Palin and Torture, Party and Gender

September 9, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he’s worried that someone won't read them their rights?”
Sarah Palin was standing up for torture, and the Republicans cheered.

It was then I finally realized: these people actually like torture. Oh, of course you can’t come right out and say that torture is a good thing. But that was the idea the convention conveyed. You don’t tell a story over and over again unless it’s a story you really like, and the story the Republicans told and retold was the story of John McCain’s torture.

Previously, my explanation for the acceptance of torture had emphasized two elements – tribalism and bureaucratic rationality.

Tribalism is all about who. Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people. Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them. What’s moral is what’s good for Us. This morality does not extend to Them. If We torture Them, it’s all right. If They torture Us, it’s an atrocity.

Bureaucratic rationality is about why. Torture is wrong if it’s done for sadistic pleasure or for personal vindictiveness, just to see your enemies suffer. That’s the picture we liked to paint of Saddam as torturer. But if you use torture as a rational means to a goal (“saving American lives”), and if the torturers are impersonal, if they derive no personal pleasure from torturing, then torture is O.K. President Bush used to refer to the torturers as “our professionals” (impersonal, efficient, unemotional) and extended the rational-legal angle by getting White House lawyers to write justifications using the impersonal language of law.

But the Republicans in Minnesota seemed to view torture not just as a regrettable but necessary tactic. Torture became a romanticized test of toughness, the ultimate chapter in the Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche version of masculinity. Only wimps have qualms about torture or worry about the niceties of human rights or the law. Real men can dish it out, and they can take it. Accordingly, in all the repeated invocations of Sen. McCain’s ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, there was never any condemnation of the North Vietnamese as torturers, only the extolling of McCain for his toughness, patriotism, and other manly virtues. It was as though torture were not so much a violation of basic human rights and international law but a ritual that served to separate the men from the boys, painful but ultimately ennobling. And like the harsh fraternity initiation, those who have undergone it look back on it with something resembling nostalgia. See, you crybabies, the Republicans were saying, torture’s not so bad if you’re man enough to take it.

Surely others have commented on the Republicans’ long-standing effort to define the difference between the parties in terms of gender stereotypes: Republicans – tough, strong, and masculine, Democrats – soft, weak, and feminine. For the GOP, a woman on the ticket had the potential to confuse that imagery. Ms. Palin had to convince the party faithful – and those who shared their traditional expectations about gender – had to convince them that she would not weaken the party brand with feminine softness. So she played up her toughness. Don’t be misled by the lipstick, she said. She was the pit bull who would not hesitate to use torture.

The Last Shall Be First . . .

September 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her comment on the previous post, our new colleague Faye noted that “Brits avoid using last names as first names.” But this style has become increasingly popular in the US. Last year the top 250 names included
  • Mason (37)
  • Hunter (57)
  • Carter (80)
  • Tyler (91)
  • Cooper (95)
  • Tanner (149)
  • Sawyer (240)
Twenty years ago, only Tyler made the top 250. It’s also popular in the UK, ranking 27th last year for baby boys.

In the US, it was probably the wealthy who started the last-name ball rolling. Humorist Calvin Trillin says that when he was at Yale in the 1950s, the upper-class WASPs who had attended schools like Andover and Choate tended to have names like Hatcher Thatcher Baxter III. Or Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, Jr. Or . . . but you get the idea.

Over the decades, following the general social class trend in names described by Levitt and Dubner (the Freakonomics guys), Carter, Hunter, and the rest have trickled down through the system.

But why here and not in the UK?

My guess is that British ears, especially upper-class British ears, still hear the working-class overtones in these names. These names, after all, derive from common trades. The upper class, who did not do such common work, so they did not have surnames like Farmer, Miller, or Baker (Baxter, by the way, is a variant – a “bakester”). Thatchers worked, thatching roofs. They did not own land. Hunters hunted, Carters carted, and Tylers tiled.

The upper class were quite merry in olde England and had no need to emigrate. It was the Baxters and Hatchers, not the Forsyths, who came to America to seek their fortunes. Enough of these tradesman descendants were successful in the New World, and the class system was open enough, that their names lost their working class connotations. But they did retain the aura of England, the “AS” in WASP. These were “classy” names, as contrasted with the foreign names of later immigrants.

As Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” noted in his short-lived stand-up comedy career, only WASPs can get away with this last-name ploy. He envies media people like
Stone Phillips, Anderson Cooper, Shepard Smith . . . . Jews can't do that. Jews can’t use last names as first names. “This is Teitelbaum Moskowitz, and here are tonight’s headlines.”

What's in a Name? It Depends on Where.

September 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby? Good old American Republican names like Track, Trig, Willow, Piper. Certainly not elitist British names like Nigel or Phillipa.

In fact, nowadays there’s a good deal of similarity in the popular names here and in the UK. Among girls, six names are in the top twenty for both countries (Emily, Isabella, Grace, Chloe, Hannah, Olivia).

There are also differences. Lucy and Charlotte, #8 and #12 respectively in the UK don’t even make the top 100 here. Some names popular here, like Ashley and Alyssa (#13 and #14) are all but unknown across the pond.

On the other hand, the Madison explosion is making its way east. She went from 203rd to 3rd in a mere ten years here (1990-2000), and is now 39th in the UK. Many people think that the movie Splash” put the name out there, and it caught on.

Thanks to Sarah Palin, something similar may happen with Willow, Piper, and Bristol. Here, but not there, at least not for Bristol. I have no idea how the Palins came up with Bristol, but I’d bet a lot of money that they’re not familiar with Cockney rhyming slang.

Popular Girls Names (UK, 2006. US 2007)

UK . . . . . . . . . . . .. .US
1. Olivia . . . . . . . . . Emily
2. Grace . . . . . . . . . Isabella
3. Jessica . . . . . . . . Emma
4. Ruby . . . . . . . . . Ava
5. Emily . . . . . . . . . Madison
6. Sophie . . . . . . . . Sophia
7. Chloe . . . . . . . . . Olivia
8. Lucy . . . . . . . . . . Abigail
9. Lily . . . . . . . . . . .Hannah
10. Ellie . . . . . . . . . Elizabeth
11. Ella . . . . . . . . . . Addison
12. Charlotte . . . . . . Samantha
13. Katie . . . . . . . . Ashley
14. Mia . . . . . . . . . .Alyssa
15. Hannah . . . . . . . Mia
16. Amelia . . . . . . . .Chloe
17. Megan . . . . . . . .Natalie
18. Amy. . . . . . . . .Sarah
19. Isabella . . . . . . .Alexis
20. Millie . . . . . . . .Grace

King and Queen

September 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

John McCain cancelled a scheduled interview with Larry King “as punishment for what his aides said was an unfair interview of a McCain campaign spokesman by the network host Campbell Brown on Monday night.” (Story in the New York Times ).

The claim of unfairness says a lot about the culture of politics and journalism.
ed. Here’s a clip from the interview.

What was unfair? Brown tried to get the McCain flak, Tucker Bounds, to answer the questions she asked.

First, she asks a question about Sarah Palin’s readiness to be commander-in-chief. Bounds’s answer is all about McCain. So Campbell Brown says (at 0:47), “I asked you about her.”

Then there’s this (at 2:11 in the clip), described by the Times
“Can you tell me one decision that she made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, just one?” Ms. Brown asked.

Mr. Bounds responded, “Any decision she has made as the commander of the National Guard that’s deployed overseas is more of a decision Barack Obama’s been making as he’s been running for president for the last two years.”

Ms. Brown pressed again, saying: “So tell me. Tell me. Give me an example of one of those decisions.”
Apparently, what’s unfair is to insist that a politician answer the question and if he doesn’t to point out that he has not answered it. At least in US journalism. If you listen to the BBC news, you’ll hear interviewers asking pointed questions, and when politicians – even cabinet secretaries – are evasive, the journalist will say, “But you haven’t answered my question,” and then repeat it.

In the US, such a demand is “unfair” to a candidate. If the interviewee is an office holder rather than an office seeker, the demand is “disrespectful.”

In a post about the film “The Queen” many months back, I speculated about the advantages of monarchy, of separating the role of ceremonial head of state from the role of political leader, rather than combining them as we do. A follow-up post quoted a British journalist on the cultural differences this has for political journalism. These posts focused on the Presidency. But the cloak of respect for the institution may flow farther down the line, so that we prefer all politicians, candidates for higher office, and their spokespersons to be treated with deference.

Or maybe, it’s just that we have a norm that face-to-face conversations – even interviews with politicians – should be “nice” rather than confrontational.

Or maybe not. At the same time that McCain was ducking Larry King, Obama was agreeing to go on Bill O’Reilly’s show. It will be interesting to see whether O’Reilly treats the Democratic candidate with greater civility than he shows to most guests he disagrees with. Maybe, Obama will be able to finish an answer to a question before O’Reilly interrupts him.