Mrs. Maisel Gets One Right

December 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Since the new season of Mrs. Maisel dropped not long ago, my post from nearly two years ago about its language anachronisms (here) has been getting some action. It’s still the most frequently viewed and commented-on item on this blog, and some of the newer comments made it clear that the anachronisms were still in bloom.

I watched first couple of episodes recently, and sure enough, in Episode 2, “It’s the Sixties, Man!” we got contextualize.



In a blog post (here) about trendy words at the ASA meetings, I  cited contextualize, but that was a report from academia in 2013, not New York family life in the early 1960s.

To the show’s credit, it did have a period-perfect language moment. Joel has been speaking with the older Chinese couple who own the Chinatown space he has rented, planning to turn it into a club. He discovers that the space includes a Chinese gambling parlor. Worried about trouble from the police, he meets with the owners. After some back-and-forth to deal with Joel’s fears, the couple — through their translator,* the young med-student Mei — allude to a murder, significantly raising Joel’s level of anxiety.

After the Chinese couple leave, Joel is discussing the matter with Mei. What about the murder, he asks.


Talk of the “put-on” and “putting you on” came on the scene in the late 1950s, starting among young, hip people like Mei and eventually spreading throughout the society. I thought that its use had declined in the 21st century, but Google nGrams shows that at least until 2000, it was still found in books.


Still, my impression is that we rarely refer to “putting people on” these days. But what has replaced it?

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* Another anachronism for anyone still keeping score — a language anachronism of sorts : the owners are speaking Mandarin. In the early 1960s, the language spoken in Chinatown was Cantonese. Immigration from Mandarin-speaking areas of China did not begin until the 1970s at the earliest.

Acting and Reacting as an Agent of Culture — Moi?

December 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

A long time ago I heard Margaret Mead speak, and one of the only things I remember her saying was this: “A society has to teach its cultural ideas to its children in terms so clear that even a social scientist can understand them.”

I am, allegedly, a social scientist, but only an encounter with something very unusual can jar me into seeing my own culture. Like most people, I usually take it for granted, like the air we breathe. That was the point of the previous post, where a psychologist was urging dog owners to give their dogs more choice. It took this extending of human culture to canines to remind me of the great emphasis American culture gives to individual independence and choice. All those times that I had heard parents, me included, ask their kids if they wanted Cheerios or Chex, it had never occurred to me that we were drilling a particular American value into the minds of our little tots. I thought we were just being parents.

I had a similar cultural-blindness experience a few years ago. A student born and raised in Turkey came for his obligatory meeting with his advisor — me. He was a grown man in his forties. “What courses I should take?” he asked. I explained about the core requirements and recommended he take the first in the sequence. “And then there are the electives” I said and showed him the list.

“Which courses I should take?

I explained that these were electives. He could take any of the ones we were offering that semester. If you’re interested in family, you could take that course, I said. If you’re interested in religion, we have that elective.

“Yes, but which ones I should take.”

I found it incredibly frustrating. What was so complicated about the concept of electives? It did not occur to me that our differences were cultural. I was so thoroughly an American I that could not imagine anyone rejecting the freedom to make their own choice of courses. Who would not seize that opportunity? Only someone who did not understand.

In retrospect, I now think that he did in fact understand. He just didn’t think it was such a great idea that the choice should be made by him rather than by a professor — department chair no less — who knew much more about the courses and the instructors. Maybe he was right.

There’s something else to be said for his approach. It creates a personal link between the advisor and the student in a way that the independent-choice model conveniently avoids. When he was asking me to choose courses for him, the thought crossed my mind that I could tell him to sign up for some of the low-enrolled courses that were in danger of being cancelled — courses students were avoiding because of the reputation of the course, the instructor, or both. That certainly would have made things easier for me as department chair. But I now felt that I had to look out for his best interests as well. I felt an obligation that was different and perhaps stronger that what I would feel towards other students.

As I say, when all this was happening, I didn’t think about the underlying cultural differences. I just felt uncomfortable. I will leave for another post the time when he presented me with a large assortment of almonds, figs, pistachios, etc., while I tried to explain to him the university rules about gifts.

Raise Your Dog to be an American

December 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My local online webiste WestSideRag today ran an article with the title “Barnard Researcher Has Studied The Minds of Upper West Side Dogs, and They’re Way More Complicated Than You Think.”

I don’t have a dog, but I started reading.* And as I did, I saw that while the article was about dogs, it was more importantly a document about American culture, particularly our values and beliefs about Choice. We value individual choice as inherently good. We also believe that choice is beneficial and that denying people the freedom to choose will in some way harm them. So we insist that people make their own choices.

Recognizing the wonderfulness of choice is not something that comes naturally. You have to be carefully taught. And it’s never too early to start. It’s just that most of the time, we don’t think that we are hammering American cultural ideas into our kids’ psyches. We just think we’re raising them the right way.

In My Freshman Year, an ethnography of an American university, Rebekah Nathan** includes a chapter (“As Others See Us”) about the perceptions of the foreign students. A Korean student tells her:

Everything here is: “What do you want?” “What do you think?” “What do you like?” Even little children have preferences and interests in this country. I hear parents in . restaurants. They ask. a three-year-old child, “Do you want French fries or potato chips?” Every little kid in this country can tell you, “I like green beans but not spinach, I like vanilla but not chocolate, and my favorite color is blue.”

If we think it’s good for three-year olds to make their own choices, why not dogs?

All dog owners should allow their dog to make certain choices, according to Horowitz, who strongly believes that giving dogs choices increases their welfare. . . . Owners should “allow the dog to make their own choice as opposed to your definition of the walk.” She recognizes that people want to feel in control, but points out “what we are in control of is to let the dog have a life in which the dog is partly choosing. This is something we want to give to anyone we love.”

WestSideRag has a relatively small readership — we’re not talking Slate.com — and an article extending our ideas about choice to dogs is extreme. But often the extreme case can call attention to the less extreme versions that are widely taken for granted and unnoticed. In America, even those with a more authoritarian outlook find it hard to refute arguments based on the idea of choice. It’s not just liberals who ask their kids what kind of cereal they want. 

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* What originally drew me to the article was the opening paragraph, which contained a pun that I am nearly certain was unintended.

(Click on the box for a larger and clearer version.)

** “Rebekah Nathan” is a nom de plume. The author, Cathy Small, probably wanted to remain anonymous since she was writing about the school where she teaches. The ruse did not work for very long.

“Real” Disney Princesses

December 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you if you’re a good feminist parent — you want kids to see genders as similar, not exaggeratedly different — and your daughters keep watching those Disney princess movies?

If you’re Philip Cohen, you start blogging about gender dimorphism to call attention to how unrealistically the Disney characters are drawn. The blogposts have titles like “Disney’s dimorphism, ‘Help! My eyeball is bigger than my wrist!’ edition.” You link to data about the sizes of hands, wrists, necks, etc. among real men and women.*

A post gets picked up at more widely read sites like Slate, and you get comments complaining that  “The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.”

Maybe you wonder: What if someone Photoshopped the Disney characters to make them look more like real people? Well, someone has. Jirka Vinse Jonatan Väätäinen, a graphic designer in Finland (not too far from “Frozen” territory) has shrunk those princess eyeballs, enlarged those princess wrists and necks, and posted the results on his Website (here). See if you can tell which is which.


(Click for a larger view.)

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*You can find Philip’s dimorphism posts at his Family Inequality blog here.

Sacred Interiors — Full and Empty

December 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other by Haru Yamada. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, but I just now started reading it and came across this.

This contrast between the Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist viewpoints is probably what prompted my mother to look up at the domed ceiling of a Catholic church in Florence painted with cherubs and scenes of men and women in heaven and hell, and say, “I guess the idea is to fill your mind with sacred thoughts, not to empty it.”

Okaasan (Mom) nailed it.

(Ceiling of the Duomo in Florence — Brunelleschi, 1436.
Click on an image to enlarge.)

 (Tenryuji in Kyoto. Originally built in 1339.)

Replication Complications

December 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some people can tell a joke. Others can’t. Same joke. One person has everyone laughing, the other gets zilch. Does the null response mean that the joke isn’t funny?

 What we have here is a failure to replicate.

 A couple of days ago, the Psychology Archive (PsyArXiv) published results showing a failure to replicate an experiment on Terror Management Theory (TMT).* Among the possible reasons for this failure, the authors say,

There was substantial nuance required in implementing a successful TMT study. . . . These nuances include how the experimenter delivers the experimental script (tone, manner ). . .

I offered this same idea five years ago. I didn’t use the term “nuance.” Instead, I speculated that some experimenters knew how to “sell it” —  “it” in this case being the basic manipulation or deception in the experimental set-up. You can read the whole post (here), but here’s a somewhat shorter replication. I’m copy-and-pasting because as we get more results from replication studies, it’s still relevant. Also, I liked it.

*              *            *             *


One of the seminal experiments in cognitive dissonance is the one-dollar-twenty-dollar lie, more widely known as Aronson and Carlsmith, 1963. Carlsmith was J. Merrill Carlsmith. The name itself seems like something from central casting, and so did the man – a mild mannered, WASP who prepped at Andover, etc. Aronson is Eliot Aronson, one of the godfathers of social psychology, a Jewish kid from Revere, a decidedly non-preppy city just north of Boston.

In the experiment, the subject was given a boring task to do — taking spools out of a rack and then putting them back, again and again — while Carlsmith as experimenter stood there with a stopwatch. The next step was to convince the subject to help the experimenter. In his memoir, Not by Chance Alone, Aronson, describes the scenario.

[Merrill] would explain that he was testing the hypothesis that people work faster if they are told in advance that the tast is incredibly interesting than if they are told nothing and informed, “You were in the control condition. That is why you were told nothing.”

At this point Merrill would say that the guy who was supposed to give the ecstatic description to the next subject had just phoned in to say he couldn't make it. Merrill would beg the “control” subject to do him a favor and play the role, offering him a dollar (or twenty dollars) to do it. Once the subject agreed, Merrill was to give him the money and a sheet listing the main things to say praising the experiment and leave him alone for a few minutes to prepare.

But Carlsmith could not do a credible job. Subjects immediately became suspicious.

It was crystal clear why the subjects weren't buying it: He wasn't selling it. Leon [Festinger] said to me, “Train him.”


Sell it. If you’ve seen “American Hustle,” you might remember the scene where Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is trying to show the FBI agent disguised as an Arab prince how to give a gift to the politician they are setting up.  (The relevant part starts at 0:12 and ends at about 0:38)



Here is the script:


Aronson had to do something similar, and he had the qualifications. As a teenager, he had worked at a Fascination booth on the boardwalk in Revere, Massachusetts, reeling off a spiel to draw strollers in to try their luck.

Walk right in, sit in, get a seat, get a ball. Play poker for a nickel. . . You get five rubber balls. You roll them nice and easy . . . Any three of a kind or better poker hand, and you are a winner. So walk in, sit in, play poker for a nickel. Five cents. Hey! There’s three jacks on table number 27. Payoff that lucky winner!

Twenty years later, he still had the knack, and he could impart it to others.

I gave Merrill a crash course in acting. “You don't simply saythat the assistant hasn't shown up,” I said. “You fidget, you sweat, you pace up and down, you wring your hands, you convey to the subject that you are in real trouble here. And then, you act as if you just now got an idea. You look at the subject, and you brighten up. ‘You! You can do this for me. I can even pay you.’”

The deception worked, and the experiment worked. When asked to say how interesting the task was, the $1 subjects give it higher ratings than did the $20 subjects. Less pay for lying, more attitude shift.

 The experiment is now part of the cognitive dissonance canon. Surely, others have tried to replicate it. Maybe some replications have not gotten similar results. But that does not mean we should toss cognitive dissonance out of the boat. The same may be true for TMT. It’s just that some experimenters are good at instilling terror, and others are not.

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  * If you’ve never heard of TMT (I hadn’t), it’s basically the idea that if you get people to think about their own mortality, their attitudes will become more defensive about themselves and their group. Of the twenty-one replications, a very few got results that supported TMT, a very few got results that contradicted TMT. Most found no statistically significant or meaningful differences. 

Here’s the set-up for the independent variable: The subjects in the Terror condition were asked to write about “the emotions they experienced when thinking about their own death, and about what would happen to their physical body as they were dying and once they were dead.” The non-Terror subjects were asked to write about the same things about watching television — e.g., what happens to your physical body when you watch TV. (I am not making this up.)

Methodological Trees and Forests

December 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The units of analysis that researchers choose usually constrain the explanations they come up with. Measuring variables on individuals makes it harder to see the effects of larger units like neighborhoods.

For example, much research has found a correlation between female-headed households and crime. Most explanations for this correlation focus on the households, with much talk about the lack of role models or the quality of parent-child interaction. But these explanations are looking at individual trees and ignoring the forest. The better question is not “What are the effects of growing up in a single-parent home?” It’s “What are the effects of growing up in a neighborhood where half the households are headed by single mothers?”

In the early 1990s, I wrote a criminology textbook, and one of the things that differentiated it from others was that it took seriously the idea of neighborhoods and neighborhood-level variables.

That was then. But now, Christina Cross in a recent Times op-ed makes a similar argument. Research generally shows that it’s better for kids to grow up with two parents rather than one. That fits with our assumptions about “broken homes” even if we now call them “single-parent households.” But Cross’s research finds a crucial Black-White difference in the importance of this one dimension of family structure.

Looking at educational outcomes, she finds that White kids from two-parent families do much better than their single-parent counterparts. But for Black kids, the advantage of a two-parent home is not so great.
living in a single-mother family does not decrease the chances of on-time high school completion as significantly for black youths as for white youths. Conversely, living in a two-parent family does not increase the chances of finishing high school as much for black students as for their white peers.

 Why does a two-parent family have less impact among Blacks? Cross looks at two explanations. The first is that the effect of a very low-income neighborhood (“socioeconomically stressful environments”) is so great that it washes out most of the effect of the number of parents inside the home. For a kid growing up in an area with a high concentration of poverty, having a father at home might make a difference, but that difference will be relatively small, especially if the father is unemployed or working for poverty-level wages.

The other explanation is that having other relatives close by mitigates the impact of having only one parent in the home. Cross says that her data supports this idea, but the extend-family network explanation is not nearly as powerful as the neighborhood-poverty explanation.

For policy-makers, what all this means is that the traditional conservative, individual-based solutions miss the point. Exhorting people to stay married (and providing costly government programs along the same lines) aren’t going to have much impact as long as we still have racially segregated neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment and poverty.

The message for researchers is similar: if you confine your thinking or your variables to individuals, you risk ignoring more important variables.

Whatever Happened to “Broken Homes”?

December 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Just think about the last time you heard someone use the term “broken home” or “single-parent household” to explain the misbehavior or misfortune of a person in your social circle.” That’s from an Times op-ed (here) by Christina Cross, a sociology post-doc at Harvard.

I think the last time I heard “broken homes” was before Ms. Cross was born. It’s so 1950s, with its judgmental pronouncement on families that didn’t look like “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best.” In the 70s, as more middle-class people were getting divorced, we needed a less value-laden term. Enter “single parent.”

(Google nGrams shows the frequency of words in books, so the change in the use of these terms in the media and everyday talk probably happens a year or two earlier.)


“Single-parent” is not as blatantly stigmatizing as “broken homes,” but when we hear it, we still think that something is wrong. The more important point the Ms.  Cross makes is that broken homes — the harmful outcomes they bring — may be much more consequential for Whites than for Blacks. I hope to get to that in a later post. But for now, I'll just point out that the sharp decline in mentions of “single-parent” starting in the early 90s tracks with the decline of teen crime and teen pregnancy in the same period.

Alumn. . .us / a / i / ae / x?

December 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Welsey Yang, a writer by trade, must have been browsing messages from his alma mater, Rutgers, when this caught his attention. He posted it to Twitter.

(Click on an image for a larger view. I have added the blue oval for emphasis.)

English has a problem with words that are imported from Latin and Romance languages. What do we do about the gender and number that require Latin to have four different forms of the word? Alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae. It’s just too many to keep track of, especially since the plurals, masculine and feminine, sound alike.

The simple solution is to use a single form of the word to cover everyone, and that’s what many people have done. For that single form, there are two choices. One is alum, plural alums, which conveniently gets rid of those gendered endings in the Latin versions.

The other is the all-purpose alumni, which many Engish speakers now use indiscriminately for either gender and for singular or plural. It must drive Latin scholars up the ivy-covered wall. Both of these have been getting more popular lately. I searched for them on Nexis-Uni’s database of news sources.


(Some of the increase in these numbers may be attributable to the increased size of the Nexis database. But I doubt that it has grown by the multiple of 20-30 since the 1990s that we see for an alum and an alumni.)

A Google search for “she is an alumni of” gets 177,000 results, slightly less than the 191,000 for “she is an alumna of.” For men, “an alumnus” still outscores “an alumi” by a factor of 10, but that includes a lot of old sources. I would be that the ratio decreases with time.

Personally, I would avoid the problem completely and go with graduates or, in less formal settings, grads.

The Rutgers Linguistic department has a different solution to the problem of gender: the very recent coinage alumnx, the word that inspired Yang to tweet. It’s a different sort of solution. The ungendered alum and the all-purpose alumni seem to have cropped up unplanned and without any ax to grind. But alumnx is a deliberate effort to change the language. What’s interesting here, as one of the Yang’s commenters points out, is that as linguists the department members are descriptivists, more interested in describing how people actually use language than in telling people which words to use. But here they prescribing alumnx as the correct way avoid the less woke Latin forms.

My guess is that these x-words will have a short life. Most people don’t care much about the politics of speech and have little interest in changing. Remember “Freedom Fries”? Worse, alumnx and Latinx don’t resemble real words in English or in any other language.* It’s one thing to replace the “man” in policeman or fireman. “Police officer” and “fire fighter” were already part of the language well before the feminists of the 1960s called our attention to the sexism of the more frequently used terms.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these x-words will become as much a part of the language as Ms. In any case, I expect that the members of the department will, as descriptivist language researchers, monitor how well they are doing as prescriptivist language changers. (Or is it changerx?)

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* Latinx has similar problems. It’s not very popular among the people it is meant to designate, probably because neither English nor Spanish has words in this form. Terry Blas suggests (here) that a better gender-neutral solution would be an “e” rather than an “x” — Latine and Latines.

My So-Called War Crimes

December 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I first saw this item in my Google News feed, I thought it must be from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.

 But no, it was real, from the Daily Beast not a parody site. “If Donald Trump gets his wish, he’ll soon take the three convicted or accused war criminals he spared from consequence on the road as special guests in his re-election campaign.”

Why would war criminals be an asset for Trump? Trump’s base. of course, will not abandon him no matter what he does. But what is the gain? What virtues do these men embody that will pump up the enthusiasm and perhaps attract others.

First, let’s meet the war criminal who Trump has supported most strongly.

Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck. A week later, Chief Gallagher sent a friend in California a text with a photo of himself with a knife in one hand, holding the captive up by the hair with the other. “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife,” he wrote. [NYT ]

Gallagher was acquitted of murder when another SEAL claimed to have killed the victim first, cutting off his breathing tube as an act of mercy. But apparently Trump and those who share his views think there’s something noble about knifing a dead man in the neck. Certainly Chief Gallagher thinks it’s something to brag about.

One SEAL sniper told investigators he heard a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then saw a schoolgirl in a flower-print hijab crumple to the ground. Another sniper reported hearing a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then seeing a man carrying a water jug fall, a red blotch spreading on his back. Neither episode was investigated and the fate of the civilians remains unknown.

The Times is being extremely careful here, saying that the fate of the civilians Gallagher shot “remains unknown.” But take a wild guess.

At trial, the SEALs were found not guilty.* But while the evidence may not have been sufficient for the military jury to convict the men, it was enough for the Navy to seek their removal from the SEALs. Trump intervened and forced the Secretary of the Navy to resign, effectively allowing Gallagher and the others to remain as SEALs.

What makes Gallagher so appealing to Trump, his followers, and Fox News? They deny the accusations, of course, but even if the men had been convicted, the case elicits ideas and emotions that are essential elements of much conservative world view in the US these days.

To begin with, supporting the SEALs requires a strong sense of tribalism. This tribalism goes far beyond the “loyalty” Jonathan Haidt sees as a “moral foundation” of conservative thinking. Tribalism sees the world as Them against Us. We are under constant threat from Them. This view obviously pervades domestic politics, where Trump’s go-to strategy has been to claim that Democrats are out to get him.** In foreign policy, it means that anything We do to Them is justified. Anything. Trump has voiced his preferences for torture, cages for border-crossing children, alligator-filled moats, and nuclear bombs, all on the grounds that these protect America from its various enemies. The willful killing of civilians easily fits into the list.

Therefore, We must defend the actual people who carry out these actions — the protectors of the country (the military, border guards, ICE) and the protectors of the social order (police). In practice, this means that there are no restraints on what they can do to people who are not Us or to people who dissent from or threaten the social order. So long as soldiers and cops are ostensibly doing their job, anything goes.

This defense of those who protect our tribe has an obvious corollary:  American autonomy, an innocuous term for the idea that we should not be involved in any relationship of mutual regulation or obligation with other countries. “World government” has long been a trigger for the right, and they remain suspicious of the UN and other international pacts. What are “war crimes” after all except the product of international law, a concept which to US conservatives is illegitimate. So on Fox News, the shooting of a little girl or the knifing a wounded prisoner in the neck are “so-called war crimes.” The law that criminalizes these actions, in the America-first view, is not legitimate and is therefore null and void. No law, no crime.

Finally, the Trumpists see Gallagher as an example of the conservative ideal of masculinity. I have gone on too long already, and this really needs no further explanation. It’s enough to note that Trump refers to him admiringly as a “warrior.”
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*For most of the charges, the prosecution had no hard evidence, only the testimony of other SEALs.  The court convicted Gallagher on one count — the taking of a picture of the dead ISIS fighter. Kind of hard to ignore that photo he sent around. As for sniping at civilians, when Gallagher was shooting at the young girl, he didn’t take any selfies.

** This “out to get us” strategy was also part of Gallagher’s defense. His lawyers argued that the men who testified against him were motivated by a desire to get rid of him.

Cred — Authorship and Authenticity

November 25, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marjoe Gortner was a child prodigy Evangelical preacher. The 1972 documentary “Marjoe” includes home movies of him preaching at age four. The film, made when he was in his late twenties, shows him still at it, preaching to large crowds.  The spiritual and religious uplift he gives is palpable. But the film also shows Marjoe offstage saying to the filmmakers, “I can’t remember a time when I actually believed in God.” 

If a man does not practice what he preaches, must we ignore the content of the sermon? It might be a very good sermon. It might so what a sermon is supposed to do — cause many in the congregation to become more religious and more virtuous. Should we tell them to instead cover their ears?

Yesterday, I saw this tweet.

I recently peer reviewed a feminist article that cited Michael Kimmel’s work on how to be a “good man.” To state the obvious, this man has lost all credibility as an expert on this topic. Stop citing him. #MeToo  #MeTooPhD #MeTooSociology #AcademicChatter #AcademicTwitter
Advice on how to be a good man, much like a sermon, is prescriptive. Once we learn that the preacher is an atheist, we probably won’t go to the next revival meeting. But what about works that are descriptive? Does the author’s behavior invalidate his expertise and  accuracy?

Not that long ago, Jack-Alain Léger, a White Frenchman, wrote books under the Arab-sounding name Paul Smaïl.

The first Smaïl novel, “Vivre Me Tue” (“Living Kills Me”), was published in 1997, and its author was received as a genuine voice of the Beur community. [Beur is a slang term for North Africans living in France.] North Africa specialists were as fooled as anyone else. Sales were strong; a successful movie adaptation was produced; subsequent Smaïl novels were published; and people wrote dissertations on the work of Paul Smaïl. [Christopher L. Miller, Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity]

When the hoax was revealed, many people were outraged. The book was derided as inauthentic, incompetent, and racist. But as Miller says, “Léger was delighted to point out that until he emerged as the real author the books had seemed Beur enough to everybody.” In the same way, until the accusations against Kimmel became public, his writings seemed feminist enough to everybody.

But Kimmel is a social scientist. Smaïl’s novels were fiction. Are the rules stricter for social science? Should we require a higher level of authenticity, of congruence between the qualities and character of the writer and the content of the publications?
 
In a recent blog post (here ) Andrew Gelman asks this question, putting it the same way we might ask it of fiction: “Does authorship matter at all?”*

Gelman blogs frequently about seriously flawed research, including outright fraud, and I expected that his answer would be “No. The data and analysis speak for themselves.” I was wrong.

Information about the authors can give a paper some street-cred. For example, remember that paper claiming that single women were 20 percentage points more likely to support Barack Obama during certain times of the month? That paper had both male and female authors. If all the authors were male, I wonder if it would’ve been considered too silly or too offensive to publish or to promote. [emphasis added]

Gelman writes mostly about quantitative research, so he is concerned with “any misrepresentation of data and metadata, which includes authorship as well as details of how an experiment was carried out, what steps were done in data processing and analysis, and so on.” So if we learn that the authors were not who they claimed to be, we should look very carefully at the details.

The accusations against Kimmel have cost him whatever street cred he might have had as a feminist and perhaps as a sociologist. I imagine he is now having a hard time getting his work published.

But read “Raise Your Son to Be a Good Man, Not a ‘Real’ Man” (here)    published just a few months before the accusations became public, and see if you think that its advice should be cancelled.

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* It was Gelman’s post that led me to Léger/Smaïl. Gelman had been reading Louis Menand’s New Yorker article, which was based largely on Miller’s Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity.

Brought to You by the Number 九十二

November 23, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

We were at 79th and Broadway, and I wanted to tell the French couple that they had to go up to 98th St. I had overheard them looking at their phone and puzzling about directions. I don’t get much chance to speak French, so I asked, in French, if I could help them.

Il faut aller jusqu’au . . .” I started, but it took me an extra moment to remember how to say “98" in French. “Au quatre-vingt dix huitième.”

I remember that my brother, a statistician by trade, once commented that France has had a disproportionate number of noted mathematicians, and he wondered if the difference might have something to do with how kids learn to count. Compared with English, counting in French involves more sophisticated mathematical operations. Once you get past 69, you can no longer use the base-10 template that worked for numbers in the 20s, 30s, and so on. Seventy is soixante-dix (sixty-ten); seventy-nine is soixante-dix neuf (sixty ten nine).*

After that you have to throw in some multiplication. Eighty is quatre-vingt (four twenty), and ninety-eight is quatre-vingt dix huit (four twenty ten eight) — 4 x 20 +10 +8.

In a recent BBC article (here), Anand Jagatia discusses the idea that how we count affects our ability in math. English, French, Dutch, Welsh all have slightly different ways of naming numbers. The biggest contrast is between Western systems and those of East Asia. 
 
In Mandarin, 92 is written ji shí èr, which translates as “nine ten two”. Japanese and Korean also use similar conventions. . . . Psychologists call systems like these “transparent”, where there is an obvious and consistent link between numbers and their names. There’s growing evidence that the transparency of a counting system can affect the way we process numbers.

The point is clearer if you use numbers rather than words — not “nine ten two” but “9 10 2.” To translate the Western “92” into math, you have to know about the tens place and the ones place. The Asian “9 10 2” shows more simply how the larger number is constructed from the smaller ones.

Does it make a difference?

Children who count in East Asian languages may have a better understanding of the base-10 system.

In one study, first-grade children were asked to represent numbers like 42 using blocks of tens and units. Those from the US, France or Sweden were more likely to use 42 individual unit blocks, while those from Japan or Korea were more likely to use four blocks of ten and two single-unit blocks, which suggests that the children’s early mental representation of numbers may have been shaped by their language. [emphasis added]


I’m not sure what the evidence is on the stereotype notion that Asian students do better in math than do Western students. But if there is any factual basis, maybe the language of numbers accounts for some of the difference.

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* Belgians speak French, but they have simplified the numbers. Seventy and ninety are, respectively, septante and novante --- yet another reason for the French to look down on les belges. For some reason, eighty remains quatre-vingt.

Edward Shils

November 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fabio linked to this recent tribute to Edward Shils by critic Joseph Epstein in Commentary. Shils was a brilliant man, a polymath. As Epstein says, “His writing . . . often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel.” He was on the faculty at the University of Chicago, in both the Sociology Department and the Committee on Social Thought.

Two passages in Epstein’s piece caught my attention. In one, Epstein writes approvingly of Shils’s willingness to use the autocratic power of the university administration to stifle dissent.

When graduate students occupied the university’s administration building during the 1960s student protests, Levi [the president of the university], on Edward’s advice, told them to evacuate the building or be removed from the university. Those who chose to remain were summarily expelled, their principles intact but (in many cases) their academic careers ruined.

(One of the characterological hazards of being a conservative is smugness. Instead of  comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, conservatives often find pleasure in the afflicting of the afflicted. The final clause in that passage is a good example. Ah, those ruined careers. Serves ’em right. Epstein, in case it wasn’t clear, is a long-time conservative who regularly writes for conservative publications like Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.)

In another passage, Epstein speaks of Shils’s forthrightness (“he was a person who knew his mind and spoke it without looking over his shoulder”). For example,

He told me that at a dinner party he once queried a married woman who spoke admiringly of Philip Roth about what must be her concomitant admiration for adultery, since that was one of the specialties in Roth’s fiction

This is an incredibly stupid remark. It’s like saying that readers who admire Agatha Christie must also admire actual murder. (And by the way, since few of Roth’s protagonists are married, there isn’t all that much adultery in his novels. Deception is the most notable exception.) Yet here is Shils bragging to Epstein about insulting this woman as though his remark were a gem of Oscar Wilde-like wit. So yeah, Shils was brilliant, but not all the time.

Even dumber is that Epstein, in this remembrance of his “dear friend” chooses to include Shils’s bon mot. Much of Epstein’s writing over the years has been about literature (other topics as well, but mainly literature), and he himself has written many short stories. Surely he must appreciate the difference between fiction and reality.  Yet he repeats without comment Shils’s conflation of the two.

I was tempted to give this post the title “When Smart People Say Stupid Things.” Nil nisi bonum and all that, but Shils died 24 years ago, and Epstein is still alive and writing.

Proclaiming an Idealized History

November 6, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“These people don’t have mothers and fathers. They have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”

I read Roger Brown’s excellent textbook Social Psychology at least four decades ago, but I still remember that sentence. It’s from the chapter on the authoritarian personality.  Most people when asked about their parents give more or less objective assessments. But those who score high on measures of authoritarianism paint a highly idealized portrait.

That preference for seeing only the ideal may apply not just to the home but to the homeland.

The sentence came to mind when I was reading a WaPo story today about the Presidential Proclamation making November the National American History and Founders Month. In case you hadn’t heard, President Trump issued that proclamation last week. NAH&FM is a new one, sharing November with, among others, National Family Caregivers Month and Heart Month, which Trump also proclaimed as did his predecessors. But those presidents, since Bush 41 have also proclaimed November as National Native American Heritage Month.  Last week, that proclamation did not appear.

Some people jumped to the conclusion that Trump was substituting the Founding Fathers for Native Americans. Not true. The Native American Heritage Month proclamation did appear on the White House website, though not till  yesterday and backdated to Oct. 31. But the larger point remains: Trump and his hardcore conservative supporters refuse to acknowledge any flawed motives in anything that the US — or Trump — has ever done. That includes the heritage of Native Americans, which on its face certainly raises questions about the motives and behavior of White men in America.

National Native American Heritage Month is a tacit acknowledgment of past sins, as if to say, “Yes, we may have stolen your land and slaughtered your people by the tens of thousands in the process, but we’ll give you a piece of November each year to make up for it.”  Trump’s proclamation does not, of course, mention any of that. Instead, in typical Trump fashion — “this isn’t about you, it’s about me” — it advertises all the wonderful things “my Administration” (the phrase appears five times in five short paragraphs) is doing for Native Americans.

Why add National American History and Founders Month? The proclamation explains. “To continue to advance liberty and prosperity, we must ensure the next generation of leaders is steeped in the proud history of our country.” That sounds nice, but immediately the critics chimed in. “Some historians slammed the statement for an oversimplified and glorified portrayal of a national history that is far more complex.” Well, what do they expect — complexity? From a Presidential Proclamation? From Donald Trump?

Still, the criticism speaks to an idealized version of American promoted by conservatives, and not just in proclamations at WhiteHouse.gov. Red staters who protest the removal of statues of Confederate heroes, for example, and who continue to display the Confederate flag prefer a history where secession had no trace of tainted motives — motives like racism. In a similar way, conservatives find no impure intent in what White people did in the the westward expansion. Or if they do allow that some bad things happened, they see these in a “balanced” way, much like Trump’s view of the White nationalist rally in Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”).

Here for example is the conclusion to a long article in the right-wing magazine Commentary:

In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash.

That was written in 2004, more than a decade before Trump echoed the “well-meaning people in both camps” idea. It is yet another example of belief that even if the US winds up doing terrible things, we should be judged by our intentions. Even if we did kill all those Indians and take their land, our hearts and our homeland are always pure. A happy November to all.

How to Lie About Statistics — “Steady” vs. “Strong”

November 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Evangelicals support Trump so strongly not because he promotes Christian values or beliefs and certainly not because he embodies or practices those values. They support him because he symbolizes the dominant position of White Protestants in the US. That was the gist of the previous post.

Just to make sure that this was about group identity and not Evangelical religious principles, I checked the Internet for information on Trump support among Black Evangelicals. If Trump’s appeal is tied to religious values, then Blacks should support Trump as strongly as do Whites. Sure enough, I found this headline in an article the appeared last March in the Washington Examiner. The article is reporting the results of a Pew survey.



It certainly sounds as though Trump is popular among Black Protestants. But the Examiner leans heavily to the right, so it’s best to look at the graphs of the Pew data.


Only 12% approved of Trump, and that percent was unchanged from a year earlier. So the Black Protestant support for Trump was “steady.” You could even say it was “firm.” It’s not a lie; it’s just misleading.

The headline could just as accurately been, “Decline in White Evangelical Support for Trump.”

Evangelicals for Trump — It’s Not About Religion

November 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Evangelicals remain unwavering in their support for Trump, much to the puzzlement and consternation of those on the left. On Friday, Josh Marshall tweeted, “this is basically the most profound insult to christianity i have ever heard.” The insult was delivered by Robert Jeffress, an Evangelical megachurch pastor and frequent guest on Fox.

We’re going to talk about lobbying for those values that the President embraces. . . .Never in the history of America have we had a president who was a stronger warrior for the Judaeo-Christian principles upon which this nation was foundedthan in Donald J. Trump. . . The effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply held faith values. [The tweet and a video of the quote are here. ]

The Fox host, as far as I know, did not ask which Judaeo-Christian principles the pastor had in mind. There’s abortion of course. But what principles apply to Trump’s other achievements — tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, or anyone else for that matter; barring immigrants; reducing regulations on business, or raising tariffs? 

Evangelical support for Trump isn’t about policies, and it isn’t about religion or principles. It’s about “status politics” or what we now call “identity politics.” In status politics, the question is not which policies will prevail. Those policies are important not for their practical outcomes but for their symbolic value. The real question is “Whose country this is?”

Ten years ago, people like Pastor Jeffress and his followers opposed Obamacare not so much because of its effects on healthcare but because the change symbolized a lowering of their status. It was saying that people like them — White, Protestant, non-urban — were not longer the dominant group in the nation. (See this earlier post about healthcare and Prohibition as status politics.)

In that post, I said, “the election of Obama and now the possibility that he will enact a real change confronts them with the reality of their loss of dominance. That’s why they see health care in such apocalyptic terms.”

Today, these same people have tied their status not to any issue or policy but to a single person — Trump. They see the specter of Trump being removed from office, whether by impeachment or an election, as a huge threat. But what is threatened is not their “deeply held faith values” as the pastor says. It’s their status position of dominance.

Remembering Clifford

October 30, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Clifford Brown, the brilliant jazz trumpet player, would have been 89 today. He died at the age of 25 in an automobile accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s a poignant irony that one of his earliest jazz recording dates was with J.J. Johnson and included J.J.’s tune “Turnpike.”

Here is his best-known tune and recording — “Joy Spring.” Learning to play Brownie’s solo  (you can follow along with the transcription below) is part of the education of any serious jazz trumpet player. Ask Fabio.



After Brownie’s death, Benny Golson wrote a tune in tribute, “I Remember Clifford.” It is part of the repertoire of every trumpeter. Every trumpeter. There’s an old jazz joke:

A small combo — rhythm section and trumpet — has a gig, and at the last minute the trumpet player has to bow out. So they quickly get the first trumpeter they can find. The guy shows up with his horn, and as they’re talking about what they might play, he says that he only knows three tunes.
   
That’s OK, they say (they’re desperate). We can play them in different keys and different tempos, and somehow we’ll get through the night. What are the tunes?

“The Star Spangled Banner,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” and “I Remember Clifford.”

Not All Small-Town, Working-class Business Owners

October 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cone-E Island, Catskill, NY last Saturday.

(Click for a larger view.)

The sign says Fall Hours are 12 to 9 p.m. (you can read it if you click to expand the picture), but even though this was a beautiful autumn day, Cone-E Island was closed.

“Wanna buy it?” called out a raspy voice. As I was taking pictures, a pick-up truck had driven up and stopped. The driver was a man of sixty or so, fat and wearing a t-shirt. I walked over and asked the obvious question. “Three-fifty,” the man said.

A chocolate brown dog that looked to be part pit bull poked her nose through the half-open window and sweetly licked my offered hand. “Her name’s Mocha.”

Catskill is changing. Once a working-class town, it now has a tattoo parlor, a micro-brewery with its own beer garden, stores selling quirky things like LPs or old film cameras from the 1950s. Artisans priced out of Brooklyn are moving to the area. The New York Restaurant on Main street serves truffle Parmesan Brussels sprouts and salmon with miso honey, ginger steamed rice, and blistered edamame.

Mr. Cone-E Island had owned other businesses in the area. He seemed like the epitome of the working-class Joe trying to make it on his own rather than work for someone else. I thought about him again two days later when the Times ran an op-ed by Florida journalist Darlena Cunha about how the impeachment story is playing in her state.

Working-class Republicans in Alachua County see Donald Trump as a white businessman who made a lot of money. They like to think that could be them. The only thing standing in the way of achieving that dream, they tell me, are policies that elevate people of color, immigrants and poor people without health care. In their eyes, Mr. Trump is a patriotic man doing the best he can, and those who go against him are traitors to the country.

Although Trump is rich and these Republicans are not, they still identify with him because they are thwarted by the same forces. They have the same enemies.

Republicans here can equate these “witch hunts” to things that have happened to them in their own lives. Just like they, unfairly, have not been able to move up in the world, so too is Mr. Trump, unfairly, being hunted down, his words and motives twisted to suit the needs of that same enemy. The investigations only strengthen their kinship with him.

I wasn’t in central Florida. But Mr. Cone-E Island’s girth, his dog, his pick-up truck — I wondered if he had gun in the cab — plus the demographic (older, White, male, small town) all suggested that I shouldn’t be swinging the conversation to politics. I’d stick to business. “This town is going upscale,” I said. “In a couple of years . . . .”

“By then it’ll be four-fifty,” he said, then added, “if this idiot doesn’t ruin the whole economy.” He went on. He wondered how many millions of our tax dollars went to Trump’s golfing trips, to the floors of Trump tower the government had to rent from Trump. “Trump's a businessman.” I said. I was going to add, “like you,” but I didn’t have to.

“What kind of businessman,” he said. “He stiffs his supplies, his contractors, his creditors.”  He could have gone on.

Well Mocha, I thought, I guess we’re not in Kansas. Or Florida.

No More Nigels

October 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Calvin Trillin once proposed that Americans and the English have a name exchange. English people would start naming their kids things like Sonny and LeRoy. American babies would be Cyril or Cedric.
“Think of how proud the English would be on the first year that every single linebacker in the National Football League all-star team is named Nigel.”
Trilling wrote this a while ago, and the NFL still has no Nigels. But neither does English professional soccer. Well, there might be one — Nigel Roe-Coker, a midfielder who Wikipedia identifies as currently a “free agent.”

Don’t look for Nigels to start popping up on British rosters any time in the future. In 2016 in the UK, no babies were named Nigel. None. In 2017, there were eleven, and last year, eight. You can still find Nigels walking around in England, but they are getting long in the tooth. Brexiteer Nigel Farage, probably the best known, is 55. And while there are no footballer Nigels, elsewhere in sport, over at the snooker table, you’ll find Bond, Nigel Bond, though his ranking has fallen to 99th and he’s roughly the same age as Farage.

This quintessentially English name has gone the way of the shilling and half-crown. And as with other names that have fallen from favor, it’s very hard to say how or why.

Quote TK

October 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peter Navarro is an economist who now works in the White House as an adviser on trade. You can find his books in the non-fiction section of the bookstore, though that label may now include an asterisk.

In his 2011 book Death By China, Navarro quotes an expert on China, Ron Vara, on how nasty and dangerous the Chinese are as trading partners: “Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cellphone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel.”

It’s a great quote. The only problem is that Ron Vara is fictional.  Navarro made him up (the name is an anagram of Navarro). Ron Vara has made appearances in other Navarro books. I haven’t read these, but I would guess the purpose is the same — to include a really strong quote, so strong that for Navarro to acknowledge it as his own would reveal him as a very biased non-fiction writer.

Navarro claims it’s all in good fun, a “whimsical device.” Honest journalists who play by the rules see it as “making stuff up” or more simply “lying.”

But what Navarro did is not all that different from the legitimate journalisitic technique of searching out someone who will give you the quote you want, the quote that expresses your own views but that you can legitimately attribute to someone else. “Quote TK” (quote to come) in the draft of a story means that the writer needs a little more time to find someone who will express a particular opinion. Honest writers may have to go deep into their contact list, but eventually they usually get something usable.

Navarro’s method of making stuff up has great advantages over honest non-fiction writing:
  • It results in quotes that are much sharper and that are guaranteed to express precisely the opinions you want expressed
  •  It’s much less work.
  •  And as the NPR story notes, it’s perfectly compatible with the current occupants of the White House.

Hypocrisy and Intended Consequences

October 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s one thing to be puzzled, surprised, or dismayed by unintended consequences. But when the consequences are intended, those reactions are either self-delusion or flat-out hypocrisy.

Yesterday, a boxer died of brain injuries a few days after his opponent scored a tenth-round knockout. (I’m not going to go into the details. You can read some of them here.)

An AR-15 rifle is designed to kill a lot of people in a few seconds. Most people who own an AR-15 do not use it for that purpose, so we pretend to be surprised when a civilian does use the weapon to do what it was designed to do. We ask, how could such a thing happen?

Most boxing matches do not end in death or serious brain damage. But the goal of boxing, unlike that of other sports, is to pound the other person into unconsciousness, usually by hitting them in the head with as much force as possible. Sometimes boxers suffer brain injury. Sometimes they die. And as with guns, we pretend to be surprised and dismayed when the outcome of the boxing match is precisely what the sport was designed to do. 

Philip Rieff — Moralist and Plagiarist

October 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1960s, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist by Philip Rieff was an important book.

The original paperback edition. I have added the
red asterisk for a reason discussed below.

Freudian ideas were still influential back then, not just in clinical psychology but more generally in liberal intellectual and academic circles. University bookstore shelves were stacked with required books like Eros and Civilization (Marcuse), Love’s Body (N.O. Brown), Childhood and Society (Erikson), heavily steeped in Freud, along with Civilization and Its Discontents.

Now, an article by Len Gutkin in the latest Chronicle questions the authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. The subhead asks “Did Susan Sontag’s husband steal credit for her first book?” The husband in question is Philip Rieff. They met when Rieff was teaching at the University of Chicago. She was seventeen, an undergraduate. He was 28. They married ten days later. The marriage lasted eight years.

Sontag as the author of the book is not a new idea. I’d first heard this rumor in 1966 when I was a graduate student at Penn, where Rieff taught the required course on theory. Most of us were willing to accept the rumor. As Benjamin Moser, whose recent book on Sontag is the source for the information in the Chronicle piece, says (here).

In his department at Penn, colleagues and students who saw past the presumptuous veneer that overlaid his interactions with them came away with the impression that there was something unearned about his eminence. The slum kid who dressed like a British grandee had something of the scam artist about him.

Moser got it right. “Presumptous veneer . . .  Dressed like a British grandee” and with an undertaker’s lack of color — charcoal gray or black suits, double breasted or with a vest, shirt always white, necktie solid, striped, or patterned but always gray. As one of my professors at Brandeis said (Reiff had been on the faculty there), “all so that nobody would think he was Rieff the butcher’s son from Chicago.”

And then there was the comb-over. A broad ribbon of hairs carefully drawn across the front of his forehead to the other side, never quite covering the baldness just behind them.

He told us that he did not want to be the students’ “friend” — he said the word as though he were holding a worm at arms length — not that there was any chance of that. His lectures were uninterrupted monologues with many names dropped in — Saint-Simon, Le Maistre, Aristotle, and on and on —  to show his erudition and our lack of it. Sometimes I would keep a list, writing down each name as Rieff dropped it, just to keep my mind from wandering.*

Most of the lectures were talking versions of parts of the book he was working on. The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which Gutkin calls, “a dyspeptic polemic against modernity in the guise of a study of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory.” Rieff seemed to think that his ideas were original and brilliant. The thing is that on those occasions when he would talk in depth about a specific book or social theorist — no name dropping, none of his own pet terms or coinages — he was actually good. I transferred after my first year.

So did Sontag write the book? The Chronicle headline seems like another example of Betteridge’s Law, which says (I’m amending it slightly) that when an article headline is in the form of a question, the author wants you to think that the answer is Yes, but the more accurate answer is No.

But in this case, the author seems ambivalent, and the correct answer is mostly Yes. My impression is that Rieff had accumulated notes and fragments over the years, including the years before he met Sontag, but it was Sontag, still in her early twenties, who organized the material, added her own thoughts and sources that Rieff had not considered, and did the actual writing. Moser suggests that Sontag, in the acrimonious divorce negotiations, gave up any claims to authorship in return for Rieff giving up any custody claims on their son.

Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was the basis for Rieff’s career. A year or two after it was published, he was offered a position at Penn, where he stayed till he retired. The Times obit  refers to the title as “paradoxical” because Freud’s ideas “ had a corrosive effect on Western morality and culture.” The other paradox — or is it irony? — is that is that a man so apparently concerned with morality and its corrosion would put his name on a book written by someone else. 

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* The Times obit had a slightly different take on Rieff’s lectures: “Dr. Rieff often dazzled and occasionally puzzled students with multilayered but always authoritative lectures that blended philosophy, theology, economics, history, literature, psychology and dashes of poetry and Plato like ingredients in a sociological mulligatawny.”

Art Blakey Centennial

October 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Art Blakey, the great jazz drummer, was born one hundred years ago today in Pittsburgh.

There are only two drummers who I could identify in a blindfold test. Art Blakey is one of them. The other is Max Roach, who said of Blakey:

Art was an original. He’s the only drummer whose time I recognize immediately. And his signature style was amazing; we used to call him ‘Thunder.’ When I first met him on 52d Street in 1944, he already had the polyrhythmic thing down. Art was the perhaps the best at maintaining independence with all four limbs. He was doing it before anybody was. And he was a great man, which influenced everybody around him. [quoted in the Times obituary, October 1990]

He kept the Jazz Messengers going for thirty-five years. He would find talented young players who would, in a couple of years, become famous (well, jazz-famous) and go off on their own (Wynton Marsalis joined the group when he was seventeen). Blakey would then replace them with new talent, and the cycle would repeat.

His best-known album is probably “Moanin’”, released in 1959, an incredibly rich year for jazz. (See the daily entries at The 1959 Project . The video below begins with one of the tunes from that album, not the best-known — that distinction goes to the title tune by pianist Bobby Timmons — but “Along Came Betty” by the sax player Benny Golson, who wrote many other tunes for the Messengers and basically functioned as the group’s musical director. The video is from 1988 with a completely different cast, except for Blakey.

As the tune ends (at about 7:00), Blakey takes a one-minute drum solo followed by “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the rhythmically complicated Clifford Brown - Max Roach arrangement from 1954 with a minute and a half of pure Blakey at the end.

Health and Self-Denial — The (Coastal) American Ideology

October 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

As an undergrad, I took Deviance with Irv Zola, a wonderful man whose main research area was medical sociology. The two topics were related, he said. In his Medical course, he asked the students to keep health journals where they would make note of any health-related matters in their own lives. What he found was that students often framed their health in terms of morality. They got sick because they had done something wrong or had failed to do what was right.

I was reminded of this when I read this passage from Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “Why I’m Giving Up on Preventative Care” Barbara Ehrenreich (here).*

Most of my educated, middle-class friends . . . undertook exercise or yoga regimens; they filled their calendars with upcoming medical tests and exams; they boasted about their “good” and “bad” cholesterol counts, their heart rates and blood pressure. Mostly they understood they the task of aging to be self-denial, especially in the realm of diet.

In matters of health, and especially food, we are puritanical moralists. If we stick to our vows of health-chastity, if we steadfastly resist temptation, we will be rewarded with eternal life, or at least very long life.

But who is “we”? Ehrenreich seems to think that it’s the people Joseph Henrich in 2009 (here) labeled as WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.

In the health-conscious mind-set that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for about four decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue, tasty foods are “sinfully delicious,” while healthful foods may taste good enough to be advertised as “guilt-free.” Those seeking to compensate for a lapse undertake punitive measures like fasts, purges, or diets composed of different juices carefully sequenced throughout the day.

Even a quick glance around the country will tell you that in wide swaths of the geographical and social territory, this abstemious ethos has not taken root. All You Can Eat. At Applebee’s (and lots of other places) when it comes to fatty fatty foods, gluttony is a virtue.


In other WEIRD cultures, even the cosmopolitan elite may not conflate pleasure and sin. Foods which in the US are “sinfully delicious” may be merely delicious elsewhere. France for instance. In a 2013 post (here) on “Guilty Pleasures,”  I compared the pastry scene in the Judd Apatow film “This is 40” with a similar scene in the the French film “Cousin Cousine.”

In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt. The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic. But Pete and Debbie [in the American film] seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This Is 40” plays both for laughs.

Unfortunately, I cannot find even a still shot from “Cousin Cousine,” but here is the scene from “This Is 40.”


The whole film in fact is an exposition of the mindset that Ehrenreich identifies. No sugar, no gluten, a personal trainer, less screen time, salads without dressing, tofu. In scene after scene the film shows how difficult it is to keep to this regime. That’s the basis for most of its humor. But neither the characters nor the film itself can abandon the notion that self-denial is the ideal.

------------------
* Ehrenreich’s essay appeared at Literary Hub in April 2018, but I just found it yesterday, probably via a Twitter link. I cannot remember what the tweet was about, nor do I have any idea why the essay appeared at LitHub, a Website devoted mostly to fiction, poetry, and literary criticism.

$350K — Still Just Enough For the City

October 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

MarketWatch is taking some flak on Twitter and elsewhere for this story:


Here’s what should have been the pull-quote:
The thing is, that kind of income, while relatively huge, is barely enough, according to Dogen, for a family to lead a comfortable life in coastal counties — where almost half of the nation’s population calls home.
One reader of this blog reminded me that I’d posted something about this nine years ago, complete with a parody verse based on Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” That 2010 post was occasioned by a Chicago law professor’s complaint that he could barely get by on his current income, which was probably a bit more than $350,000. (The original post is here.)

Coming In In the Middle

October 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I said that up until the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon that moviegoers would come into the theater halfway through the film. After The End, they could stay in their seats, wait for the movie to start again — after the previews, newsreel, and cartoon — and, when the film reached the part they’d already seen, leave.

It’s hard to imagine now, when everyone is in their seat by the time the feature starts. (A very few people may be late but only by a couple of minutes.) The only historical evidence I could offer was Roger Angell’s memoir Let Me Finish. As a twelve-year old, Angell would go to the movie theater right after school, and it was rare that the movie showtimes coincided with school dismissal.

There’s also this: Danny Kaye’s big breakthrough came in his first film, “Up in Arms,” in 1944. His tour de force in that movie became known as “The Lobby Number.” Kaye and friends are in the lobby of a large movie theater, and he tries to dissuade them from going in to see the musical they’d come for. These musicals are all alike, he says, and launches a parody of the genre, starting with the credits and the MGM lion’s roar. It’s Kaye at his manic best. After about five minutes, as he is singing an up-tempo song, he stops suddenly and says calmly,
So here we are, back in Fresno, California.
And this is where you came in.
But do not fret my friend.                                                           
[singing] This is a picture that ends in the middle
For the benefit of the people who came in in the middle.
This, this is the end.
You can hear the whole thing. Or just push the slider to 5:10.*


If you can base the final joke on the idea of people walking into the theater when the film is halfway through, it must have been, as we now say, “a thing.”

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*There’s a YouTube clip (here) from the movie itself, and it gives you a better sense of the context for The Lobby Number. Unfortunately, the clip ends before the final line.