A Cold War Joke and US Healthcare

December 23, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There was a joke Republicans liked to tell about Soviet Russia back during the Cold War. Republicans then, unlike Republicans now, were highly critical of the Russian government and its leaders. The joke was about an American visitor getting the official tour. He is taken to a factory, where he gets an interview with a worker. The worker proudly tells him how, working at this wonder job in in this state-owned factory, he has saved enough money over the years to be able to buy a car.

“And what are you saving for now?” the American asks.

“A pair of shoes.”
                           *                       *                        *                   *

I was talking to a friend last night. “Emma took a job at UPS,” she said. Emma is her daughter-in-law. “It’s back-breaking work, and she can only do it part time. And you know why she took the job? Because at UPS, even part-time workers get health coverage.” My friend added that her son, Emma’s husband, gets medical benefits that cover only him, not the family. They looked at the available insurance plans, and to get anything decent, it would cost them $1500 a month.

“So,” said my friend, “they’re saving as much as they can so that Emma can quit the UPS job and they can buy health insurance.”

                           *                       *                        *                   *

The Soviet worker didn’t know that in other countries, people don’t have to scrimp and save to buy a pair of shoes. He didn’t realize that his unscripted answer revealed deep flaws in the Soviet system.

My friend’s son and daughter-in-law know what healthcare is like in other countries — many Americans don’t. They know that their predicament reveals deep flaws in our healthcare system. They just can’t do anything about it.

Doctor? My Eye.

December 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice... Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” So begins Joseph Epstein’s WSJ op-ed of this weekend “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.”
Many on the left got upset. They disliked the tone. Smugness has long been a chronic, perhaps unavoidable, flaw among right-wing intellectuals, and Epstein is not as bad as most of them on that score. His opening descent down the ladder of formality of terms of address seems more friendly than condescending. The article is, after all, about what to call the First Lady, and he’s trying out several possibilities.  Even so, he seems to be trying to trigger the libs, and triggered they were.

Some people accused Epstein of sexism. You wouldn’t have done that if it were a man — that sort of thing. Counterfactuals like this are hard to prove, but the critics may be right. Epstein’s main argument against “Dr.” Biden is that this honorific should be reserved for medical doctors (“A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child.”) Jill Biden has no medical degrees. She as an Ed.D.

However, six years ago, Epstein wrote, “One teacher I do remember fondly was Dr. Branz, a German émigré who taught a course called Commercial Law. He must have been a refugee from Hitler, with a doctor of laws degree...” Yes, Dr. Branz, a law professor. I doubt that this juris doctor had ever moonlighted as an obstetrician.

The WSJ has no objections to using “Dr.” for non-physicians in the White House —  among others, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and of course non-M.D. Henry Kissinger, who insisted on on being called “Dr. Kissinger.” As far as I know, Epstein never gave Rice or Kissinger the same friendly advice he’s offering Jill Biden.                                                         
Why shouldn’t we use the same honorific for advanced degrees both medical and academic? Is it confusing? Or does calling our teachers “doctor” cheapen the value of medical doctors? Epstein implies that it’s both. Equating physicians and professors does not fit with a value system that accords teachers much less prestige than they might have in other cultures.

Once long ago, I taught English for one semester in a high school in a small town (pop. 3000) in Japan. My students addressed me as Jay-sensei, sensei being the Japanese word for teacher. I lived with a Japanese family. One day, I had some stomach problems. My family insisted that I go to the doctor — Kimura-sensei. Hmm, I thought, we call our teachers “doctor”; the Japanese call their doctors “teacher.” A commentary on their values?

Doctor originally referred to theologians,  explainers of doctrine — closer to teachers than to physicians. Dr. Webster explains:
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The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

The 14th century was the birth of the Renaissance, and lots of teaching and learning was afoot. By the century's end, the word doctor was being applied not just to a select few theologians, but also to qualified and/or accomplished academics and medical practitioners.he word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

I don’t know the history of sensei. Maybe in Japan, as we speak, some Epsteinian curmudgeon is complaining about all these physicians who insist on being called sensei even though they have never taught even one student how to interpret a multiple regression.

Trump's Defense Fund — Fleecing the Rubes

December 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

What Trump learned at Trump University was the value of fleecing the rubes. Most of the other victims of his salesmanship had been big-money people and institutions — banks and other supposedly wise investors. The $3000 that Trump U students lost — and some got ripped off for tens of thousands — is serious money for the individual but small potatoes for Trump.

He made it up in volume. The scam grossed at least $40 million.

Now he’s at it again. So far, his Election Defense Fund has raised over $200 million.

I can understand the Trump U victims. They thought that their money would buy them the secrets to real estate success. They would be repaid a hundred fold. But what do the Election Defense Fund contributors get?

First, and most obviously, they think that the money will get them four more years of Trump. This belief requires a prior belief that is axiomatic among Trump loyalists:  believe Trump, not the so-called experts.

From the start, the consensus among legal scholars was that Trump’s cases would not win. As one lawyer I heard on (I think) NPR said, “His chances are slim and none, and silm just left town.” But if Trump and his lawyers say that they have a ton of evidence of massive fraud, it must be true, and these other voices must be fake legal opinion.

It has now become clear that the experts were correct. Trump has lost one legal challenge after another. So much losing. But still the donations roll in.

For Trump, of course, everything is, to use the current term, “transactional.” The fine print on the Election Fund website says that for donations of less that $5000, nothing will go to the legal fight.  Instead, 25% will go to the Republican National Committee, and 75% to “Save America,” a Trump PAC. There are restrictions on what Trump can do with that money. For instance, the rules say that he can’t use it to pay off his campaign debts and certainly not his personal debts.

But, as Brendan Fischer, Federal Reform Program director at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "Although Trump cannot use campaign funds to pay himself or his family members excessive salaries, or to buy enough copies of Don Jr.'s book to land it on the bestseller list, he might try to use leadership PAC funds for such purposes.”

Remember, we’re talking about Donald Trump. If nobody can or will effectively enforce the rules, the rules don’t matter. Even if the rules are enforced, breaking them might have been worth it. After all, Trump U was fined $25 million, probably less than half of what it brought in. And in the end it wasn’t Trump who paid the judgment. It was some billionaire supporter. 

Even if Trump did use the money for whatever he wanted, including paying of personal debts, he probably wouldn't lose much support. For his followers, a donation is not transactional. The rewards it brings are intangible: it strengthens their identity as members of the group; and it reaffirms the value of that group. Those functions are especially important for those who perceive their group as being under attack. And Trump supporters, correctly or incorrectly (mostly incorrectly) see themselves as being discriminated against because of their race (White), their religion (Christian), and their views on gender roles (“traditional”). Trump embodies their ideas, and he perfectly and loudly expresses their resentments against those who are supposedly discriminating against them. You can’t put a price on that.

Trump Claimed Vote Fraud in 2016. What’s Different This Time?

December 4, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was having an e-mail conversation with a Christian conservative. He still believes Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud. I’m willing to accept the conclusion of all those judges (including some Republicans and at least one Trump appointee), governors, secretaries of state, and election officials.

But Trump still has a large core of believers who, despite Trump’s losing all those court cases, still believe his claims that the election was rigged. That seems new. If  if McCain or Romney, or on the Democratic side Hillary, had made similar claims that had similarly failed in court, would their supporters continued to believe them? Would they have made the kind of high-volume protests that we now hear? Probably not. But why, I asked. Why is 2020 different?

Usually, I find myself on the structural side of these questions and shy away from explanations based on individuals and  individual-level variables. But this time, it was my conservative correspondent who looked first at structural changes. (He is not a sociologist, not a political scientist, not an academic.) He wrote:

It's hard to compare this 2020 election with any before it, at least in my lifetime, with the preponderance of mail-in ballots.  It was shocking to me to see the vote counting stopped simultaneously in these key states.
For me, the big difference was the relation between Trump and his supporters. It wasn’t Trump himself. The similarities between Trump 2020 Trump 2016 are too obvious to ignore. In 2016,
    1. Trump lost the popular vote (about 3 million in 2016, 7 million this year).
    2. Trump claimed that the vote was rigged and that there was fraud.
    3. He appointed a commission to investigate and prove him right. The person he appointed to head the commission, like his lawyers this time around, was an ardent supporter, who echoed Trump’s claim of fraud even when other Republicans were silent on the matter.
    4. The commission could not find evidence of widespread voter fraud.
    5. Trump disbanded the commission but still that Clinton’s numbers were due to massive fraud.
    6. Trump continued to lie about the commission and the election.

Trump 2020 was perfectly predictable. He did the same thing when lost at the Emmy Awards — insisted that the voting was rigged. The important difference in 2020 is not the mail-in ballots. It’s the reaction of several Republican politicians and millions of Trump voters. Their continued belief is partly a simple matter of confirmation bias — recognizing only the evidence that confirms your idea, even when that evidence has been discredited, and finding reasons to reject disconfirming evidence. But given how extreme their reactions have been — death threats against election officials and their families — there has to be something else going on. But that’s a matter for another post.

Can “Up” Make Masks Masculine?

November 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A lot of people in this country still refuse to wear masks. In most places, no laws require masks, so anti-maskers will have to be persuaded. But how, especially now that those same people associate masks with weakness and femininity? Appeals to altruism run up against American individualism. As the subway rider in New York said this week when other riders repeatedly asked him to wear a mask and even held out masks for him to take, “I live by my principles. . . I don’t wear a muzzle.” (The full story is here )

One strategy that seems to have caught on is “Mask Up.”

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

These campaigns remind me of “Don’t Mess With Texas.” Now it’s an all-purpose slogan, but it originated in 1985 as a campaign to get “Bubba,” the stereotypical Texas truck-driving male, to stop tossing beer cans and other litter onto the highway. Highway beautification had the same problems as masks. It required that the individual inconvenience himself for the sake of a goal that benefited only the general society, not himself, and in a way that was not immediately visible. In addition, the goal highway beautification reeked of flowers and femininity.

A slogan like “Let’s Keep Our Roads Beautiful” wasn’t going to cut it. But “Don’t Mess With Texas,” with TV ads featuring Dallas Cowboys linemen, combined masculine toughness with state chauvinism.*

Covid is a far more serious problem than litter, but the strategy is the same — masculinity and local patriotism.  The pugnacious “Philly Never Backs Down. Mask Up” seems too similar to “Don’t Mess With Texas” to have been a coincidence. But it’s the “up” that I find most interesting. “Mask Up.” to my ear at least, sounds more masculine than “Wear a mask.” I’m not sure why. Maybe the “up” implies a bold action, like an athlete suiting up for the big game, a game for which he is also amped up, revved up, and even juiced up.

“Listen up,” says the coach in the locker room just before he gives his speech to get the team psyched up. To “Listen up” is active than to merely “listen.”

The Texas campaign reduced highway litter by 72%. Unfortunately, I don’t know any research showing the effect of “Mask Up.” 

* See my 2009 post Lone Star Litter and Values.

Sarah Loves Biden, So Does Barbara

November 2, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times ran a quiz (here ) where you have to guess people’s voting preferences knowing only their names. For  example,

The trick is to guess the correct demographic variable that goes with the name and with political preferences. If you know that Biden does much better among young voters and that Sarah skews younger (median age 33), this one’s easy. Similarly, Betty (median age 77) goes for Trump by a whopping 26 points.

But age isn’t the whole story. Here’s the Times chart  of the most common male and female names, but I have added indicators showing the median age for each name.

 (Click on an image for a larger and clearer view. I put in the yellow age
markers by hand. Their location may be slightly off

Barbara may be old, median age 70, but she’s strongly for Biden. In fact, among these twenty names, it’s only among men that age goes with increasing support for Trump.

Of course, the most common names will be older. Today’s youthful Noahs and Emilys are the leading edge of those names. Not until they are older and with decades of as yet unborn Noahs and Emilys coming behind them will they outnumber Richard and Jennifer. The median age of these 20 names is 56 compared with the national median of 38.

The Times shows preferences of the 110 names worn by at least 30 people in the sample of 17,000. The most pro-Biden men are younger — Anthony (37), Samuel (27), Justin (32). But so are some of the most pro-Trump men — Aaron (32), Ryan (31), Joshua (36). The most pro-Biden guy is Patrick; he favors Biden by a 42-point margin.

Among women, the most pro-Biden is also one of the oldest. Dorothy (age 79) favors Joe by better than two to one. Following her are Catherine (58), Margaret (69) and Jane (68).  But the most pro-Trump women (Cheryl, Debra, and Donna) are also in their mid-sixties.

Gender and median age for a name are easy to know. Race and social class, not so much. But in a few cases, these peek through. The Times notes that Debra goes for Trump by 24 points, Deborah leans to Biden by 10 points. The age distribution of these names is almost identical.

But there’s a social class difference. “Debra is a trendier spelling that . . .was more popular with younger parents, often those without a college degree. Deborah. . .is the sort of old-fashioned name that appeals to older parents with bachelor’s degrees, especially in the Northeast.” I would also hazard a guess about Tiffany and Taylor on the one hand, Maura and Margot on the other.  

Charisma from the Crowd

October 28, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman had a brief speculative post (here) on the major criterion voters use in choosing a president. Are they looking for a savior or are they hiring someone to do a competent job? It would be hard to find better embodiments of these types than the current candidates, but for some reason, Gelman does not mention them. He sorts past presidents, and here’s the scorecard:

Saviors: Trump, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Roosevelt

Hired to do or continue a job: Bush 2, Bush 1, Nixon, Johnson, Truman

I’m not quite sure how I’d characterize the other elected presidents from that era: Carter, Kennedy, Eisenhower.  
In case you hadn’t noticed, these categories match two of Weber’s types of authority — charismatic and rational-legal. But what determines the type of authority the president embodies? How much is the person, and how much lies in the circumstances of the historical moment?

In looking at Gelman’s line-up, which I pretty much agree with, it seems that the Saviors were elected when things had gone terribly wrong. They showed personal strength, but their charismatic authority lay not just in their personal qualities; it came from our need or desire for them to have charisma. We made them saviors because we needed them to save us from recent disasters. FDR, Reagan, and Obama followed economic crises. (The inflation of the late 70s was not exactly a crisis, but everyone felt it every time they bought something.) In addition, the Iraq war and the Iran hostage crisis were highly visible failures in foreign policy. (I’m less sure about Clinton. I don’t see him as being personally charismatic, nor was his election a reaction to a huge failure. We re-elected him more for the job he was doing than for the person he was.)

And then there’s Trump. His relation to his supporters is certainly charismatic. But what is he saving them from? Under Obama, the economy was steadily recovering, and there were no glaring foreign policy catastrophes. Social indicators — crime, abortion, teen pregnancy, drug use — were all going in the right direction. Trump insisted that everything about the Obama presidency — NAFTA, Obamacare —  was a “disaster,” but what moved his supporters was not the reform of policies on trade and health care. Instead, Trump is saving them from something less specific — the feeling that the position of dominance they had long taken for granted was slipping away. For years, “taking back our country” had been a theme in Republican politics (see my 2011 post Repo Men). Trump was the savior who would restore their glory days.

If Trump’s election in 2016 was all charisma and no crises, Biden in 2020 is the opposite, a man with no charisma in a time of crisis. His supporters might have preferred a candidate with more charisma, but they will be satisfied if they hire someone to do a competent job, someone who is not Trump.

Who's Zoomin' Who?

October 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was one of those news stories that, to a sociologist, cries out, “Goffman, Goffman.” Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker magazine’s staff writer on legal matters, got caught with his pants down. On Zoom. The Times said he had “exposed himself,” which is not what Goffman means by “the presentation of self,” at least not most of the time. Vice (here) was more specific.

The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.

The Zoom meeting was an election simulation with New Yorker writers each playing the role of some person or group. At one point, the group split into two — Democrats and Repulicans — for strategy sessions in separate breakout rooms. 

At this point... it seemed like Toobin was on a second video call.... When the groups returned from their break out rooms, Toobin lowered the camera. The people on the call said they could see Toobin touching his penis. Toobin then left the call. Moments later, he called back in, seemingly unaware of what his colleagues had been able to see, and the simulation continued.

Mr. Toobin, meet Mr. Goffman:

The answer to this problem is for the performer to segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him n one of his roles will not be the individuals who witness him in another of his roles. . . . When audience segregation fails and an outsider happens to upon a performance that was not meant for him, difficult problems in impression management arise.” (Presentation of Self, p. 137, 139.)

Goffman, writing in 1956, was talking about face-to-face encounters, where the person aware of their own gaffe also knows who else in the room has seen it. Zoom allows for a temporarily blissful ignorance that is not possible in face-to-face interaction.

“I am quite sure that Toobin didn’t realize that the people on the New Yorker call could see him,” [New Yorker writer Masha] Gessen said in an interview. “I suspect he thought that when the breakout rooms started, he was disconnected and he didn’t realize we’d all returned to a live camera.” [NYT ]

And if he didn’t know, nobody was going to tell him. Tact, as Goffman notes, requires that we not call attention to something that might cause embarrassment to someone else.

By the standards of the wider society, perhaps only the discredited individual ought to feel ashamed; but, by the standards of the little social system maintained through the interaction, the discreditor is just as guilty as the person he discredits-sometimes more so, for, if he has been posing as a tactful man, in destroying another’s image he destroys his own. [“Embarrassment and Social Organization,” 1956.]

Goffman implies that this norm of tact applies mostly in the moment. Once the interaction is over and the particpants have moved on, that norm is much weaker. Someone might even blab to the press. So the Vice article, in keeping with the journalistic norm of more or less identifying its sources, says, “Two people who were on the call told VICE separately . . . “

Embarrassment, presentation of self, audience segregation, tact, and inattention — the Goffman lecture in a single news story.

By coincidence, the same day that this happened, Sacha Baron Cohen, appearing as Borat on the Jimmy Kimmel show, got Kimmel to take off his pants, though Kimmel then hid discreetly behind a couch. (Here, starting at about 11:00)

Innocence Abroad — “Emily in Paris” II

October 16, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in early days of television (the 1950s), novelist Herb Gold trying his hand at TV writing was told by the producer to turn out stories of “happy people with happy problems.” I had forgotten that line, but watching “Emily in Paris” reminded me.

When I wrote my first post (here) about “Emily in Paris,” I had seen only the first two episodes. I have now watched all ten. It’s sort of like eating M&Ms one at time. You know that they’re not the greatest chocolate in the world, but they’re sweet and pleasant and colorful, so it’s easy to pop in the next one.

Besides its fidelity to the “happy problems” template, the show reproduces two themes that often underlie American movies and TV. The first is the VE Day trope — victory in Europe. Emily, the naive but honest and hardworking American, is up against the sophisticated and scheming Europeans in her office, and of course she emerges victorious.

It’s the light-hearted comedy cover of a song that’s often sung in a darker key in noirish films. Sneaky foreigners conspire, dissemble, and hatch complicated plots to achieve their nefarious ends. A guileless American finds himself thrust into the middle of this web, but rather than devising his own devious strategy, he plays it straight — no lies, no deceit, just intelligence, integrity and grit. And of course he wins out over the foreigner baddies. Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies,” Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Cary Grant (technically not an American), in “North by Northwest” Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man.”

(In the “The Third Man,” Joseph Cotten arrives in post-war Vienna and thinks he’s in this same kind of American movie. He isn’t. He’s in a European movie. Not only do all his happy assumptions prove wrong, but his open, straightforward approach gets a good man killed.)

The other movie trope that Emily embodies is the superiority of children over grown-ups. In a 2008 post (Childhood — Purity or Danger?) contrasting American and British movie kids, I said,

In American movies, children are usually good. They are uncorrupted by adult motivations like greed, lust, anger, pride, etc. The adults in their lives, especially the men, are either well-meaning but ineffectual, even foolish, or downright vindictive. Children are not just morally superior, they are more competent and more resourceful.. . .

Emily is not literally a child,* but she is younger than everyone else in the show. It’s also useful to think of child vs. adult as not necessarily a matter of age but of power and position. In “Emily in Paris,” age and power combine in the recurring conflict between Emily, lowest in the office hierarchy, and Sylvie, the fifty-ish woman who is at the top. In episode after episode, Emily comes up with happy solutions to happy problems.

It occurred to me that these two movie motifs (young/old, America/Europe) are really variants of the same larger theme — the attractiveness of innocence. Children — at least American children in American movies — are innocent and untroubled. Free of inner conflict or doubt or selfish motive, they are the ones who can set things right. That’s also true of their adult counterpart, the American in Europe. All this fits well with the image many Americans have of their own country in relation to the rest of the world. Other countries scheme and deceive; they cannot be trusted. The US, in contrast, acts on the purest of motives.

This belief in our own innocence is remarkably durable. Often in the past, some event has led us to announce that we have lost our innocence. But that is quickly forgotten, so that when the next troublesome event happens, our pundits can again tell us that now, this time, we have lost our innocence. (See this earlier post, Not That Innocent, with Chistopher Hitchens’s wonderful commentary on American innocence.) Even worldly Americans, like New York Times columnist David Brooks (here), cling to this belief in America’s innocent purity.

At least with TV shows, we recognize the fairy tale of innocence for the fiction that it is.

* Actress Lily Collins, who plays the title role in Emily in Paris, said in an interview that she imagined Emily’s age to be twenty-two. Buzzfeed went nuts. Completely unrealistic, complained an article and the comments (here) . No 22-year old would have a masters in marketing. Nor would she be able to afford all those wonderful clothes Emily wears, and if she could afford them, she would have no room for them in her tiny chambre de bonne. All true, but realism is not the point.

Other posts on children in movies include:
The Kids Are Always Right,
The Descendants

Friends, Kids, Sex

American Values Go to Paris

October 8, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Emily in Paris,” the new show on Netflix, would seem to be a promo for Paris — the food, the clothes, the architecture, the romance. Yes, all those are on display, But the show, despite its setting or maybe because of it, also comes across as an advertisement for American culture,

The premise is this: twentysomething Emily, though she speaks no French, is sent by her marketing firm to Paris to work with their French affiliate.  The people in the Paris office are dubious about this new addition to their staff. They dismiss her as “la plouc” (translated as “the hick”). They aren’t exactly welcoming. They more or less exclude her, hoping that she will give up, stop bothering them with her ideas, and go back to Chicago.

You know what’s going to happen. Emily, through pluck, determination, and ability, will succeed and win their grudging admiration. The first of what will probably be many such predictable moments comes early — in Episode 2 — setting Emily and her approach to marketing based on social media against the French, who the prefer more traditional milieux. They relegate her to an unglamorous account (Vaga-Jeune, a lubricant for post-menopausal women), and socially they all separately turn down her invitations to lunch, each claiming some other engagement.

Then, as the four of them are at lunch together, they get word that Emily’s Instagram post about Vaga-Jeune, posted barely an hour earlier, has just been reposted by Brigitte Macron.

When the victorious Emily happens by, they now call her over to join them.

It’s only a brief plot line, but it seems designed to demonstrate the superiority of many elements of American culture. It’s not just the triumph of the American embrace of Change, Newness, and Progress. Emily succeeds also because she can’t be bothered with office hierarchy. She does not bother to even show her Instagram idea to her bosses let alone ask for their approval or advice.

There’s also the value on work. As one of her French colleagues observes to her, Americans live to work, the French work to live. So later in the episode, we see Emily, working at her desk while her French colleagues take a long lunch. And a few minutes later, she has her reward — the approval of the France’s first lady and some great publicity for the client.

Even the language of Emily’s culture is superior to French with its gendered nouns. The great success of her Instagram post comes from her pointing out the seeming contradiction of le vagin, a grammatically masculine noun for an anatomically feminine body part. And of course, since this is an American show, the French, from President Macron’s wife on down, are grateful to be shown the error of their linguistic ways.

It’s not hard to imagine how things would go if the French rather than Americans were writing the script. Emily’s ignorance and arrogance would be annoying, not charming and would lead to disaster rather than success. Perhaps French writers would not give her colleagues who understand every word of her rapidly spoken colloquial American English. Perhaps her inability to understand French would cause real problems, not just cute ones. Her Instagram posts, rather than bringing instant success, would commit cultural gaffes that damaged the brand.

But this is a show by created by Americans and for Americans.

Another Blog Year

September 19, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A new year begins. L' shana tovah. A blog year ends. The first post in this blog was 14 years ago today. I have been blogging less and less often, and that trend will probably continue. Meanwhile, as for tooting my own shofar, here are a few posts from this past year. that I’ve liked.

Proclaiming an Idealized History
The preference for an idealized history has great appeal to the authoritarian mind. I posted this a year ago, but just this week Trump called for a “patriotic history.”

Raise Your Dog to Be an American
Sometimes it takes an extreme version, one that seems like a parody, to get us to realize that our cultural ideas are particular and even peculiar. Most of the time, we assume that they are “natural” and universal.

Acting and Reacting as an Agent of Culture
 A sequel to the previous post. Even social scientists, me for example, can fail to see how their own reactions in everyday life are constrained by their culture.

Impostor Syndrome and Cultural Rules
Impostor Syndrome, an Idea Whose Time Has Come . . . Again
I take my hat off to no one when it comes to feeling like an impostor. But maybe these private feelings are a product of the society. Maybe  impostor syndrome is less prevalent in cultures less success-obsessed than the US – for example, Great Britain.

Abortion Rights and Motherhood — That Was Then, It’s Also Now
Abortion will once again become a newsworthy topic. The arguments will be about rights – rights of the unborn, rights of women. But underlying these arguments are more profound differences about the proper role of women in society.

Counterphobic vs. A Healthy Fear

September 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Do you know the term counterphobic?” the professor asked. This was in an undergrad sociology class in the early sixties. He was talking about some work he’d done for a marketing research company (“I’m not proud of it, but I was very young and very broke”). They wanted to know about the typical user of some product.

Counterphobic is a term coined in 1939 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel, and unless you were up on trends in Freudian theory, you’d have no idea what it meant. We weren’t and we didn’t.

The professor tried again. “It’s like someone who’s muy macho.” In 1963, to a roomful of White, mostly Jewish, mostly middle- or upper-middle class 20-year olds, macho wasn’t much more helpful than counterphobic.

He tried again. “You know, a Camel-smoker type.” Were we aware of the social-psychological differences between people who preferred one cigarette to another? We were not.

I’m not sure if the professor ever did get the concept across, but I was reminded of that moment today when I saw this tweet.

Turns out the people dying from covid are old or sick or both. How many 
of you pussy’s [sic] got played ? and who’s going to get played the next time.

I doubt that Adam Carolla smokes Camels, and in any case the Camel “brand” is no longer what it was a half-century ago (when it would have been called the Camel “image”). But he is the walking, talking, tweeting definition of counterphobic. He refuses to recognize a real danger and moves towards it rather than away. And he equates this response with a machismo-like masculinity.

He is not alone. For many on the right, the mask has become imbued with notions of both politics and gender. It’s not that the anti-maskers oppose the general idea of protecting themselves and others. That’s their main justification for their guns. But guns are almost inherently macho. Even as protection, they work by allowing the gunslinger to dominate other people.  But the symbol does not have to be inherently macho. Industrial hard hats have no intrinsic message of domination; they are purely protective. Yet for the past half-century, they have carried the same political and gender symbolism as guns. Nobody is accusing people  who wear hard hats of being pussies.

I wonder what the macho anti-maskers make of professional athletes, who seem quite willing to cooperate with the protective measures the leagues have imposed. The athletes are probably well aware that even young and otherwise healthy people who get Covid-19 and suffer only mild symptoms may yet have long term heart or lung damage. Some may call that attitude of caution a matter of pussies being played. Others think of it as “a healthy fear.”

Watching Your Language — Gerunds and the Fantasy Echo

August 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gabriel Rossman has a very funny Twitter thread today detailing the mistakes he found when he reviewed the transcription of his lectures made by UCLA software (Kaltura). One llecture included a reference to the Trojan War and the Greek warrior Diomedes.

Similar human mis-hearings (officially “mondegreens”) are so common in rock music that they fill countless webpages. Many of these mondegreens — e.g., “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”  — make perfect sense. So does diabetes. They’re just out of place.

But Kaltura also transcribed “emergent from norms of gerontocracy” as “emergent from ruins of gerund talk receipt,” which makes no sense.

But is Kaltura so much more ignorant than the students. How many undergraduates would recognize the name Diomedes? And how many would have a good idea of just what “norms of gerontocracy” are? Or even what a gerontocracy is?

I was reminded of a story from my undergraduate days* — so we’re going way back before transcription software or, to be honest, 8-track tape. The poet Allen Grossman was grading the final exam of his course on (I think) modern poetry, modernism defined as beginning around 1890. In one of the first blue books he read through, he was struck by the phrase “fantasy echo.” What a striking coinage for an undergrad to come up with, and yet it captured the feel of some early modern poetry.

But then the same phrase appeared in the essay of another student and then another. They couldn’t all have separately invented the same unusual metaphor. He thought back over the readings and his lectures. No fantasy echoes there. But then he realized that he had spoken frequently about the fin-de-siècle, and he had given the term his best French pronunciation. I don’t know whether in subsequent semesters he resigned himself to “turn of the century.”

And now I can’t stop think about “ruins of gerund talk receipt.” I hear a fantasy echo of grumbling, of the crumpling of a receipt, strewn on the ground by a language student who has passed the orals, or at least the part on gerunds.

*The story has become something of an urban legend, ascribed to various teachers on various campuses. The OG prof may well be George Mosse, with the phrase cropping up in a history course he taught at the University of Wisconsin in 1964. (See here.) The Brandeis version I heard dates back to roughly the same time, so that’s my narrative (comme on dit), and I’m sticking to it.

Miracle Cures and Doing the Math

August 25, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Jill Lepore, in an article on police,  misreported a percentage from a research study, I said (here),  “If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check.”

On Sunday, FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn cited a Mayo Clinic study showing that blood-plasma treatment for Covid-19 yielded a 35% reduction in mortality. Here’s how Dr. Hahn explained it.

So let me just put this in perspective. Many of you know I was a cancer doctor before I became FDA commissioner, and a thirty-five percent improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit. What that means is . . . 100 people who are sick with Covid-19, thirty-five would have been saved by the administration of plasma.

Not just pretty substantial, very substantial. So substantial that maybe we should double-check. When we do, this is what we find:
The Mayo Clinic study measured 7-day mortality rates.
  • Of patients who did not receive plasma, 11.9% died
  • Of patients who did receive plasma, 8.7% died

If you lower  something from 11.9 to 8.7, that’s a 35% reduction (11.9 - 8.7 = 3.2. and 3.2 is about 35% of the original rate). Dr. Hahn mistook the reduction in the percent of mortality for a reduction in number of patients who died. For 100 Covid patients, the number of lives saved by plasma would be closer to 3, not 35.

Hahn made his statement at a press conference Sunday night. Trump and HHS secretary Alex Azar were also there and emphasized the 35% figure (see this Bloomberg story). But other scientists who heard about the claim quickly pointed out the error. Within twenty-four hours, Hahn admitted his error, saying in a Tweet, “I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified.” 

I wonder if President Trump and Secretary Azar will offer similar corrections. No I don’t. Trump keeps promising Covid miracles, so he will continue to tout plasma as a miracle cure along with his other pet miracle cure hydroxy chloroquine and whatever other miracle cures come along until Covid 19 disappears. Like a miracle.

Hold the Moral Judgments About Transactional Sex — This Is a French Movie

August 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Une Fille Facile” (it can be translated as “An Easy Girl” or “A Simple Girl”) opened on Netflix recently. A glamorous and self-assured 22-year old girl from the big city comes to visit her younger cousin who has just turned sixteen. Through the younger girl’s eyes, we see the cousin blatantly using her sexuality (she has already had breast implants). She uses sex to tease boys her own age, and with men twice her age to gain access to their world of wealth. A yacht, wealthy art collectors, Italian villas, expensive jewelry, sex.  The younger girl rejects her high school friends and tags along, fascinated at this new world that her cousin has brought her to. 

We know how this will end, or at least we know how it would end if it were an American movie. By summer’s end, the glamour will show its tarnish, Naïma, the younger girl will come to see her cousin Sofia’s life as empty, unfulfilling. The movie may inflict some punishment on Sofia. It might have her attempt suicide, or she might suffer ill treatment at the hands of the wealthy. Naïma will return to her simpler life and be grateful for it. (Surely there must be American movies that follow this template. I just can’t think of any.)

But this is a French film, and the film’s morality is not so simple, not so easy.

The trailer outlines the plot and sketches the settings.

On the last day of school, the day she turns sixteen, Naïma comes home to her modest apartment in Cannes to find her cousin Sofia just arrived from Paris.Sofia is six years older than Naïma, but much more worldly. Also more sexual. And she uses her sexuality.

Early in the film, in a club, Naïma and her high school friend Dodo watch as Sofia picks up a wealthy art dealer (Andrès) and his advisor (Philippe). Andrès invites them all back to his yacht. Dodo and Sofia get into a small argument, and Dodo turns to leave the yacht. “Come on, let’s go,” he says to Naïma. She looks torn, but decides to stay. That is the turning point. She leaves her simple world and, with the film taking her point of view, she follows Sofia into the world of the Riviera wealthy.

Sofia is not interested in love, she tells Naïma, only sensation and adventure. She has a tattoo on her lower back — “Carpe Diem” written in fancy script. That first evening on the yacht, she has sex with Andrès (Naïma — the movie is from her POV — opens a door for a moment and sees them. Sofia coolly returns her gaze, seemingly indifferent to what Andrès is doing.) The next day, she takes Naïma to a jewelry stylish boutique and tells Naïma to select something. There’s a watch that costs 1500€. “Is that the most expensive?” Sofia asks the boutique owner.  “No, we have this one at 3500€.” It’s too small, says Naïma. “That doesn’t matter,” says Sofia, “take the most expensive.” She tells the boutique owner to charge it to Andrès’s account.

What’s notable, and perhaps notably French, about the film is its refusal to condemn Sofia. Despite her calculated use of sex and her materialism, she has integrity. She is self-aware, and she is smart. The wealthy who try to put her down wind up looking foolish or worse. They are condescending to Sofia, indifferent or cruel to the workers who serve them, and dishonest. When Andrès wants to get rid of the girls, he falsely accuses them of stealing a valuable antique sextant which he himself has hidden.

Their adventure ends. Summer ends. Sofia goes back to Paris. Naïma will go back to her normal life, her friends, her internship in the kitchen of a fancy hotel. She will keep a fond memory of Sofia, with no regrets, just as she will keep the Chanel handbag Sofia has given her and the Carpe Diem tramp stamp that she has gotten for herself.

It’s hard to imagine an American version of this film. A girl who trades on her sexuality purely for her own amusement might be the object of our fascination, just as Sofia is for Naïma and for the audience. But the American version would take a more critical view of such a Jezebel.

* The actress who plays Sofia, Zahia Dehar, was in fact a prostitute, starting at age 16, mostly for the wealthy (they could afford her  €1,000 - €2,000 fees). There was a scandal when it was revealed that several soccer players had paid for her services when she was under 18, the minimum age for legal prostitution in France. She has leveraged this notoriety into a line of lingerie, a career in modeling, and now film.

And jazz fans, in case you were wondering, Coltrane’s classic recording of his composition “Naïma” does make a brief appearance.

Smart Names — Test Scores and Social Class

August 19, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“You’re still crushing it on the bac,” I told my friend Adele [not her real name].


“Well, not you, but your namesakes over in France.”

The bac is a national test taken by all high school seniors,. Each year, sociologist Baptiste Coulmont, publishes a graph showing the percentage of très bien for each name. (The other categories are assez bien, bien, and not passing.) Here are the results for 2020.

(Click for a larger view. Or view the graph on Coulmont’s site.)

Of the 550 or so girls named Adele, about 33% got très bien.* Only the Josephines did better. Every year, Adèle is in the top 10. In five of the last nine years, she’s been #1 or #2. My friend Adele (who lives in New York state, not France) told me I’d mentioned this to her before, “my name coming up over and over in France — it seems really odd though.”

But it’s not odd that the Adèles are always on the high end of the x-axis and the Kevins always at the other end. That's the basic idea of sociology — that society is a thing in itself with qualities and properties that are different from those of the individuals who make up that society. The individuals who take the bac are completely different from one year to the next — none of the 2019 Adèles and Kevins took the bac in 2020 —  but the rates are a property of the society, and unless the society changes, we can expect the rates to remain fairly consistent. 

To see this consistency, go to this page that Coulmont has created, enter a name into your browser’s search box, and click on the years going back from 2019 to 2012.

“But why,” asked my friend, “would having a certain name make you do well on an exam?”

Of course it’s not the name that causes kids to do better. It's who gives their kids which name. In France, Anglo boys names are popular among less well-off, less educated, and maybe less smart parents, who watch soap operas imported from the US or other anglophone countries. The French elite do not watch the soaps or at least are not so taken with the names of the characters. Instead they prefer names like Eleonore and Garance. Those names are fairly rare, but the few girls with these names do well on the bac.  Other elite names have frequencies too low to make the chart (<200): Guillemette, Quitterie, Domitille — very upscale and with a high percent of très bien.

My friend, though not a sociologist, is very smart, and I wondered why she didn’t immediately see that it was all about social class. The link between social class and test performance is well-known. But what about the connection between social class and tastes in names? It’s possible that names in the US do not divide along class lines as rigidly as in France, but the distinctions still exist.

“Suppose you looked at a professor’s class list on the first day and had to guess which students would do well. What would you predict for Tiffany, Brandi, or Taylor? How about Sarah, Claire, and Margot?”

“I get your point,” said Adele.


(Earlier posts on Coulmont’s bac data are here (Jacques and Diane)  and here (Jordan, Ryan, . .  Back of the Bac)

Whose Stutter Is This Anyway?

August 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago the American Sociological Association gave its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life. The name of the award in this case is a bit off the mark. We gave them the award because they provide so much great material for our classes.  Sean Cole’s piece “Time Bandit” in their most recent episode, for example, is pure Goffman.

“Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men,” says Goffman in the introduction to Interaction Ritual. In eleven words, he summarizes his “dramaturgical” approach to interaction. But I don’t think that we realize how radical this view is. Much of it is not radically different from our everyday thinking about interaction. Concepts like impression management, audience segregation, backstage areas and the rest merely shine a light on what we are already dimly aware of. In a course I taught long ago, an undergrad assigned Presentation of Self commented, “Goffman has a keen sense of the obvious.”

What’s radical about Goffman is that he sees even everyday interactions as bounded by the scenario for that interaction. Most of us, by contrast, think about what we’re doing as unscripted,, Nor do we think we are creating structures and rules that constrain ourselves and others. In a few formal settings — highly predictable scenes like a church service or a school classroom — we might realize that we are following the outlines of a script. Or in a long and deep relationship, we might feel limited by its history, a history that we and the others involved have created. But from Goffman’s perspective, even in fleeting encounters, we are all in it together. In moments of embarrassment, for example, the gaffe becomes part of our situation regardless of who committed it.

The central figure in “Time Bandit” was Jerome Ellis. He has a “glottal block” stutter, and he says of the stutter what Goffman says about embarrassment: it becomes a property not of the stutterer but of the situation.

Here is a transcript.

JEROME ELLIS: Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.”

SEAN COLE: The stutter.

JEROME ELLIS: Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

SEAN COLE: And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

JEROME ELLIS: Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

SEAN COLE: And we are both contending with it.


SEAN COLE: And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The Poetry Project is a marathon of performances — poetry, dance, music, stand-up — over 150 performers, so there’s a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Ellis’s performance, which is excerpted in the clip (you can hear the difference in sound quality)  was a plea that stutterers be allowed more time.

Stuttering also illustrates many of Goffman points in Stigma. This next clip shows the dilemma about disclosing a stigma or using different strategies to hide it. Listen to it, don’t just read the transcript.

SEAN COLE: : And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life — taking too much of someone’s time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there’s a line behind him. But this wasn’t that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter — synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he’s blocked on for one that’s easier to say. He didn’t want to do that on stage.

JEROME ELLIS: : And I didn’t realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

SEAN COLE: : Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

JEROME ELLIS: : Yes. To their customers with — So there’s the Portuguese word — With.
distúrbios na temporização

which I had literally translated to — in my text, I translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it to just — to “disturbance.” And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was —
Customers with
I said, “breaks.” —
Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.
--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn’t like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I — I just did with — with you, is just wait.

SEAN COLE: : Wait for the word.

JEROME ELLIS: : Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D’s, they can be really painful.


EROME ELLIS: : So that’s why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened — like “breaks” to me, it doesn’t capture what I wanted to capture.

*This is an imperfect transcription. There is another sound before distúrbio, but my Portuguese is very limited, and I could not figure out what it might be.

It was this moment, his speech blocked at the same word over and over again, that brought home what he had said before — that the stutter becomes part of the situation. It becomes our stutter. For while I was listening, I kept suggesting alternative words. I thought that the “t” of “to” was the problem. “Translated as. . .” I said out loud.

Social facts, says Durkheim, include thoughts, feelings, and actions that have the strange quality of being properties of the situation, not just of the individual. Here I was, at home by myself, listening to an event that I had not attended and that had taken place at least a year ago. Yet that situation was co-opting what seemed like my very personal reactions. And the stutter — not Jerome Ellis’s stutter, but the stutter — was an crucial part of that situation.

These Truths, These Untruths, These Really Big Numbers

July 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check. That’s the warning sociologist Joel Best has been giving us since 1990, if not before, when he looked at claims that the number of children abducted by strangers annually was 50,000. Way too many.

And now we have distinguished historian Jill Lepore, author of the recent best-selling history of the US These Truths. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in her article “The Invention of the Police” (here) she says this:

I’m using a screenshot of The New Yorker’s online version only to show that as of this writing, more than a week after its initial publication, this passage remains unchanged. The text reads:

One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.

This number, two-thirds, does not sound right. I have been in NYC emergency rooms — in the city’s high-crime years and in its low-crime years. Never did it look like two-thirds of the people there had been roughed up by the cops. The study Lepore cites (by Justin Feldman, here ) used data from 2001-2014. In that 14-year period,  683,000 young people (15-34) turned up in emergency rooms after being hit by the police or security guards, roughly 50,000 a year. That’s the numerator.

The denominator is the total number of emergency room visits by this age group. My estimate is about 30 million a year.* Obviously, 50,000 out of 30,000,000 is not two-thirds. It’s less than two-tenths of a percent.

What happened? Isn’t The New Yorker the publication that made “fact check” part of our everyday language?

Louise Perry (here) has an explanation of how Lepore and the fact checkers at The New Yorker misread the numbers and prose in Feldman’s article.

But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that: Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.

That’s the “how.” Perry also thinks she knows the “why”: “political bias.” Liberal, anti-police bias. Of course, it’s impossible to get evidence for this idea. The magazine and the writer have politically liberal views. Maybe the fact-checkers do as well. But it’s impossible to get evidence that their politics caused their misreading of the data.

So as long as we’re speculating without evidence, here’s my explanation (I’m not necessarily rejecting the politics explanation, just maybe adding to it): writing and reading about big numbers. It’s not easy to write up statistics in a way that is unmistakably clear. A reader not familiar with the territory can easily take a wrong turn, especially when that territory takes the shape of large numbers. If I told you that before the current pandemic, emergency rooms in the US saw about 3 million people a year, that might sound reasonable. I mean, three million seems like a really big number. But it’s only one- tenth of the actual number.

I know very little about dinosaurs. If you told me they went extinct 10 million years ago, I would think, Yeah, that’s a long time ago; it sounds about right. If you told me that they went extinct 200 million years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Sounds plausible. But a paleontologist would wonder how I could be taken in by such obvious untruths.

Yes, it’s possible that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were so eager to stick it to the police that they let an “obvious” mistake slip by.  But it’s also possible that they just didn’t know how to parse these claims about the data, and because some of the numbers were large and others (ED visits) still larger and unknown, they just seemed reasonable.


* This a rough and quick estimate. The average 15-34 population over those years was in the range of 30-35 million. This site  shows rates of ED use by age group. Unfortunately, the age groups are Under 18 and 18-44. So I estimated on the low side.

Statues and Heroes — Looking Back From the Future

July 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Woodrow Wilson was a straight-up racist. No doubt about it. Yet in 1948, Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, which started up in 1930, added his name, making it the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It has taken Princeton until now, seventy-two years later, to dump him. WTF? What changed, and why did it take so long?

What changed, of course, is that racism, especially the racism of institutions, has finally become a central issue in the national conversation. The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought big changes in the law, but it never had mass demonstrations as widespread and sustained as those of the last several weeks. Until now, racism, even though it was generally recognized as wrong, was not as salient an issue. Critics may have pointed out Wilson’s racism, but for Princeton, it just wasn’t that big a deal, certainly not big enough to warrant removing his name.

It’s hard to understand how Princeton could have let something so wrong slip by for so long. But Nicholas Kirstof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (here) points the way towards understanding that failure even if we do not condone it.

As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures, I’ve been wondering what our great-grandchildren will find bewilderingly immoral about our own times — and about us.

Which of today’s heroes will be discredited? Which statues toppled? What will later generations see as our own ethical blind spots?

I believe that one will be our cruelty to animals. Modern society relies on factory farming to produce protein that is inexpensive and abundant. But it causes suffering to animals on an incalculable scale.

It’s hard to imagine the moral climate of the year 2090. As Yogi said, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.* But suppose that Kristof is right. Suppose that seventy years from now the progressives (or whatever they are calling themselves) are tearing down the statues of Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or demanding that the John Lewis School of Civil Rights change its name — all because these one-time heroes ate meat, often two or three times a day!

If we could speak to the protestors, would we tell them, “Wait. These were good people, the best. Back in 2020, we didn’t realize how cruel and how disastrous for the planet meat production was. We didn’t apply 2090 moral codes to animals.”

Their reply: “Yes, that’s precisely the point. Your morality was wrong, and we are not going honor those who lived by it. What’s painful to admit is that we waited till now to take these long overdue actions. After all, we’ve known all along that these people were straight-up meat eaters.”

* Comparison with the future, like prediction, is very hard. But it can be useful, especially when people use the much easier comparison with the past in a misleading way, for example to argue that poor people today are not really poor. See this post from 2015.

Ahmad and Miles

July 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I’m a few days late with this one. Ahmad turned 90 on July 2.)

“When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they're right.” Miles Davis, Miles, the Biography

But mostly, people don’t say that, and they don’t realize how great the influence was. There’s the musical style of course. In the 1950s, when beboppers were playing as many notes as possible in a measure, Ahmad was allowing for much more space, an approach that also suited Miles.

There was also the choice of tunes. When I was in junior high school, I got a copy of the Miles’s album “Milestones.” One of the tracks is “Billy Boy” — no horns, just Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. The liner notes said, ‘Miles has an ear for a pop tune ("Billy Boy").’ I agreed. What a neat idea to import this folk tune (not a “pop tune”) into jazz.

I was an ignorant kid. I didn’t know then (and most people still don’t) that the musician who brought it into the jazz world was not Miles. It was Ahmad Jamal. The 1958 Red Garland arrangement on “Milestones” is nearly identical to Ahmad’s 1952 recording — the intro and outro, the added bridge, the block chords with octaves in the right hand.

For the Red Garland version, listen here.

Miles also often gets credit for making “On Green Dolphin Street” part of the standard jazz repertoire thanks to his 1958 sextet recording. It’s a great recording, but Ahmad was the one who clued the jazz world in to the potential of this movie-soundtrack tune. The same sequence is true of “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”: first Ahmad, then Miles, then everyone.

Ahmad did have one huge hit, an album that became a best seller even outside of the jazz world: “Live at the Pershing” (1958). The track that got played over and over again on the radio back then (and often now) is  “Poinciana,”  another tune that Ahmad hauled out of the “unlikely for jazz” bin. 

Here he is at age eleven – Fritz Jones in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Texas and Messes, Then and Now

July 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can you get Texans to do something that is inconvenient and brings them no direct benefit but will benefit the general society?

Today’s New York Times had this story on page one, above the fold.

How do you get Texans to wear masks and to stay out of bars? Pubic health orders apparently won’t work, even if they carry $250 fines. As a Lubbock County commissioner told the New York Times, “We’re some of the nicest people in the entire world. But as soon as you make demands and tell them they’re going to do something, you get a different response: You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Nor will appeals to self-interest and personal safety. These people don’t feel ill at all, and are they sure they know how to take care of their own health.. The statistics don’t seem all that alarming. A large majority of these people will not get COVID, and most of those who do will not have severe symptoms. You might as well tell them that those guns they keep at home are more likely to kill or wound a family member (accident, suicide) than to ward off criminals. Besides, masks carry a political message that’s almost as clear as a MAGA hat. They are part of the culture war Trump is waging. Going maskless has become a way to taunt those on the other side. Besides, maskless is macho.  Masks are for the fearful.

In addition, the economic benefits of “opening up” are immediate and clear. The costs from a huge increase in COVID-19 lie in a far less visible future.

We’ve been here before, and by “here” I  mean the problem of individual inconvenience versus collective benefit.  By “here” I also mean Texas. The problem was not as serious as COVID-19 — highway beautification vs. littering. How could you get people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about highway beauty to stop tossing their empty beer cans out the pick-up truck window?

I wrote a blogpost about it in 2009, reposted in 2017. But it’s relevant once again.

*                    *                    *                    *                  

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

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Now Texas needs something as brilliant as the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. The ideas  I came up with spur of the moment —  “Don’t Infect Texas,” macho-looking Lone Star masks, “If New Jersey did it, so can Texas, only better” — don’t really hit the mark. Where are those advertising people when you really need them, because this time the stakes are much higher than highway aesthetics. A convincing campaign could save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Johnny Mandel, 1938-2020

July 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Johnny Mandel died on Monday.

His best-known song, the one heard most often by the most people, is “Suicide Is Painless” though most of those people will not know the title let alone the composer. It’s the theme song for M*A*S*H. The obits will list Mandel's other hits like “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

When I was a freshman, someone in my dorm had a record of the soundtrack from the 1958 film “I Want to Live.” I thought: Wow, can you really do this — have real jazz played by real jazz guys (Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Shelly Manne) in a Hollywood movie. It didn’t occur to me then to think about the composer/arranger. It was Johnny Mandel. Sixty-two years later, it still holds up. You can hear it here.

It’s hard to choose one recording. Shirley Horn has wonderful performances of several of his songs, and so does Bill Evans. There’s a Stan Getz recording of “Close Enough For Love” that I like because the piano player on it is Lou Levy, and once when I went to see him at a bar in New York, he let me copy the changes for that tune from his lead sheet. This was long before the Internet made that sort of thing so easy.

The beautiful “Moon Song” is not well-known, and when it’s performed, it’s usually done as a very slow ballad. But Fred Hersch, on his all-Mandel solo album “I Never Told You,” takes it at a livelier tempo, which makes easier to hear the melody and harmony.