July 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks, in his Tuesday op-ed column in the Times, wrote about today’s young women:
These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don’t care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don’t need anybody else.
A lot of people on the left wish the Times would dump Brooks. He holds down the neoconservative seat on the Times op-ed page, and he usually writes about politics. He was a staunch supporter of the Iraq invasion and many other policies of the Cheney-Bush administration. But sometimes he looks at social and cultural matters, so he’s providing something for us sociologists, even though, as with his politics, he usually gets it wrong.

For the text of his sermon on Tuesday, he took three hit songs: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” “U + Ur Hand,” by Pink, and “Before he Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. (He could have added Nelly Furtado’s huge hit “Maneater.”)

These songs, according to Brooks, herald the appearance of a new kind of young woman – “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fed up, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving.” She’s the female counterpart of the hard-bitten hero of Western movies or the hard-boiled detective of crime fiction. Clint Eastwood and Bogie in drag.

But Brooks’s radio must be tuned in to unusual versions of these songs. These women are not emotionally self-sufficient, they’re angry, and they want revenge. The tough guys in US culture are essentially devoid of feeling. They don’t get mad, they get even. Suppressing their emotions, including anger, allows them to mete out justice, even against those they might once have been romantically involved with. In the well-known ending of I the Jury (see the film “Marty” next time it comes around on TCM), private eye Mike Hammer shoots his former love Charlotte after figuring out that she’d killed his partner.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
The justice is not purely abstract or ideological; the hero has been personally touched by the crime. But he also acts on the basis of personalized principle, not a simple emotional reaction. Sam Spade puts it nicely at the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” in circumstances similar to those of I the Jury. He discovers that Brigid O’Shaughnessy has killed his partner. She appeals to their past relationship: “You know in your heart that in spite of anything I've done, I love you.”

But Spade is adamant: “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” He explains, “When a man's partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something. It makes no difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The women in these songs are not acting on any general principle. They are responding, violently and personally to personal insults. They don’t want justice; they want revenge.

That I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,
carved my name into his leather seats,
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
slashed a hole in all 4 tires...
Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats.
(In America, if you really want to take revenge on a guy, go after his car.)

As Brad deLong points out, the rage of a woman scorned goes back a few years – Medea, Clytemnestra, Frankie and Johnny. But in our culture, it’s usually been the men who are allowed to express their anger by seeking revenge. So in a way Brooks is right; the tone in these songs may not be completely unprecedented, but it is atypical. The women in these songs also don’t bother with the typically feminine strategies of seduction, pleading, or guilt-tripping to get what they want. They make direct demands, and if the guy can’t meet those demands, to hell with him.

Brooks attributes the ethos of these songs to the Zeitgeist. They are “a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade.”

Not exactly. The emotions and actions in these songs have been around for centuries. It’s just that for most of that history, they had been restricted to men. If the popularity of these songs illustrates anything, it’s the democratization of emotions and actions, much like the “foulmouthed” language that upsets Brooks. Those words, reactions, and actions which have long been a male preserve are now becoming legitimate for women as well. At least for rock stars.

These songs are all hits. I just wish we had some data on who’s downloading them – men or women.


July 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Ratatouille” opened to universally great reviews, and it’s a delightful film. The more important question for Hollywood, though, is not whether a film is good but whether it will make money. No, not just whether it will make money but whether it will make a lot of money. “Ratatouille” had an opening weekend gross of “only” $47.2 million, and people at Disney already felt they had to spin the numbers to rebut claims that the movie was a disappointment.

The “trades” (I love using show-biz lingo) were comparing it unfavorably with “Cars,” Pixar’s 2006 summer movie and a big money make. But besides the financial comparison, the two films also provide an interesting cultural comparison. They exemplify the “culture wars,” the red-state blue-state divide.

“Cars” embodied the Nascar red-state mythology, not just because of its obvious theme (stock car racing) and setting (the American Southwest) but because of its moral: the triumph of American small-town virtues (friendship, community) over egotistical self-fulfillment and achievement.

The Michael J. Fox film, “Doc Hollywood,” was nearly identical in plot (career-minded doctor headed for Beverly Hills crashes his Porsche and winds up in a small Southern town; you can guess the rest), but this theme is a staple in many American fictions. Community is to be prized over individual achievement; plain small-town folk are better than city fast-trackers.

“Ratatouille,” by comparison, is downright unAmerican. I imagine Disney-Pixar was taking a chance even with the title, a foreign word unknown to many Americans, and most of those who do know it probably can’t spell it. On the other hand, what could be more American than “Cars”? The movie is set in France, a country US patriots were boycotting not so long ago (remember “freedom fries”?).  As for the virtues of bucolic settings, the rural life shown at the start of the film has little to recommend it, and our hero, the rat Remy, quickly winds up in Paris. And this movie loves Paris, a city which has long been, in the American imagination, the antithesis of down-home American virtues and values. Paris is tempting because of its sensuality (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”) but ultimately evil.

Even the basic concept of the film must seem foreign to the red-state mentality. It’s not about a manly pursuit like driving fast; it’s about cooking. While other films may extol just plain folks who eat plain simple food that nobody made too much of a fuss over in preparing, “Ratatouille” dismisses such an attitude as unworthy. Food is something that requires attention, both in the cooking and the eating. And the film takes frequent jabs at the American way of eating. It makes Remy’s rival (the evil chef Skinner) all the more repugnant by having him promote his line of micorwavable frozen foods – burritos, pizzas, and other things you’d find in many American freezers. Even worse, he has his people working to produce a frozen corn dog.

The attack on American bread is a bit more subtle – a didactic speech by a female chef giving the audience a lesson in what makes for good bread: a crunchy crust. The slap at our preference for squishy bread (Wonder) is so obvious she doesn’t need to say it out loud.

Despite this unAmerican aura, the film seems to be “doing well,” and the grosses from the weekend will probably look encouraging. I take these numbers as a sign that things are changing in America, that good food, even good European food, is not something that happens only on the coasts. Remember the Republican attacks on Democrats in recent elections as “brie-eating, chablis-drinking” pretentious snobs? But stores in the heartland are selling brie and chablis. David Kamp is probably exaggerating in calling America The United States of Arugula, but apparently a lot of Americans now at least know what arugula is.

In fact, the red-state blue-state division may be less an accurate representation of reality than a convenient stereotype dreamed up by politicians and the press. Like any stereotype, it may be a useful shorthand with some truth to it, but like other stereotypes, it can also make real-life contradictions harder to see. Not so long ago, a caffe latte was an exotic drink reported on by adventurous tourists returning from Italy. Now, every kid in Iowa and Wyoming has grown up with Starbucks. The drinks have been Americanized (a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup makes the espresso go down), but now latte and cappuccino are as American as pizza.

Maybe the next time you stop in at Flo’s Café in Radiator Springs, the menu will feature ratatouille.

The Colorblind Doctor

July 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Big hat tip to Mark Liberman at The Language Log for this post.)

Deepak Chopra, of all people, is writing about language and politics. The good doctor was blogging at Huffington Post about the recent Supreme Court decision that forbade school districts from giving any consideration to race in assigning students to schools.

The cities involved in the case (Louisville, Seattle) had been struggling to achieve some degree of integration in their schools. Where other factors were equal, the school district would avoid assigning a white student to a predominantly white school or a black student to a predominantly black school. The Court ruled 5-4 that this policy was unconstitutional.

Chopra’s point is that the majority opinion makes clever use of language in defending an indefensible position. He is particularly ticked off about the Court’s use of the word colorblind “as a disguise for racial neglect.”

He’s right, though I would put it more in terms of individual and group effects. Being colorblind at the individual level will probably lead to more segregation at the school level. The schools will become indistinguishable from pre-Brown schools, where students were deliberately segregated by very color-conscious policies and laws. So the ruling mandates a policy that is both colorblind and segregationist.

Justice Roberts, in his majority opinion, made an equally facile statement, one quoted in many news stories: “The way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” Clever, but sees the problem of race and schools as a purely individual matter (discrimination) rather than a social one (segregation). What about putting it the other way: “The way to end racially segregated schools is to end racially segregated schools.”

But Chopra makes a wonderfully ironic mistake. He writes:
Despite the overwhelming public support for school integration in both Seattle and Louisville, five powerful white males were enough to squash a society's better nature.
Those five powerful males are Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, and . . . Clarence Thomas, the only African American on the Court.

Chopra was obviously being colorblind. His classification of a man as white had nothing to do with the color of his skin but only with the content of his characteristically white opinion on integration.

Why I Am Not a Psychologist

July 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A link on some political blog – I wish I could recall whose – took me to this posting on a site called StraightDope:
I recently read Phantoms by Dean Koontz and was curious about his description of the “flatworms in a maze” phenomenon – namely that a flatworm can be taught to negotiate a maze and then ground up and fed to a flatworm that has never seen the maze. This new flatworm will absorb the knowledge of the maze from the first flatworm.
I’ve never read Dean Koontz, but I’m pretty sure the cannibalized-learning theory is bunk, at least where it concerns flatworms. But the mention of these studies took me back to a summer long ago when I worked in a university psych lab run by two psychology professors. It was the beginning of my disillusionment with psychology. It was as though I’d taken a lowly summer job at a law firm and discovered that most lawyers never saw the inside of a courtroom and that their work did not in the least resemble that of Perry Mason.

I had just finished my first year of college, and at the time I still thought that psychologists studied ways to understand and heal minds that were troubled and confused. Minds like my own. I also thought that a professor’s work involved the teaching of students – courses, lectures, exams, that sort of thing. But these two men did neither. They were researchers, and most of their research was about communication in rhesus monkeys. The way they treated the monkeys would today probably land these guys in jail, but as I said, this was a long time ago.

Their domain was the top two floors of one of those tall buildings that gets very narrow at the top. There were a half-dozen linoleum-floored rooms, most of them occupied by monkeys. Most of the monkeys were in cages. The few in the experiment were kept in uncomfortable “primate chairs” that allowed very little movement. Our own little Gitmo.

That summer the professors had read a journal article showing that planaria (flatworms) could be conditioned to swim or crawl a maze. For some reason, the article inspired them to branch out from monkeys and to try to replicate these experiments. Step one was to buy some flatworms – I guess there must have been a planaria supply house. Step two was to assign the groundwork to me.

Planaria (flatworms) are very simple organisms. They are worms, and they are flat. They measure less than a half-inch, with a triangular head featuring two eyes that are set so close together it makes them look cross-eyed.

My job included their care, feeding, and education (or “conditioning” as psychologists call it). Feeding meant dropping a piece of raw beef liver into each worm’s Petri dish. The hungry worm would crawl up on the liver and chow down. For their conditioning, I was to put the flatworm in a narrow, water-filled trough with electrodes at each end. I would then turn on a light — planaria are senstive to light — give the worm a second to realize that the light was on, and then zap him. The worm’s body would contract.
It was “classical conditioning.” The idea was that the worms would learn the light-shock connection. Then, even without the jolt of electricity, the worm would react to the light the same way it reacted to the shock, just as Pavlov’s dogs started salivating at the mere sound of a bell because it had been rung so often at Alpo time.

It sounds easy, but there was one catch. How do you move a worm from its Petri dish to the experimental trough? Our technique was to dip an eyedropper into the dish, suck the worm into the eyedropper, then squirt him out into the trough. After the worm’s experimental session (I forget how many light-shock trials I hit them with each time, maybe twenty), I would put the worm back using the same suck-and-squirt method. Unfortunately, the eyedropper aperture was a bit narrow, and the worm got squeezed each time in its rough passage in or out of the dropper.

The research plan was that after we succeeded with the classical conditioning, we would move on to the “operant conditioning” phase, teaching the little guys to swim a maze – i.e., to bear right at a Y-intersection.

We never got that far. The hardest part turned out to be keeping the planaria alive. Each morning I would check the tank and find a few more of my charges getting paler and paler, becoming translucent and finally giving up the ghost. We brought in new subjects, but they too withered. I figured that the reason for their failure to thrive was the combination of being squeezed through the narrow aperture of the eyedropper and then being electrocuted. That and maybe having to live in water that quickly became murky from the liver decomposing in it.

When I left at the end of the summer, I had not taught a single worm anything – preparation for my eventual career – and as far as I know, my bosses gave up without a publication. Ever since, I have been extremely skeptical about reported findings on flatworm learning. Yes, I know that these studies have been done and replicated. I just choose not to believe them until I see them first hand.

My bosses did publish several articles about the monkeys, but my first-hand experience with those experiments makes me very skeptical of those results too. But that’s another story.

The road sign, which I found using Google, is from the
MySpace page ofTeresasaurus Rex .