Pryor Convictions

March 12, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, I posted about the conservatives’ tendency to celebrate killing – so long as the killing is, in their view, justifiable.  When the moderator at a Republican primary debate cited the record number of people executed in Texas under Governor Perry, the audience cheered.


We don’t know how long the applause would have continued if Brian Williams hadn’t interrupted.

I’m now reminded of a similar audience reaction – the inmates at Folsom Prison listening to Johnny Cash and cheering at this line in “Folsom Prison Blues”

To paraphrase the journalist I quoted asking about the people lining up for George Zimmeman’s autograph:  Who are these people cheering when Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”?” The answer is simple. They’re criminals; some of them are killers.  That’s why they’re in prison.

And to quote Richard Pryor, “Thank God we got penitentiaries.”

(The line comes early in the clip from “Live on the Sunset Strip” (1982) . (If it doesn't load, go here). But if you have forgotten, as I had, just how good Pryor was, watch the whole thing.)

I imagine how Pryor might react these days:
Y’know, but there’s a difference. Them motherfuckers yelling about shootin’ a man in Reno – they was in the joint.  They get out, they can’t even vote. Motherfuckers cheering for killing more people with executions and stand your ground and shit – they run half the states in the country.

Righteous Slaughter

March 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

George Zimmerman was signing autographs at a gun show in Orlando this week. Liberal blogs are all over it. Conservative bloggers seem not to have noticed.* (Google “George Zimmerman autograph” and see if any red staters turn up.) 

Zimmerman is not the issue. It’s his supporters. Only 200 showed up for the meet-and-greet or SigSauer-and-Signature or whatever it was called.  But Zimmerman has many supporters around the country, and, as Jonathan Capeheart says:
This leads to what should be an inevitable question: Who are these people glorifying the killer of an unarmed teenager in one of the most racially polarized incidents in recent history?
I keep wondering how Jonathan Haidt would explain this conservative embrace of Zimmerman. The liberal reaction presents no problems. Haidt says that liberal morality rests on two principles (he calls them “foundations”)
  • Care/Harm
  • Fairness/Cheating. 
Killing someone certainly qualifies as Harm, and, almost literally, getting away with murder is not Fair.

The Zimmerman side is that he shot in self-defense. That argument persuaded the jury, or at least created sufficient reasonable doubt. But it doesn’t explain why some people on the right see him as a hero. What moral principle does he represent? 

In Haidt’s schema, conservatives take Harm and Fairness into account but balance them with three others:
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
(A sixth foundation - Liberty/oppression – underlies both the liberal and conservative side.)

It’s hard to see how any of these describe the autograph-seekers.  What else might explain that reaction?

The obvious candidate is racism. If the races had been reversed – if a Black man had confronted a White teenager, killed him, and then been acquitted on self-defense grounds – would the left have hailed him as a hero? I doubt it. Would those same autograph hounds in Orlando have sought him out? I doubt it.  And if Black people had then turned out to get his autograph, can you imagine what the reaction on the right would have been?

But it’s not just racism. It’s a more general willingness to do harm, great harm, to those who “deserve” it.  The liberal view (Harm/Care) is that while in some circumstances killing may be necessary or inevitable, it is still unfortunate.  But over on the right, killing, torture, and perhaps other forms of harm are cause for celebration, so long as these can be justified. In 2008, Republicans cheered Sarah Palin when she stood up for torture. (See this post from 2008.) In 2011, they cheered Rick Perry for signing death warrants for record numbers of executions (here). When Wolf Blitzer hypothsized a young man who had decided not to buy medical insurance but now lay in the ICU, and Blitzer asked “Should we let him die?” several people in the Republican audience enthusiastically shouted out, “Yes.” (here)

My guess as to the common thread here is a dimension Haidt doesn’t include as a foundation of morality – boundary rigidity. In those earlier posts, I referred to this, or something similar, as “tribalism.”
Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people.  Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them.  What's moral is what's good for Us.  This morality does not extend to Them.
Could it be that as you get farther out on the right, you find more people whose boundaries are more rigid?  They are the hard liners who draw hard lines. Once those lines are drawn, it’s impossible to have sympathy – to extend Care – to someone on the other side. If you imagine that you live in a world where an attack by Them is always imminent, defending those boundaries becomes very important.

That seems to be the world of gun-rights crowd lionizing Zimmerman.  Their cherished scenario is the defense of boundaries against those who are clearly Not Us.  They stand their ground and defend themselves, their families, their houses and property, even their towns and communities against those from the other side of the boundary (including Obama’s jack-booted thugs).  It is a story they never tire of, repeated time after time in NRA publications.  Zimmerman is a hero because his story, in their view, embodies the narrative of righteous slaughter. 

* A local Fox outlet did a sympathetic interview with Zimmerman (here)– sympathetic in the sense that it tried to cast Zimmerman as victim. After two sentences describing the event, the story continues:
Fox 35 met up with him to talk about why he was at the store and what life has been like after his acquittal.

Fox 35's Valerie Boey: "You've always been concerned about your safety. Are you concerned about your safety today?"

Envy, Anger, Greed, Sloth - (4 Out of 7 Ain’t Bad)

March 8, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many people in the US are concerned about the great increase in economic inequality. They point out, for example, that 95% of all income gains since 2008 have gone to the 1%.  Are they motivated by envy?

Arthur Brooks thinks so. His latest op-ed in the Times is “The Downside of Inciting Envy.”

Claiming to know what a person is feeling when the person himself denies that feeling is always a tricky business. When you’re attributing emotions to others, you ought to have pretty solid evidence

Undoubtedly, inequality has gotten much more attention lately. But is that attention borne on a rising tide of envy in the US? Here’s Brooks’s evidence:
  • the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. (GSS data)
  • 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” (Pew data)
  • the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. (Pew)
  • In 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied.
First, Brooks’s reading of the GSS data is barely true. Respondents mark their opinion on a 7-point scale.  In 2012, 24.3% chose #1, the most redistributionist option. That was only slightly higher than in 1990 (22.6%) and 1986 (22.7%). (Using #1 and #2 combined puts 1990 highest.)

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

It’s understandable that in the Great Recession years, economic hardship would inspire more people to look to government to assuage inequality.  But before then, the average redistributionst sentiment in Republican years (Reagan-Bush41, Bush43) is higher than in Democratic years (Clinton). This might be relevant for Brooks’s assertion
we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.
Do Republicans foment bitterness for their own political ends? Do Democratic presidents reduce envy? More to the point, do any of Brooks’s indicators really measure envy?

Two of the items are not about envy, they’re about policy. Two others are about economic reality. (Technically, one is about satisfaction with economic reality.) That too is not envy. 

Suppose Brooks had sampled attitudes about poverty and low income.
  • Should the government reduce spending on food stamps, unemployment insurance, and welfare? 
  • Do safety-net programs encourage people to avoid work and become dependent on government?
Some people will say that those programs encourage sloth and that we should cut those programs. Are these people envious of the poor (“they’re getting government handouts, and I’m not”)?  Or rather, do these questions merely tap beliefs about the effects of government policy? In my hypothetical questions and in Brooks’s real ones, it’s probably some combination – emotion (anger, envy, resentment), and beliefs about what policy would be best for the country as a whole.

Dissatisfaction and even anger are not envy. Teabaggers and others on the far right are very dissatisfied, and they vent a ton of anger at Obama. Does that mean they are envious of Obama’s political power? No, they just think that they and the country would be better off if one of their own were president. Are the Occupy people envious of the wealth of the Wall Street oligarchs? I doubt that any of the Occupiers in Zucotti Park wanted a bank account with gazillions of dollars. They just wanted what they see as a fairer tax structure and more government action to create jobs. Nevertheless, Brooks and many others automatically assume that those who are concerned about increasing inequality are motivated by personal envy.

Meanwhile, inside the Wall Street buildings, those who occupy the trading desks and offices have been known to complain (here, for example) about their mere $3 million bonus because someone else got $5 million. Now that’s envy. And greed.

(An Esquire article based on their own highly unscientific sampling of Wall Street workers had this graphic on satisfaction with the year-end bonus.)

Mixing Oscars and Exams

March 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s my Oscar story, relevant here only because it happened in a sociology class.  File it under Pedagogy, or Test Construction, or better yet Teachers’ Misperceptions of Students.

In the Spring 1992 semester, I had a Monday night criminal justice class (SOCI 323). The night of the midterm turned out to be Oscar night, which was always a Monday back then.  Exams aren’t much fun, so I put the following as the last question in the multiple-choice section of the exam:
Tonight, the Academy Award for best picture will go to
a. Beauty and the Beast
b. Bugsy
c.  JFK
d.  The Prince of Tides
e.  The Silence of the Lambs
 I thought students might find it faintly amusing, a break from the real questions. Boy was I wrong.  Hands were raised, as were voices. “That’s not fair.” “How can you expect us to know the answer to that?” and so on. These lambs were not silent. I apologized and assured them that the question was just for fun and that I would not count it in their scores.

It was the only question on the exam that everyone got right.

Now, two decades later, I find it of interest in light of Gabriel Rossman and Oscar Schilke’s recent article on Oscar bait. “The Silence of the Lambs” would probably not score high on their Oscar algorithm. The director had no previous nominations. Its keywords do not include “family tragedy,” “whistleblower,” “Pulitzer Prize source,” “physical therapy,” “domestic servant.”  It does, however, come close to “zombie,” which eats away Oscar-worthiness as does the genre classification “horror” (“thriller” too, I would guess, though I’m not sure.) And it was released in February. 

But “The Silence of the Lambs” won everything – picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay, sound, editing, gourmandise – in short, the works. I still can’t figure out why there hasn’t yet been a Broadway musical version. Maybe I should get to work. I feel a song coming on.