You Read It Here First

September 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today, the Facebook group Nerds With Vaginas posted this:

(Note the number of Likes, Comments, and Shares the post had already gotten in the first five hours.)

Four years ago, in a blogpost about swear words (here), I cited the work of Jack Grieve, who had been using Twitter data to discover regional and historical variations. Here is the final paragraph of that post.

You can find maps for all your favorite words at Grieve’s Website (here), where you can also find out what words are trending (as we now say) on Twitter. (“Unbothered” is spreading from the South, and “fuckboy” is rising). Other words are on the way down (untrending?). If you’re holding “YOLO” futures, sell them now before it’s too late. [Emphasis added.]

Oldsmobile, or Why I Am Not a Genius

September 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Montclair State professor, Jeffrey Alan Miller, has been awarded a Genius Grant, also known as the MacArthur Fellowship. Four years ago, he discovered the earliest known draft of the King James Bible.

The Times (here) reported the story at the time.

Professor Miller discovered the manuscript last fall, when he was in the archives at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge . . . He came across an unassuming notebook about the size of a modern paperback, wrapped in a stained piece of waste vellum and filled with some 70 pages of Ward’s nearly indecipherable handwriting.

As Professor Miller tried to puzzle out which passages of the Bible it concerned, he realized what it was: a draft of parts of the King James Version of the Apocrypha, a disputed section of the Bible that is left out of many editions, particularly in the United States.

The true scholar who learns of Prof. Miller’s discovery will immediately think of its implications not just for the history of the most widely read book in English literature but also for the history of the English language itself, the history of England, and the Anglican church.

My reaction, alas, was different. My first thoughts — and still my only thoughts — turned to Woody Allen’s 1974 essay on “The Scrolls.”

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing . . . .

The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.


September 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, not the Showtime series. The president.

In a “news analysis” piece in the Times today (here), Peter Baker, who has been reporting on the Ukraine story, says:

Even for a leader who has audaciously disregarded many of the boundaries that restrained his predecessors, President Trump’s appeal to a foreign power for dirt on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is an astonishing breach of the norms governing the American presidency. [emphasis added]

Ah, yes. Breaching the norms. In a series of posts two years ago, I explained why I was not a big fan of the “breaching” assignments that many instructors use in the unit on norms in Sociology 101. Important lessons can be learned from these assignments, I said, but to learn them, we have to shift  onto the reactions of the norm violator and away from the reaction of others, which is what the assignment usually tells the norm-breaching students to focus on.

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?” When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . .

 Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here,” inside us, as well. [The entire post is here.]

Those internalized norms are what create the feeling of shame, the feeling that comes from knowing that other people around us strongly disapprove. Without that sense of shame, our only consideration would be the rational cost-benefit calculation. To the shameless, the disapproval of others matters only if it can be transformed into some sanction with real consequences. Most of the time, it can’t.

Years ago, I went into one of those narrow news stores, the kind that sell newspapers, magazines, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. A man was standing there paging through a skin magazine. (This was way before the Internet, before you could get free porn by just tapping your phone.) “Hey, fella,” the man behind the counter said, “you want to buy the magazine?” The reader ignored him. Maybe he even put down the Playboy and picked up a Penthouse. “Hey, this ain’t reading room. Buy it or get out.” The man went on reading for another minute or two despite the repeated demands from the man behind the counter.

I was amazed at his brazenness. On the shame spectrum, he was at the opposite pole from Woody Allen in this scene from “Play It Again Sam.” (That film was made in 1972. The final line in that scene, the Woody Allen making a reference to child molesting, sounds very different today given what we now know.)

Our president has demonstrated just how flimsy our norms are. The Times article quotes Richard Ben Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, referring to Trump’s “profound disregard for presidential norms.” But this disregard has brought no meaningful sanctions. Of course, sanctions are less likely to be imposed on norm violators who have some power. As Trump said in connection with his disregard for other, non-presidential norms, “When you’re a star . . . you can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” If you’re a star and, he forgot to add, if you are shameless.

As Gwenda Blair, a biographer of the Trump family, put it.  “What he’s learned is you can get away with just about anything if you’re willing to gamble and you have zero shame.”

John Coltrane, b. Sept. 23, 1926

September 23, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My first year at college, I shared a tiny room with quiet somewhat strange guy from Denver whose choice in records seemed to be based on how impressive the music was as audio. (“High fidelity” records and equipment were still relatively new in those days.) The Soviet Army chorus, E. Power Biggs playing some world-famous organ, an “1812 Overture” with lots of cannons, that sort of thing.

But he also had a copy of Soultrane. I had plenty of Coltrane on my Miles Davis records, including Milestones, which it turns out was recorded only three days before Soultrane. But this was the first Coltrane-as-leader record I’d encountered. I listened to it over and over.

This Coltrane birthday post should probably feature “Giant Steps,” or “My Favorite Things,” or “A Love Supreme” — recordings that clearly mark him as perhaps the most important jazz figure of the 1950s and 60s. But I’m going with side one, track one of Soultrane, Tadd Dameron’s tune “Good Bait.”


September 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog is turning thirteen this month. It was originally supposed to be a group blog. That didn’t quite work out.

At our first department meeting in September 2006, we were thinking of ways to get more majors and to keep the ones we had. “How about a department blog?” I said. “We can post about things we see in our everyday lives but that we can relate to sociological ideas. That way, students will see that we’re just people with ordinary lives, and maybe they’ll see how sociological ideas can be useful.”

Everyone thought this was a good idea. So I set up the blog with posting privileges for all department members. After eleven or twelve years, I began to notice that with maybe three or four exceptions, all the posts were by me. So I changed the settings to make it my blog, though I kept the Montclair name just for the sake of continuity. I didn’t even change the name now that my connection to Montclair has become the thin thread of emeritus status.
                    *                   *                *               *

In the past year, the post that has gotten the most attention is one from the previous year — the one about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here).In his Times review the show last December, James Poniewozik mentioned these anachronisms in passing but with a link to my post. That brought a slew of visits, and the hits just keep on coming. A week or so ago, the page views for that post passed the 12,000 mark, an extraordinary number for this blog.

Besides that, here are some posts from the past year that I thought were worth revisiting.

1. Two posts about “Nostalgia and the Myth of Social Decline” (here and here) got me twenty minutes of air time on the Sociology Annex Podcast. That was fun, though in retrospect I quickly realized that I could have stated my ideas much more clearly.

2. Along similar lines, “The Past Is Never Uncertain” looks at the idea of that things today are more “uncertain” than things in the past. But the past is more certain only because now we know what happened.

3. People had different reactions to Brett Kavanagh at his confirmation hearings. But all of these reactions, for and against, seemed to share the same assumptions about “character” and about what a person is. This post (“A Different Person” ) tries to show the limitations of those assumptions.

4.  Aside from Mrs. Maisel, the post that got more views than any other in the past year was “Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1”). Were Soc 101 instructors assigning it?

It used current data but the same Durkheimian idea (and one of the same jokes) I’ve been using since I started teaching this stuff. The main point: rates are a property a group or society, not of individuals. Variables that explain individual cases (happiness, well-being) don’t seem to work so well at explaining rates.

Do the Poor Suffer From Elite Ideas?

September 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

People in the lower class and working class are more likely do things that violate middle-class standards. They drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, take drugs, don’t have a job, and commit crimes all at higher rates than their middle-class counterparts. Traditional conservative explanations for these shortcomings focus on the individual. These people fail to live middle-class lives because they lack virtue.

In modern times, conservatives have pinned that lack of virtue on the policies of liberals —  policies like not punishing criminals severely enough, not punishing idleness, giving poor unwed mothers assistance for themselves and their children, and other programs that encourage the irresponsibility of the undeserving poor. 

Starting a half-century ago or so ago, conservatives began to indict liberals not just for their social policies but for their ideas about things like happiness and freedom. James Q. Wilson, for example, attributed the 1960s increase in crime in part to the ideology of self-expression and “do your own thing.” “This attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people.”

Of course, the people who were tuning in to these messages of self-indulgence (or as they might have styled it “self-actualization”) were largely young, White, and middle-class. Wilson never traced the paths of this diffusion of ideas. He just left us to assume that muggers, rioters, and welfare mothers in the cities had come together with the Whiter, less urban Woodstock generation, and they were all listening to Tim Leary, reading Fritz Perls or Abe Maslow, and putting those ideas into practice. Those practices —  the self-actualization among the middle-class, crime among the poor —  might have looked very different on the surface, but in Wilson’s view they were all based on the same ideas.       

A recent version of this theory — that the poor and uneducated have absorbed the ideas of affluent liberals and are worse off because of that — comes to us from Rob Henderson (here) in his catch-phrase “luxury beliefs” —  “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” He even claims that these beliefs explain the increase in economic inequality. “These beliefs . . . produce real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people, further widening the divide.”

Take, for example, ideas about the causes of success.

Then there’s the luxury belief that individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck. This belief is more common among many of my peers at Yale and Cambridge than the kids I grew up with in foster care or the women and men I served with in the military. The key message is that the outcomes of your life are beyond your control. This idea works to the benefit of the upper class and harms ordinary people.[emphasis added]

As I said in a previous post, most of Henderson’s assertions are hard to test against actual data. But for the last 45 years, the GSS has in fact asked people about the importance of luck.
GETAHEAD: Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks or help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?

I have broken the sample down into three educational categories: those who finished college, those who never finished high school, and those in between (a high school degree and possibly some college).  If Henderson is right, we should see a steady upward trend in the percent who say that Luck is important. The trend should begin among the most educated. If their ideas are filtering down through the class system, the less educated should also be trending upward but with a lag time of a few years.

(Click for a larger view.)

Henderson does not specify the time period for the trends he’s talking about, but if he’s thinking about very recent history, the graph offers some support. Among those with a college degree, the percent citing Luck rose in the two most recent iterations of the GSS — from about 8% in 2012 to 17% in 2018. Is that a trend? I don’t know. Prior to 2016, the percent fluctuates in no discernible pattern.

More relevant for Henderson’s claims, the fashion in Luck among the educated has no apparent effect on those with less education.  Since the mid-80s, among those who never finished high school, the belief that success depends mostly on luck does not follow the fluctuations of the college educated; instead it trends slightly downward.

It does not look as though the less educated are adopting the ideas of those who finished college. More tellingly, the GSS data also raises the question of whether beliefs about luck affect behavior. Henderson says that the well educated (“my peers at Yale and Cambridge”) are more likely to believe in the importance of luck and “random social forces.” Yet they behave in a contradictory way. They work hard. Henderson also seems to be implying that the less educated do not work so hard. That’s why they’re poor. Unlike the Yalies, they are acting on their belief about luck and winding up worse off for it.

But what the graph shows is that these ideas have not changed much.  If anything, the dropouts believe in luck less now than in the past. And yet, their incomes have left them farther and farther from the well-educated. Maybe economic inequality has less to do with virtuous ideas and more to do with the economy.

Stand-up — the Pro Advantage

September 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to the early show (7:00 p.m.) at the Gotham Comedy Club last night — a line-up of unknown, hopeful comics, most of them with day jobs. To get on the bill, they had to guarantee six friends or relatives in the audience paying the cover and two-drink minimum. One of the comics knew my wife, and so we went.

The MC was a pro, and she warmed up the audience. She really did ask people in the audience where they were from, and had some ready-made lines for Connecticut and New Jersey. Then it was one comic after another, each doing their solid six, some good, some merely OK. The first half dozen performers took us to about 8 p.m. That’s when the MC announced a special guest. Jim Gaffigan.

He did 25-30 minutes. He killed.

Then the MC asked us to welcome a newcomer, someone not too sure of himself, someone who needed our support, etc. Nobody bought that ruse — she didn’t really try to sell it. We just didn’t know who the “newcomer” would be.

(It’s Jerry Seinfeld. Apologies for the lousy photo. I wasn’t even sure that we were allowed to take pictures, so I was in a hurry.)

Seinfeld too did 25-30 minutes, and he too got big laughs with every joke, even the ones I didn’t think were so great. Some of the other comics had lines that didn’t work, and I’ve noticed that comedians now, when a joke doesn’t land, will often comment immediately about either the joke or the audience or both (“I don’t know. It worked in Jersey”). Seinfeld and Gaffigan didn’t have that problem, and I was reminded of something I wrote ten years ago (here) after I’d seen the Judd Apatow movie “Funny People.” George (Adam Sandler) is a top comedian. Ira (Seth Rogen) is an unseasoned hopeful who George hires as an assistant.

It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side.

Last night played out the same story but with real people, and it illustrates the importance of expectations and impressions. (No, not that kind of impression, though one of the comics last night did do a very good Obama.) The comedian coming onto the stage has two related tasks. First, they have to be funny and to get the audience to form the impression of them as a funny person. But they also have to get the audience to like them and to feel comfortable with them.* A Seinfeld or a Gaffigan doesn’t face that challenge. The audience already knows them, likes them, and thinks they’re funny. Even a weak joke won’t damage that impression or definition.

A comedian that the audience doesn’t know has to create that impression and do so quickly. Even then, the joke that falls flat can undo that work. It sends the relationship back to the beginning, with the audience wondering: Is this person funny, and do I like them?


[For some excellent sociology of stand-up, see the recent work of Pat Reilly. Or listen to him here on the Soc Annex podcast.]

* Andy Kaufman was a notable exception. He sometimes seemed to be deliberately trying to make the audience feel uncomfortable and uncertain about him. See this earlier post.