White Lotus

August 23, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some random observations on White Lotus. I know it’s just television, and the stories are about the individual characters. But it’s hard not to see the social categories — class, gender, age, race, family role, occupation, etc.

Spoilers abound in what follows. For those totally unfamiliar with the show, White Lotus is a luxury hotel in Hawaii. The show focuses on three sets of guests who have come from the mainland for a week and on some of the staff who must endure them.

1.      Rich people are the problem, even when they’re trying to help.

Rich people are often the bad guys in American movies and TV.* In their pursuit of wealth and power, they resort to all kinds of nefarious deeds, some legal, some not but nasty nevertheless.  In White Lotus, the rich people are not that kind of villain. They are not Gordon Gecko or Montgomery Burns.  They are merely thoughtless. But the results are just as bad. In that thoughtlessness, they unintentionally bring disappointment, disaster, and death to the people who have jobs serving them.

    Three plot lines in the show pair a guest and a member of the hotel staff:

  • Tonya, a wealthy but very unhappy White woman. Belinda, the Black manager of the hotel’s spa services
  • Paula, friend of Olivia Mossbacher, whose family is on vacation at the hotel. Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the hotel.
  • Shane, young White man on his honeymoon; his money is from the family real estate business. Armond, manager of the hotel, gay.

    None of these ends well, especially for the staff member.

    a.    After Belinda brings Tonya out of her physical and psycological misery, Tonya offers to help Beinda start her own business. But  then Tonay backs out, not even reading Belinda’s proposal. (She does though leave Belinda with a substantial amount of cash.)

    b.    Paula seduces Kai, then tries to help him by convincing him to steal the jewelry of the family that has brought her along. She provides the combination to the Mossbache’s room. It’s a stupid idea, and Kai is easily caught.

    c.    Shane is out to get Armond practically from the start. His complaint is mostly about the room Armond has given him. But in the end, he winds up killing Armond, though the death is more accidental than intentional.

2.    This ain’t Mother’s Day.

    a.    White Lotus is not kind to mothers. Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge, who should be given an Emmy right now) makes it clear that her mother is the principle cause of her personal failings and misery. ( “My mother told me I would never be a ballerina, and that was when I was skinny,”) We’ll never know the mother’s side since she exists only as the ashes that Tonya carries around in a wooden box and periodically tries to scatter on the ocean,

    b.    Nicole (Connie Britton) is more interested in her role as CFO than in her family. Even on this family vacation, she’s rearranging the furniture in their hotel suite for purposes of feng shui for her Zoom with China.

    c.    Shane’s mom (Mollie Shannon) is so involved with running Shane’s life that she crashes his honeymoon, is disdainful of her new daughter-in-law (if she listens to her at all) and is in general a thoroughly dislikeable materialistic snob.

3.    So much for the new masculinity.

    Shane performs the old-style bro version of masculinity., and for that, the show portrays this as something no man should want to be. But the non-bros, the two Mossbacher men (father Mark and teenage son Quinn) are hardly ideal. They are nearly lifeless, without energy for anything and finding little gratification in what they do. Mark seems to has little authority in the family, and seemingly no job. His wife Nicole, is the high-power one.  In the opening episode, Mark is worried that he will literally lose his balls. Quinn, bored and listless, distracts himself with screens — video games and porn.
What brings each of them to life is the chance to do something physical and tradionally masculine — fighting and sports. When Mark comes upon Kai burglarizing his room, he tackles him. They fight briefly, Mark getting the worst of it. But his valiant effort transforms him in his own eyes and in the eyes of his wife. They have sex for what is apparently the first time in years. Quinn comes to life only after he joins up with a rowing team. Pulling an oar in the outrigger is the only real thing in his life.


* The creators of these shows are often rich. I don’t know how much Mike White is making from this show that he created, wrote, and directed — it’s impossible to find out unless someone sues someone else — but I’m sure it’s a lot. Why do rich Hollywood writers make rich business people their villains? For Ben Stein’s Marxist answer to this question, see the post Schmucks With Powerbooks from 2007

Jim Loewen, 1942-2021

August 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I saw Jim Loewen was at the 2018 ASA meetings in Phildelphia, a session on blogging as public sociology. It was in one of those small rooms and there were about forty of us in the audience. Jim was sitting quietly towards the back of the room. The irony struck me immediately. Here were bloggers, public sociologists, whose publics were perhaps a few hundred people, mostly sociology professors and graduate students — and sitting unnoticed was a sociologist whose work had reached more than a million people. My son had read Lies My Teacher Told Me in high school.

After the session, I said hello. He didn’t remember me.  Our grad school careers had barely overlapped; I was in social psych then, not sociology. But a couple of my friends of mine knew him from grad school and from leftist student politics. They both wound up at prestigious business schools, one teaching business law, the other teaching about leadership and doing well-paid consulting for corporate executives.

Jim remained true to the concerns he had back then. As I recall, he now said he was interested in people’s hometown experiences with race and class. I told him that I might not have much to contribute. When was growing up, my hometown had no known African Americans, though my parents had said that there were some families that were passing. “No, no. Write it up and send it to me,” Jim said, handing me his card.

I never did, an omission I now regret.

When Less Is More . . . More Correct

August 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fewer than one in four people who are pregnant are vaccinated,” said Noelle King on NPR this morning. Fewer? Really? Why not less?

I suppose that Ms. King or whoever wrote the script was thinking of the individual people. Grammarly.com, an online source, offers the same prescription.

To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”

Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.

Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.

Even if you think you should use fewer when talking about separate, countable things, the NPR lede makes no sense. The only number “fewer” than one in four is zero in four. That would mean that no pregnant people are vaccinated.

Dollars are countable, but we don’t talk about “people whose income is fewer than seventy thousand dollars a year.” The same goes for many other things. We don’t say, “I weigh eight pounds fewer than I did in March,” or “Stop for gas. We have fewer than two gallons left in the tank.”  

All of these statements — vaccinations, incomes, gas tanks — are not not about individual people or things; they are about a level or rate. And when you are talking about levels, it makes more sense to use less.

In the NYT last month, the print edition had a story about Covid rates in counties where “fewer than 40 percent” of residents had been vaccinated. The online version corrected this to “under 40 percent.” I guess the copy editor didn’t have the confidence to change it to less.

I seem to be hearing this kind of fewer more and more. (I wish I had some actual data to show the trend, but I don’t,) Those contests from my childhood where you were asked to write something in “twenty-five words or less” would now be “twenty-five words or fewer.”

What’s wrong with less? My guess is that fewer sounds like what educated people say. Fewer is more sophisticated; less sounds so ordinary. It’s like using fortuitous rather than fortunate. The words sound alike, and in many instance, both could apply — things that are fortunate may also happen unexpectedly by chance. So why not use the one that sounds like something a person with a large vocabulary would say? Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle here.  I expect that in a few years, if it hasn’t happened already, dictionaries will tell us that the meaning of fortuitous has now expanded to cover both. But to my ear, it’s like being served the salad course at dinner and asking someone to “pass the dressage.”

Quitters and Righteous Anger

July 29, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On an episode of Survivor many seasons ago, one of the cast told the others in his tribe that when it came to choosing the person to be removed in that round, it would make their decision much easier and his life less unpleasant if they just made him the one. It was fairly early in the game, but he had already endured enough and had no desire for the increasing hardships that lay ahead.

At the tribal council, the final ritual of each episode where the big reveal is the identity of that week’s outcast, the host Jeff Probst kept his self-control, but you could tell that he was really  pissed off at the dropout.

What reminded me of angry Jeff were some of the reactions to Simone Biles’s decision not to compete at the Olympics. She was concerned for her mental health. She had not performed well in the early rounds, and she felt that the extraordinary pressure she faced would do her further psychological damage. Physical damage too, since gymnastics at that level is a high-risk sport. A lapse in concentration can result in a broken neck.

Many people sympathized with her emotional plight. But some on the political right erupted with anger. “Quitter,” “selfish psychopath,” “very selfish ... immature ... a shame to the country,” “selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” Jason Whitlock at The Blaze wrote about “felonious act of quitting.”

To Charles Sykes writing at Politico (here) these attacks are all about the culture of “toughness,” the  pre-occupation with strength and weakness that pervades the MAGA-verse. In a post early in the pandemic on the people who were saying masks are for pussies,* I used the term counterphobic to describe this reaction. These anti-maskers turn the fear of Covid into its opposite, a blend of denial and bravura.

But as the Survivor incident shows, even when that problem is not framed as strength vs. weakness, the quitter poses a problem to the group. I’m drawing here on Philip Slater’s 1963 American Sociological Revie article “On Social Regression.” Slater argues that any social group requires energy from its members, but individuals may sometimes feel that these demands are burdensome and want to withdraw that energy back to themselves. Slater uses the Freudian language of libido — sexual energy — but the idea is the same if we use “emotional energy.” Even in everyday speech, people will say that they don’t have the “energy” for another relationship, or that their job is demanding too much of their “energy.” Or when we get sick, we may feel that we should withdraw our “energy” from work and relationships. Groups allow that kind of temporary withdrawal. . . as long as it’s temporary. Then by rejoining the group the individual confirms that the whole enterprise is worthwhile.

The quitter offers a different and threatening idea of the group. The threat is not that her withdrawal reduces the group’s numbers by one. The group still has all its other members. But the quitter is pointing out something that others do not want to see — that the group may not be worth the sacrifices that individuals must make. That thought is dangerous because it offers a tempting alternative. If others gave in in to that temptation, the group would dissolve. That’s why the reaction to the quitter is so strong. She must be condemned, and her withdrawal must be explained as a matter of personal perfidy or pathology (“a selfish psychopath”) rather than as a reaction to demands the group has placed upon her.

These reactions to the quitter are not inevitable. Briles’s teammates as well as many fans across the political spectrum were supportive and sympathetic. They understood her situation. And Briles did not really quit the team. She merely chose not to perform in the Olympics. So the anger and vilification from her critics stands as an even clearer illustration of Slater’s ideas about reactions to withdrawal.

* As I was writing this my news feed popped up with a Daily Beast story with this headline: Trump: Jan. 6 Cops Who Spoke to Congress Are ‘Pussies’