Not That Innocent

June 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is Britney Spears more psychologically sophisticated and self-aware than David Brooks? Brooks begins his column today telling us that everything good in the world in the last three-quarters of a century is a result of America’s selfless, altruistic leadership. He then says

Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.

He doesn’t seem to realize that his opening paragraph, praising the US for its pure motives and virtuous actions, is a prime example of a self-righteous sense of innocence.

As a nation, America clings to its sense of innocence, and often with a self-righteousness that makes non-Americans cringe. Five years ago, I quoted Christopher Hitchens on this very topic.

The one that amuses me the most is the reference that you get about once a year to the American loss of innocence, as if this giant, enormous, powerful, slightly vulgar society ever had any innocence to lose, let alone could regain it and lose it again. I’ve heard the loss of innocence attributed to: the Spanish-American War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of President Kennedy’s brother, the war in Vietnam, the disclosures made at Watergate, through the discovery, which is in Robert Redford’s movie “Quiz Show,” that the quiz shows in the fifties were fixed – that was apparently a great American loss of innocence – and on the front page of the New York Times, when he died, in the obituary of Frank Sinatra, the idea that Frank Sinatra’s songs represented the loss of innocence for America.

This was in 2000, so add Iraq to the list and maybe our bi-monthly mass shootings. As I said in that post, if we keep losing our innocence so often, we never really lose it. We might carelessly misplace it, but we find it again very quickly and forget that we’d ever lost it. We return to an idealized view of ourselves as a nation whose motives are 100% pure. As Randy Newman put it in his song “Political Science,
No one loves us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect,
But Heaven knows we try.

With such a view of ourselves, each revelation of anything that departs from the ideal of innocence is a new shock. One immediate reaction is denial. And when the facts become undeniable (Vietnam, Iraq), we react with something like the disbelief and regret of the morning-after drunk who had blacked out.* “I really did that? Oh, gee, I’m sorry. Killing millions of indigenous people and taking their land? I really did that? Slavery? Atomic bombs? We really did that?” Why not face it: we’re not that innocent.

This belief in our own purity makes us suckers for an aggressive foreign policy. All you have to do is tell us that some country we don’t like did something bad to us. Since we are innocent and virtuous, their behavior must have been “unprovoked.” Therefore retaliation at any level is justified. So by coincidence, today, while Brooks was proclaiming US virtue on the op-ed page, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was claiming that Iran had launched “unprovoked attacks” on ships in the Gulf of Oman.

Paul Pillar at Lobelog (here) provides some context.

“Unprovoked”? The Trump administration reneged completely over a year ago on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Since then the administration has waged economic warfare on Iran, despite Iran continuing for a whole year to observe its obligations under the JCPOA.

The administration has piled sanction upon sanction in a relentless effort to cripple Iran’s economy, make life miserable for Iranians, and weaken Iran in every way possible. It has pressured countries around the world not to do any business with Iran. The administration has accompanied this campaign with unlimited hostility, threats of military attack, and saber-rattling that has included escalating military deployments in Iran’s backyard. If this isn’t provoking Iran, then the term provocation has lost all meaning.

Pompeo could have added another act of unprovoked aggression by the Iranians — their decision to locate their country geographically amid dozens of US military bases.



Pompeo will get away with his version just as he will get away with his characterization of Saudi Arabia as “freedom-loving.” He will get away with it because even supposedly well-informed and sophisticated Americans like David Brooks continue to believe in our self-righteousness and innocence.

------------------------------------
* I think Philip Slater may have made this same analogy. If so, maybe his inspiration was the same as mine – Shelly Berman.

Where’s Charlie?

June 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The trend in how we address one another is towards informality. But it also seems that there’s a counter-trend in names — a trend away from informal and diminutive versions of names. 

This occurred to me as I was reading two recent posts — one by Tristan Bridges , the other by Philip Cohen  — that discuss the name Charlie. Charles as a name for boys has been in decline for a long while, but recently, since about 2000, Charlie has been on the rise for both girls and boys.

(These graphs are from Tristan Bridges. Click on an image for a larger view.)

Philip and Tristan are interested in the question of androgyny in name trends and its possible connection to changes in gender in society at large. But what came to my mind was a different question:  What happened to Chuck?  Birth certificates with Charles on the dotted line may have been more numerous in decades long past, but many of those boys went by Chuck or Charlie or Charley, even as they grew to adulthood. Today, Charles is Charles, at least that’s my impression.

Unfortunately, our main source of data on names, the Social Security website, is of no use here. It logs only the official name. So for names in use I turned to a different source — the NFL. The NFL.com database uses the names that players were known by regardless of what might have been on their birth certificates. So while the Social Security Agency might have recorded the 1950s Giants quarterback as Charles Conerly, on the field and the sports pages, he was Charlie. If you remember him, you probably also remember Chuck — not Charles — Bednarik, who played center and linebacker for the Eagles.* In fact, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when a total of 89 Chucks, Charlies, and Charleys entered the NFL, there was only one Charles, a guy named Smith, who lasted only one season.

That was then.



In the current century, the preferred version by far is Charles, which outnumbers the others combined by a ratio of four to one.

A similar way, the Mike is giving way to the more formal Michael.


I suspect that this pattern holds for other names that have maintained their popularity. Thomas instead of Tom or Tommy; James, not Jim or Jimmy; Richard rather than Rich, Rick, Ricky, Richie, or Dick.

There is one perennial name where the Social Security database turns out to be useful — William. Since at least 1900, it has never ranked lower than 20, and for most of that time, it has been in the top ten. But in early 20th century, the less formal Willie was also in the top 20.



Willie Mays (b. 1931) and Willie Nelson (b. 1933) both born before the great Willie decline that started in the 1940s while William remained popular. But I would guess that up until the last quarter-century or so, many of those Williams were known as Bill or Will or even Willie. 

Without a better source of data, all this is speculative. But as long as I’m speculating, here’s one more guess. The trend away from nicknames and towards formal names is especially pronounced among African Americans. For Whites, a diminutive like Jimmy might not raise questions of dignity. It’s a boys name, but that’s no threat to manhood among men who refer to themselves as good ol’ boys. But for Blacks, the name Jimmy, like the word boy itself, reverberates with other overtones.

The difference in name preference might also explain the NFL data. In 1959, when both Charley Conerly and Chuck Bednarik were still playing, the Black proportion of the NFL was only 12%. Today. It’s closer to 70%.

-----------------
 * Bednarik played both offense and defense. He was probably the NFL’s last “60-minute man.”

Miles Davis, b. May 26, 1926

May 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In May of 1964, I was staying at a small hotel in Akasaka, Tokyo’s entertainment district. The other guests were mostly secondary acts at the local night clubs — a husband-wife dance team from Australia, three young African American who were the back-up trio for a singer named Damita Jo (Ms. Jo herself was staying at the Hilton), an Indian who did hand-shadow pictures, some acrobats who spoke a language nobody understood.

There was small bar off the front lounge. One night I came in to find the three Americans sitting at a table listening to a reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder they had lugged from the States. Electricity in Japan was 50-cycle, not the 60-cycle American machines were built for, so the music was slower in tempo and lower in pitch, but I recognized it instantly. “On Green Dolphin Street,” the first track on Side B of the Miles Davis album Jazz Track.* Sixty-one years later. It’s still a great recording.



We listened silently — Bill Evans playing the first chorus unaccompanied, Miles soloing not far from the melody, followed by Coltrane’s incredible “sheets of sound” solo, impressive even with the 17% reduction in pitch and pace. We, the four of us at the table, nodded in approval. Then guy sitting across from me, the piano player, looked up and said. “Now Cannonball comes in and spoils the whole thing.”

I was stunned. Cannonball regularly won Downbeat polls, both critics and readers. Yet here was this unknown piano player contradicting received opinion and doing so with complete confidence. I said nothing. But in later years, I came to understand.

--------------------------
* Miles had done the soundtrack for a Louis Malle film “Ascenseur pour l'échafaud,” Those cuts were the A side, and the idea of a movie soundtrack consisting of nothing but Miles improvising with four Paris-based jazzmen was the supposed selling point, hence the album title “Jazz Track.” There wasn’t enough music for a full LP, so Columbia added three tracks by Miles’s working sextet. The music from the Paris session was quickly forgotten. The three tunes recorded became legendary and later appeared on other albums.

Transference — Structures and Crushes

May 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If sex between professors and students weren’t a problem, we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But it is, and we are.

(Click for a larger, more legible view.)

The Inside Higher Ed article and discussion (here) circle around terms like “harassment,” “supervisory relationship,” “power differential,” “adult,” “infantilizing,” and “consensual.”

The word that first came to my mind was “transference.”

Yes, I know that Freud has been shooed out of the conversation these days. But the lesson from psychoanalytic practice is still valid. Patients often transfer feelings about others in their lives onto the therapist — simply put, crushing on your shrink. Or more accurately, falling in love with who or what you imagine your shrink to be.

The therapist can use the transference to help the patient gain insight. It would also be easy for him to use it to get laid. But even though the patient in that situation might technically be a consenting adult, it is considered highly unethical for a therapist to have sex with a patient. In most states it’s also illegal.

            *                    *                    *                    *

Social Relations 120 (Analysis of Interpersonal Behavior) was not structured like a regular Harvard course. The instructor gave no instruction. Instead, on the first day, after distributing the syllabus and laying down a few ground rules, he would fall silent, leaving the twenty-five students sitting around the oval table to generate the interpersonal behavior that would become the data for analysis. Occasionally, the instructor would offer a comment. “I wonder if what we’re really talking about is . . . .”

It sounds like a therapy group, but the content was different. The instructor did not encourage students to reveal intimate facts or to work on personal problems. When the discussion seemed to be going in that direction, the instructor would try to steer it back towards what was going on in the room – the interactions among the members of the group.

But structurally, the course was very much like a therapy group, especially the role of the instructor — non-directive, mostly listening, analytic rather than engaged.

All this was a long time ago. The Social Relations department itself was dissolved in the 1970s. But the Inside Higher Ed headline reminded me of something one of the instructors in the course told me. He would never try to date a student, he said.  But then he quoted a colleague who also taught the course and who did have affairs with undergraduates. “You can’t do it when they’re in your group, But then the next semester, you can have them sign up for an Independent Study, and  . . . .”

The Inside Higher Ed “fair game” headline a half-century later could have been about him — the predatory professor, ethics determined only by the academic calendar.

            *                    *                    *                    *

Crushes are essentially transference, based more on who we imagine someone to be than on the reality of that person, and yes, they can happen anywhere. But certain structures for how people interact are more crushogenic than others. A Dynamics class like SocRel 120 is not a course of psychotherapeutic treatment, and the instructor is not a therapist. American History 101 is not SocRel 120, and the history prof is not a group leader/facilitator.  But all these courses leave the door open for transference. The differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind.