Trick or Treat

October 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Lisa over at Sociological Images has been giving a lot of thought to her Halloween costume. And everyone else’s. One of the themes she notes is the ethnic caricature: Asian, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. There’s a “Rapsta” child’s outfit. And costume companies even have outfits for dogs.

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)
(Note that the above costume is in the “Religious Gifts” section of the Website.)

The other theme is Sexy, especially in female costumes. I was going to say “women’s costumes,” but as Lisa and many other commentators have pointed out, even the costumes for pre-teen girls are often sexualized – fishnet stockings and the like.

During the recent (and future) flap over Roman Polanski, there was some talk of the idea that while American attitudes categorically condemned sex with younger teenagers, Europeans were less absolute, more tolerant. I don’t know whether that assessment of sexual mores is accurate, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at the Halloween costumes on sale here in the US. Not only are costumes for girls sexualized, but as Lisa notes, the costumes for adult females include sexualized versions of young girls. The sexy schoolgirl is probably the classic example, though this year she is joined by her classmate from Hogwarts.

But you can also now find Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Alice (from Wonderland), Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, a generic Girl Scout, and probably others.

I wondered if a French costume site would have similar costumes. Admittedly, this is not thorough research, but everything listed under enfant>fille was Disney-pure. Perhaps the French draw the line between enfant and adulte at a lower age. But in the costumes for women, I didn’t find the variety of sexualized pre-teens that Lisa found at the US site. One Little Red Riding Hood, one Gretel, and one schoolgirl, as opposed to the dozens of variations at the US site.

The French site did have several different nun costumes. This fits with the strategy of sexualizing a status that in reality is usually unsexy: soldier, police officer, nurse, pirate, witch, angel, etc. Or even sponge (bottom left).
(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Note the price of the Bob l’Éponge Sexy costume, more than twice the nun. Must be the licensing fees. (The Olive Oyl costume – not shown, and not sexy – goes for 79€.)

Happy Halloween

A Sell-by Date for the Tax Breaks

October 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe you missed yesterday’s special section on Wealth and Personal Finance in the New York Times. Maybe you didn’t need to read articles like
  • “Exotic Bets to Hedge a Portfolio”
  • “Foreign Bonds Provide a Buffer . . .”
  • “ . . . Keeping the Heirs Quiet”
  • “For Equestrians, a Buyer’s Market in Horses”
Maybe you wondered who those articles were for. If so, you could have opened to page 8, to this chart, which is not to be missed, especially by those who might have thought that the benefits of the Bush tax cuts were broadly distributed and didn’t go just to the very rich.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The people in that big, blue circle, that’s who those article are for. The top 1%, the folks (to use a Bushian locution) yes, the folks who take down over $ ½ million a year and more, much more, and had their taxes reduced by nearly as much, those are the folks the Times must have had in mind with this special section. (Full article by David Cay Johnston here.)

When the Bushies bestowed this largesse upon the wealthy, they had to make it look a little less devastating to the federal budget, so they wrote in an expiration date – the end of 2010. The Bushies and their friends probably expected the Republican domination of all three branches of government to continue in perpetuity, so that when the time came, the tax breaks would be extended. They also expected that the economic strategies of tax cuts and deregulation would usher in an era of permanent prosperity rather than the worst economic period since the 1930s.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Republican paradise, and it now looks as though the sun will set on these tax breaks. Nearly a decade of the government going deep into debt in order to give you fistfuls of money as though it were trick-or-treat candy is not such a bad deal. But now . . .

What’s a poor millionaire to do? Buy another horse? Another house? Hedge the portfolio? Or might the heirs be quieted more with foreign bonds? Decisions, decisions.

Dithering and Talking Points

October 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Daily Show calls itself “a fake news show,” but it often does what the “real” news shows won’t. It documents how what people on news shows try to pass off as “spontaneous and unrehearsed” (as the opening of Meet the Press used to put it) is really planned and scripted at Talking Points Central. The Daily Show will give a quick montage of clips in which different people on different shows all use the same unusual word or phrase.

Last night it was “dithering.” A series of right-wingers, culminating in Dick Cheney, all accuse President Obama of “dithering” on Afghanistan.

(The Daily Show does not allow me to embed the video. But click here and slide to the 8:30 mark.)

It was just like the old days, when The Daily Show would string together clips from Bush Administration figures and right-wing commentators all using the same key words. But then, the statements all came on the same day, so the central direction was obvious. (I mean, it was obvious to Daily Show viewers, not to viewers of “real” news programs.)

The popularity of dithering may be more a case of contagion than planning. Note the dates of the O’Reilly and Cheney clips, more than two weeks apart.

Dithering is not a frequently used word. Lexis-Nexis shows only 27 instances in TV news transcripts for the first nine months of the year. The first use in connection with Afghanistan comes on September 24 – on Australian ABC, but the speaker was from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. So it’s likely that dithering represented one idea of how to attack Obama. That idea took hold.

Over the course of the next month, dithering begins to reverberate. Republican senators use it in hearings in early October, TV news people bounce it back, and right-wing commentators start yodeling it loudly.
They are changing the rationale for why we are in Afghanistan. Whats really going on here is a dither, a big dither, indecisiveness. (William Bennett on CNN, Oct. 18)
And finally the Cheney quote on Oct. 21 that is echoed in every news story about that speech.
The White House must stop dithering while Americas forces are in danger.
Quite possibly, Cheney’s speech was written by someone at the American Enterprise Institute or someone else in that neo-con circle. Still, I don’t see the dithering as a matter of “talking points” distributed by the RNC. Instead, it’s an example of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post – a word (dithering, issues) that spreads because it just sounds “right,” at least to certain people.

I expect that the dithering life cycle will be mayfly brief. Issues to mean problems was slower to catch on, and it may hang around for a good while.

Houston, We Have an Issue

October 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did problems become issues?

I remember when an issue was a point of contention, something people disagreed about, like the issues in a political campaign. Now, an issue can be just another difficulty, or what we used to call “a problem.”*

This morning my orthopedist told me that he too has “shoulder issues,” especially when he’s under stress and unconsciously tenses his shoulders. I wanted to say that I didn’t have issues, I had pain, and that the pain was a problem.

But I didn’t. Not enough time. This doctor works fast, and talks fast. “Trap strain” was his diagnosis, and it took him about as long to make it as it took you to read this sentence.

I and everyone I’ve mentioned it to think that issues started among psychotherapists. Patients’ problems became “issues.” (“You seem to have an issue with women you perceive as powerful.”) Those patients were disproportionately educated and wealthy; more of them also might have worked in the media. A Robert Weber New Yorker cartoon shows two parents as their infant child in a highchair throws food wildly all over the kitchen. The caption: “He has some food issues.”

He has some food issues.

That was in 1999, and apparently issues was fresh enough to be funny to New Yorker readers and their therapists. But I suspect that it was already late in the day and that the term was already filtering out into much broader use. I doubt that the magazine would publish that cartoon today. Last May, their “Ask the Author” page contained the sentence, “There are allergies, peculiar diets, and all sorts of food issues.” And nobody was chuckling.

So it all starts with psychotherapy and the media elite, to use a term of denigration popular on the right (George W. Bush used to pronounce it as a single word – “medialeet”). It then flowed downward and outward, much like fashions in names and clothing. To repeat an anecdote I used in an earlier post on language, only few years after that cartoon appeared, I heard a burly jock, a former defensive lineman for the Jets, talking about the team’s prospects in the upcoming season. “Well, the Jets have right tackle issues.”

At least, that’s my guess. But I need some some evidence. If I were a linguist, I’d know how to track these changes. I tried Lexis-Nexis, searching for “has an issue.” But Lex thought I was just kidding about the has, despite my using quotation marks, and it returned everything with the word issue.

I wish I could figure out how to solve this problem. Or do I mean how to resolve this issue?

*Issue as a point of contention is not the earliest meaning of the word, but it does go back to at least the early 1500s. My OED, admittedly not a recent edition, does not even mention the problem sense of the word.