. So a second later, when you do notice the attendance figure, you feel like one of the in-crowd that gets the joke. You’re on Jumbotron’s side. If you laugh – how could you not? – you already share the assumed story behind the humor: that Team Trump is lying about the numbers. Game over. If Trump and company argue with it, they come off as tedious and tendentious. Imagine Trump ranting about how the Jumbotron is the most dishonest scoreboard in history by the way. Imagine Spicer and Conway offering alternative facts about the hockey game attendance. They’d just be digging themselves in deeper while showing that they are utterly humorless.*

* I make no predictions. Trump may still tweet something about this.

Why Deny the Obvious Lie?

January 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is there method in Trump’s megalomania?

Why would Trump say things that are obviously untrue? Not only untrue but easily demonstrated as untrue, like his claim that his inauguration had drawn the largest crowds in history. Photographs clearly showed that the crowd on the mall at Obama’s first inauguration was larger.

This screenshot is from an interactive graphic (here ) that allows you to slidethe dividing line back and forth to see the whole mall for both inaugurations.

Trump, as we have come to realize, never admits that he was wrong. And now he has a press secretary who does the same. Yesterday, Sean Spicer repeated the false claim.
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.
He criticized other estimates, saying,
No one had numbers, because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out.
Spicer did not take any questions, so we can’t know whether he realized the contradiction between these two statements. If no one has numbers, how can Spicer be so sure that Friday’s crowd was the largest in history?

Spicer went further.
We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.
Reporters checked with the actual Metro statistics. Spicer was lying.*

Why would Trump leave himself open to headlines like this? (Click for a larger and clearer view.)

The psychological answer is that he can’t help himself. He really believes that everything he does is the most stupendous, and he makes up evidence to support his beliefs. To protect his ego from contradictory evidence he launches vigorous attacks on those who provide contrary factual evidence, even – as with his “landslide victory” or the size of the crowds at the inauguration – when the truth is easily available to anyone. Other politicians would be embarrassed to have their statements exposed as blatantly false. But Trump cannot be embarrassed by the truth because he cannot be embarrassed by anything. He is shameless.

But Ezra Klein at Vox thinks the attack on facts is not just psychological, it’s also strategic.

   the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.
   Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
   It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

The strategy certainly works among Trump’s supporters, the folks who get their news only from Fox or right-wing Internet sources. For the rest of the public, it will depend on the strategies that the media take for reporting on an Administration with so little respect for facts.

* The New York Times (here) has documented a few other falsehoods from Trump and Spicer, including Trump’s false assertion that during his speech the rain stopped and the sun shone and that “it poured after I left. It poured.” In fact, the rain was light and continuous throughout –  no sunny skies, no downpour.

Me Or Your Lyin’ Eyes

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.
“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said. (WaPo)

Words Matter

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s the word cloud from Trump’s inaugural speech.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

America and American are no surprise. They appear frequently in many inaugurals. But they occupy a more prominent place in Trump’s speech. Compare Trump’s with the first inaugurals of Obama and George W. Bush.

Words take their meaning from context. It’s the valences of America – the words and ideas that the speaker connects it to – that convey the message.  “American carnage,” for example, was a phrase that grabbed the attention of many people. But it was just a variation of disaster, the term Trump preferred during the campaign. Carnage is more graphic, but it carries no special overtones. “America first” does.

This was not one of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks said with little reflection. Trump even repeated the phrase. 
From this day forward, it’s going to be only
America first, America first.
Trump’s writers, possibly Trump too, worked carefully on the speech. They must have known that after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “America first” became the watchword of those who did not want the US to join European nations in the war against Hitler.* So just in case anybody hadn’t already gotten the idea, Trump is saying that the US will not intervene in Europe if some strongman marches into neighboring countries to seize today’s version of the Sudetenland or Poland.

Putin probably loved this speech. Estonians, not so much.

“America First” was revived in recent years. It was similarly isolationist and similarly anti-Semitic – the most prominent member of the 1940 committee was Charles Lindbergh – and, no surprise, pro-Trump.

The other unusual word in the cloud is back. This echoes Trump’s campaign theme that he will return the US to some glorious past, mostly by restoring industrial jobs for men. (See this post of two weeks ago.)
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.
This economic nostalgia often combines with a social and moral nostalgia  – a longing for a time when norms, society, and identities were stable and predictable. As Archie Bunker sang each week at the “All in the Family” theme song “Those Were the Days,”                                       
And you knew who you were then.
Goils were goils, and men were men.
Back also echoes the “Take our country back” meme so popular among conservatives for these last eight years.  (See “Repo Men.”)

In sum, the word cloud shows, as many observers said, that the inaugural speech sounds very much like Trump’s campaign speeches. It has the same combative tone, and it runs on the same assumptions about American history: America used to be great, with abundant industrial jobs for men, few imported goods, and few documented immigrants, all of them documented. The world is a zero-sum game, and we were winning. Then They (liberals, globalists) took over the country. All aspects of American life became disasters. Foreign countries were beating us.  But now, I (Trump) will restore that glorious world.

Does this describe reality? Or is it, to use another term prominent in the word cloud, a dream?

Columbia U., Meet Trump U.

January 14, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

In academia, we’re tough on plagiarism, especially when it runs to more than just a copied sentence or two. Plagiarism is one of those areas where we lean towards moral clarity rather than wishy-washy liberal moral relativism. I think.

I’m putting my syllabus together, and it looks like I’ll have to make a change in my boilerplate about plagiarism. Here is the revised version.

Plagiarism and cheating on papers or tests will result in a 0 for that assignment and perhaps an F for the course. But it may also get you a job with Donald Trump.

In case you hadn’t heard, Monica Crowley,  Trump’s choice to be U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications plagiarized big chunks of her Columbia Ph.D. thesis. She has excellent conservative credentials. She worked for Nixon and more recently for Fox News. She has said that Huma Abedin’s parents were “essentially tools of the Saudi regime.” Her views of the Syrian refugee crisis were also straight from right field.  She wrote in the Washington Times  that “The EU is apparently intent on committing continental suicide” by letting in so many Muslims.  Those Muslims “are using the European Union’s open doors-open borders policy to reach the West for social welfare and the longer-term goal of spreading Islam.”

Crowley is a serial plagiarist. It wasn’t just her Ph.D. thesis. Her book What the (Bleep) Just Happened had at least “fifty instances of copying directly from conservative columns, news articles, Wikipedia and in one case a podiatrist’s website.” (Politico) The Wall Street Journal published her 1998 column, an appreciation of Nixon, which borrowed considerably from a Commentary article some years earlier by Paul Johnson.

When Trump appointed her, she spoke of his “vision, courage, and moral clarity.” That figures. She obviously shares Trump’s vision of Muslims. And now it’s clear she shares a similar morality. So it’s almost certain that she’ll keep her job, nor will the plagiarism damage her standing among conservatives. Academics, by contrast, take plagiarism more seriously – usually. Columbia has not said a word about whether the university might rescind her doctorate. Columbia is a prestigious Ivy League school. I guess it remains to be seen whether their standards are as high as those of Montclair State.

Here is a screenshot of just part of the thesis plagiarism as highlighted by Politico, which has many other examples.

(Click for a larger view.)

Travis Hirschi (R.I.P.) and “Acting White”

January 12, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The day I heard that Travis Hirschi had died was the same day I read this Vox article  by Jenése Desmond-Harris about “acting White.” I sensed a common element, but what was it? Both Hirschi and Desmong-Harris were questioning widely held ideas. Hirschi had thown down challenges to the criminology theories that dominated the latter part of the 20th century,* and Desmond-Harris was trying to debunk the widespread idea – even Barack Obama seems to have accepted it –  that Black kids who did well in school were often rejected by their peers, who accused them of acting White. But the similarities were more specific than just skepticism about the conventional wisdom. What they were both skeptical about was the idea of cohesive “oppositional” cultures.

Hirschi’s “control theory” of delinquency emphasized what he called the “social bond,” a social and psychological connection between the individual and conventional society that restrained impulses to break the rules. An important element of that bond was “attachment” to other people and to institutions like school. This seems sort of obvious. Common sense tells us that the closer a kid is to parents, peers, or teachers, the less likely he is to commit crime. But what about “delinquent peers”?  Here common sense tells us attachment is no longer a damper on crime. The closer a kid is to peers who commit crimes, the more likely he will be to commit crimes.

Hirschi rejected that idea. It derived from a romanticized picture of youth gangs as hives of solidarity and mutual support, something like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.” But in Hirschi’s view, real gang members were no more likely to have solid friendships than they were to break out singing “Tonight” in tune and in unison while doing tightly choreographed dance numbers on the streets of New York. In the real world, delinquents were, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, “detached drifters.”  Detached from others and from social institutions, they drift, often into scenarios that are self-defeating and sometimes criminal 

Desmond-Harris’s article similarly questions the picture of a Black student subculture solid in its opposition to the oppressive and White-dominated institution, the school. She says that although it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence – “African Americans who say they were good students in school and were accused of acting white” – there’s little in the way of good systematic evidence. She quotes Ivory Toldson, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, criticizing Roland Fryer’s article, “Acting White: the Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students” (here ).

the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.

It seemed that the "social price" paid by the lowest-achieving black students was actually far greater than the price in popularity paid by the highest academic achievers.

It’s not quite as simple as that, as the graph from Fryer’s paper shows.

Turning “attachment to peers” into something you can actually measure poses some real problems, and any method will be subject to criticism. Still, I think Hirschi would feel vindicated by Fryer’s data. The effect is especially strong among Whites, but for both Whites and Blacks, kids who get lower grades have fewer friends.

Disaffection (lack of attachment) seems to be general. Attachments, whether in school or in friendships. require some self-control. Kids who act impulsively and unpredictably are not going to do well in either setting.  So the kid who is not much invested in school is the kind of kid it’s hard to be good friends with. The detached drifters may sometimes for oppositional cultures and groups, but these are weak substitutes for friendship groups that conventional teenages form in their conventional world. 

* Hirschi’s criticism of then-current theories was most explicit in A General Theory of Crime (1990), with co-author Michael Gottfredson. If you were in criminology, it was a book you couldn’t ignore. I remember one session at a crim conference in the early 90s where Rich Rosenfeld presented some data he and a colleague had from research in progress. I have no recollection of the topic (homicide maybe) or the findings, but they were somewhat puzzling. In the Q&A, when someone asked Rosenfeld about this he said, “We don’t even have a theory Hirschi and Gottfredson wouldn’t like.”

A Ram, a Plan, a Repeal, Obamacare

January 8, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans will act this week to repeal Obamacare – or at least start to repeal it. Their previous votes on the matter were symbolic gestures. Now the Republicans can actually repeal it because they control the Senate, the House, and the Presidency. They can repeal the law even though they do not represent the majority of the electorate.

Kevin B. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, has closely examined the returns – he got House data from the secretaries of state of all fifty states – and graphed the results (here). The truncated Y-axis makes the results look more dramatic, but the point is the same. Republicans won control of the White House and Senate though far more people voted for Democrats. Republicans’ share of seats in the House is greater than their share of votes for those seats.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Back in 2010 when Obamacare was being passed, Republicans’ favorite phrase in describing the process was “ram down the throat.” This gem must have been = issued from GOP central; everyone on the right was using it. The Affordable Care Act, they said, was being “rammed down the throat” of the American people.* I Googled it.

The ramming took the form of votes in the Senate and House to pass the bill and then the signature of the president. In all these, the Democrats had a majority of the votes, and unlike the Republicans today, those Senators, Representatives, and the President had all received a majority of votes.
Most people would see this as the normal process of lawmaking in a democracy. The Republicans saw it as force-feeding. This time around, it really will be more like ramming – a minority government passing legislation that most Americans do not support. According to a Kaiser poll, only one in five favor immediate repeal.

The minority government will pass more laws, probably very quickly, i.e., in the first 100 days. Even now, they are trying to rush the confirmation of Trump appointees even before the ethics reviews have been completed. The Democrats could legitimately characterize these laws and appointees as being “rammed down the throats” of the American people. But they probably won’t. Liberals seem to be a bit squeamish when it comes to imagery suggesting the blunt use of force, even when they are the victims. Republicans, as I have argued elsewhere (here), are much more comfortable with the idea of torture. Their response to accusations that they were ramming something down someone else’s throat would probably resemble Trump’s response to accusations that he paid no taxes: it’s a matter of pride rather than shame.


* The Republicans seem to prefer metaphors that show a deep concern with violation of the body. A year earlier, when it looked like the CIA might have to stop torturing people, the conservative talking point was that this new policy would “emasculate” the CIA. (See this earlier post here.)

Men’s Work, Men’s Votes

January 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sexual dimporphism in Disney films that Philip Cohen keeps pointing out (here, for example) is nothing compared to gender differences in the recent presidential election. Trump was the man’s candidate, as the 538’s pre-election maps clearly showed.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Maps based on the actual vote would, I suspect, be just as different.

But why? At Sociological Images, Alisha Kirchoff (here) suggests that Trump took his inspiration from Putin. Trump could not imitate Putin stunt for stunt – let’s try not to imagine a shirtless Trump on horseback, and the hair thing pretty much precludes emerging from the seas in scuba gear – but he projected a liking for toughness, even violence, and a generally combative view of the world.

His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy.

No doubt Trump’s attitudes and actions towards women were odious. Some people saw them as profoundly anti-woman. But even for those who saw them as normal masculinity expressed more frankly, this part of the Trump persona was probably not sufficient reason to vote for Trump.

True, his views of foreign policy evoked the image of a Mark Burnett game show, a world of winners and losers where one side beats the other by being stronger, more clever, and perhaps more ruthless.  But foreign policy is rarely decisive in elections.

The Trump persona may have had some appeal.  Men might have envied or identified with the wealth winner, the man who says what he thinks uninhibited by norms of decency, the guy who gets gorgeous girls. Besides, he was going to crush the forces of political correctness that were repressing men in the same way that he would crush foreign countries that did not fully do what we tell them to.

But the Trump promise was not just that he would be men’s champion, doing what they could not themselves do. More important was the promise that with Trump in office they could restore their masculine identity through the most important element of that identity – manly work.The Trump campaign was a Viagra ad transposed to the labor market.

“I ain’t gonna be a nurse; I don’t have the tolerance for people. I don’t want it to sound bad, but I’ve always seen a woman in the position of a nurse or some kind of health care worker. I see it as more of a woman’s touch.”
Health aides earn a median wage of $10.50 an hour. Mr. Dawson used to earn $18 an hour making railroad traction motors. “I was a welder — that’s all I know how to do.”

That’s from a recent New York Times article (here) about the disappearance of traditionally male jobs. (Note the welder’s nod to politically correct views about gender: “I don’t want it to sound bad, but . . .”). The projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the trend will continue. Of the fifteen jobs expected to have the greatest growth in coming years, all but five currently employ more women than men.

Trump is telling the Mr. Dawsons of America to ignore the data and even to ignore the evidence of their own experience. He is saying in effect, “I, Donald Trump, will bring manly jobs back to America.” It’s not “I will be manly for you.” It’s “I will change the economic world so that you can be a man again.” Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that Trump can restore the world of thirty years ago.

Those manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Saving 800 jobs at a Carrier plant is a symbolic gesture, and while symbols are important and may temporarily change perceptions of reality, they do not change the reality itself.

It’s as though on the subject of climate change Trump were saying, “Ignore what the scientists say; ignore the evidence from you own experience – the heat waves, the droughts. I Donald Trump will bring back the temperatures of thirty years ago.” And then, in a symbolic gesture to prove his point, he holds aloft a snowball.

Some of My Best Friends

January 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I was a child, I remember, I heard my parents say dismissively of someone, probably a politician, “Yeah, some of his best friends are Jewish.” I didn’t understand. How could my parents resent someone who had Jewish friends and said so publicly? When I was a bit older, I understood – anti-Semitism is not merely a matter of personal friendships or public sentiments.

What reminded me of this incident was today’s Washington Post story on the letter signed by over 1100 law professors opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. The Post leans toward framing the issue as one of personal bigotry. It excerpts this sentence from the letter:  “Nothing in Senator Sessions’s public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”

The opposing statement comes from William Smith, an African American who has been Sessions’s chief counsel. “In the last 30 years, they probably haven’t spent 10 hours with him. I spent 10 years working with him . . . as his top legal adviser. There are no statements that he made that are inappropriate.”

Is Jeff Sessions a racist? Is he, as the law profs say, “racially insensitive”? These questions are irrelevant, barring a history of blatantly racist statements or membership in the Klan. But also irrelevant is the question of whether some of his best friends or advisors are Black.

That “1986” in the law professors’ letter refers to a case Sessions, as US Attorney, brought against three African American civil rights leaders who helped elderly Blacks – some housebound, some illiterate – complete their ballots. The case was so flimsy that the judge dismissed more than half the charges for lack of evidence. On the charges that did go forward, the jury quickly found the defendants not guilty.

Was Sessions’s racist? Well, if you bring trumped-up charges against three Black people – charges that carry sentences of 100 years – it’s a pretty good guess that you want to scare everyone, maybe especially other Black people, from doing what those people were doing. In this case, what they were doing was helping more Black people to vote. But Sessions’s motives need not have been racist. I suspect they were more political. It wasn’t that the voters being helped were Black; it’s that they were voting for Democrats.

In the US, especially the South, there is such an overlap of race, lack of education, poverty, and political party that laws and legal actions that will suppress Democratic votes need not appear explicitly racist. The new laws in North Carolina and elsewhere that make it harder for people to vote are race neutral in their language. But so were literacy tests and the poll tax. (See my earlier post and joke here.). In prosecuting the Black-vote workers, Sessions was merely invoking the law in its majestic equality.*

Does Sessions have Black friends and advisors? Has he spoken nicely about civil rights? Who cares? The more relevant questions are about the cases he brought when he was a US Attorney. In what ways did these advance the cause of civil rights and racial equality?  In what ways did they stall that advance? (For more on this question see this op-ed from three DoJ civil rights lawyers.)

It’s like the question of whether Steve Bannon – the man Trump has chosen as his chief strategist –  is an anti-Semite. His defenders, of course, say no and point out that he has worked for Jews and hired Jews to work for him. But under his leadership, Breitbart became, in his own words, “a platform for the alt-right,” a category that includes people who really are blatantly anti-Semitic. But hey, some of his best friends are Jewish.

* “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges” — Anatole France.