Doctor My Eyes

November 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

You could have seen it coming. A little over a year ago, the University of Wisconsin board of regents passed a Free Speech resolution. The intent, supposedly,  was to guarantee “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”

A fine principle, free speech. Everybody likes free speech, so that’s what the regents had to go with. After all, they couldn’t very well pass a resolution that protected only conservative speech. But that seems to have been their intent. That part about “the broadest possible latitude” — just kidding.

So when a communications professor at UW LaCrosse had author and former porn star Nina Hartley give a talk during “free speech week,” the university system president and the board sent him a letter of reprimand. His “poor judgment,” as judged by the board, will affect his salary adjustment, though the board doesn’t say exactly how much he will have to pay for free speech. 

What struck me was not the obvious hypocrisy. As I say, that was predictable (the Inside Higher Ed story (here) has some of the more mealy-mouthed quotes). It was this gem in an op-ed written by one of the regents, Bob Atwell:

Most of us don’t need science to know how devastating pornography is to the mental, physical and social health of those enslaved by it. We can see it in the sad and empty eyes of millions of boys and young men whose zest for life is being sucked into their smart phones.

I was having double déjà vu. First, “we don’t need science.” Back in February. Ross Douthat said pretty much the same thing, though not quite so blatantly. In fact, when prodded, he acknowledged that rape, pregnancy, and abortion had all decreased as porn became more and more widespread. He thought porn made people unhappy, though he allowed that the evidence linking porn with unhappiness was flawed. Nevertheless, he persisted. Porn was just plain bad.

Years before, Irving Kristol, a founding father of neo-conservatism, writing in the Wall Street Journal had argued in language very similar to regent Atwell’s: “we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case. Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our ‘rap’ music is without effect?” (For more detail, see my earlier blog post ).

Then there were those “sad and empty eyes” and the lost “zest for life.” Where had I heard that before? I searched my files and found it.

This is a very degrading and destructive habit. There is probably no vice which is more injurious to both mind and body, and produces more fearful consequences than this. . . When the evil has been pursued for several years, there will be an irritable condition of the system; sudden flushes) of heat over the face; the countenance becomes pale and clammy; the eyes have a dull, sheepish look.

Back when I taught deviance, I would sometimes read a longer version of this passage to students and ask them to guess. Weed and cigarettes were the usual suspects, but even after I identified the source and date — Our Family Physician published in 1885 — nobody got it. Nor did it help when I would tell them the title of the chapter — “Onanism.”

I’m not all that familiar with the actual research on how porn (or masturbation) affects young men (or women). Its enduring effects on older conservatives seems clearer — a tendency to reject science and replace it with “common sense” and a deep look into the eyes of the afflicted.

Randy Newman

November 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Randy Newman is 75 today.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in a movie theater watching Toy Story 2. It may have been someone’s birthday party. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the song “When She Loved Me.”

As the song ended, I thought: here I am, a grown man  surrounded by a bunch of eight-year olds, and I’m practically in tears because of a song that a cartoon toy doll just sang about a cartoon girl.

If this song does not win an Academy Award, I thought, there is no justice. It didn’t and there wasn’t. The Oscar went to Phil Collins.

The song has none of the irony that pervades Newman’s non-Pixar songs. In those songs, the voice we hear is a flawed characters an unreliable narrator, like the voice in his biggest hit “Short People.” (Some unimaginative listeners, unable to see the satire and irony, took Newman literally and condemned the song.)

The ambivalence haunts even Newman’s love songs, like “Marie,” which seems merely beautiful until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this guy is an abusive drunk, someone Marie would be better off without..

    And I'm weak and I'm lazy
    And I've hurt you so
    And I don't listen to a word you say
    When you're in trouble I just turn away

And yet, his feeling is real.

(I made similar observations in this 2008 blog post after seeing Newman in concert at Carnegie Hall.)

All The Lonely People . . . Are There Really More of Them Than Before?

November 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Loneliness seems to have an irresistible appeal. Last weekend, it was Arthur Brooks in the New York Times (here) bringing us the bad news: “America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.”

The consequences of this loneliness are serious, says Brooks. Riffing off Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R Nebraska) recent book, he lists suicide, drug overdoses, the mail bombs to Trump’s opponents, the mass killing in Squirrel Hill, and above all, political polarization. The title of Sasse’s book is Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.  The title of Brooks’s op-ed is “How Loneliness is Tearing America Apart.” We now live, he says, in “a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation.”

Brooks’s other source of information Besides Sasse is a report (here) issued last May by Cigna, the insurance company, based on an online survey of 20,000 Americans. It shows, as Brooks says, that “most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

Brooks is not the first loneliness spotter to cry “epidemic.” Back in April, a month before the Cigna report was released, the Times’s other Brooks, David, warned that “Facebook and other social media companies are feeding this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.” Psychology Today ran an article “Epidemic of Loneliness” in 2009. The term has cropped up in the popular press for decades. Google nGrams shows the phrase first appearing in books in the early 1960s, taking a giant leap and fall in 1980, but holding steady since then.

But every so often, a Brooks or a Sasse runs in breathless with news of a dangerous loneliness epidemic (the nation's “number one health crisis” according to Sasse) —  all apparently unaware that sentries on the loneliness watch ten, thirty, and even sixty years earlier had issued the same alarm.

True, loneliness and social isolation are bad for your physical and mental health, as the Cigna report and much previous research confirms. But Brooks is claiming something else — that the increase in political polarization has been caused, at least in part, by an increase in loneliness. The only trouble with this idea is that there is no evidence that loneliness has been increasing.

Calling Claude Fischer. For years, with each rediscovery of a loneliness epidemic, he has added historical and methodological information in an attempt to calm the waters, usually to no avail. Nevertheless, he persists. As he says in a blog post (“Loneliness Scare Again… and Again… and…” ) inspired by one of the Brookses, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And in fact, Fischer is no longer a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. Yes, journos on deadline and Senators on the make ignore him, but now more official sources are sometimes echoing what Fischer has been saying. An article in CQ Researcher, an offshoot of Congressional Quarterly, cites sociologists Fischer and Eric Klinenberg, both skeptical about any increase in loneliness. And Sasse’s Senate colleague Mike Lee (R Utah), or whoever is doing the research and writing on his Webpage, says, “It is not at all clear that loneliness has increased over the last several decades.”

Still, we get articles like the one by Arthur Brooks, and Brooks is a man who respects sociological research. Why, in spite of all the evidence, does it seem as though Americans are getting lonelier and lonelier? I have an idea, which I will leave for a latter post.

About Joni Mitchell

November 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.

Fifty years ago, liking her music was so cool. But by the end of the century, that had changed, as I painfully realized when I saw “About a Boy.” She had become the punch line to a joke.

It’s not that Joni herself changed, though she did, nor that her music changed, though it did. But what had changed was the liking of her music. It has followed a cycle roughly similar to what Jenn Lena in Banding Together calls “genres,” from “avant garde” to “tradionalist.”

The boy in “About a Boy” is about is Marcus, a twelve-year old who lives with his mother Fiona.

Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird.. . she didn't want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do any of the things that any of the other kids spent their time doing, he had to argue with her for hours.

She likes Joni Mitchell, and so does he. The two of them sing Joni Mitchell songs together. The scene in the movie — mother and son in the kitchen, singing not especially well — is painful to watch.

The political and cultural preferences Marcus has adopted from his mother do not do him much good outside the home, especially at his new school.

If he tried to tell Lee Hartley — the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he'd met yesterday — that he didn't approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn't want to be called.

Into their life comes Will (Hugh Grant in the movie), who makes it his mission to separate Marcus culturally from his mother, to transform Marcus into someone the other kids will not bully. He introduces Marcus to music that is more generationally appropriate, as in this clip.  (I’d embed it here, but the clip is Mystikal, and this post is supposed to be about Joni Mitchell.)

In the end Will is successful. The final lines of the book are reminiscent of the “K-Mart sucks” ending of “Rain Man.”

Will decided to give Marcus a little test. “Hey Fiona. Why don’t you get your music and we can all sing a Joni Mitchell song?”...

But Will was watching Marcus’s face carefully. Marcus was looking really embarrassed. “Please, Mum. Don’t.”

“But Marcus, you love singing. You love Joni Mitchell.”

“I don’t. Not now. I hate Joni Mitchell.”

Will knew then, without any doubt, that Marcus would be OK.