The War on Hanukkah

November 29, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In recent years, Modern-day Paul Reveres like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin have been riding through every Middlesex village and Fox News station, spreading the alarm about the War on Christmas.  This is a serious threat. Don’t let yourself be lulled into complacency by the Goliath-David ratio of manpower – the US population is 76% Christian, 2%  atheist. The badly outnumbered army of Progressive atheists has resorted to weapons of midnight mass destruction –  like clerks at the mall saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; media elites referring to the “holiday tree.”

Meanwhile, the War on Hanukkah has started.  Look what things were like before these attacks began.

The label says it clearly.  It’s Chanukah gelt – or Hanukkah gelt – a chocolate version of the real money sometimes given as a gift.

But now in the store we find this.

“Milk chocolate coins” indeed.  Not a hint of a Jewish holiday anywhere in sight.  And yet the media remain silent in the face of this blatant anti-Semitism. Where are Krauthammer, Podhoretz (x 2), Kristol and the rest? Either they are closing their eyes to a situation they do not wish to acknowledge, or they are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by this kind of repackaging.  

Maybe it would be more revealing to trace this attack on Hanukkah back to the original perpetrators.

A fifth column in the homeland?  Or maybe it’s just too hard to conduct a counteroffensive when nobody’s sure how to spell the name of the side that’s under attack.  Is it Chanukah? Hanukkah? Hannukah? No wonder it took so long to get Qaddafi.

Emotional Contagion

November 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)

When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place on the tatami floor with the others,  my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor.  The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.

I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.

It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.

Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.

I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated.* Now that assumption was shattered.  But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on the feelings of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.

When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.”  In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotion we see all around us evokes the same emotion in us.  We experience that emotion as personal.  But in an important way, it is also social.

* Twenty years ago today, on the 30th anniversary, Barry Wellman recalled he was sitting in a Social Relations class when Stanley Milgram burst in to announce the news. That a president could be assassinated was so incredible that Wellman was sure that Milgram was doing some sort of experiment. When another student in the class turned on his transistor radio so that everyone could hear the the news reports, Wellman remained convinced that the radio was merely part of Milgram’s elaborate hoax. (Wellman’s account is here.)

Coleman Hawkins

November 21, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

There was no special Google Doodle, but today is Coleman Hawkins’s birthday. He would have been ninety-nine. His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” is one of the most famous solos in jazz.  Maybe the most famous. The recording is all the more interesting in that it’s all solo (i.e., improvisation). Nowhere in it does Hawkins play the Johnny Green melody.

I heard Hawkins once, a few years before his death, when I was an undergraduate. A senior, Charlie Giuliano, the campus’s main source of marijuana (still something of a novelty then) had gotten some Student Association funds and made the arrangements – Hawkins and a local rhythm section. The venue was nothing elegant – an open area in the student center. No chairs, we sat on the floor.

Charlie let me hang out in the “green room,” an adjoining classroom-sized room, before the concert, where Hawk took several pulls from the flask he kept in his suit pocket. In the break between sets he pretty much drained it. I was young and naive; I’d never seen anyone drink like that as a matter of course.

The next day, when Charlie asked me what I thought, I mentioned that Hawk seemed to drink a lot. 

“If you had to play “Body and Soul” every night of your life for thirty years, you’d drink too,” said Charlie.

The Committee Report – Plagiarism and Translation

November 18, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m jumping on the sympathy-for-plagiarists carousel.

When Rachel Maddow called out Rand Paul for plagiarism, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg offered a defense of sorts in his six minutes of airtime on NPR. So what if Paul speechified Wikipedia sentences as though they were his own (or those of his speechwriters)? Lots of people do the same and worse, says Nunberg, and besides it’s no big deal.
Paul may not have been guilty of dishonesty, just cavalier disrespect for the rules.
And those rules Paul was dissing – you know, the ones that schools put in the student handbook and that we put on our syllabi – in Nunberg’s view, they’re sort of like rules about which fork to use for salad.
The rules for quoting and attributing can seem arbitrary at times, with little connection to the respect for intellectual property that originally motivated them. You could think of them just as a kind of literary etiquette.
Basically, no harm, no foul.

Now there’s a more egregious case here in New Jersey.  The associate VPAA at Kean University, Katerina Andriotis, wrote a 15-page report on “enrollment management” with large portions copied and pasted from similar reports at other schools.

The Star-Ledger put it on page one.
Kean exec out after plagiarism allegation
I confess I have not read the nine pages she plagiarized or the six she didn’t. But from the news story, I’d guess that the report consists mostly of the vague, the meaningless, and the obvious, all of it painted in the dull, don’t-read-me colors of bureaucratic ed-speak.
It is vitally important to Parkland that meaningful research focus on the factors which influence student decisions, to ascertain which ones have a positive influence on student retention behavior. In addition, a key to helping to retain students is the ability of Parkland to identify ‘at-risk’ students early enough to permit intervention strategies to work.
Find-and-replace Kean for Parkland, and you’ve got an Andriotis paragraph. Does it matter that the Parkland report was written 18 years ago for a 2-year community college in downstate Illnois while the Kean report was about a university in urban northern New Jersey? Not if this paragraph reflects the report’s overall level of analysis (and I’d bet it does). Translated into plain English it says,
We have to find out why students drop out, and if we don’t get to them early on, nothing will work.
If this is all that a retention committee is going to say, then the reports are interchangeable. And if they’re interchangeable, why not interchange them? Yes, what Andriotis did was plagiarism. But I get the impression that the plagiarism was a joint effort between her and the higher-ups in the administration who would, supposedly, read the report.  She wasn’t trying to fool them so much as she was helping them fool themselves. That joint effort says, in effect: We may not be able to do anything to keep our students from dropping out, but having a report gives the appearance that we’re trying really, really hard.

(I am speculating about all of this. Maybe the enrollment management committee will spark some changes that have a real effect. )