Separate Ways

October 15, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six years into a marriage is about the peak year for divorce.

Six years ago the ASA proposed to Malcolm Gladwell.  We gave him the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, which
honors individuals for their promotion of sociological findings and a broader vision of sociology. The ASA would like to recognize the contributions of those who have been especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives and research.
We were virgins. Malcolm was our first.  He swept us off our feet. He was cute and funny, and famous - he had TED talks, he’d been on NPR! But more important, he made us feel good about ourselves.  It wasn’t just the flattery of his beautiful words and clever phrases. He really paid attention to us, we thought, gazing deeply into our articles. He told us that what we did was important, relevant.

It was too good to last, and now the break-up seems imminent.  You can see it coming in tweets like this one by Matt Salganik of Princeton sociology.

Christopher Chabris, the author of the linked piece in Slate, is not a sociologist, he’s a cognitive psychologist, but you sense that sociologists too are seeing the same flaws. 

Oh, why didn’t we see them before. It’s not as though anybody has really changed all that much. The faults were always there. In fact, some sociologists did see them. Here’s a clip of Robb Willer telling his social psych class about his experience as a panelist at the ASA session where Gladwell was given the award.

[You can find the video in the UCLA course archives (here, starting at about the 8:40 mark).  It’s a great story, and Willer tells it well. He thought his role was that of a reviewer, so he prepared remarks that were in some ways critical of Gladwell’s recent book Blink, which Willer did not think was all that great. Only when he got to the session and heard the moderator and other panelists describing Gladwell and his work, a description that teemed with flattering adjectives, did Willer realize what the session was for, and he hastily rewrote his remarks to incorporate some of those adjectives.]

Chabris, in his deposition, speaks of our naïveté. Oh, yes, maybe we sensed that Malcolm wasn’t always telling the truth, but we rationalized.
perhaps I am the one who is naive . . . I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights.
But he was playing us for a fool. He lied to us
according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth especially when your audience is so vast . . .?*
Oh well, these things happen. Life goes on.  We try again and again, kissing frogs (remember that date with David Brooks back in 2011?)** and hoping for a true prince.

* Chabris here is echoing Macbeth:

“I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.” (V, 8)

** The list of award recipients is here.

The Vaper’s Drag

October 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

A question in the Social Q’s column of the Times today asks about the etiquette of electronic cigarettes at a dinner party.  In his answer, Philip Galanes expains what e-cigs are ( “battery-powered vaporizers . . .that deliver synthetic nicotine Users exhale an odorless white vapor”).  He continues,
The “vaper” (yes, that’s the colloquial term for users) should have asked your host and tablemates . . .
I don’t really care what the answer is, but I love vaper.  I just wonder how many people will get the reference.  It hark back to viper, which in the first half of the twentieth century was slang for a marijuana smoker.  The term did not survive the marijuana boom of the 1960s, though I have no idea why. Reefer and pot survived as terms for marijuana, but boo disappeared. So did viper. Sill, some historical artifacts remain, notably Stuff Smith’s 1936 song “If You’se a Viper,” which begins,
Think about a reefer five feet long.
Wikipedia says that it’s “one of the most frequently covered songs about marijuana.”  The best-known of these covers is probably the one by Fats Waller (himself the compser of “Viper’s Drag”).  Fats cleaned up the grammar (“If You’re a Viper”) and slowed down the tempo.  But here’s the original.

As the song says,
When your throat gets dry, you know you’re high.

Fearing Democracy

October 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Let’s give Michelle Bachman her due. She speaks her mind. She also speaks the minds of other Republicans who won’t: Her words are what oft was thought but ne’er so outrageously expressed.

Yes, she likened Obamacare to crack.
President Obama can’t wait to get Americans addicted to the crack cocaine of dependency on more government health care.
Some keen-eared liberals detected subtle racist overtones in that metaphor. Heavens no. I’m sure Rep. Bachman’s intentions were pure. But let us ignore the possibly offensive metaphor and look at the substance of what she said.  After all, her idea, even without that metaphor, is something you can hear in many Republican hangouts. 

Taken at face value, her statement is saying that in a democracy, the people cannot be trusted.
 Because, once they enroll millions of more individual Americans it will be virtually impossible for us to pull these benefits back from people.
All they want to do is buy love from people by giving them massive government subsidies.
What she’s saying is this: If the government does something that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of the people, it will be impossible to undo that policy using democratic means.

It may seem odd, at least to those of us raised on an ideology of democracy, that there’s a danger in the government enacting programs that people like. But that seems to be what Bachman and other Republicans fear.  Their worst nightmare is that once Obamacare is fully implemented, it will be successful; people will like it, and they will vote for the party that created that program. 

That fear about the electoral consequences of a successful Obamacare is overblown if not downright incorrect. But that fear does reveal a deep distrust of democracy and of ordinary voters. 

The Redskins — No Offense

October 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Redskins have been in the news lately  – on the front page of this morning’s Times, for example –  and not for their prowess on the gridiron (they are 1-3 on the season). It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so.  “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.

President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”

Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive,* and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it.  I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities.  The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.

The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos.  And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.”  This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American.  His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by Russell Means of the AIM: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”

HT for the hats: Max

* Football fans of a certain age may remember Washington’s running back John Riggins, who had a few good seasons but is most remembered for his comment at a 1985 National Press Club dinner. He was seated next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and he was drunk. He passed out, slid to the floor, and slept  through Vice-President’s Bush’s speech. But before that, he told the justice, “Loosen up, Sandy baby. You’re too tight.” I’m sure his remark was not intended to give offense.