You All Might Get Covid-19, But At Least I’ll Get Some Shuteye

June 30, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This photo, posted to Twiter on Sunday, has gone viral. It was taken two days earlier on a flight from Cleveland to Nashville on Allegiant Airlines.

The man in the MAGA hat summarizes the Trump demographic — a White male (overweight) in his fifties. But what triggered Twitter was the symbolism of the mask. Turning the face mask into an eyeshade is the perfect metaphor for the Trump mentality. Masks (in the US, not elsewhere) have become political; they are not just a means to reduce the spread of Covid-19. They are now symbols of ideology, especially for those who refuse to wear them.

But what does not wearing a mask symbolize? Most obviously, for this man and many others, it symbolizes support for Trump. More specifically, it symbolizes the willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of the general society when that goal conflicts with personal convenience and preference. Mr. MAGA places his desire to block out some ambient light above the health and well-being of everyone else on the plane.

The ideology that justifies this behavior is what Claude S. Fischer has called ‘voluntarism” — the idea that I have an obligation only to those groups that I have chosen voluntarily. These other passengers are not a group I have joined. They are merely a bunch of other people who happen to be on my flight. So their well-being is not my concern, and I can legitimately ignore their norms. (For earlier posts on voluntarism, go here, and here.)

Often “voluntarism” marches under the banner of Freedom, and in America, Freedom is a very powerful argument. Even people who in the current pandemic want everyone to wear a mask feel its pull. People like me. Freedom seems like such a good thing, and its opposite such a bad thing, that we assume that people from other advanced countries, people who seem similar to us, share our view of Freedom. So I was surprised at how different we Americans are in balancing individual freedom against government policies on public health.

Surveys done three months ago asked people in twelve countries if they would be willing to accept a decrease in individual liberty for purposes of public health.*

One of these countries is not like the others. Timing may have something to do with these results. Three months ago, the increase in US rates of infection had started only about a week earlier, lagging Europe by one to two weeks, and US cases were still concentrated in the New York area. Still, the comparison with other countries, especially Canada with its much lower rate of infection, shows us how greatly the US differs from these other countries. It seems that we are far less trusting that the government will do the right thing and perhaps more suspicious that it will do the wrong thing.

This difference shows up on two other items, one on presidential power, the other on government control over the media.

True, these are unusual times. The pandemic may have increased the willingness of Europeans to trust their governments. In the US, Trump’s preference for authoritarian leadership (so long as he is the leader) may have decreased trust in the government. (Again, the survey was done in early April. The poor performance of the Trump administration and some local officials was not yet so obvious.)  It’s also possible that the Trump presidency may have raised the affinity for authoritarianism— greater presidential power, especially power to control the media — among his supporters. But remember, the survey questions relate these matters specifically to public health, and it wasn’t until March 29 that Trump acknowledged that Covid-19 was worse than the ordinary flu.

My guess is that the survey results reflect a deeper and more abiding American exceptionalism. When there is a conflict between individual freedom on the one hand and general benefit for the society on the other, Europeans and Asians, compared with Americans, give more weight to promoting the general welfare.


* The paper is “Note — Économie sociale du Covid-19,” by Stefanie Stantcheva, Clément Herman, and Constantin Schesch. As far as I know, it has not been published and is available (here ) only in French. The survey item statements above the graphs are my own translation.

What’s in a Movie Quote?

June 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

You shouldn’t use a quote out of context, especially when that context gives the quote a meaning very different from what you intended. And especially if it’s one of my favorite movies.

Novelist Sally Rooney’s literary career began with a non-fiction piece, her 2015 autobiographical essay (here) about becoming a champion debater. The title of the essay is “Even If You Beat Me.” It’s a line from the 1961 movie The Hustler. It’s spoken by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a brash young pool hustler from middle America who has come to New York to shoot high-stakes pool against the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They play through the night, and Felson is winning by a considerable amount.

“I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Earlier in her essay, Rooney uses another line from the film. Being on stage in a debate tournament she could slip into what athlete’s call “the zone.”

There are a lot of different names for this state of immersion. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it ‘flow’: that form of focus so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away. Fast Eddie Felson, the pool-playing protagonist of The Hustler, talks about it too. ‘You don’t have to look, you just know,’ he says. ‘You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play the game the way nobody’s ever played it.’ Hitting that perfect rhythm while speaking, connecting concept to response, drawing examples out of thin air, you feel just like I imagine a pool shark must. Complex things become simple.

Rooney was a winner. “When I was twenty-two, I was the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe.”

But that’s not quite what happened to Fast Eddie. And the line Rooney uses as the essay title was eclipsed by the line that follows it, the line spoken by Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the manager and money man for Minnesota Fats.

The question for Bert Gordon and for Fats is whether to keep playing. They are down by more than $10,000, and it certainly looks as though Fast Eddie is right when he says he’s the best there is. Fast Eddie’s manager (Myron McCormack) wants to end the match and leave with their winnings.

Here is the scene.

“Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” That’s the line everyone remembers.

And he is a loser. In the hours of pool that follow, Fast Eddie loses his edge, his coolness, his composure, and his money. For Bert, “Even if you beat me,” is the tip-off that Fast Eddie, at some level he himself is unaware of, wants to lose.

Bert’s point, and perhaps the point of the movie, is that “talent” is not enough. To win also requires “character,” an unbending focus on winning. As Bert tells Eddie later in the film, “Minnesota Fats’s got more character in one finger  than you got in your whole skinny body.” 

“Character” — at the highest levels of competition, it means a willingness and desire to crush your opponent. I don’t think that this is the point Rooney wants to make about becoming a champion debater.  In fact, just after she says that debating requires “a taste for ritualized, abstract interpersonal aggression,” she adds, “And you have to learn how to lose.”

As for her career, she stopped debating at age twenty-two and wrote that essay. Soon after The Dublin Review published it, she was sought out by a literary agent, wrote a novel (Conversations With Friends) that became the prize in a seven-way bidding war among publishers, and barely a year later published a second novel (Normal People). I don’t know if she has character, but she certainly has characters.

The Hustler is a great movie with great performances from Newman, Gleason, and Scott. (And that saxophone you hear in the last minute of this clip is the great Phil Woods.). It’s one of those films that works only in black and white. Years later, Scorsese made a sequel, The Color of Money, in color, and it retains nothing of the feeling of the original.

What Cops Can Do, and What They Should Do

June 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“There is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do.”

In one simple sentence, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms has zeroed in on a central problem in police violence and the public response to that violence. “Can” is about what is legally justifiable. “Should” is about what is right.

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and others — all these killings were legally justified. The same is true of less well-publicized cases, lethal and especially non-lethal. The grand jury did not indict, or if the case went to trial, the jury did not convict. And it’s not because prosecutors and juries are racists; it’s not because they are biased towards the police; it’s not even because the police lie. Those reasons apply in some cases. But often, the justice system fails to achieve what to most people would seem like justice because the violence is consistent with the law. It is legally justifiable.

But that doesn’t mean that the shooting, the beating, or other abuse was right. Nor does it mean it was unavoidable.

In the Atlanta killing that occasioned the mayor’s statement, the victim, drunk and uncooperative, had thrown a punch, taken the taser of one officer, and tried to run away. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,* “During the chase, Mr. Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer . . . The officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.” (This last sentence is copspeak for “The officer shot him.”) It’s possible that the victim’s actions will provide sufficient legal justification for the killing. But the cop certainly did not have to shoot.

Some police violence seems justified, and not just legally, given the pressures of the immediate situation. But that situation itself may have been the outcome of actions on the part of the police. The most obvious recent example is the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the police version, someone shot at them. They returned fire. Surely that’s legitimate. But that shooting was the end point of a series of actions that could have been avoided — the no-knock warrant, the battering ram breaking down the door, and even farther back in the causal chain, the militarization of the police.

Six years ago, when the St. Louis police shot and killed a man, probably mentally disturbed, who was armed with only a steak knife, I posted (here) this 2011 video of police in London responding to a truly deranged man wildly swinging a machete.

In the US, the police would have shot and killed the man, and they would have been legally justified. But the London police who first arrive on the scene do not carry guns, and they handle the situation in a way that results in no death or injury.

* The GBI’s original version was much more favorable to the cops and was probably based on what the cops told them. When video of the incident turned up, the GBI changed its story.

Chick Corea, b. June 12, 1941

June 12, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I started taking piano lessons last winter. Before the pandemic shut that down, I managed to meet with my teacher a half-dozen times. I told I was stuck in bebop cliches and wanted to move beyond that. At our last meeting — we didn’t know then it would be the last — he suggested that I listen to Chick Corea’s “Matrix.” It’s a 12-bar blues, but Toto, we’re not in “Now’s the Time” territory anymore.

I saw Chick live only once. I had gone to see Bill Evans at the Village Gate. Not long into the second set, Evans noted that Chick was in the house and asked him to sit in. Evans then left the stand and didn’t return. Chick played out the rest of the night.