May 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you die in uniform, are you automatically a hero? 

On Memorial Day, the day for honoring our war dead, MSNBC newsman Chris Hayes said he had reservations about the way the word hero gets tossed around.  Some soldiers, he said, die in circumstances of  “tremendous heroism.”  But that implied that other soldiers deaths are not quite as heroic and that not all dead military personnel are heroes. 

Hayese also questioned the whole enterprise of hero-making.
I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.
As you would expect, the right wing swung into full battle vituperation, with the usual name calling – commie, collectivist, intellectual, effete – that tells us more about the fears of the name-callers than it does about Hayes.  (Politico has a summary of the reaction.)

Above all, the critics insisted that the military dead were, ipso facto, heroes.

Whether all are heroes comes down to definitions, and apparently some people’s definition of hero includes all dead soldiers.  More important is Hayes’s discomfort at the motives and the effect of all this hero-mongering: “justification for more war.” It’s sometimes called “waving the bloody shirt.” 

A way to think about this is to imagine other nations or groups doing something similar.  Imagine Al Qaeda, for example, having hero ceremonies for their own dead, saying what heroes all these dead Al Qaeda are and how wonderful and worthwhile their sacrifice.   Might we suspect that the motive behind these sentiments was to stir their followers to further acts of war? 

Imagine a Pakistani newsman saying that this waving of the bloody headscarf, despite the honorable motive of honoring the dead,  seemed to encourage even more war, more killing, and more death.  Would we think maybe he had a point?  Or would we say, “How dare he suggest that some of these fallen Al Qaeda were not heroes?” and then dismiss him as cowardly, effeminate, and disloyal?

Boosters and Bigots

May 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A commenter on the previous post equates Blacks who voted for Obama because of his race with Whites who voted against Obama because of his race. (This paraphrase cannot capture the tone of the comment, which should be read in its entirety.) If we phrase the issue that way, the equation is undeniable.  It’s practically a tautology.  Both are voting on the basis of race rather than policy.

But most people would see a difference – a difference between for and against, a difference between hope and fear, a difference between the desire for inclusion and the demand for exclusion, a difference between liking one of us and disliking (even hating) all of them. 

A minority group voting for one of theirs – especially the first time one of theirs has ever had the nomination of a major party – is different from a majority group voting against a candidate because of his minority status.  In 1960, 80% of Catholics voters supported John F. Kennedy – about 17 percentage points more than a non-Catholic would have gotten.  Most people (though apparently not the commenter) would not equate those Catholic voters with the anti-Catholics who voted against Kennedy because of his religion.  If a Jew is ever nominated, most people (though apparently not the commenter) would not equate his Jewish supporters with the anti-Semites who would vote against any and all Jews.  Most people understand the difference between a booster and a bigot.

In the case of Obama, the pro- and anti- votes are different not just in quality but also in quantity.  The 96% of the Black vote did not give Obama such a huge bump.

That Black vote for Obama was only six points higher than the Black vote for Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore.  (I was surprised that Clinton, “the first Black president,” got a lower percent of the Black votes than did these other candidates. )  That six-point boost is also much less than the anti-Black vote revealed in the map and graphs in the previous post.

Racism and Mind Reading

May 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

In recent Democratic primaries in Appalachian states, Obama lost 40% of the vote.  The anti-Obama Democrats voted for candidates like “uncommitted” (Kentucky), an unknown lawyer (Arkansas), and a man who is incarcerated in Texas (West Virginia).

Could it be that there’s racism at work in Appalachia?  Or is the anti-Obama vote based entirely on opposition to his policies? 

The 2008 Presidential election – Obama v. McCain – offers some hints.  For those with short memories, the Bush legacy – an unpopular war and an economic catastrophe – may have hurt the GOP.  In that election, the country went Democratic. The Democrats did better than they had in 2004, the Republicans worse.  But not everywhere. The Times provides this map:

(Click on the map for a larger view.)

Most counties were more Democratic in 2008 than in 2004.  But in that Appalachian arc, Obama got fewer votes than had Kerry in 2004.  Yes, it’s possible that those voters in Appalachia preferred the policies of candidate Kerry to those of candidate Obama.  As Chris Cilizza says in in a Washington Post blog (here), the idea that race had anything to do with this shift is
almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know.
Cilizza quotes Cornell Belcher, the head of a polling firm with the Monkish name Brilliant Corners:
One man’s racial differences is another man’s cultural differences.
Right. The folks in Appalachia preferred John Kerry’s culture.

I’m generally cautious about attributing mental characteristics to people based on a single bit of behavior.  But David Weigel, in Slate, goes back to the 2008 Democratic primaries – Obama versus Hillary Clinton.  A CNN exit poll asked voters if race was an important factor in their vote. In West Virginia and Kentucky, about 20% of the voters in the Democratic primary said yes.  Were those admittedly race-conscious voters more anti-Obama than other Democrats?

Clinton outpolled Obama among all primary voters in these two states.  But among those who said race was important, she did much better.  Race added another 20 points to her lead.  Or to put it another way,  Race-important took away half the Obama vote.  As Weigel points out, this was before Obama took office, before voters really knew what policies he would propose.  Besides, there wasn’t all that much difference in his policies and those of Hillary Clinton.

Cilizza is right that we can’t read voters’ minds.  But to argue that there was no racial motivation, you have to discount what the voters said and what they did.


May 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it an homage, or is it an outright ripoff?  That’s often hard to know, and maybe the difference lies not in the work itself but in whether the artist acknowledges the link.  In academic writing, we can be explicit – “As So-and-so pointed out in 1972 . . .” – and we can footnote scrupulously.   Or not.

But in the arts, a performer cannot stop the show and acknowledge the others whose material he is reworking or just plain copying.  (One of this blog’s first posts (here) was about the problem of plagiarism in comedy and magic.  ) 

Not long after, I ran across a short story in The New Yorker (Kate Walbert’s “Playdate”) that seemed, to me at least, clearly based on J. D. Salinger’s 1948 story in The New Yorker, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Homage or ripoff, I wondered at the time (here).

This week’s New Yorker brings us this opening to a short story by Lorrie Moore.

For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.  There was so little they were actually allowed to bring; almost everything could be transformed into a weapon, and so most items had to be left at the front desk and the, if requested, brought in later by a big blonde aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.  Pete had brought a basked of jams, bu there were in glass jars, and so not permitted. “I forgot about that,” he said.  The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.  Just as well they’ll be confiscated, she thought.  They would find something else to bring.
Moore makes no attempt to hide her source, though she cannot add footnotes (she’s not David Foster Wallace, and anyway that’s not the kind of footnotes he used).  To anyone vaguely familiar with Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” published in The New Yorker in 1948, the similarity is unmistakable.  Here is Nabokov’s opening paragraph.
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
(The full text of the story is here.)

Moore even gives her story the title “Referential,” a double (at least) meaning. In the Nabokov story, the son’s delusions are a form of “referential mania.”
“Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.
And of course, Moore’s story, from beginning to end,  is referential, if not reverential, to Nabokov’s.