Grow Up

January 19, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since I watched the events at the Capitol on January 6, I have been trying to pin down just why it all seemed so childish. Childish with serious consequences — people were injured and killed — but childish nevertheless. Trump’s childishness is easy to see. His name calling and trash talking; his casting of everything in absolute terms — things are a “disgrace” or a “disaster” if Obama did them, “fantastic,” if he did them; his sense that he is the victim of unfair treatment; his refusal to do anything that might benefit others but not himself; his petulance (his refusal to attend the inauguration being the latest and most obvious example)

His supporters too often seem childish. I’m not talking about those who are motivated by real issues — rich people who want a huge tax cut, businesses that wish to avoid environmental regulation, people who think that abortion is murder. I’m talking about those whose support for Trump less a matter of issues and more a matter of identity. I’m talking about the insurrections at the Capitol. Maybe what seems child-like is their refusal to separate play and “reality.”

They had a specific real-world purpose – “stop the steal.” Maybe they had managed, with Trump’s help, to convince themselves that this was possible. But by breaking into the halls of Congress? Get real.

But the insurrectionists were not about getting real. They were playing — playing at being 1776 patriots, playing at being soldiers and commandos with their camos, their climbing gear, and their zip-tie handcuffs. It was like playing some combination of paintball and capture the flag.  As in play, there was no real external goal. The goal was to capture the Capitol. Once they had succeeded in breaking into the building, they were like the dog that catches the car he’s been chasing.  Videos show them uncertain of what to do, wandering around like tourists, taking selfies, making videos. Sometimes they remember to chant their slogans (“USA,” “America First,” “Trump”), like fans at a football game. A video shows a group in the Senate chamber using their smartphones to photograph documents lying on desks. But it’s clear the men have no idea what they are photographing or why.

Yes there was real violence. But that too seems to have had the same purpose — getting in.  And a small number may have had actual plans to kidnap members of Congress. But I wonder what they would have done if they had managed to find any. As Fabio Rojas tweeted, “A bunch of cosplaying MAGA nerds won't topple the Federal government.”

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“It’s time to grow up, “ said president-elect Biden. His remarks were occasioned by the refusal of Republicans in Congress to wear masks even when they were confined in close quarters during the insurrection, even when a Congresswoman repeatedly offered them masks, and even though a House rule requires them to wear masks.

As I was listening, I thought: what a change this is — to have an actual grown-up in the White House asking that elected officials, and by implication, the nation, act like grown-ups.

Capitol Losses

January 10, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

A friend asked on Facebook, “There is something that is kind of mystifying me. Trump clearly crossed some kind of line with the Capitol riot, but what line was it exactly, and why wasn't it crossed before?”

We don’t really know yet how Trump’s supporters and other Republicans reacted. The surveys currently available give different estimates. Generally, Republicans did not think highly of the rioters. Their views of Trump, however, were more charitable. Most thought he was not at all to blame for what the mob did. Go figure.

In contrast to the street Trumpists, Republican officials — legislators, White House staff — are now criticizing Trump. But why? Why is this outrage different from Charlottesville, the Ukraine shakedown, the pardons to Manafort and Roger Stone, or any of the Trump’s other breaches of norms and laws?

At times like this, I turn to religion — or rather to Durkheim’s ideas about religion. In Durkheim’s view, religion is all about the group. Whatever benefit the individual may draw from it, religion, including American “civil religion,” is of the group, by the group, and for the group. Its symbols— a cross, a flag — are symbols of the group, the entire group. The Stars and Stripes represents the US as a whole, and Americans get very upset by someone setting one of these flags on fire

The Capitol is the same kind of symbol. The word included in so many of the public statements — by  Congress people, in news editorials —  was sacred. “Sacred things,” says Durkheim, “are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects.” [emphasis added] So on Wednesday, when Trump’s army was desecrating the Capitol, it was hard for most Americans to see him as a patriot, as someone who loved America and revered its symbols. (It was especially hard for those who were hiding inside, fearful that the mob Trump had sent after them might do them real harm.)  Trump was symbolically attacking our country.

So were his supporters. They called themselves patriots, and they carried American flags. But some of the mob carried the flag of the Confederacy, a country that fought a war against the United States of America. And many of the flags had no America symbolism at all; they were purely Trump banners, suggesting that the mob’s loyalty was not to the country but to a single man.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Durkheim would have a similar take on Trump’s refusal to attend the inauguration. The inauguration is a ritual, and for Durkheim, rituals are the most important element of religion. If sacred symbols embody the group in an object, then rituals embody it in the behavior of the members.

Rituals mark the group’s boundaries. They tell you who is in the group and who is not. By attending, you identify yourself as a member. By not participating, by not joining the group, you define yourself as not a member, as not one of “us.” So the answer to “Why do I have to go to mass?” is not any utilitarian one, but rather one of defining group membership: “Because you’re a Catholic.” When someone says, “Because you're a . . . .” that last word that completes the sentence (a Catholic, an American, a member of this family, etc.) tells you which group the ritual is defining, and it implies a commonality with everyone else who participates in that ritual and is therefore a member of that group.

Ex-presidents come to the inauguration. They are living symbols of the continuous line of American history from 1781 to the present. By absenting himself, Trump is saying that he is not part of this history and not part of the group whose history it is. If Trump goes to Scotland, as is rumored, if he leaves the country, he only adds to this image that he stands outside of American history and outside of America.

The attack on the Capitol too was a ritual — that’s obvious — and like other rituals, it drew a boundary between “us” and “them.” But in this case, the Trumpists — and by implication Trump himself — were drawing a line between themselves and  the nation as a whole.

I expect that Trump base will remain loyal.  Whether he shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue or pushes a mob  to attack the Capitol, he’s got them. But people who do not share that deep and emotional attachment to Trump may move farther away. The line that Trump crossed is the boundary of the nation.  National unity is a myth of course, not part of our everyday reality. It is a “collective ideal” that we bring out for ceremonies of our civil religion. In attacking his enemies, Trump also attacked symbols of the nation as a whole.

Ring in the New — With a Bit of the Old

January 5, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I learned a new word, skeuomorphism — a elements of a new technology that look like those of the old technology, elements that are now unnecessary. Virtual sticky notes for your computer screen or a push-button phone that looks like a rotary phone. The examples I found were all in design. But maybe skeuomorphism can apply to language as well.

Many of the stories about Trump’s recent phone call to Georgia referred to “tape.”

But there was no actual tape.

The call was recorded on some sort of electronic drive.

Radio journalists too use this term. They talk about “getting good tape” — audio quotes that will sound good. A 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article had the title “For the record: 18 journalists on how—or whether—they use tape recorders.” Some of those journalists refer to “recording” on a “device” or iPhone. But some use “tape” to mean 21st-century recording.

Is there a different word for this — using a word from an old technology even though that bit is no longer in use? And are there any other examples? I can think of only one. Musicians still sometimes talk about making “a record.” Not a recording, not an album, but a record.

Does  “cc” qualify? People still say, “I’ll cc you on that memo,” knowing full well that “cc” is an abbreviation for “carbon copy” and that there is no carbon paper involved. But “cc” has become a stand-alone term, now free of its finger-smudging origins. Nobody says, “Send me a carbon copy.”

The YouTube logo is an example of skeuomorphism in both design and language.

The image is shaped like the screen of an old television set, not a modern flat-screen. Those old TVs also used cathode-ray tubes. By the time YouTube came along (2005), nearly all TVs were flat-screens with square corners. And gone were the days when you might hear someone refer to “the tube” (or “the boob tube”)? Yet YouTube chose to retain both the word and the image of the old technology.

The Lack of a Need for Unclear Negative Writing Can Never Be Underestimated

January 4, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Twelve years ago in this blog, I wrote a post with the title, “Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative.”*  I was borrowing the title of a hit song of the 1940s. The post, unlike the song, was about language and writing, not general philosophical outlook. My point was simply that the more negatives a writer loads into a sentence, the harder it is for readers, and sometimes the writer, to understand the meaning of that sentence.

Those negative words include more than  just no, not, and never. My made-up example was parody of those newspaper summaries of Supreme Court decisions. “The court failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”

Do real writers write like that? Yes, sometimes to the point that they lose track of their multiple negations and write something whose literal meaning is the opposite of what they intended. Here’s economist Noah Smith at Bloomberg a few days ago (here). He was arguing that Texas, if it is to succeed in its effort to become a technology hub, will have to do something about “noncompete” clauses that prevent employees from leaving one firm and taking a job with a competing firm.

Banning noncompetes would be inconsistent with Texas’ principles and reputation as a defender of free markets. Noncompete agreements are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets.

 Banning, noncompetes, inconsistent. Smith nails the triple. 

Smith is an economist (and a Texan). He likes free markets and competition. If noncompetes gum up markets, then banning them would free up those markets. So banning them would be consistent with principles of free markets. What he meant was, “Noncompetes are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets. Banning them would be consistent with Texas’ principles of free markets.”

*Other examples noted in this blog include a Financial Times piece by someone  “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (“No, No, a Thousand Times No”) and even the GSS ( “The Power of Positive Phrasing”).