Simon and Garfunkle and McLuhan

November 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The term “global village” was coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy.

But certainly the electro-magnetic discoveries have recreated the simultaneous “field” in all human affairs so that the human family now exists under conditions of a “global village.” We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums. So that the concern with the “primitive” today is as banal as nineteenth-century concern with “progress,” and as irrelevant to our problems.

McLuhan was prescient. He saw that the electronic media would dissolve the distinction between primitive and modern. In 1962, even the term “electronic media” was not much in circulation (McLuhan uses electro-magnetic). “Globalization” had not yet entered the general conversation, and the Internet and World Wide Web were decades away.

(Frequency of globalization in books. Google n-Grams.)

I doubt that anyone still reads The Gutenberg Galaxy these days, but Maurice Stein assigned it, along with McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) to my Sociology of Literature class in 1965. That was also the year that Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence” became a huge hit.

These seemingly diverse facts came together for me this morning as I was listening to a promo for a new audiobook, Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon.

(No transcript. The idea is entirely in the music.)

Dave Frishberg, 1933 - 2021

November 19, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times obit for Dave Frishberg left out the best parts. Frishberg wrote some wonderful lyrics, but the lines the Times chose are hardly the best. From “I’m Hip,” they commented on “I read People magazine,” noting that in the original 1960s version it was “Playboy magazine.” Frishberg changed it. But the best line in this song in the persona of someone who’s “on top of every trend”  was “When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”

My favorite Frishberg rhyme is vocal/local in “I Want to Be a Sideman.” Not many words rhyme with vocal (focal and yokel are the only two that come to mind), so while the rhyme is unusual, it’s not forced. It fits perfectly with the sense of the song.

I wanna fill behind the vocal
Double on flute
And jam on the blues.
I wanna go and join the local
Buy a dark suit
And start payin’ dues

Frishberg wrote “Do You Miss New York” in 1980 a few years after he had moved to Los Angeles. It has the wonderful line,
Did you trade
The whole parade
For a pair of parking places?
Susannah McCorkle’s version captures poignancy in a way that Frishberg’s own voice, often described as “reedy.”

[UPDATE: Since writing this, I’ve read the WaPo obit, which is much better and not just because it mentions the same lines that I included

Halloween and Child Danger — From Legend to Law

October 31, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Halloween of 2006, when this blog was only a few weeks old, I did a post (here) that mentioned Joel Best’s famous 1985 Social Problems article debunking “Halloween sadism.” All those stories about evil adults putting needles in apples or LSD on candy, they were urban legends — stories that many people have heard about, but when you try to track down specific instances, they vanish like a ghost. Best updated his research in 2012 and still could not find case where a child had suffered serious injury let alone the deaths claimed in the legend. There a few stories, usually in local online news sources, of sharp objects found in candy, but no reports of injury.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the post was really about cognitive biases. It takes more than lack of evidence to drive a stake through the heart of a good legend. It’s not just that people don’t stop believing. They can expand and transform it, and then give it a much more solid form.  Halloween sadism has shifted shape and become Halloween pedophilia.  And while Halloween sadism was spread more or less randomly by word-of-mouth, Halloween pedophilia is now written into the law. Starting in the early 2000s, many states have passed laws restricting sex offenders on Halloween. In many places they are not allowed to give out candy. In some, they are not allowed to decorate their homes or have the lights on. Police and parole officers may intensify their surveillance, and some jurisdictions just round up all known sex offenders and keep them in a single location like city hall till trick-or-treat is over.*

These extraordinary measures are based on the assumption that, as Fox News puts it, “pedophiles will be out in full force” on Halloween.

The evidence shows no such Halloween effect. Researchers looked at rates of sex crimes against children over the course of eight years and found no difference between Halloween and any other day. Nor were rates any lower after the new polices were put in place than they had been before. (The article is a behind a paywall here.)

You don’t have to be much of a child safety expert to guess which people do actually present a greatly increased risk to children on Halloween. Motorists.

The numbers are small, thankfully, but the Halloween effect is unmistakable.

* In the last few years, we’ve had a more serious examples of new laws based on myth as myths of voter fraud and stolen elections became the basis for changes in election laws. The big difference is that the people propagating the election myths were doing so in order to further their own interests. The diffusion of Halloween myths was more “endogenous.” For more on endogenous and exogenous factors, see this earlier post on the rise and fall in the popularity of baby names and movies.

On Becoming an Entrepreneurship Industry User

October 18, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sixteen years ago, I went to hear what I guess you’d call a motivational speaker. He was trying to motivate the thousand or so people in the auditorium buy his course on getting rich, and to do that he had to first make us feel that we could be wildly successful if only we changed the way we thought about money. And he did. He was really good. Motivational, even inspirational. We really did feel as though some gigantic prize were within our grasp.

The way to unlimited wealth, he said, is of course, to have your own business. If you work for someone else, whatever your monthly salary or (God forbid) hourly wage, your income is limited; there are only twelve months or twenty-four hours.

I remembered that talk as I was listening to the latest episode of the Sociology Annex podcast (here). Joe Cohen’s guest was Rasums Koss Hartman, and I realized that my motivational speaker was part of what Hartman calls  calls the Entreprenership Industry. Hartman teaches at a business school (Copenhagen — all his degrees are from there too), but his take on the Entrepreneurship industry and the entrepreneurs took me back to my intro sociology course six decades ago where we read Outsiders and Theory of the Leisure Class.  

Most people who try to become entrepreneurs run into a variety of setbacks — they have problems getting their business to work properly, they get rejected by potential investors, they lose money, they go into debt, and all these can compromise their relationships and mental health.

But the Entrepreneurial Industry is there to persuade them that all these experiences are normal and possibly necessary steps to eventual success. Becoming an entrepreneur in the 2000s is much like what Becker described in “On Becoming a Marijuana User” for jazz musicians in the 1940s. The crucial challenge is to learn to define as pleasurable and good what others might see as unpleasant. Becker’s musicians had their own hip culture (it was  the 1940s, so probably their “hep” culture). Hopeful start-ups have the Entrepreneurial Industry. In fact, Hartman calls the entrepreneur’s transformational learning “the Beckerian Distortion.”   

There are differences of course. Pot was legally and socially condemned; entrepreneurship is highly praised. The hepcats didn’t charge for their help, and nobody went broke. Nor did they strive to smoke  unlimited quantities of pot or try to figure out how to be a mega-hophead. Being a pot user was not the core of their identity.

But in the US, we lionize the successful start-up billionaire, so being an entrepreneur is a valid and valued identity. As Hartman says, “If you’re a young person and you’re underemployed, if you’re a college-educated barista, it’s socially preferable to be the ‘founder and CEO’ of a company even though it might not succeed.” Spending your money on the goods and services the Entrepreneurial Industry sells is a kind of conspicuous consumption, signaling to others that even if you are not the next Steve Jobs, at least you are doing something everyone admires. And so we have what Hartman calls “The Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur.”

In both these papers, Hartman begins with what my motivational speaker omitted: that the graph of entrepreneurial success is a highly skewed power curve. The typical venture ends up as a “Muppet” (I’m not sure why he borrows that term): “An economically marginal, under-sized and poorly performing enterprise.” Maybe that’s still better than being a barista.

Embarrassment — a Property of the Situation, Not the Person

October 6, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

When the American Sociological Association gave an award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life in 2013, one of the sociologists who spoke about the show (David Newman IIRC), praised its highlighting of social context.

No, no, said Ira Glass when it was his turn. The name of the award gets it all wrong. “What we want are stories, stories with good individual characters. If we don’t have a good character, we can’t do a good radio piece” (This quote isn’t exact— I’m trying to remember something that happened eight years ago — but it conveys the idea.)

Ira was being too modest. Usually, those This American Life stories cannot help but reflect the social forces shaping what the characters do, which is why the ASA was honoring the show. It just provides such good classroom material for professors to work from.

But sometimes the focus on the individual obscures subtle social forces and keeps us from thinking about the sociological implications of the story. The most recent episode, was about embarrassment. But it completely missed Goffman’s insight that while it is the individual who feels embarrassed, embarrassment is really a property of the social situation. Goffman’s focus, as he says in the introduction to Interaction Ritual, is “Not men and their moments, but moments and their men.” [He means “men and women,” but he wrote this a half-century ago.]     
            *                    *                    *                    *

For this episode, “My Bad” (here), This American Life asked listeners to contribute their own stories of embarrassment. They got some doozies. The final segment (title: “Putting the Bare Ass in Embarrassment”) is from a woman, Cariad Harmon, who was sleeping at her boyfriend’s apartment for the first time. Sleeping is the key word.  

Here is the transcript:

I just remember being really, really tired and really needing to go to the bathroom. And that was kind of my last thought as I was falling to sleep was, ugh, I really need to pee, but I can't be bothered to get up and find the bathroom. And then I had this dream that I really needed to go to the bathroom. And I was looking for one and I couldn't find one anywhere. And I was pushing this big metal door, in my search for the bathroom. And it was locked. And I couldn't get through, and I was really, really frustrated.

And then, I woke up. And I was naked, standing in a stairwell, pushing against a big door that went from the stairwell into the rest of the apartment building.

She had sleepwalked. It was early in the morning. She opened the stairwell door and looked down hallway but could not remember which of the apartments was her boyfriends’s. It’s a long story and includes her peeing in the stairwell and winding up nude in an apartment full of strangers.

At the end of the episode, the host Elna Baker says.

So, most of the embarrassing stories I've heard and collected for this week's show, the person does something that results in their embarrassment... So, I get why they feel embarrassed. But you didn't do anything. You didn't overstep. You didn't make a mistake, but you still feel embarrassed.

Cariad agrees, sort of. “Yeah. I suppose if you take blame off the table, it takes maybe a certain flavor of that embarrassment out. But it doesn't take the embarrassment away.”

Goffman couldn’t have put it better. Embarrassment is not a matter of the individual’s intent or personal characteristics or other bases of blame.. It’s about the norms and roles that are part of the social situation. (Of course Cariad did something. She walked around naked in an aparment building. She peed on the stairs. When Elna Baker says, “You didn’t do anything,” I think she means, “You didn’t do anything consciously or intentionally; there was no way you could have avoided it.”)

I used to ask students to write, anonymously of course, their own incidents of embarrassment. Some of them had this same quality where the person was blameless but still embarrassed. One girl was forced to play in the softball game at the company picnic despite her protestations. Sure enough, the first time a ball was hit in her directions, it went right through her legs, and she felt keen embarrassment. (Feeling irked at her co-workers came later.) 

Another girl was making out with her boyfriend in his parked car. Most of their clothing was strewn on the seat and floor. Still, nothing blameworthy there, or embarrassing. But then a cop came and shone his flashlight in on them. And the cop was her father. She had still done nothing blameworthy, nobody had. But needless to say, all three were embarrassed. In other cases, the person is embarrassed not by their own gaffe but by what someone with them has done. Often that other person is a child too young to know the situational norms.

The more general point is that embarrassment shows the advantage of thinking first about the situation and what it requires of the people in it

Financial Literacy — Protecting Who?

September 16, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

My high school offered a course in drivers ed. I didn’t take it, but it was available. Today, some high schools offer courses in “financial literacy.” Behind these two seemingly different courses lie the same assumptions:

  • bad things happen largely because of individual shortcomings — bad driving, bad financial decisions
  • the road to less suffering lies in education

These two kinds of programs share one more similarity: they don’t work.

Financial literacy courses are not yet widesp4read, but there is a movement to get them into the curriculum. Who would be behind such a movement? Elizabeth Warren? Paul Krugman? You’re way ahead of me. It’s the people inside the world of finance — the banks and brokers and their attendant media. Here’s the graphic that came up when I searched for news of  “financial literacy.” 

CNBC, Financial Times, Fast Company, Charles Schwab, and so on. We don’t know for certain why these organizations have gotten into the fin-lit game. Their official goal is to keep people from making bad financial decisions. But it’s hard to ignore the own self-interest. The implicit message in these programs is that the banks and others are good, reliable, public-spirited institutions so long as you are careful. But beyond that, as Felix Salmon says,

Such curricula also tend to reinforce a libertarian view of financial wellness, based on individual rather than collective action — one where poverty and debt are less a societal problem and more a consequence of bad individual financial decisions.
Do Hispanics have financial problems, and if so how can these be solved? The CNBC link
 in my Google results has this:

During Hispanic Heritage Month, CNBC will highlight individuals who are working to teach others about personal finance and empowering them to strive toward a bright financial future.

The Financial Times link  yields a video of a panel discussion. It begins with moderator asking what are the most important things the FT financial-literacy charity can do. The answer:

The sorts of schools that we work with, about half of the children live in poverty. Their aspiration is to have their lives not in poverty. Money is so beyond important to all of them.

The idea that the government might regulate these institutions in order to protect consumers is simply not part of the discussion. Read all the fine print before you sign or click “Agree”; pay no attention to those lobbyists hard at work fighting against consumer financial protection laws. Fin-reg no; fin-lit yes.

I don’t know the history of drivers ed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was promoted, supported and perhaps designed by the car companies, the AAA, and the oil industry. The focus on good driving frames automobile safety as a problem whose cause and solution lie entirely with individuals.  Meanwhile, Detroit vigorously resisted regulations requiring them to include safety features like seat belts and airbags.

Eventually safety improved. The number of highway deaths declined. But it wasn’t because of drivers ed. The evaluation research on those programs is hardly a ringing endorsement of their effectiveness.

The same is true of financial literacy education. Felix Salmon again:

A 2014 meta-analysis of 169 papers and 201 studies, however, found that “interventions to improve financial literacy explain only 0.1% of the variance in financial behaviors studied” — and that low-income students had even weaker correlations.

It may be a bit too cynical to ask cui bono? (who is it good for?). But at the least, let's just say that  organizations do not promote programs that go against their own interests

White Lotus

August 23, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some random observations on White Lotus. I know it’s just television, and the stories are about the individual characters. But it’s hard not to see the social categories — class, gender, age, race, family role, occupation, etc.

Spoilers abound in what follows. For those totally unfamiliar with the show, White Lotus is a luxury hotel in Hawaii. The show focuses on three sets of guests who have come from the mainland for a week and on some of the staff who must endure them.

1.      Rich people are the problem, even when they’re trying to help.

Rich people are often the bad guys in American movies and TV.* In their pursuit of wealth and power, they resort to all kinds of nefarious deeds, some legal, some not but nasty nevertheless.  In White Lotus, the rich people are not that kind of villain. They are not Gordon Gecko or Montgomery Burns.  They are merely thoughtless. But the results are just as bad. In that thoughtlessness, they unintentionally bring disappointment, disaster, and death to the people who have jobs serving them.

    Three plot lines in the show pair a guest and a member of the hotel staff:

  • Tonya, a wealthy but very unhappy White woman. Belinda, the Black manager of the hotel’s spa services
  • Paula, friend of Olivia Mossbacher, whose family is on vacation at the hotel. Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the hotel.
  • Shane, young White man on his honeymoon; his money is from the family real estate business. Armond, manager of the hotel, gay.

    None of these ends well, especially for the staff member.

    a.    After Belinda brings Tonya out of her physical and psycological misery, Tonya offers to help Beinda start her own business. But  then Tonay backs out, not even reading Belinda’s proposal. (She does though leave Belinda with a substantial amount of cash.)

    b.    Paula seduces Kai, then tries to help him by convincing him to steal the jewelry of the family that has brought her along. She provides the combination to the Mossbache’s room. It’s a stupid idea, and Kai is easily caught.

    c.    Shane is out to get Armond practically from the start. His complaint is mostly about the room Armond has given him. But in the end, he winds up killing Armond, though the death is more accidental than intentional.

2.    This ain’t Mother’s Day.

    a.    White Lotus is not kind to mothers. Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge, who should be given an Emmy right now) makes it clear that her mother is the principle cause of her personal failings and misery. ( “My mother told me I would never be a ballerina, and that was when I was skinny,”) We’ll never know the mother’s side since she exists only as the ashes that Tonya carries around in a wooden box and periodically tries to scatter on the ocean,

    b.    Nicole (Connie Britton) is more interested in her role as CFO than in her family. Even on this family vacation, she’s rearranging the furniture in their hotel suite for purposes of feng shui for her Zoom with China.

    c.    Shane’s mom (Mollie Shannon) is so involved with running Shane’s life that she crashes his honeymoon, is disdainful of her new daughter-in-law (if she listens to her at all) and is in general a thoroughly dislikeable materialistic snob.

3.    So much for the new masculinity.

    Shane performs the old-style bro version of masculinity., and for that, the show portrays this as something no man should want to be. But the non-bros, the two Mossbacher men (father Mark and teenage son Quinn) are hardly ideal. They are nearly lifeless, without energy for anything and finding little gratification in what they do. Mark seems to has little authority in the family, and seemingly no job. His wife Nicole, is the high-power one.  In the opening episode, Mark is worried that he will literally lose his balls. Quinn, bored and listless, distracts himself with screens — video games and porn.
What brings each of them to life is the chance to do something physical and tradionally masculine — fighting and sports. When Mark comes upon Kai burglarizing his room, he tackles him. They fight briefly, Mark getting the worst of it. But his valiant effort transforms him in his own eyes and in the eyes of his wife. They have sex for what is apparently the first time in years. Quinn comes to life only after he joins up with a rowing team. Pulling an oar in the outrigger is the only real thing in his life.


* The creators of these shows are often rich. I don’t know how much Mike White is making from this show that he created, wrote, and directed — it’s impossible to find out unless someone sues someone else — but I’m sure it’s a lot. Why do rich Hollywood writers make rich business people their villains? For Ben Stein’s Marxist answer to this question, see the post Schmucks With Powerbooks from 2007

Jim Loewen, 1942-2021

August 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I saw Jim Loewen was at the 2018 ASA meetings in Philadelphia, a session on blogging as public sociology. It was in one of those small rooms and there were about forty of us in the audience. Jim was sitting quietly towards the back of the room. The irony struck me immediately. Here were bloggers, public sociologists, whose publics were perhaps a few hundred people, mostly sociology professors and graduate students — and sitting unnoticed was a sociologist whose work had reached more than a million people. My son had read Lies My Teacher Told Me in high school.

After the session, I said hello. He didn’t remember me.  Our grad school careers had barely overlapped; I was in social psych then, not sociology. But a couple of my friends knew him from grad school and from leftist student politics. My friends both wound up at prestigious business schools, one teaching business law, the other teaching about leadership and doing well-paid consulting for corporate executives.

Jim remained true to the concerns he had back then. I spoke with him very briefly after the ASA session. He said his current interest was people’s hometown experiences with race and class. I told him that I might not have much to contribute. When I was growing up, my hometown had no known African Americans, though my parents had said that there were some families that were passing. “No, no. Write it up and send it to me,” Jim said, handing me his card.

I never did, an omission I now regret.

When Less Is More . . . More Correct

August 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fewer than one in four people who are pregnant are vaccinated,” said Noelle King on NPR this morning. Fewer? Really? Why not less?

I suppose that Ms. King or whoever wrote the script was thinking of the individual people., an online source, offers the same prescription.

To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”

Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.

Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.

Even if you think you should use fewer when talking about separate, countable things, the NPR lede makes no sense. The only number “fewer” than one in four is zero in four. That would mean that no pregnant people are vaccinated.

Dollars are countable, but we don’t talk about “people whose income is fewer than seventy thousand dollars a year.” The same goes for many other things. We don’t say, “I weigh eight pounds fewer than I did in March,” or “Stop for gas. We have fewer than two gallons left in the tank.”  

All of these statements — vaccinations, incomes, gas tanks — are not not about individual people or things; they are about a level or rate. And when you are talking about levels, it makes more sense to use less.

In the NYT last month, the print edition had a story about Covid rates in counties where “fewer than 40 percent” of residents had been vaccinated. The online version corrected this to “under 40 percent.” I guess the copy editor didn’t have the confidence to change it to less.

I seem to be hearing this kind of fewer more and more. (I wish I had some actual data to show the trend, but I don’t,) Those contests from my childhood where you were asked to write something in “twenty-five words or less” would now be “twenty-five words or fewer.”

What’s wrong with less? My guess is that fewer sounds like what educated people say. Fewer is more sophisticated; less sounds so ordinary. It’s like using fortuitous rather than fortunate. The words sound alike, and in many instance, both could apply — things that are fortunate may also happen unexpectedly by chance. So why not use the one that sounds like something a person with a large vocabulary would say? Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle here.  I expect that in a few years, if it hasn’t happened already, dictionaries will tell us that the meaning of fortuitous has now expanded to cover both. But to my ear, it’s like being served the salad course at dinner and asking someone to “pass the dressage.”

Quitters and Righteous Anger

July 29, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On an episode of Survivor many seasons ago, one of the cast told the others in his tribe that when it came to choosing the person to be removed in that round, it would make their decision much easier and his life less unpleasant if they just made him the one. It was fairly early in the game, but he had already endured enough and had no desire for the increasing hardships that lay ahead.

At the tribal council, the final ritual of each episode where the big reveal is the identity of that week’s outcast, the host Jeff Probst kept his self-control, but you could tell that he was really  pissed off at the dropout.

What reminded me of angry Jeff were some of the reactions to Simone Biles’s decision not to compete at the Olympics. She was concerned for her mental health. She had not performed well in the early rounds, and she felt that the extraordinary pressure she faced would do her further psychological damage. Physical damage too, since gymnastics at that level is a high-risk sport. A lapse in concentration can result in a broken neck.

Many people sympathized with her emotional plight. But some on the political right erupted with anger. “Quitter,” “selfish psychopath,” “very selfish ... immature ... a shame to the country,” “selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” Jason Whitlock at The Blaze wrote about “felonious act of quitting.”

To Charles Sykes writing at Politico (here) these attacks are all about the culture of “toughness,” the  pre-occupation with strength and weakness that pervades the MAGA-verse. In a post early in the pandemic on the people who were saying masks are for pussies,* I used the term counterphobic to describe this reaction. These anti-maskers turn the fear of Covid into its opposite, a blend of denial and bravura.

But as the Survivor incident shows, even when that problem is not framed as strength vs. weakness, the quitter poses a problem to the group. I’m drawing here on Philip Slater’s 1963 American Sociological Revie article “On Social Regression.” Slater argues that any social group requires energy from its members, but individuals may sometimes feel that these demands are burdensome and want to withdraw that energy back to themselves. Slater uses the Freudian language of libido — sexual energy — but the idea is the same if we use “emotional energy.” Even in everyday speech, people will say that they don’t have the “energy” for another relationship, or that their job is demanding too much of their “energy.” Or when we get sick, we may feel that we should withdraw our “energy” from work and relationships. Groups allow that kind of temporary withdrawal. . . as long as it’s temporary. Then by rejoining the group the individual confirms that the whole enterprise is worthwhile.

The quitter offers a different and threatening idea of the group. The threat is not that her withdrawal reduces the group’s numbers by one. The group still has all its other members. But the quitter is pointing out something that others do not want to see — that the group may not be worth the sacrifices that individuals must make. That thought is dangerous because it offers a tempting alternative. If others gave in in to that temptation, the group would dissolve. That’s why the reaction to the quitter is so strong. She must be condemned, and her withdrawal must be explained as a matter of personal perfidy or pathology (“a selfish psychopath”) rather than as a reaction to demands the group has placed upon her.

These reactions to the quitter are not inevitable. Briles’s teammates as well as many fans across the political spectrum were supportive and sympathetic. They understood her situation. And Briles did not really quit the team. She merely chose not to perform in the Olympics. So the anger and vilification from her critics stands as an even clearer illustration of Slater’s ideas about reactions to withdrawal.

* As I was writing this, my news feed popped up with a Daily Beast story with this headline: Trump: Jan. 6 Cops Who Spoke to Congress Are ‘Pussies’

I’m So Excited

July 27, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The French, says Julie Barlow (here), don’t show excitement. They don’t even have a word for it, or if they do, it’s not our word. Je suis excité implies arousal that is physical, not emotional. In France, it’s difficult to say you’re excited.

Not so in the US. Barlow quotes a bilingual American in France who says that the French can in fact express excitement. It’s just that most of the time they prefer not to.

The American public, he says, has been trained “to have a fake, almost cartoonish view on life, in which superficial excitement and false happiness are the norm.” By comparison, he notes, in France, “excitement is typically shown only when it is truly meant.”
Excitement is indeed the norm to the point that it looks like excitement inflation. Where people once might have been “glad” do or say something, they are now excited.  Three years ago, my university e-mail brought this message from IT   
The Web Services team, in collaboration with groups across the University, is very excited to announce the latest round of completed projects in support of our ongoing comprehensive redesign of the website.
The trend may be more noticeable to us older folks whose language still belongs to the era before excitement inflation. I doubt that anyone else who saw this e-mail wondered about the excitement sweeping through IT. Or maybe they just didn’t notice.

Each year, at our first college meeting, department chairs who have been lucky enough to get a line or two introduce their new faculty. When I did this in my last year as chair, introducing Tim Gorman, I began something like this:
I don’t know if you’ve been on a search committee and read applications lately, but one of the things that struck me this time was that most of the applicants say they’re excited. “I’m excited to be applying to Montclair State.” “I’m very excited to be applying for the position . . . “ A lot of them began like that.

And all I could think was that either these people lead very dull lives [this got some quiet  laughter] or else they know something about this place that I, in my four decades here, have yet to discover. [more laughter, which is really all that I cared about]

So when I read Tim’s letter and it began, “I’m applying for the position” or something like that, I thought, now here is a man with reasonable sense of proportion.
I don’t have any systematic data on this inflation of the excitement, but the laughter of the faculty at that meeting tells me that I was onto something.

Common Sense, Data, Vax-Hesitancy, and Maybe Politics

July 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Would a message from Trump persuade the vaccine-hesitant? People who think so are calling on President Biden to reach out to Trump. I first heard this idea from a journalist on the left, Martin Schram., who imagined it this way:

Biden really announces that from now on he’ll be calling all three the “Trump Vaccines.” . . .Imagine Biden asking his predecessor to deep-six politics and campaign coast-to-coast to help convince Trump’s true-believers to safeguard themselves and their loved ones by being vaccinated by a lifesaving Trump Vaccine. It would be Trump’s one and only chance to salvage his legacy. It would be Biden’s best chance to save Americans from dying.

The idea has also gained supporters on the right. At a press conference this week, Fox’s Steve Doocy floated the same idea:
Would President Biden ever call former President Trump and say, “I need your help. Let’s cut a PSA and tell people to go do it.”?
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was not enthusiastic, but she put it this way:
Well, first, I would say that what we’ve seen in our data is that the most trusted voices are local officials, doctors, medical experts, civic leaders, clergy. . .
A few minutes later, another reporter pushed the same idea.

Here’s the transcript of the second clip:

Q: In my follow up, even if the administration doesn’t partner with the former President, would it consider highlighting or acknowledging, in a greater way, his role in creating the vaccines to assure the rural voters who still support President Trump and are hesitant to get the vaccine?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re — do you have data to suggest that that’s the issue that’s preventing people from getting vaccinated?

Q: Well, we’re seeing that the communities — the communities that have the lowest vaccination rates did seem to vote for President Trump.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. But what I’m asking you is if information related to whether or not the former President got credit is leading people not to get vaccinated, or is it information like microchips in vaccines and it causing fertility issues, causing health issues. Because you’re drawing a few conclusions there that I haven’t seen in data, but maybe you have that information to provide.

Q No, but I think it’s just — it’s a — I think it’s an issue — I mean, I think it’s a common sense that these are people who supported him. These are people who are hesitant to get vaccinated. I don’t think it takes a lot to draw the conclusion.[Emphasis added]

My first reaction was that this was another case of “common sense” vs. data. As I said in a post twelve years ago (here), when someone says, “It’s only common sense . . .” it means that they have no systematic evidence. (“We don’t need studies to tell us . . . .” means the same thing, or worse, that the evidence goes against what they’re saying.)

Against the conservative reporter’s common-sense conclusion, Psaki cites the evidence from actual research: vax-hestiant people are most likely to be persuaded by people they are socially close to; and that they are hesitant not because Trump isn’t being credited but because they’ve heard all these lies about the vaccines. And she asks the reporter if he has any evidence to support his idea, which of course he doesn’t. *

Psaki added that “our objective is to ensure all Americans will get vaccinated... We’d love that. Democrats, Republicans, independents — it’s not a political issue to us.”

On second thought, it seems that the Administrations Trump-hesitancy is more than just a matter of evidence and public health. True, the PSAs our other former presidents made might not be changing anyone’s mind. But Trump is different. The connection between him and his followers is different. If Trumpism is a cult of personality, then the cult members would listen to the personality.

So I’m a bit skeptical about Psaki’s claim that it’s not political. But what would be the political effects if Biden were to make a flattering request to Trump. Would his supporters see it as caving in and pleading abjectly to the Worst Person in the World, or would they see Biden as masterfully manipulating Trump’s narcissism for the public good.

 If we have little relevant data on the public health impact of such a request, we have even less on the reactions it would get from people at different places on the political spectrum, As for the effects on public health — i.e., vaccination rates — it’s like the chicken soup in the old joke: it wouldn’t hurt.


* Why is it always the conservatives who are on the “common-sense, we-don’t-need-studies” side? It might be that in the liberal world, evidence and science are more persuasive while for conservatives, values and common sense outweigh factual evidence. Or it could be, as someone has said, the facts have a liberal bias, so values and common sense are what conservatives are left with.

The Russians Diagnosed Trump Accurately

July 15, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Psychiatry in Russia often lagged behind trends in the West, even when the Soviets weren’t using it as part of the punitive state. I was reminded of this by the story in this morning’s Guardian.  According to the Guardian, a leaked Kremlin document revealed Putin’s reasons for helping Trump in the 2016 election.

The document allegedly offers more detail on what Kremlin leaders thought of Trump before he became president and why they wanted him to win. It reportedly describes the future president as an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex,” and, therefore, the “most promising candidate.” [Emphasis added. The Daily Beast]

“Inferiority complex” has a nice retro feel to it. It soared into fashion in American psychiatry nearly a century ago but then fell from favor. In a 2020 post (here), I suggested that its newer version is “impostor syndrome.” Here’s an online description I found of inferiority complex:

Most Common Symptoms Symptoms of inferiority complex go beyond occasional bouts of low self-esteem or worries about your abilities; they are persistent. Some common symptoms include:
  • Feeling insecure, incomplete, or unworthy ∙
  • Withdrawal from everyday activities and social situations
  • Comparing yourself with others

It certainly sounds like impostor syndrome. What it does not sound like is Trump. But wait, there’s more. Some people with feelings of inferiority react with vigorous denial and overcompensation. The same Website continues.
That sounds more like Trump. But we now have a newer diagnosis for this reverse side of the inferiority complex — “narcissistic personality.” Google nGrams shows the trends for these terms as they appeared in books.

Whichever psychiatric label might be preferred, the Kremlin’s picture was accurate. It’s not a difficult diagnosis. What’s dismaying is how well the Russians predicted the results of a Trump election. “the destabilization of the U.S.’s sociopolitical system.”


* Most of the headlines were discreet.
Kremlin Leak Appears to Confirm Existence of Trump ‘Kompromat’
said The Daily Beast. Only Raw Story  laid it on the line “‘The pee tape is real’” though it hedged by using a quote from someone on Twitter.        

It’s Getting Better All the Time. . . Or Is It?

July 7, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes you find ethnocentrism in unexpected places.

Ezra Klein, in interviewing anthropologist James Suzman, says that he’s sure that “there’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.” (See the previous post.) I would have thought that a liberal and well-read intellectual like Klein would know about the cultural diversity, especially since Suzman had been describing to him a culture where not wanting to share is unknown and would be thought of as unnatural.

Klein offers another comment with overtones of ethnocentrism.

Klein’s skepticism comes across more clearly in the audio clip. But here’s the transcript.

EZRA KLEIN: So there’s a trend in recent “history of human civilization” books of making farming sound really bad. So you work more. You have a less diverse diet. You’re more vulnerable to drought and to famine. You get pressed into these settlements. There’s more disease. I mean, honestly, if you read books — and yours is not a heavy one necessarily, but it is there. The question that begins to arise is, well, why did human beings ever do this? If farming was such an unpleasant lifestyle compared to foraging, then for the people on the border of those two lives, why farming? What accounts for the human move into this, you know, apparently, much more toil-filled and unstable existence?

Klein seems uncomfortable with the idea that hunter-gatherers had it much better and that life in agricultural societies was worse. Basically, he’s saying, “Hey, if hunting and gathering is so great, how come hunter-gatherers all changed over to agriculture?”
I think the unstated assumption is that people choose what’s better. Agricultural societies chose to become industrial and then post-industrial society because our society is better. So hunter-gatherers must have chosen  to switch to agriculture for the same reason.

Klein can’t refute the recent history-of-civilization books, so he chalks their views up to intellectual “trendiness.” These fancy paleontologists with their fancy ideas instead of common sense (“I mean, honestly, if you read books. . . ” )

Klein is not alone among liberal intellectuals in clinging to idea that foraging was inferior to what came after.  Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers make the claim as though it’s fact: “For pretty much the last million years, people were hunter-gatherers living a hand-to-mouth existence. The main focus of life was finding enough food to eat.” (See my blog post, “Dissing Hunter Gatherers.”    

I e-mailed Stevenson calling her attention to this error. Her brief reply expressed no interest in correcting the mistake.    


The audio of the interview is here or on any podcast site.
The transcript is here.

Back to the Sandbox

July 3, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things that we think of as “natural” or part of human nature are often the product of human invention. That was the point of the previous post, “Culture Masquerading as Nature.” I took that title from something anthropologist James Suzman says in his interview with Ezra Klein.

The Ju/’hoansi, the hunter-gatherer tribe Suzman ran with, were, like all hunter-gatherer societies, “fiercely egalitarian.”  But while the Ju/’hoansi assume that humans are by nature sharing and egalitarian, to Klein, thinking sociologically, it’s obvious that their egalitarian society is possible only because of their “extraordinary” practices like “demand sharing” and “insulting the meat.” Their equality is a product of culture, not nature.

But when it comes to his own society, Klein discards this sociological perspective. Immediately after Suzman makes his “masquerading” comment, Klein says

I was thinking when you were saying that the Ju/’hoansi see it as strange when somebody doesn’t share as unnatural, I mean, I’ve got a two-year-old. There’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.

Is selfishness natural? Or is it the product of extraordinary cultural practices? I blogged about this question in 2010. Obviously, Ezra Klein did not read that post, and most likely, neither did you. So here’s a briefer version.

The title was  “Sandbox Sociology,” inspired by a conversation with another parent at the playground when my kid was just a few years old. In the sandbox, a child of two or three was strenuously holding on to a ball or truck or some toy that another child wanted to play with. I don’t recall how strenuous the tussle was or whether it involved tears. But I do remember the comment of the woman I was chatting with: “They’re just so possessive about their toys at this age. I guess it’s human nature.”

I nodded, but then I thought of how much effort we parents spent on inculcating in our children a concept totally alien to the Ju/’hoansi but crucial to our own society: private property. Of course, we liberal parents didn’t think of it this way, but how many times had I heard parents say things like
  •     That’s Cody’s truck. If you want to play with it, you have to ask him.
  •     That’s not your doll, that’s Emma’s doll.
  •     Yes it’s your backhoe, but it would be nice to let Alex play with it too.
Many parents had written their child’s name in permanent marker on toys just so their would be no confusion about ownership.

We encouraged our kids to share. Boy, did we. But the whole concept of sharing was premised on the prior principle of private ownership. And while ownership was taken for granted, sharing was voluntary.  I never saw a parent force a kid to share. What parent would dare take a toy out of the hands of their own tearful child and offer it to another toddler? After all, the toy did belong to the kid. It was her property — hers and not the parent’s  — and property rights prevailed. It was her possession to do with as she pleased.


I know nothing of how Ezra and his wife Annie interact with their son. But I would guess that the Klein household is not much different from those on Manhattan’s Upper Left Side. I would also guess that the Ju/’hoansi would see all these practices based on the concept of individual autonomy and ownership as “extraordinary” customs designed to make selfishness so basic and universal that it seems like human nature.

Culture Masquerading as Nature

July 2, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post about the arrogance of economics, I said that economists seem to treat ethnographic evidence as an inferior form of knowledge, an interesting diversion but not really necessary to understanding what people are all about. Now anthropologist James Suzman, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein,* says that the basic assumptions of economics, assumptions that economists and most of the rest of us take as universal truths, are merely arbitrary, a matter of cultural construction.

Central to those economic assumptions is scarcity. One definition of economics in fact is that it is the study of the distribution of scarce resources. But what if there is no scarcity? What if scarcity is a social and cultural construction?

We now have a fair amount of evidence about a variety of hunter-gatherer societies, and it turns out that people in these societies act as if there is no scarcity. One reason for this is that they have enough food. Food production — hunting and gathering — occupies about 15-20  hours of their week and provides a rich and varied diet. Hunter-gatherers are well-nourished.

Demand Sharing and Insulting the Meat

In addition, these societies are, in Richard Lee’s phrase, “fiercely egalitarian.” Suzman, who  has been studying the Ju/'hoansi hunter-gatherers in Namibia/Botswana, describes two customs that sustain their equality. One is what anthropologists call “demand sharing.” (Suzman notes that “one anthropologist who didn’t like it much called it ‘tolerated theft.’”)

Demand sharing means that pretty much anybody in a society can go to anybody else and demand something from them. So if, for example, I have a bag of tobacco, somebody else is perfectly entitled to come and demand some of that tobacco from me. And it would be considered extremely rude — in fact, it would be considered offensive — if I don’t give him some of that tobacco. At the same time, it’s not considered at all rude to make that kind of demand.

The other important mechanism dampening inequality is “insulting the meat.” Meat is much prized, and it is scarce. It might be a source of competition, jealousy, and anger. After all, some men are just better at hunting. They are the ones who can bring in a large animal — a giraffe of bull eland. Such a man might acquire more social capital or power. In our society, people like this reap huge material and social rewards.

We might expect that the  Ju/'hoansi would  praise the best hunter and try to ingratiate themselves. Instead, they do just the opposite.

The hunter is mocked and insulted. And it’s done in a kind of lighthearted way, but also with a little bit of an edge. And the hunter for his part is expected to behave with great humility. They’ll say, “the meat smells like urine. Ah, it’s not enough to even feed my mother-in-law.” They do this to avoid the hunter accruing any unnecessary hierarchy and any socially destructive authority over others.

Their Customs are Extraordinary. Ours Are Natural

At this point in the interview, Ezra Klein comments that demand sharing and insulting the meat are “extraordinary structures” for maintaining equality. “What you have in hunter-gatherer societies is a pretty extraordinary system for keeping people’s desires under control.” Klein assumes that the desire to have more for oneself is “natural” — a built-in element of human nature.

You talk about it as extraordinary because you’re looking at it from the perspective of the United States. They [the Ju/'hoansi] don’t view it as extraordinary. They found* it extraordinary that people want to accumulate wealth, that people might not want to share. They responded with that same kind of visceral surprise that others respond to them.

This is the telling thing about how the power of culture and experience really shapes our sense of what is normal, what is natural, what is good. As far as Ju/'hoansi are concerned, not sharing is something that is unnatural. . . . What we often assume is nature is just culture masquerading as nature.

The Ju/'hoansi live in a world with no scarcity and much equality. They do not see what is obvious to us — that their ideas about the world and the structure of their society are cultural creations.

Though we obviously have much more than do the Ju/'hoansi, we live in a world of scarcity. We compete over everything because everything is scarce, not just material goods but less tangible “goods” like recognition, pleasure, even love. We are constantly made aware that others have more, so of course we want more as well. We do not see that our desires and our assumptions about the world are sustained by, in Ezra Klein’s phrase, “a pretty extraordinary system” that rewards striving, aspiration, and inequality just as extraordinarily as the Ju/'hoansi discourage them.                

* You can listen to the interview here or get it from any podcast site. It runs to more than an hour but is well worth listening to. If you’re in a hurry, the transcript is here.

** Suzman uses the past tense because the Ju/'hoansi have seen our world, flown in our planes, worn our clothes, and drunk our delicious cold sodas, and they still think we’re nuts. You can see this in the trailer for the 2016 documentary “Ghostland.”

Economics — Monarch of All Its Surveys

May 27, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s,, psychoanalysts ruled. Whatever the social issue, writers for high-brow journals could easily find at least a few psychoanalysts eager to assess the problem, its causes, and perhaps its solutions.. Seems hard to believe now. After all, aside from the occasional patient, they had little experience with juvenile delinquency or comic book readers or racial discrimination. Yet psychoanalysts could apply their theories and techniques to any area of human behavior. 

Today, the same can be said of economists.

The Niskanen Center, which is concerned mostly with public policy, recently posed three questions on crime to a panel of sixty-six academics they designate as experts. [UPDATE: Niskanen did not conduct this survey. They did publish it on their Website. See Greg Newburn's clarification in the comment below.] They were asked their level of agreement or disagreement.

1: Increasing police budgets will improve public safety.
2: Increasing social service budgets (e.g. housing, health, education) will improve public safety.
3: Increasing accountability for police misconduct will improve public safety

The report, “Policing and public safety: What do the experts think?” is here. The panel of experts is dominated by economists, Forty-eight of the sixty-six have a Ph..D. in economics. The other degrees come from departments like public policy, criminology or criminal justice, government, and sociology.

The experts include no ethnographers or anthropologists and no cops.

Several of the experts added comments to their Likert-scale agreement or disagreement. Many of the comments say, it depends. That is, it depends on what really goes on. It depends on how the policy is actually put into practice on the ground

Would increasing police budgets matter? 

 “I think increased funds going to the right places could help, but blanket increases are unlikely to do so.” (Jillian Carr, Ph.D, Economics, Texas A&M)
Increasing social service budgets? 

“My hunch (based on existing research) is that we dramatically underinvest in such programs from a public safety perspective. But not all programs are effective, so we still have a lot of work to do to figure out exactly which programs should get more funding and how to scale them.” (Jennifer Doleac , Ph.D, Economics, Stanford)
It reminded me of an article by Robert Martinson that was influential back when I was in the crim biz. The title was “What Works?” (1974). It was a sort of meta-analysis of prison rehabilitation programs. Many people misread the article as saying that the answer was Nothing. Nothing works. But what Martinson actually found was that some programs did work, and others did not. The trouble was that nothing in the structure or method of a program predicted its success or failure.

To understand why programs worked or not, you had to get inside the program. You had to look at how the people involved actually did their jobs. In short, you needed an ethnographer watching and listening, not an economist running the regressions.

The sixty-six Niskanen experts are all really smart people — the universities where they got degrees and are currently employed are all top tier — and they know a lot. But I would guess that few of them, especially the economists, have a thorough street-level knowledge of cops, communities, or criminals.

A wise comment by Jens Ludwig (Ph.D, Economics) says, indirectly, the same thing.
“There are good conceptual reasons for thinking that improved accountability (if we can figure out how to do that) could improve community trust in police, which would have all sorts of public safety benefits. We don't have a lot of rigorous studies documenting that at this point in time but we do have some suggestive case studies.”
I wonder how many of the people who did those case studies were considered experts whose opinions were worthy of the Niskanen Center.

Gender and the C-word

May 26, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The C-word is back in the news thanks to a retweet by Rep.Marjorie Taylor Greene.  Greene had likened vaccination and mask policies to the forced wearing of yellow stars by Jews under the Nazis. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy had said that her comparison was wrong. A Greene supporter came to her defense on Twitter:

Look you moron, nobody supported Israel in their recent conflict with Hamas more than MTG,. Her analogy may not have been perfect but you seriously need to get a grip you feckless c**t. Pelosi is the villain here.

@AsimplePatriot was alluding to Samantha Bee’s use of “feckless cunt” three years ago to describe Ivanka Trump. At the time, I blogged about the different ways that cunt is used in the US and the UK. For Brits, cunt does not explode the conversation the way it does here. In the US, uttering (or tweeting) cunt changes the question from who is a moron to who used that word.

What’s different this time is that an American used it to characterize a man (Kevin McCarthy). As I pointed out in the earlier post, Brits have been calling men cunts for at least a few decades. As an example, I embedded a Monty Python sketch from the 1960s. It’s still funny. (The post is here.)

We Americans have imported some Britishisms. One-off is now common, and I see gobsmacked coming through customs. But I doubt that @AsimplePatriot’s tweet signals the start of a trend towards making cunt less taboo and less gender-specific.*

* I remember a dorm-room discussion long ago, mostly Jewish guys in the room, where someone characterized a girl as a schmuck. “You should never call a girl a schmuck,” said another guy, and after a pause added, “Unless she’s a real schumck.”

The Lessons of Pre-K

May 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The curriculum of kindergarten is basically sitting still,” I would say in class when we were talking about the functions of schools. Or maybe I said, “elementary school.” The point was that we count on school not just to educate kids but to socialize them. Now a recent MIT study of Boston pre-K takes that idea a step further. A pre-K lottery program allowed them to compare kids who, through luck of the draw, got into pre-K and those who did not, On academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, pre-K had little or no effect  — not in elementary school, not in middle school, not in high school.

But the kids who lucked into pre-K were more likely to finish high school and go to college. They were also somewhat less likely to run into disciplinary problems in school. To stretch the meaning of the results, you could say that they were more attached to the conventional institutions and roads to success.

(Click on an image for a larger view. The graphic is from the researchers’ earlier NBER paper.)

Schools make no secret that their task is to socialize children, to get them to be good members of society. My report card at Stephen C. Foster school opened to show two sides, the left containing grades in academic subjects — arithmetic, penmanship, music, geography, etc. (Some of these names may give you an idea of how long ago I was in grade school.). The page on the right had many more lines, each of them a specific area of socialization  — the “plays well with other” sort of thing. The only one I remember was “Keeps fingers away from nose and mouth.” That’s right. Foster school was concerned with nose-picking.

A quick trip through Google Images assured me that schools continue this tradition, giving equal space to the academic and the social.

I assume that for pre-K, the academic/social balance is weighted even more heavily towards the social. The research on the academic effects of pre-K is mixed at best. Some studies show that pre-K kids somewhat outperform their later-starting peers, but the advantage fades as kids go farther in school. But if the results of the Boston study are not a one-off, when it comes to the instilling the lessons of what my junior high school report card called “citizenship,” the effects of an early start, while not huge, can be long-lasting

Personal Needs and Public Morality

May 6, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Victoria Eng updated the page [a GoFundMe for the victim] on Wednesday to say that her grandmother is recovering well after surgery.

“These Asian hate crimes need to stop," she wrote. "San Francisco is my home and my Grandma's home. We need to feel safe where we live and not in constant fear.”

Over the last sixty years, we have largely abandoned the language of moral imperatives for the language of psychological well-being. We don’t say what should or must happen or what people ought to do. Instead, we talk about what is needed.

I have noted this change before (here and here, for example). But I couldn’t pass up the above quote in yesterday’s NPR news story.  It so perfectly uses both the new and the old sense of need.

The second need — “We need to feel safe. . .” — would have been as unremarkable in the 1960s as it is today. It’s about needs, specifically the needs of Asians.

But “These Asian hate crimes need to stop” is about morality. It says what should or must happen. But we longer use words like should or must. We don’t tell people what they ought to do. “You ought to stop drinking so much.” That would be imposing an external morality, and morality is always about what’s good for others and for the society as a whole, not the individual. Instead we phrase it in terms of the person’s own needs; we tell them what is in their own interest and will benefit them.. “You need to stop drinking so much.”

This use of need has expanded to the point that we now talk about the needs of Asian hate crimes.

Of course, the meaning of the sentence is clear. It’s Asians or the society as a whole that needs for these hate crimes to stop. But because of the change in language, we now phrase it in a way that syntactically makes no sense.

Ron Carter, b. May 4, 1937

May 4, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ron Carter’s Downbeat Blindfold Test was the best I’ve ever read. In most of these, the musician tries to guess the identity of the performer,adds some evaluative comments or personal recollections, and then gives the track a rating of one to five stars. I don’t recall how accurate Carter was in identifying the musicians. But instead of focusing on who the musicians were, he told you what they were doing. Not the soloist so much as the rhythm section, the part of the performance that most people’s ears are not going to pick up.

It was the only Blindfold Test where you actually learned something about the music, and I told him as much when I happened to see him in Fairway one morning a few weeks later. (I think this was about fifteen years ago.)

In an interview posted yesterday, he does something similar. Carter was the bassist in Miles’s second great quintet, the group of the mid-sixties. The  rhythm section —  Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Wiliams — created something new in jazz, a sound very different from that of the late-1950s quintet with Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones. They were kids then. Ron and Herbie were in their twenties, Tony Williams was barely twenty. Miles was nearly forty.

The question in the interview asked whether the rhythm section ever talked specifically — with one another or with Miles — about what they were doing. The answer is, not very much; they just listened to one another and learned.

But Carter’s anecdote goes beyond that generality to focus on a specific and non-intuitive note (B natural) that he played in Autumn Leaves.

It goes without saying that Carter is one of the greatest bass players of all time. At 84, he’s still going strong and eager to get back to work when the clubs and concert halls reopen.

Abbie Hoffman – A Personal Memory

April 25, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve just watched “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman brought back memories of my own brief contact with Abbie. Maybe it’s getting into tl;dr territory, and what follows is certainly less sociology, than it is, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, self-indulgery.

I met Abbie Hoffman before he became Abbie Hoffman, the Abbie Hoffman everyone knows, the Abbie Hoffman of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,”  It was two years before the Chicago convention, the summer of 1966. I was 22 and about to enter graduate school. Abbie was 29.  

I had just finished college and was working in the Democratic primary campaign of an anti-war candidate for U.S. senate in Massachusetts.  His name was Thomas Boylston Adams, and he came by it honestly.  I am not sure about the Boylston strand, but the Adams part went directly back to John and John Quincy. More important, he was the only candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam.

His opponents were Endicott Peabody, governor of the state, and John Collins. mayor of Boston. We knew we had no chance to win against establishment Democrats. We were in it to get out the anti-war message. But because the vehicle for that was an election, we had to do what you do in electoral politics.

Much of my work, as I recall, consisted of “canvassing”—handing out literature and trying to get people to sign petitions to get Adams on the ballot. We would canvas in Boston one day, Brockton the next, Fall River the next. One hot day, the campaign manager sent a group from the Boston office out to Worcester to canvas there. He told us that we’d get more information from the campaign co-ordinator for that part of the state—Abbie Hoffman.

Abbie met us, assigned us to different parts of the city, and told us a little bit about the neighborhoods we would be canvassing. Then we were on our own, and I didn’t see him again that day.

At the time, his biography was much like that of many of the other people in the campaign who had worked for liberal and left-wing causes. Yippies did not yet exist. It seems odd now to think of Abbie Hoffman as regional manager, directing conventional political work like canvassing for a candidate who looked, sounded, and acted every bit the Boston Brahmin.

I didn’t see Abbie again until late August, towards the end of the campaign, when the candidate invited everyone for a picnic at his summer home on the South Shore near Quincy. It was a modest, wooden house on several acres of land. Most of the Boston-area people went. A few of the workers from the regional offices also came in for the event. All told, we numbered no more than two dozen.

At some point in the afternoon, several of us went to play softball, and I found myself walking next to Abbie. The field for the game lay on the other side of a slight ridge. When we got to the top and looked out at the large open area below us, Abbie stretched out his arm and made a sweeping gesture. “Comes the revolution, my son,” he said in a fake Russian accent, “all of this will be yours.”

Except for the picnic, most of us rarely had a chance to speak with the candidate himself—an arrangement that was probably for the best. About the only thing most of us had in common with him was a general opposition to the Vietnam war. But while Adams’s views on Vietnam made him the most liberal person running for office in Massachusetts, he was several steps to the right of just about everybody in his own campaign, including of course, Abbie. They were an assortment of 1960s activists. Some were students from SDS. Others had been recruited from past electoral campaigns for other non-mainstream candidates. Some came out of the civil rights movement, having only a few years earlier worked on voter registration in the South with SNCC and CORE. Nobody on the staff had illusions about winning a Senate seat. Instead, people spoke of the campaign as “educational” (i.e., to educate the public about the war). Many of them, like Abbie, also saw it as a way to build a foundation for future political organizing, whether for local or national issues. That was their job. They were political organizers.

One other scene has stayed in my mind from that warm, August day. I do not remember how we all got back to Boston or how it was that Abbie and I were the only ones from the group taking the MTA back to Cambridge, but that is where the memory begins—near sunset at the end of a long day, me standing in an MTA car, talking with Abbie Hoffman.

We were both tired. The picnic had, in effect, marked the end of the campaign. The September primary was only a week or two away. The candidate, we all knew, would get only a handful of votes, and the student workers like me would go back to school. But I wondered about the “older” people.

“What do you think you’re going to do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Abbie said, “I really don’t.” He talked about other political issues that needed people, but it all seemed vague, as though he were tired of it all.

Then he said, “A lot of people I know are getting jobs in the poverty program. It’s a steady job, and you can do pretty well.” Remember, this was the hopeful era of the Great Society, of OEO programs that needed workers and administrators. “I guess I can always get something there too.”

He paused, and for an instant the twinkle returned to his eyes. He shook his head slightly. “But I don’t think I could do that.”

Herbie Hancock, b. April 12, 1940

April 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Herbie Hancock turns eighty-one today. I felt I had to post something, but what? Herbie has recorded so much in in such a variety of genres, but the this was my first — “Dolphin Dance” from the Maiden Voyage album, 1965. It’s innovative in the melody, chords, and structure. Herbie’s playing encompasses funk and the post-bebop “out” style. And while I usually don’t care much for the idea of “program” music, yu can easily imagine standing on the shore, looking out at dolphins on a calm ocean.

The Wikipedia article quotes Herbie saying that when he was first getting into jazz in the 1950s, he learned a lot from the Hi-Los and their arrangements by Clare Fischer. That surprised me. Fischer and the Hi-Los were four white guys, as is Fischer, and their sound has none of funk or bluesy quality that Herbie has always had. But the arrangements are indeed interesting. (Here  is their version of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.”

A summer in the early 1970s, I was hanging out at the tennis courts. One of the afternoon regulars there was a trumpet player. I asked him if he knew the tune. He did. I asked him if he could tell me the changes. He could. (The Real Book did not yet exist.) I managed to borrow a pencil and a scrap of paper, and he dictated the changes to me bar by bar, in piano key, not trumpet. As I said, the changes are unusual, not easy to learn and commit to memory, and if you forget a chord, it’s hard to guess at. For years, when I went to play “Dolphin Dance,” I put that same scrap of paper up on the piano.

Coda: How could I have missed the obvious choice of tunes: Eighty-One. Ron Carter wrote this when he and Herbie were in Miles’s second great quintet. Herbie was 25, Carter was a few years older. Drummer Tony Williams could not drink legally in many states. I doubt that any of them were thinking of Eighty-one as an age.

Herbie recorded it with that quintet on the E.S.P. album, 1965. (here)
And again in 1994 with the same quintet but with Wallace Roney replacing Miles. (here)