Valentine’s Day the American Way

February 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Foreigners often comment that while Americans are generally very friendly and open, friendships are often superficial, especially compared with friendships in their home countries. In class, I would use the example of the elementary school version of Valentine’s Day. (The picture below turned up in my Twitter feed today. I have edited out the personal information.)

In the US, universalism rules. A Valentine’s card denotes affection and friendship, but American kids  have to treat all their classmates alike — no special preferences lest any kid feel left out. You have to extend this token of friendship to every kid in the class.

I’ve never been near a French primary school on February 14th, but I doubt that they follow this custom. I would imagine that if French kids give Valentine cards, they do so on the basis of particularism. It matters very much who the other person is, and for each kid, the number of those special friendships is small.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all readers of the SocioBlog.

(A follow-up about Russian and US schools and friendships is here.)

Ya Got Trouble, My Friends

February 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Attorney General of the US, when he isn’t using his office to make sure Trump remains in power, tells us that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. In a speech at Notre Dame last year, he claimed that  “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

He’s wrong, of course. Most of those measures show that things are getting better, though there are some troubling numbers (suicide, drug addiction and overdose).  Claude Fischer has the data  at his Made In America blog. He also looks at Barr’s explanation for the nonexistent downward trend — “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” That trend too, says Fischer, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  We’re not losing our religion, and certainly not our religiousness; we’re losing our church affiliations.

Barr might also be wrong about the effects of religion or its absence. Fischer’s data seems to suggest that when it comes to social pathology, losing our religion might not be such a bad thing. States with higher levels of “religiosity” also tend to have higher levels of pathologies — things like violence and sexually transmitted disease. Even drug overdoses, historically the province of more urbanized and less religious states, have now become a big problem in the religious heartland.

(Click for a larger view.)

Of the variables in the graph, the one that stands out is Incarceration. Tell me what proportion of a state’s population is in jail, and I can make a very good guess as to how religious it is. But that doesn’t mean that religious states have more crime and criminals. It does mean that their laws and policies are more punitive. They favor harsh punishment for people who have broken the law. Not all laws and not all people, just those who by their actions and personal characteristics can be judged as outside the society — as not one of Us.

This preference for punishment is especially popular among fundamentalists and other religiously conservative Protestants. It is that same kind of fundamentalism that underlies Barr’s view of social problems. His speech reads like a sermon from a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher. (Barr’s actual delivery from the podium may have been different in style.) The odd thing is that Barr himself is a Catholic and he was speaking at Catholic university. This seeming contradiction puzzled Fischer too.

The speech sounds much more like one of the jeremiads Puritan ministers unleashed on their congregants centuries ago than it does like a Catholicism traditionally more tolerant of human failing. The underlying individualism in Barr’s account is also very Puritan Protestant. Social ills emerge from individual willfulness. The role of the community is to instill fear of God to check that willfulness

In this way, Barr is one more data point in a historical narrowing of differences between Protestants and Catholics. As Catholics became more similar to Protestant, as the social, economic, and geographic spaces they occupied grew more diverse, their views on social and political issues also became more varied. So it’s not surprising that in the 21st century we have a Catholic attorney general channeling Cotton Mather.*

* In the 1980s, another Catholic cabinet member, Education Secretary William Bennett, made similar noises. Like Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (and like Barr), Bennett told us, “Ya Got Trouble.” Hill blamed the pool table, Barr blamed secularism, and Bennett blamed the decline of virtue. That was convenient since he then went on to sell his Book of Virtues for parents to read to their kids just as Harold Hill sold trombones. Right now the only thing Barr seems to be selling is Donald Trump.

UPDATE: As I said in the fourth paragraph above, moralizers like Barr are especially fond of punishment when the offender is one of The Others. When the offender is One of Us, their sternness melts into compassion. Later in the day I wrote this, Mr. Barr’s justice department recommended a lighter sentence for Roger Stone, a friend of Trump, who had been convicted on a variety of charges. In doing so, DOJ was tearing up the recommendations of longer sentence from the prosecutors who worked on the case.

Uncut Gems Gamblers

February 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As I sat through the movie “Uncut Gems,” (see the previous post) I kept thinking of the compulsive gamblers I studied hung around with decades ago. I had gone to the movie thinking that it would provide an inside view of the 47th St. diamond district, a business world that is probably not much different from what it was a century ago.  It has not been taken over by  private equity and MBAs with spreadsheets. If you’re looking for modern, rationalized corporate structures and procedures, go elsewhere. Here, personal relationships count for much; deals are sealed with a handshake, not a contract

That was the movie I wanted to see. After all, the Safdie brothers, who made the film, had grown up hearing diamond district stories from their father, who worked there. But intead of showing us that world, the film focuses relentlessly on a single figure, Howard Ratner played by Adam Sandler. And although Ratner may not be typical of jewelry merchants, he is typical of gamblers, especially compulsive gamblers, though with Ratner the more appropriate adjective would be impulsive gambler..

Ratner and the gamblers I knew had two important things in common.. First, their lives are centered around the problem of getting money — a lot of it and quickly. And second, their relationships with family are thin and brittle. That’s not surprising. Since their money problems crowd out other matters, close relationships are at best a distraction or an interference, at worst a threat. And yet, Ratner, like many of the gamblers I knew, still thinks of himself as a good husband and father, and he remains blissfully unaware of how he is seen by the people whose needs he is slighting.

He even thinks that his wife, who is divorcing him, might reconsider.She clarifies her position (“If I  had my way, I would never see you again”), and Ratner still doesn’t get it.

(She actually does convincingly fake a punch, hence the noise and laughter in the final seconds of this clip.)

There’s an old gamblers’ joke, about the horseplayer who, like Sandler lives on Long Island. That’s great for horseplayers, because Aqueduct and Belmont are not far. But in August, New York racing moves up to Saratoga.

The horseplayer complains to a friend. “It’s terrible. I have to get up before six to get the train in to Grand Central, get over to Penn Station to get the bus by nine so I can get to the track in time for the daily double. The races end at 5:30 or 6, and then I gotta do the same thing in reverse. I don’t get back to the house around eleven and get right to bed so I can get up the next morning.”
“You know what you should do,” says the friend, “Rent a room in Saratoga Springs. You’ll be near the track, you can sleep late. . . .”

“What?” says the horseplayer, “And neglect my family??”

OK. Jokes are not evidence. But blogposts are not journal articles. And the joke does capture the gambler’s distorted picture of domestic tranquility.

“Uncut Gems”

February 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Uncut Gems” last week. It does not pass the Bechdel test. It does not have
  • two women who . . .
  • have a conversation . . .
  • about something other than a man.
The film doesn’t even have a conversation between two men who are not Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner). He is there in nearly every scene. Nor does it have a conversation about something other than money.
Even “conversation” is misleading. Usually, the men shout. The camera is in tight on most shots, so you feel as though the film is grabbing you by the lapels, pushing its face into yours, and shouting about money. Also, th men say fuck, fucked, and fucking a lot, never in the literal sense.

“Uncut Gems” is basically an action movie, a film where the protagonist struggles against threatening forces in his quest for some tangible goal. It’s all problem-solving. Thoughtful introspection is out of the picture. Ratner thinks only about money. He needs money to pay his gambling debts (he’s a sports bettor), and he needs money to gamble still more. That’s what the film is about.

As a motivation, this obsession with money can lead to complicated actions, but as psychology, it couldn’t be simpler. Ratner and the movie itself see all problems as external. Or really, there’s only one problem — how to get money. All relationships with other people, including family, are purely instrumental — how to use them to get money or avoid them if they are trying to get their money back. The film even has the cliche scene where the parent goes to see his kid in the school play but has to leave in the middle. In this case, Ratner has to duck out to deal with his own money-based problems.

People interested in non-money relationships might as well be speaking a foreign language which Ratner does not understand and does not see the point in learning. As adept as he is at knowing what will motivate Kevin Garnet to have a great game, he is utterly unaware of what his own wife is thinking or how she sees him. They are getting a divorce, but Ratner still thinks it’s possible that she might scrap that idea. With a twinkle in his eye, he suggests that they might stay together. Her response: “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met. I hate being with you. I hate looking at you. And if I had my way, I would never see you again.”

It’s not too much of a spoiler to note that in the end, she gets her way.

(A follow-up to this post is here.)