October 30, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
They were lined up down the street to get into Ricky’s this afternoon, all the last-minute costume buyers. Costumes are bought nowadays. Almost nobody has a homemade costume, even kids. In more and more areas of our lives, we are now consumers where we used to be producers. Fewer meals cooked at home, more eaten in restaurants or bought in a store and microwaved. Nobody has the time, buying is so much more convenient, and besides, the people who specialize in making these things make them better than we can. My neighborhood grocery store sells pumpkins already painted with faces. You don’t even have to carve your own.

The odd thing is that even though the costumes are better, they’re not as much fun. I’d rather open my door and see kids in costumes their parents patched together from odd clothes and stuff they had lying around the house. A professional ninja or princess costume doesn’t just substitute cash for creativity, it depersonalizes; anybody with the $34.99 can have the same costume (made in China). And many do. Stores have sold out of the popular costumes.

I like to think of holiday celebrations as islands of community, where things are personal, created and controlled by the group of people involved. But Halloween (and perhaps other holidays) is becoming standardized, controlled by the costume industry. It had become McDonaldized.
So it’s not just the witches and vampires that come out at Halloween; you can also see social trends and themes, like McDonaldization. Parental protectiveness is another. Back in the day (my day at least), kids went out trick-or-treating, and parents stayed home. Now, trick-or-treaters making their rounds have parents following along lest some stranger kidnap their child. And at the end of the night parents inspect the kids’ haul for suspicious looking treats. We’ve all heard the stories about razor blades in apples, LSD on decals, poison in candy.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Joel Best investigated all the reported incidents of “Halloween sadism” that he could find in the press, and he concluded that Halloween sadism is best seen as an urban legend. He’s updated his research and found nothing to change his original view. Yet parents still go out of their way to guard against unknown, sinister evildoers who would harm their kids. No doubt, many of these are the same parents who buy their kids a skateboard or put a swimming pool in the back yard.


October 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Mendacity,” says Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I was channel surfing tonight and watched some of the 1958 film version on TCM.

The few Tennessee Williams plays I’ve seen all follow the same pattern: the principle characters, usually a family, are all hiding important facts about themselves; they have agreed not to see the obvious truths and to let one another live these lies. Then something happens — an outsider not in on the game arrives or some event blows someone’s cover — and the whole fabric starts to unravel. Pathetically or viciously, they begin to reveal one another’s secrets, and the characters must face what they had tried so long to avoid. Big Daddy’s cancer, Blanche’s promiscuous past, what really happened on that fateful day long ago, etc. The plays leave you wondering how these characters will go on with their shattered lives now that they no longer have the fictions— the lies and mendacity— which kept them afloat for so long.

The real-life play of the White House and Iraq seems to be following a similar dramatic arc. A majority of Americans have long since concluded that the war was a terrible mistake, a mistake based at best on faulty intelligence and at worst on outright mendacity. Now, the Administration itself can no longer maintain the false facade. Generals have been giving grim assessments, and these have made it into the news. Even the president admits that things are going badly, that we can no longer “stay the course,” and that some kind of change is required. If the Democrats win control of Congress, they will be in a position to investigate and reveal even further unpleasant truths that the Republicans have suppressed. The folks in Washington have begun to resemble the characters in a Tennessee Williams play.

The troubling difference is that when the play is over, you leave the theater, and you don’t really have to worry about what will become of these characters. They have no existence beyond the end of the last act. But while the voters may ring down the curtain on the characters who brought us this war, the disaster that they created in Iraq will remain.

Maybe Tennessee-Williams-style plot is typical of American culture, maybe not. But many observers have noted out characteristically American preference for not thinking so much about the past but rather looking optimistically to the future. We also tend to view the world as a story, and we don’t like difficult or unhappy endings.
So this election or the next one in 2008 will be The End of our drama. The show is over and we can head for the exit. Troops will be withdrawn, and the media will lose interest in what happens in some strange and complicated foreign land. But in real life, the war will have consequences far into the future — for our economy, for our position in the world. The trouble is that Americans in 2010 or later may not be able to see the connection between those problems and the events of 2003-2006. The Iraq war? That play closed a long time ago.

Who's to Blame, Who's in Control, Who Is the Accused?

October 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
An Islamic priest in Sydney, Australia, Sheik Al Hilaly, had some controversial things to say about rape recently.
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat. The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.
There’s a history to the story. In 2000, several Muslim men were convicted for a series of gang rapes of white women. They received very harsh sentences. Whites were angered by the rapes; some Muslims, like Sheik Al Hilaly, were angered by the sentences:

She is the one who takes her clothes off, cuts them short, acts flirtatious, puts on makeup, shows off, and goes on the streets acting silly. She is the one wearing a short dress, lifting it up, lowering it down, then a look, then a smile, then a word, then a greeting, then a word, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay Jail, then comes a merciless judge who gives you 65 years.
The story reminded me of the 1983 gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts — the incident that became the basis for the 1988 film “The Accused,” with Jodie Foster as the victim— and not just because it raises the question of who is being accused. In New Bedford, as in Sydney, the rapists were from an ethnic minority. They were first-generation Portuguese. But the Portuguese are a fairly large ethnic minority in that area, and many turned out at organized marches in support of the rapists.

One woman was quoted in the paper as saying, “I am Portuguese and proud of it. I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped. If you throw a dog a bone, he’s gonna take it — if you walk around naked, men are just going to go for you.” Nearly identical to the Sheik’s cat analogy 23 years later. And a Catholic priest, foreshadowing today's Muslim priest, said, “The girl is to blame. She led them on.”

There’s much to be said about the element of ethnic relations—dominant culture and minority group— but it’s the “blame the victim” idea that interests me. To put the blame and responsibility on the women you have to assume that men just cannot control themselves. They act purely on the basis of instinct, like animals.

This view of men may seem to contradict the image of Muslim men who are so controlled that they keep a strict diet, avoiding pork and alcohol, pray five times a day on cue, and willingly live under other constraints that we would find intolerably oppressive. But the contradiction is only apparent. It’s not a question of the presence or absence of control but where that control is located — inside the individual or outside in the situation and the group. In stable, traditional societies, life’s situations are predictable and under control. People can rely on the others around them to keep their impulses from leading to dangerous actions. But in modern, mobile individualized society, we don’t have the comfort of these external restraints. We have had to develop an elaborate set of internal controls that will keep us in check regardless of the situation.

For people with less internalized controls, it must seem incredible that people can live in a world filled with so much sexual stimulation and opportunity and yet not take action. So they fight sexuality wherever in becomes publicly visible, as when John Ashcroft, US attorney general in the first years of the Bush administration, had a cloth draped over the exposed breast of a statue in the Justice Department. The slightest hint of sex might cause men to lose control.

But the conservatives, Muslim and Christian, are fighting a losing, rear-guard action. They are right that sexual mores are becoming more liberal. There’s more sex in the media, especially with the Internet. Clothes are more revealing than ever. (Two summers ago, the Times had an article on back-to-school shopping
mothers and their teenage daughters in the liberal New York suburbs. The fashions preferred by the girls ran towards what their mothers referred to as “hookerwear.”)

The change, as with so many other fashions, seems to have filtered downward through the social class system, starting near the top. Co-ed dormitories, for example, appeared first at elite schools in the early 1970s; now it’s hard to find a campus that doesn’t have them. And along with the liberalization, the reliance on internal controls seems to have followed the same paths of diffusion through the society. How else to explain the decline in rape over the last fifteen years?

In the short run, the sexual conservatives may win a few rounds, passing a law here or there. But younger people do not share their attitudes, and over time, the rigid external sexual controls will become sort like Buicks, heavy and bulky mechanisms possessed by fewer and fewer people all getting grayer and grayer.

Starbucks as the Habermasian Public Sphere?

October 23, 2006
Posted by: Yasemin Besen

This weekend New York Times had an interesting article on the new marketing of Starbucks coffee chains as coffeehouses. The stores are marketed not as uniform, standardized assembly lines of coffee, but as local and community based cultural spaces, where books, movies and music are discussed. Recently, they have sponsored the “Salon events”, where community based, not so mainstream authors, musicians and artists read their books, sang and talked while sipping coffee (I can’t deny enjoying Jonathan Lethem’s book reading). This new positioning of Starbucks as a local, cultural space, where intellectual rational conversation takes place reminds me of Habermas.

A student of Frankfurt school and a critique of capitalism and its discontents, Jurgen Habermas, he developed the concept of public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), where he explores the role of individuals in the practice of democracy and social change. He defines public sphere as "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state." People conglomerating in pockets of society, through dialogue and discussion, have the power through discussion, to critique, mainly the discontents of capitalism and voice their opinion. This rational, critical discourse is the very essence of democracy. Public sphere, in the Habermasian sense, started to emerge in the 18th century with voluntary associations, literary groups and organization and most importantly coffeehouses.

Now we see a very different form of the coffeehouse: a national chain of “coffeehouses” that market the public sphere as a consumption item to be enjoyed with a tall, skim, no foam latte. I wonder if Habermas could predict the public sphere of cool discussion would itself be commodified, packaged and sold along with the music, books and the coffee that makes the public sphere possible.