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.