Moral Nostalgia and the Myth of the Authoritarian Past

February 27, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright, on his Christian sociologist blog, talks about “moral nostalgia.” Great coinage. It might even join those few other terms that have crossed over from sociology into the general vocabulary — terms like role model and self-fulfilling prophesy. (Can anyone think of some others?)

The idea that people, especially young people, are less moral than the previous generation is apparently irresistible. Blogger (and Montclair State sociology alumna) Trrish P has a link to a version of moral nostalgia called “Take Me Back to the Sixties.” Ah yes, the moral paradise of the sixties. Of course, this guy’s counterpart in the 60s was complaining that society then represented a sharp decline from some earlier golden era. And in the fifties too, parents lamented the moral decline among youth— the sort of thing satirized in the song “Kids” from Bye-Bye Birdie. The show opened on Broadway in 1960, so its sensibility was pure 1950s. Paul Lynde sang the song, and he did a great job of mocking the moral nostalgia while pretending to espouse it. Here’s a link to him doing a brief version at the 1971 TONY awards.

Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!
And while we're on the subject:
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do! . . . .

Kids! They are just impossible to control!
Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!

(Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

Sociologists are not immune from moral nostalgia. In class, I often use an essay from an intro text which explains the truly steep rise in juvenile homicide in the late 1980s by pinning the rap, in part, on the “decline in the moral authority of the family.”

When I read that phrase, in my mind’s ear I always hear Paul Lynde singing “Kids!” But students see the statement as an obvious truth, and most of them say that in the ten years since the essay was written, the moral authority of the family has continued its regrettable slide.

The essay presents absolutely no evidence that the decline has occurred (it’s a short essay, and the authors have many fish to fry), so I use it as an example of how difficult it is to operationalize a concept like “moral authority of the family” and get evidence about it, especially for comparing past eras with our own. But I also suspect that the decline in family authority, at least among middle-class families, is a myth.

Has there ever been a generation when parents said, “You know, kids today are a lot better behaved than we were”? I suspect that even the parents of the “Greatest Generation” didn’t think the kids were so great. At least in the US, the idea that morals are slipping and that kids are less respectful and obedient is as old as the Republic, and it may have to something to do with our relatively non-authoritarian family and our emphasis on independence even for children.

But I think there’s a more general source for this myth of the authoritarian past. It’s common to hear parents say something like, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.” (I usually imagine a man saying this, perhaps because authority is not so much an issue for women.) The man who says this pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

It’s a short and obvious step from this perception — my father was more powerful when I was a kid than I am today — to the general idea that kids these days are disobedient, disrespectful, and impossible to control. And no doubt, his children will grow up remembering their own childhood as relatively authoritarian, and on and on through the generations.

Wisdom and Crowds Go to Hollywood

February 23, 2007 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom of Crowds crowd loves to cite the ability of “prediction markets” to pick the Oscar winners. But this year, you don't need a prediction market to know which way the wind blows. All the major awards seem to be sure things, except perhaps Best Picture. Here, for example, are the prices on Best Actress nominees. You get 100 points if your choice wins. Here's what you pay.

Helen Mirren (The Queen) 94
Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal) 2
Penelope Cruz (Volver) 2
Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada) 4
Kate Winslet (Little Children) 1

In other words, people are willing to risk 94 points to win 6 on Ms. Mirren. If Judi Dench wins, her backers will get back 98 points of house money along with the two they paid.
Other consensus choices and current prices.

Director - Martin Scorsese (The Departed) 88
Supporting Actor - Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) 61 
Supporting Actress - Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) 76 
Actor - Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) 82 
Documentary - An Inconvenient Truth 85

On Best Picture, the crowd’s wisdom is less obvious. Since Picture and Director usually go to the same movie, The Departed has an edge, but not much of one considering the consensus on its director.

The Departed 44
Letters from Iwo Jima 7
The Queen 4
Babel 22
Little Miss Sunshine 22

Unfortunately, the major prediction marketplace for the Oscars, Hollywood Stock Exchange doesn’t have markets for the lesser categories— the ones that seem as arcane as baseball records. Best sound design in a foreign documentary by a left-handed shortstop on a Wednesday. But one English bookmaker does have some of these. For the record, and to see how wise the crowd turns out to be, are some of them with the equivalent prices. The numbers show that the crowd is not so nearly in agreement as it is on the major awards:

Animated Short Film - The Little Matchgirl 58 
Art Direction - The Prestige 40
Cinematography - Children Of Men 29
Costume Design - Marie Antoinette 38
Original Score - Babel 47
Visual Effects - Pirates Of The Caribbean DMC 80

I just hope Ellen DeGeneres is at the top of her game, because if the crowd is wise, there won’t be much suspense about the winners. In reminds me of March 1992. I was teaching a Monday night class, and the date I had scheduled the midterm turned out to be Oscar night (it was still on a Monday back them). As a final multiple-choice question, just for fun, I had put, “The winner for best picture in tonight’s Oscars will be . . .” and listed the five nominees.

I had intended the question to lighten things up. What a miscalculation. What happened was that several students, after turning in their tests, complained that the question was unfair. How could they possibly be expected to know what was going to happen in the future, and besides what did any of this have to do with the criminal justice system, and so on. I assured them that I had no intention of including it in their test score.

When I marked the exams the next day, it turned out that of the 35 multiple-choice questions, that was the only one that everybody in the class had gotten right.

The Wisdom of Crowds. The Silence of the Lambs.

Is Anna Nicole Smith Still Dead?

February 21, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

Britney Spears is on the front page of tabloids like the New York Post again today, though in some papers she’s competing with Anna Nicole Smith. Aren’t you tired of these stories? Do you think the Anna Nicolecoverage is way out of line with what it deserves?

You’re not alone. A poll by The Pew Research Center for People and the Press finds that the People think the Press has overdone the Anna Nicole Smith story. In the survey taken a week ago, 61% said the story had been given too much coverage. Interestingly, 8% thought Anna Nicole merited even more press. Still, more than one person in ten said it was the story they’d followed most closely (18% among younger — 18-49 — women).

Nevertheless, here we are a week later, and Anna Nicole is still on the front page, and she's one of the first stories on the 11 o’clock news. Presumably, the people in the news business know what they're doing. So if people had really had enough of the Smith story, wouldn’t they pass up the newsstand and turn off the TV? Maybe this is one of those cases where there’s a discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

I wish we had something besides survey data to find out what news stories people are interested in. Surely Google, MSN, and Yahoo keep track of which stories people are clicking on. Do they make the data available?

In the meantime, news programmers will continue to feature Anna Nicole (and Britney) , news watchers will continue to tell pollsters “enough already,” and newscasters will continue to make comments, usually off-camera, like this one by CNN reporter Jack Cafferty.

Cafferty’s question, “Is Anna Nicole Smith Still Dead” is an allusion to a news anecdote of a half-century ago. In 1952, actor John Garfield died of a heart attack, which might have been news enough since he was a handsome Hollywood star, he was only 39, and he’d been blacklisted after refusing to name names when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

But Garfield’s death was especially newsworthy because he had suffered the heart attack while making love, and the woman he was making love to was not the woman he was married to. The press squeezed the story to the last drop of ink, playing out every possible angle.

The anecdote, at least the way I heard it, goes that on a slow news day weeks afterward, editors were sitting around a table, trying to decide on the day's headlines. Nothing in the news seemed to have the attention-grabbing juice needed for the front page.

So someone suggested, “John Garfield Still Dead.”

(A personal note: Garfield's son David went to the same college I did. We weren't buddies, but we knew one another by name. In Googling around for this post, I discovered that David, like his father, became an actor, and like his father he died of a heart attack. He was 52.)

Mixi Messages and Wa

February 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I spent a few months in Japan many, many years ago, the Japanese often told me that Americans were “frank.” At first, I took this as a compliment. Only later did it dawn on me that what they were really saying was that Americans tended to shoot off their mouths, saying whatever they thought, without much regard for how it would affect others. Americans seemed more interested in expressing their own individual opinions and quite willing, in the process, to trash the overall harmony within the group, what the Japanese call “wa.”

Sportswriter Robert Whiting’s 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa is about Wa in Japanese baseball. (The title is an allusion to the song “You Gotta Have Heart,” from the baseball-themed musical Damn Yankees.) Whiting describes the difficulties that arose when American baseball players who couldn’t quite stay in the majors wound up in Japan. Like good Americans, they would see their main task as playing well, getting hits, etc. But they would ignore or even resent a task that most Japanese would take for granted — becoming and being a member of the team, especially in the sense of subordinating their own preferences and accomplishments to the overall Wa of the group.

I myself unwittingly committed these cultural gaffes, one of them so egregious that it’s a wonder I wasn’t immediately ostracized if not executed.

I remembered this distant past again with some embarrassment when I read in Wired Online about MySpace moving into Japan, where the popular site is Mixi. Rupert Murdoch, whose NewsCorp owns MySpace (and a lot of other media), has never been shy about expanding his empire, and since November MySpace has run a Japanese site.

The differences between the MySpace and Mixi reflect the broader cultural difference between individualism and Wa. The name says it all: MySpace “is about me, me, me, and look at me and look at me and look at me,” says an American media executive in Japan. “In Mixi, it's not all about me. It's all about us.” In fact, American parents are surprised and often dismayed by how much personal information teenagers will put up on their MySpace pages for any stranger to see, and by the way kids will use the Internet for nastiness and character assassination.

But Mixi messages tend to be more supportive. It also is based more on groups than individuals. To join, you need an introduction from someone who is already a member, and communication remains centered among clusters of friends or people who share interests. It’s more a way to maintain relations among a group than a way of meeting new people or expressing yourself.

I checked the home pages for the two sites today. MySpace is very in-your-face. Someone in a photo on the cover of Nylon (screaming bold yellow typeface) seems to be screaming and sticking her tongue right into the camera. Just above, “Meet Sal” shows a very confrontational Sal, and then there's Jonathon in battle gear, and over on the right of the screen “cool new people” being cool by acting wild and crazy.

The Mixi login page shows a girl sitting in a field of grass, quietly reading a book, as her friend walks up to her. Both girls are dressed conventionally, and we see them from a distance. The words, not in garish yellow but almost blending in to the blue summer sky, say, “community entertainment.”

It will be interesting to see what happens with MySpace in Japan. Will the medium itself shape the content? Will it speed the development of a more individualistic and less group-oriented culture among Japanese youth, a change which has been slowly evolving in any case? Or will the culture reshape the site and make it more typically Japanese?