Politics - The Hollywood Version

September 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
It’s like a really bad Disney movie, “The Hockey Mom.” “Oh, I’m just a hockey mom from Alaska,” and she’s president. She’s facing down Vladimir Putin and using the folksy stuff she learned at the hockey rink. It’s absurd.
Matt Damon knows the movies. He has picked up on a theme that has run through American films for decades: the triumph of innocence over intrigue. Damon is thinking of Disney comedies, but the idea is so deeply embedded in American culture that it underlies darker entertainments as well.

Typically, the ordinary American – honest, incapable of guile – lands in some nefarious web of intrigue and deceit woven by powerful but evil people. These are often foreigners, but they can also be domestic gangsters or malefactors of great wealth, the kind of people who drink expensive wine or collect modern art. In a word, elitists.

The official authorities, especially if they wear uniforms, are no help. They are either incompetent or in cahoots with the bad guys. In fact, they are usually a hindrance, threatening or even imprisoning the hero. Yet our hero, through good old American straightforwardness and resourcefulness, outwits the baddies, disrupts the their plot, rescues whoever was in danger, and restores the world to order. If there’s a pretty, single girl, he winds up with her too. Innocence beats intrigue every time.*

It’s not just Disney, and it’s not just Spiderman, Batman, and other films derived from children’s comic books. It’s Capra, Hitchcock (“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North By Northwest”), and dozens of lesser directors. Maybe it’s even Matt Damon movies (I confess, I have not seen or read “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if it contained some of these elements.)

At least Damon has the good sense to know that the world of movies is not the real world, and that being the plucky hockey mom might not necessarily qualify someone to be one septuagenarian heartbeat away from the presidency. But the PR strategists that work for our politicians try to present the real world as though it were a movie, and the public often seems to accept that presentation.

The networks should be running “Wag the Dog” on a continuous loop.

*My favorite counter-example is “The Third Man.” The protagonist (played by Joseph Cotten) thinks he’s in an American film, but he’s not. He’s in a European film. His friend, the man whose innocence he tries to prove, turns out in fact to be a baddie, just like the British officer has said. And even though Cotten realizes that the British officer was right and winds up killing his friend, the intrigue, conspiracy, and evil in Vienna will continue. And he doesn’t get the girl.

Alas Poor York

September 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I speculated that McCain’s boost in the polls following the Republican Convention might have been something different from the usual post-convention bounce. If people were reluctant to vote for Obama because of race, the convention, especially the speech by Sarah Palin, might have provided a legitimate cover for preferences that were based on racism. Instead of being against Obama, they could be for McCain and Palin.

It was speculation, and I hoped it was wrong. But the All Things Considered discussion with a panel of voters in York, PA provided some evidence that was depressingly consistent with this idea.

Some people repeated the criticisms of Obama that the Republicans offered at the convention. Like experience. Here’s Don Getty, a retired cop, white
“I don't think there is a problem with a black man,” says Don Getty, a retired police officer, who is white. “I personally don't think Obama is the right one. He doesn't have the experience. . . . He was a community organizer. Nobody's ever told me what a community organizer is.”
This conveniently ignores Obama’s years as a legislator in the Illinois Senate and the US Senate, but at least it’s a rationale.

More disturbing is Leah Moreland, an older, white woman:
“I look at Obama, and I have a question in my mind,” she says. “Years ago, was he taken into the Muslim faith? And my concern is the only way you are no longer a Muslim is if you are dead, killed. So in my mind, he's still alive. . . . There is something about him I don't trust,” she says. “I don't care how good a speaker he is, I just can't trust him.”
It’s possible that the “something” about Obama she can’t trust has nothing to do with race, but her clinging to misinformation about his religion makes me think otherwise.

Both these people are testimony to the invisibility of racism. Leah Morland says, “I really was totally unaware of prejudice . . . there was no prejudice in my home.”

Officer Getty says,
“I can't recall any privilege that I got because I was white,” Getty says. “I mean, I went to city schools. But I don't know of anything that I got because I was white that the black kids couldn't have gotten the same thing.”
NPR followed this statement immediately with that of Maggie Orr, a black woman whose family was the first black family in a suburb in 1963.
We weren't wanted there, of course, and the whites did everything they could to intimidate us to get us to move. But my parents were staunch-hearted people. We weren't going to budge. So, of course, we stayed there. We endured it all: the break-ins, the house being messed up, the whole nine yards, being called niggers.
The white police officer doesn’t see that his ability to move into a neighborhood – probably one with better schools and city services – constitutes white privilege. It’s just something he takes for granted. I also wondered how easy it would have been for a black man to have gotten on the York police force when Officer Getty was starting his career.

This invisibility plays into the Republican strategy, for if there is no racism in the US, then efforts to ensure African Americans access to housing or jobs are catering to a “special interest” (Blacks). Obama has tried very hard to avoid the perception of the Democrats as representing the interests of blacks. Meanwhile, the Republicans decry the politics of special interests and insist that we come together, rise above party, and put “country first” by voting Republican.

Culture and Social Construction

September 12, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to gynecological exams, all I know is what I read in the papers – mostly, Joan Emerson’s classic 1970 article, “Behavior in Private Places, Sustaining Definitions of Reality in the Gynecological Examination.” The problem for the participants in the exam (patient, doctor, nurse, staff) is to maintain the definition that this is not a sexual situation but a medical one. Given the nudity, the touching and talk of sexual areas, it takes some work to create and sustain that definition.
Some routine practices simultaneously acknowledge the medical definition and qualify it by making special provision for the pelvic area. For instance, rituals of respect express dignity for the patient. The patient’s body is draped so as to expose only that part which is to receive the technical attention of the doctor. The presence of a nurse acting as “chaperone” cancels any residual suggestiveness of male and female alone in a room.
Maybe here. But in France, that’s not how it happens. Meg, a Kansas girl who wound up in Paris (was a tornado involved?) and blogging as La Blaguer à Paris*, writes about it with only sight exaggeration.
Here’s what to expect when you go for ze Exam:
Doc - Mme Blagueur? [offers ungloved warm hand] Please follow me.
You - Bonjour! [sits in chair at office desk] I am here for my annual poke.
Doc - Congratulations. Now take your clothes off [indicates table and returns to typing]. You - What here? Yes? Erm... [stands, removes everything south of waist, drapes clothes hastily over office chair while hiding bits behind computer monitor].
Doc - The top, too. You - Even the bra?!!
Doc - Your bra cannot save you, American.
You - I see . . .
Doc - Let’s begin. Do you mind if I smoke?
The error of cultural expectations goes both ways. Meg tells of a French woman going for an exam in Chicago. The nurse handed her what might have been a folded paper towel but which any American patient would immediately recognize as a “gown.”
The young American doctor, when he returned after a suitable interval, found a very hot French woman sitting buck naked on the table, a paper gown in her hand.
What really struck me in Meg’s story was the bottom line. When the exam is over,
there will be a quick exchange of insurance cards or, if you’re paying in cash, 28€.
That’s about $40. If you pay in cash. Otherwise it’s just the insurance card. And if you do pay cash, you then dip your card into a little machine at the doctor’s office, and the system immediately reimburses your bank account the government’s share (i.e., most) of the payment.** We Americans should be thankful that we have HMOs and insurance companies and that our medical system hasn’t been contaminated by European ideas like socialized medicine with its elaborate and inefficient bureaucracy.

*It’s a trans-language pun. In French, to blaguer is to kid around, not to blog (though I often wonder with this blog, who do I think I’m kidding?)

** Commenters on Meg's blog put the cost closer to 80-100
, with about half that reimbursed.

Bounce or Bradley?

September 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The first poll released after the Republican convention (USA Today/Gallup) showed McCain going from even or even 5-6 points down to a 54-44 lead. Subsequent polls have the race still even, and the USA Today/Gallup poll may be a statistical anomaly. Even if it’s accurate, Democrats are hoping it reflects a post-convention bounce which will, like most such bounces, diminish with time.

But there’s another explanation that should be more unsettling for Democrats: the disappearance of the Bradley effect – the inaccuracy of polls when voters claim to be undecided rather than say they will vote for the white candidate over the black candidate.

For example, in the New York City mayoralty race of 1989, an African American, David Dinkins had defeated Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and was running against Rudy Giuliani. Polls taken shortly before the election showed Dinkins ahead by 15 percentage points or more. He won by two.

Adam Berinsky, guest blogging at The Monkey Cage, puts it this way:
In that election, the preferred candidate of older Jewish Democrats (or, as I like to call them, Mom and Dad), Ed Koch, lost a contentious Democratic primary to David Dinkins, who is black. Considering that many older Jewish Democrats had never in their life voted for a Republican candidate, a vote for Giuliani in the general election could be seen as nothing but a vote against Dinkins. Indeed among Jews over 50, 30 percent claimed that they didn’t know who they were going to vote for a week before the election, even though 93 percent said they would definitely cast a vote . . . . These are the precise circumstances where we would expect to see the polls perform poorly – and they did.
I prefer the Dinkins example to that of Tom Bradley (California, 1982) or Douglas Wilder (Virginia, 1989) because it had a sequel that adds to our understanding of the Bradley effect.
In 1993 Dinkins again ran against Giuliani, this time as an incumbent. In that election, unlike 1989, the pre-election polls were very accurate. One explanation for the discrepancy in the performance of the polls between 1989 and 1993 is that in 1989, Democratic voters could not openly oppose Dinkins without appearing to be racist. By 1993, however, they could oppose Dinkins because in the intervening 4 years he had established a poor record of performance.
In other words, racism was looking for a rationale. Once it had that rationale, it no longer needed to stay in the “undecided” closet.

Could something similar have been happening in the current Presidential campaign? Let’s assume that there are some voters who are reluctant to vote for Obama because of his race. Maybe they don’t even admit that to themselves, and they certainly don’t admit it to pollsters. Instead, they think and say, “I’m not sure. I don’t really know enough about the guy.” Then they see McCain and Palin at the convention, they see the clips on the news. They like what they see, or at least they see nothing to dislike. Now they have the “information” to justify their decision, and when the pollsters call, they can honestly say they’re for McCain.