We Are the World

December 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ISIS threat to carry out terrorist attacks on New Year’s Eve celebrations shows what a unique holiday this is.

As Durkheim pointed out long ago, the underlying purpose of a ritual is group solidarity.  Rituals mark group boundaries. That’s why participation is so important. To take part in the ritual is to define yourself as a member of the group. To stay away is to declare that you are not a member. “Why do I have to go to Grandma’s for Christmas?” “Because you’re a member of this family.”
Because they define the group’s boundaries, rituals draw the line between Us and everyone else. “Us” might be a family, a team, a religion, a nation, or any other group. New Year’s Eve is unique in that the group it defines is the whole world. The year changes for everyone. On television we can see people in Sydney or Singapore, Mumbai or Madrid, celebrating the same festival. We are all taking part in the same ritual, therefore we are all part of the same group – the world. An attack on a New Year celebration, no matter where, is like an attack on a global sense of community.

That sense of community might be phony, or at least fragile and fleeting, but on this one occasion, we get a feeling of it as an ideal. We rarely articulate it specifically; instead, it is the unspoken assumption behind the celebration. As the announcers in the media say, “Tonight, people all over the world are celebrating . . .” This year, the Global Us becomes clearer because of those who have declared themselves to be on the other side of the boundary marked by this ritual.

Happy New Year!

Of Schlongs and Schmucks

December 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cultural appropriation was in the news this week.  Students at a couple of universities had complained that their school, in a highhanded Eurocentric fashion,  had stolen and debased something – yoga classes, cafeteria food – from another culture. The news reports framed this mostly as yet another example of wrongheaded campus political correctness, something that sensible people regard amusement or alarm or both. In this view, the students and their ideas are silly but also pose a grave danger to freedom of speech if not universities and education as we know them. A good representative of this view is“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic (here), which notes the rise of terms like “microaggession” and “trigger warning” and a few instances of students protesting the invitations extended to certain speakers.

Cultural appropriation is different. With microaggressions and trigger warnings and other controversial issues, the goals of the politically correct align with widely held values – respect and equality for the vulnerable. It’s good to be against racism, sexism, cultural insensitivity, etc. Those are bad things. But cultural appropriation is a good thing. New sources and ideas, variations and combinations, keep the culture from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They make it vibrant and dynamic.

The trouble is that the appropriators, at least at the beginning, get it wrong.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” (Daily Beast)

It’s hard to be accepting of cultural variants, especially if you’re the one whose culture is being debased. And speaking of cultural debasement, here is Donald Trump misappropriating a Yiddish word.        


It’s a clear case of cultural appropriation, offensive and incorrect both politically and linguistically. Schlong is a noun, not a verb. It means penis. It does not mean to defeat badly, to rout, drub, shellac, trounce.  At least not yet. But in time, if enough people culturally appropriate it and use it to mean those things, then English will become richer by one additional meaning of one word, while the Yiddish purists out in the hall mutter and rend their garments. For the moment however, the consensus is that Trump misused the word.

Also that he’s a schmuck.

Personal note: The use of schlong that I best recall is in this scene from “Last Tango in Paris.”

Here’s the transcript.

 What's this for?    
 That's your happiness and
my... my ha-penis
 Schlong. Wienerwurst. Cazzo.
Bite. Prick! Joint!

I saw “Last Tango in Paris” in Paris – subtitles, no dubbing (v.o. comme on dit) – in a theater on the Champs-Élysées. When Brando says “schlong,” I laughed and was suddenly aware that nobody else in the theater had made a sound. The translation appeared on screen a split second later. General laughter. But for that moment, I felt a bit awkward in my solitary and unappropriated cultural knowledge.

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  Schlong in the cinema, one more time. Charlie Pierce reminds me that “My Favorite Year” has a great line built around this word. In fact, I blogged it two years ago in a post with the title “My Favorite Line” (here).

Risk and Worry

December 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age four, my son and his friend at pre-school thought it was great fun after pick-up to run down the sidewalk and hide just around the corner on the stoop at the front of a Japanese restaurant. The other boy’s mother would invariably get upset. “No, Alexander. Stop,” she would shout and then run after them.

“Janet,” I said once, “How many kidnappers are there in New York? And what are the chances that one of them is waiting at 11:47 today at the southeast corner of 69th and Broadway?”

I could tell that this mollified her only slightly. This was before Google. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. I could not easily look up the actual numbers. But I’d read Joel Best on Halloween sadism, and I knew that these numbers had to be small.  Of the tens of millions of kids in the US, maybe 100 abductions by strangers each year.

Alexander’s mother was not so unusual, then or now. A recent Pew survey (here) asked parents about their worries concerning their children.

Even among middle-class parents,* four out of nine worry about kidnapping. I would blame this inflated fear on the media, but the Internet and TV do not bring us daily stories about kidnappings. Besides, if the eleven o’clock news were the source of our perceptions of danger, we’d all be terrified that our homes will be consumed by fire.

But what about the fear that your child will be shot? I was surprised that so many high-income parents – more than one in five – worried about shootings. And among the poor, more parents are worried that their kids will be shot than that they will have problems with drugs or alcohol. The constant stream of stories in both the national and local news media along with the consequent debate over gun control – the frequent mass shootings, the statements from the president; I don’t know the evidence, but I would expect that these elevate parents’ perceptions  and fears.

Pew did not ask about serious or fatal injury from accidents, a much greater risk than either kidnapping or shooting, but I would guess that fewer parents would say that they worry about these. Parents are not actuaries, and in any case worrying is not the same as estimating risk. Parental worry probably involves some combination of probability, seriousness, strangeness, and control. It’s not very likely that your child will be shot, but if it does happen the consequences – physical and perhaps psychological – are far more serious than those of a skateboard accident. In addition, we don’t feel so  threatened by the familiar or by things that we feel we can control even if they are potentially very dangerous, like our cars.

Kidnapping combines the elements of seriousness, lack of control, and the unfamiliar,
at least in our minds. In the real world, abductions by family members far outnumber those by strangers. So if we’re like Alexander’s mom, we worry, even when we know that the probability is so small there’s nothing to worry about.

* The Pew high-income group starts at $75,000, $20,000 above the national median family income.

Magic Words

December 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Voldemort. There, I said it.

I can’t remember why all the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say “Voldemort” and instead refer allusively to “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But I had the impression that if only someone did speak the name, then Voldemort would be finished. Like the Wicked Witch when Dorothy empties the bucket of water on her, he would dissolve into a harmless puddle. Of course, the person who speaks the name would have to be very powerful and brave. But if only we had such a hero would would dare say the magic word, evil would vanish from our world, and we would no longer live in fear.

Such is the power of language, at least in stories for nine-year olds. Maybe on Fox TV as well, and maybe for Republicans generally.  Here is a tweet last month from their most preferred candidate for president:

Other GOP candidates and right-wing Webistes offer a similar analysis. Only if our leader speaks the magic word will the problem be solved.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece by Rudy the Brave.

Giuliani begins:

In 1983 when I was the U.S. attorney in New York, I used the word “Mafia” in describing some people we arrested or indicted. The Italian American Civil Rights League—which was founded by Joe Colombo, one of the heads of New York’s notorious five families—and some other similar groups complained that I was defaming all Italians by using that term.  In fact, I had violated a Justice Department rule prohibiting U.S. attorneys from employing the term Mafia.

See, I told you he was brave – defying the IACR and DoJ by using the forbidden word. He explains why this was both justified and essential in slaying the monster.

This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.*

He goes on to make the same complaint about Obama that Cruz, Trump, et al. are making. Obama will not say the magic words “Islamic terrorism.”

Obama uses the acronym ISIL or ISIS. The IS stands for Islamic State, a phrase that Obama has no trouble uttering. In this, he is doing what Giuliani says he did with “Mafia” – using the term that they use to describe themselves. 
But with “Mafia,” Giuliani has picked the wrong analogy. What if instead of using the term “Mafia,” Giuliani had said “Italian gangsters” or “Italian criminals”? Why did he not use those terms? After all, as he says, the names in the Mafia membership book all ended in a vowel. Non-Italians may have worked with the Mafia, but none were “made men.”

Giuliani didn’t say “Italian gangsters” for the same reason that Obama doesn’t say “Islamic terrorists.” The terms imply something about all Italians or all Muslims. It is no more accurate to suggest that there is something inherently terroristic in Islam than it is to suggest that something about Italians makes them especially prone to become gangsters.Saying “Mafia” draws the distinction between Italian Americans on the one had and Italian-American gangsters on the other. That’s an important distinction.

Aside from the problem of inaccuracy, there’s the practical aspect. Had Giuliani spoken about “Italian mobsters” he might have pissed off lots of Italians, and not just the mobsters, who in any case were not his biggest fans. He would have alienated Italians whose votes and campaign contributions he would someday need. In a similar way, Obama does not want to alienate the billion or more Muslims whose help or at least neutrality the West needs in the fight against ISIS.  And for Obama and the US, the stakes are much higher than they were for Rudy and his political ambitions.

Yes, words are important, and a phrase that others find insulting can be especially effective in turning them into enemies. But ISIS is already a sworn enemy, and no phrases that we could come up with will change their willingness or ability to continue their war and terrorism.

Conversely, choosing the wrong words could make things even harder for us, and not just over there.  After all, when it comes to letting just about anybody get very deadly weapons, U.S.A., we’re number one. The shootings in San Bernardino showed us just how easy it is for an alienated, radicalized person to get a couple of assault rifles and then do what assault rifles are designed to do – kill a lot of people.

Shouting “Islamic terrorism” may be personally satisfying, even cathartic. It may play very well to the home crowd during its two minutes of hate. But for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the leader in the war against ISIS – maybe it’s not such a great idea.

*Giuliani does not explain why using the magic word “Mafia” made his prosecution successful or why the same evidence without the magic word would not have persuaded juries to convict. He says only that his predecessors’ avoidance of the word “created the impression” that they couldn’t get convictions.