- The Winds of Privilege
- Ignorance, Bliss, and Political News
- How Do You Solve a Problem Like Murray . . . uh?
- Church of “La La Land” Saints
- Health Care as a Positional Good
- Is Love a Positional Good? (A Belated Valentine's Post)
- No Evidence
- Losing My Religion . . . And Its Swears
- The Wisdom of Crowds Redux —Bookies and Bettors
- The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices
- You Can’t Argue With a Joke
- Why Deny the Obvious Lie?
- Me Or Your Lyin’ Eyes
- Words Matter
- Columbia U., Meet Trump U.
- Travis Hirschi (R.I.P.) and “Acting White”
- A Ram, a Plan, a Repeal, Obamacare
- Men’s Work, Men’s Votes
- Some of My Best Friends
- “La La Land” – Hooray for Hollywood
- You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- Call Me, Maybe. Or Maybe Not.
- Who’s a Masseuse?
MARCH 25, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ One day last summer on Long Beach Island, I was riding my bike to the fish store. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ride. I was pedaling along almost effortlessly. Just a couple of weeks of getting around by bicycle – no car, no subways – had made a difference. I got some scallops – always fresh on LBI and always delicious – and headed home. But on the way back, I suddenly noticed that I was pushing against a headwind. By the time I got home, I had broken a sweat. The funny thing was that on the way up, with a strong breeze at my back easing my ride, I hadn’t noticed the wind factor at all.Mike Pence (that’s him in the center) tweeted the photo, adding “Appreciated joining @POTUS for meeting with the Freedom Caucus again today. This is it. #PassTheBill 2:21 PM - 23 Mar 2017.” What’s striking is not that a men-only conference is deciding on health care legislation about women. It’s that none of them noticed. If they hadn’t been so utterly clueless, one of them would have suggested bringing in a few token women for the photo op. (I suspect that some of them later regretted their insensitivity – not to women, but to “optics.”) In July 2016, Pew Research (here) did a survey on perceptions of gender discrimination. The question offered two choices * Significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men * Obstacles that made it harder for women to get ahead are largely gone.Also seated, though not seen in the photo, were five other members of the council. All men.
(Not me, and not Long Beach Island_.)Privilege is like cycling with the wind. It’s invisible to the privileged. The picture below has been making the rounds of the leftish hemisphere of the Internet. It shows Republican legislators discussing the health care bill – Ryancare, Trumpcare, GOPcare, the AHCA, whatever. It’s the bill they promised to vote on yesterday and then didn’t. One of the issues under discussion was whether “essential benefits” would include maternity services.
The results are not all that surprising.
(Click on the chart for a larger view.)_A gender gap cuts across party lines, though it cuts most deeply in Republican territory, where twice as many men as women think that obstacles to women’s success are history. That GOP stag party deciding on maternity benefits is fairly representative of the party, though as the survey shows, ideology is purer among those at the top. Besides, the boys in the photo are the Freedom Caucus. If Pew had surveyed Tea Partistas, the 75% bar in the graph would be even higher. Half the Republican women think that women face significant obstacles, but the issue may not be high on their list. After all, ninety percent of them voted for Trump (or perhaps against Hillary). If you’re going to vote for a serial pussy-grabber, that headwind you’re pedaling against can’t be very important. The BBC, in its story (here) on the Pence photo, also included this companion picture from Saudi Arabia – the group that was launching the Qassim Girls Council.
MARCH 18, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ “I can’t listen to the news anymore,” I said, “It’s too depressing.” The guy I said this to has been in journalism most of his adult life, so I’m sure he hasn’t cut back. If anything, h’s binge newsing these days. But I’m not alone. Google “news depressing” and you get nearly 40 million pages to choose from.(GSS respondents have three choices on the Happiness variable: Very Happy, Pretty Happy, Not Too Happy. I have left out the middle group.) I don’t know why I didn’t find what Brooks found. Nor am I not sure what to make of the results. Unhappiness is highest among both the most interested and the least. Does this suggest “moderation in all things (or at least all things political interest)”? Maybe 2014 was a strange year. The GSS had asked a similar question about political interest in three previous years. The sample size is larger, and the data spans sixteen years.This time the trend is clear, and it clearly contradicts Brooks. As political interest decreases the percent who are “not too hapy” increases, and the percent who are “very happy” increases. But even if the correlation went the way Brooks thinks it does, his explanation makes a huge leap of logic. The news is depressing because it shifts our “locus of control” from internal to external. It creates “a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.”
An external locus of control brings unhappiness.. . . . An external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.
To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. . . . However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.
Brooks assumes that what news junkies get from the political news is information about things that will affect their lives. That’s a big assumption. My impression is that for many news watchers, the political news is like sports. They root for their preferred politicos and policies in the same way they root for their team– not because a victory directly affects their lives but just because they want their side to win. The support for banning Muslims in order to keep America safe from terrorism is strongest in places where people’s lives are least likely to affected by a terrorist attack.
Unlike sports news, political news often has a moral component. We want to see our team triumph not just because winning is fun but because in this case it is morally right. People might hate the Yankees or the Cowboys, but nobody is chanting for them to be locked up for their sins. The partisan news shows specialize in stories that provoke moral outrage, and these are the shows most likely to be watched by those with a strong interest in politics.
But even if Brooks is wrong about the data, and even if he is wrong that paying attention to the news shifts our locus of control to external, his advice about locus of control seems sensible.
Get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.
(Click on an image for a larger view._)Arthur Brooks thinks so too in his Times op-ed today. in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention. Does an interest in politics lead to depression? Is political ignorance bliss? When Arthur Brooks thinks what I think, I have to check my personal reactions and impressions against better information. Brooks provides some. . I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey. . . The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points. I went to see for myself. I didn’t control for all those variables – I figured the cell sizes would get very small. But the overall picture I got from the GSS was very different from what Brooks said.
MARCH 7, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)
Dear President Patton,
We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.
Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.
Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )
As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s _Coming Apart_ on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.
For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules. After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil.
The campus left doesn’t toss around the word _evil_, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.
But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.
The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.
Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .” is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.” Here’s the full Gallup question:
If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to
* create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people, (or to)
* create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?
College students went for free speech more than did the average American.
It’s a mistake to think that the dominant view on US campuses favors political correctness over free speech as some handwringing writers on the right seem to think. (Catastrophizing is not the exclusive province of the left.) But a handful of students, representing a minority view of free speech, can still make enough noise to cancel a speech and make headlines. ---------------------- * Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.
FEBRUARY 26, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons? The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%. How to explain the “La La Land” - Latter Day Saints conncection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it. Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.
(Click on an image for a larger view._)The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.
FEBRUARY 23, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Which job would you prefer. Job A: your risk of serious injury is 10%; everyone else’s risk is 15% Job B: your risk of serious injury is 5%; everyone else’s risk is 2%. You’d probably take Job B, even though your risk relative to others is greater. With income, relative position carries more weight – $100,000 in a world where everyone else makes $85,000 might be more attractive that $125,000 in a world where everyone else makes $200,000. Income is positional; safety is not. (See the previous post for more on positional and non-positional goods.) Health care too should be non-positional – more is better, and less is worse. But then why would people whose healthcare had been substantially improved under Obamacare vote for the candidates and party who promised to eliminate it? That’s the question Vox’s Sarah Kliff took to Kentucky. The state had done a very good job of implementing the Affordable Care Act – expanding Medicaid and getting people to sign up on the exchanges. But Kentuckians voted overwhelmingly for Trump and the Republicans – the people who had promised to end Obamacare. Kliff had to go back to Kentucky to find out why. Kliff had gone there in 2016 and talked to people who, thanks to Obamacare, now go to the doctor when they were sick or injured. She talked to enrollment workers – people whose job it was to sell the program to Kentuckians, advising them of its benefits. They all voted for Trump, and after the election Kliff went back to find out why? Some said that they didn’t think Trump really meant what he said. Others thought that the Republicans would replace it with something better. Many had been soured by the increases in the cost of their health plans, especially high deductibles. But many people seemed to see their own health and healthcare as a positional good. Its value depended on what others had. “Part of their anger was wrapped up in the idea that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits — and those other people did not deserve the help.”
[A 59-year old woman] sees other people signing up for Medicaid, the health program for the poor that is arguably better coverage than she receives and almost free for enrollees.
“They can go to the emergency room for a headache,” she says. “They’re going to the doctor for pills, and that’s what they’re on.”
She felt like this happened a lot to her: that she and her husband have worked most their lives but don’t seem to get nearly as much help as the poorer people she knows.
She has changed the terms of the discussion. It’s no longer about health, even one’s own health, it’s about morality. And apparently many people are willing to sacrifice their own health to punish the undeserving poor.
Oller, the enrollment worker, expressed similar ideas the day we met.
“I really think Medicaid is good, but I’m really having a problem with the people that don’t want to work,” she said. “Us middle-class people are really, really upset about having to work constantly, and then these people are not responsible.”
This one really puzzled me. Medicare had helped her in a time of need, and she felt that she deserved to the help it offered. Still she was willing to have it repealed because “those people” were getting a better deal.
“It’s made it affordable,” Mills says of Healthcare.gov. This year, she received generous tax credits and paid a $115 monthly premium for a plan that covered herself, her husband, and her 19-year-old son.
Earlier this year, Mills’s husband was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. He is now on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Obamacare’s promise of health coverage, she says, has become absolutely vital in their lives.
[She asked me] a few questions about what might change and whether the coverage she would sign up for in a few minutes would still be valid. I didn’t know what would happen.
Our interview began to make her a bit nervous.
“You’re scaring me now on the insurance part,” she said. “I’m afraid now that the insurance is going to go away and we’re going to be up a creek.”
That righteous vote to punish the undeserving poor may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the protests at town meetings this week suggest that she might not be alone in her buyer’s remorse. In the abstract, health care may be a positional good. But when you really need medical treatment, you might not be so concerned about what other people are getting.
FEBRUARY 21, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Decisions, decisions.
Which world would you rather live in, A or B
WORLD A: YOU HAVE 2 WEEKS OF VACATION; OTHERS HAVE 1 WEEK.
WORLD B: YOU HAVE 4 WEEKS OF VACATION; OTHERS HAVE 8 WEEKS.
It’s a no-brainer, right? Four weeks vacation is better than two. No surprise that 85-90% of us choose World B. Now try this one.
WORLD A: YOU EARN $110,000 PER YEAR, OTHERS EARN $200,000
WORLD B: YOU EARN $100,000 PER YEAR, OTHERS EARN $85,000
The income figures represent real purchasing power. Thus your higher income in World A would enable you to purchase a house that is 10 percent larger than the house you would be able to afford in World B, 10 percent more restaurant meals, and so on. Faced with a once-for-all choice between these two worlds, which would you choose? (From Frank and Sunstein, here.)
This question doesn’t get the same kind of consensus. Somewhere between a third and a half of us choose the lower income, $100,000 rather than $110,000. Why leave $10,000 on the table?
Apparently, how much your income is worth depends on its position in relation to others. Income is a “positional good.” I’ll let Sheldon Cooper explain.
How you feel about your $100,000 income depends on how much others are making. When it comes to things that employers or governments can provide, income is a positional good. But vacation time is non-positional. Four weeks good, two weeks bad (or at least not as good) regardless of anyone else’s deal. Robert Frank and Cass Sunstein, who have written extensively on the topic, identify other non-positional goods: “health care, safety, parental leave, and leisure time, are largely or primarily nonpositional goods, valued for their own sake and more independently of what others have.”
This distinction closely parallels the research on happiness, which says to spend your money on experiences rather than objects. The happiness that a new gadget or piece of jewelry brings fades more quickly than what you would get from travel or a concert. That’s probably because as your phone or couch or sneakers grow a bit older, you start thinking about newer ones, comparing objects in the same way that people compare their incomes with those of others. We’re especially likely to compare upwards, keeping our eyes on the next and more expensive object or the higher income. We’re less likely use other people’s experiences as a baseline for evaluating our own.
Besides, experiences are unique to the individual. You really can’t compare them on some universalistic scale in the same way that money allows us to compare Apples and Androids. That’s the point of all those MasterCard commercials. It’s the things that you can’t put a price on that are most important. They are also non-positional.
So love and relationships should be non-positional. The joke in the “Big Bang Theory” video is that some people can turn even love, or at least a girlfriend, into a positional good. The excerpt is funny because Howard admits to making the comparison downward, admitting that Raj’s being alone and miserable is “a perk.”
Comparison upwards is less funny – the Have-nots comparing themselves to the Haves and, like Raj, feeling miserable. It’s also probably more common. Think of the people who were unpaired last week on Valentine’s day. Or go to Google Images and search for “single on Valentines,” and you’ll see many variations on the alone-and-miserable theme, most of them a transparent, defensive denial. They make the same positional point: These people would not have felt so bad if it weren’t for knowing that so many others were coupled up in the world of roses and chocolates; and that positional goods (car parts!) are a poor substitute for personal, non-positional relationships.
FEBRUARY 10, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The federal appeals court considering Trump’s travel ban said that the administration had provided no evidence that people from the seven countries had committed terrorist acts in the US. Trump of course disagrees. In his view, those who oppose the travel ban – including judges and so-called judges – are ignoring a vast global threat. The cause of their ignorance is that the media are underreporting terrorism. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported, and in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.” Even Fox News says that Trump is wrong. (Note that Fox puts this item under “Religion.” Apparently, saying things that aren’t true is a pillar of the Trumpist faith.)The obvious reason for Trump’s exaggerating the threat is that it justifies his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies. But some on the left suspect something broader and more ominous – “authoritarianism, American-style,” as Paul Krugman puts it in his column in today’s New York Times: Never mind the utter falsity of the claim that bad people are “pouring in,” or for that matter of the whole premise behind the ban. What we see here is the most powerful man in the world blatantly telegraphing his intention to use national misfortune to grab even more power. Some on the left go even farther. Widespread fear of terror will allow Trump to stifle opposition. Those who protest Trump’s policies will no longer be merely dissenters. They will be traitors, putting the country at risk. As such, they could be thrown in jail. The hypothesis is this: when members of a group perceive an external threat to the group, they demand more loyalty and are less tolerant of dissent. It seems logical, and I can think of examples from recent history. But I wondered if there was any support from controlled experiments in social psychology. I asked an expert who knows the literature much better than I do (not all that difficult since I let my subscription to the _JPSP_ lapse somewhere back in the Harding administration). The answer was that we have research on the “rally effect” – the perception of threat causing people to rally ’round the flag and to support a strong leader.* But what about throwing dissenters in jail, or whatever the social psych experiment analogy would be? On this, my source wrote:
“I don’t know of anything on intolerance of dissent. That might be an important literature gap to fill!”Never mind the hint that I should sharpen up my experimenter chops and get to work. What this means for the “more threat, less tolerance of dissent” hypothesis is: “no evidence.” At least, no evidence from controlled experiments. ------------------ * Not all of this research supports the rally effect.
FEBRUARY 7, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Walking across campus yesterday, I heard a loud, long belch. About ten yards away were two girls, one drinking a can of soda as they walked. “Jesus Christ!” exclaimed her friend. Wow, I thought, that’s something I rarely hear these days – not belching, but “Jesus Christ.” We must have found some other phrase to express a mixture of surprise and disapproval. Or was this just my idiosyncratic sampling of language? No, my impression was correct. Linguist Melissa Mohr, author of _Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing_, says that “Jesus Christ” doesn’t even make it into the top 20 among swears these days. as religion ecome more powerful and able to impose its taboos? Just the opposite. Religion is declining in importance, especially among the young, and as a consequence, religious swears have lost the power entwined with taboo. Religious swears – words once deemed blasphemous – are now perfectly acceptable. The Hollywood Production Code of 1927 banned _damn, hell, God, Jesus, Christ_, and even_ lord_ (unless used in a religious sense). The Code faded in the 1950s, but television adopted many of its rules. That was then. Now, if you told young people told that invoking the lord’s name was once unacceptable, they would probably text back, “OMG, why?” Some of those no-longer-powerful religious curses are being replaced with sex-based terms. In earlier generations, you might have said that a room was “hot as hell.” Now, it’s “hot as fuck.” As a simile, it makes no sense, but _fuck_ emphasizes the heat in a way that _hell_ no longer does. I’m not sure what most college-age people would say these days when a friend unabashedly emits a loud belch. I am not a religious Christian; I’m just old. So I found it comforting to hear America’s youth repeating the familiar words, “Jesus Christ!”
FEBRUARY 5, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Several posts in the early years of this blog (e.g., here ) looked at the “wisdom of crowds” – the idea that the collective wisdom of large numbers of interested people is usually more accurate than the guesses of a few experts. Each post focused on a single event, usually a football game, where the public favored one side while the “smart money” (a small number of professional gamblers) favored the other. My thesis was that at least in sports gambling, the crowd was not so wise. If it were, it would have put a lot of bookmakers out of business. The only data I had, unfortunately, was anecdotal – a few games, like the 2010 Superbowl, where the public heavily favored one side and lost. But this season, I’ve compiled a more complete data set – all NFL games. My indicator of the crowd’s opinion is the change in the point spread late in the week – from Friday to kickoff.* If the spread goes up, it’s probably because the public is betting the favorite. The bookies are raising the line to attract more money on the underdog and thus balance their books. (On most bets the bettor puts up $110 to win $100. The book with equal amounts on both sides – say $1100 on the favorite, $1100 on the underdog – is guaranteed a net of $100 no matter who wins.) I looked at games this season where the line moved by at least one point.** Here are the results.If you had bed against the wisdom of crowds, you’d have won 54 bets and lost 32. Putting up $110 to win $100 on each of the 86 games, you’d have come out $1880 to the good on a total investment of $9460 – about a 20% return. And except for the first week – 1 Win, 3 Losses – the whole season you’d have been in the black, playing with house money. As for today’s Superbowl, there has been no movement in the line. It opened at 3 two weeks ago and has stayed there.*** Small bettors are tending towards the Patriots, larger bettors towards the Falcons, so the money is about evenly distributed. Of course the deluge of bets in the next few hours could change that balance. My own hunch is that the Falcons will win it on the field. ---------------------- * Line changes early in the week are usually caused by large bets from “sharps.” ** The change in the point spread is not a perfect variable. For one thing, different books put out different lines. I used the consensus number. For another, bookmakers now respond to betting imbalances by changing the odds rather than the point spread. For example, in today’s Superbowl, the point spread is 3. If a book is getting too much action on the Patriots and needs more Falcons money, rather than raising the line to 3½, they will adjust the “vig.” Bettors usually think of the vig as a tax on losing bets. If you win, you get $100. If you lose, you pay $100 plus the tax – usually 10%. But to balance the bets, a book might raise the vig on the Patriots to 15% or 20% and lower the Falcon bettors’ rate to 5% or even 0%. In this case, the unchanged point spread would be misleading. The public would be betting on the Patriots, but the line remains at 3. *** Books are very reluctant to change a point spread of 3. It’s the most common outcome – out 10% of games are decided by three points. If a book raises the line to 3½ and gets a lot of action on the underdog, and if the final score is 20-17, the book loses all those 3½-point bets while not collecting on the 3-point bets. That’s one reason that when the line is 3, books are much more likely to adjust the vig rather than the points.
JANUARY 27, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated. My own speculation (here) on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth. “Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official. The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)
One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957. This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.
JANUARY 23, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Of all the responses I’ve seen to the Trump/Spicer claim that the inaugural drew the biggest crowds in history, this one – from a hockey game in Dallas – was by far the most effective.Whoever runs the Jumbotron for the Dallas Stars deserves a Peabody. The attendance figure pokes fun and deflates Trump’s assertions but without being derisive. The factual criticism that followed Trump’s and Spicer’s performances can be disputed, as Spicer tried to do. Even if the “facts” that Team Trump presents are false, at least there’s an argument about who’s right. Besides, Kellyanne Conway may have gotten some sympathy for the way that journalists pounced on her “alternative facts.” How would you feel if a bunch of smart-ass reporters checked your every word? The Jumbotron avoids those traps. You don’t notice it right away. So a second later, when you do notice the attendance figure, you feel like one of the in-crowd that gets the joke. You’re on Jumbotron’s side. If you laugh – how could you not? – you already share the assumed story behind the humor: that Team Trump is lying about the numbers. Game over. If Trump and company argue with it, they come off as tedious and tendentious. Imagine Trump ranting about how the Jumbotron is the most dishonest scoreboard in history by the way. Imagine Spicer and Conway offering alternative facts about the hockey game attendance. They’d just be digging themselves in deeper while showing that they are utterly humorless.* ------------------- * I make no predictions. Trump may still tweet something about this.
JANUARY 22, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Is there method in Trump’s megalomania? Why would Trump say things that are obviously untrue? Not only untrue but easily demonstrated as untrue, like his claim that his inauguration had drawn the largest crowds in history. Photographs clearly showed that the crowd on the mall at Obama’s first inauguration was larger.Why would Trump leave himself open to headlines like this?
the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.
Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
The strategy certainly works among Trump’s supporters, the folks who get their news only from Fox or right-wing Internet sources. For the rest of the public, it will depend on the strategies that the media take for reporting on an Administration with so little respect for facts.
* The New York Times (here) has documented a few other falsehoods from Trump and Spicer, including Trump’s false assertion that during his speech the rain stopped and the sun shone and that “it poured after I left. It poured.” In fact, the rain was light and continuous throughout – no sunny skies, no downpour.
It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.
This screenshot is from an interactive graphic (here ) that allows you to slidethe dividing line back and forth to see the whole mall for both inaugurations. _Trump, as we have come to realize, never admits that he was wrong. And now he has a press secretary who does the same. Yesterday, Sean Spicer repeated the false claim.
THIS WAS THE LARGEST AUDIENCE TO EVER WITNESS AN INAUGURATION – PERIOD.He criticized other estimates, saying, NO ONE HAD NUMBERS, BECAUSE THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, WHICH CONTROLS THE NATIONAL MALL, DOES NOT PUT ANY OUT. Spicer did not take any questions, so we can’t know whether he realized the contradiction between these two statements. If no one has numbers, how can Spicer be so sure that Friday’s crowd was the largest in history? Spicer went further. WE KNOW THAT 420,000 PEOPLE USED THE D.C. METRO PUBLIC TRANSIT YESTERDAY, WHICH ACTUALLY COMPARES TO 317,000 THAT USED IT FOR PRESIDENT OBAMAS LAST INAUGURAL.Reporters checked with the actual Metro statistics. Spicer was lying.*
The psychological answer is that he can’t help himself. He really believes that everything he does is the most stupendous, and he makes up evidence to support his beliefs. To protect his ego from contradictory evidence he launches vigorous attacks on those who provide contrary factual evidence, even – as with his “landslide victory” or the size of the crowds at the inauguration – when the truth is easily available to anyone. Other politicians would be embarrassed to have their statements exposed as blatantly false. But Trump cannot be embarrassed by the truth because he cannot be embarrassed by anything. He is shameless.But Ezra Klein at Vox thinks the attack on facts is not just psychological, it’s also strategic.
JANUARY 21, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_
Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.
“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said. (WaPo)
JANUARY 21, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Here’s the word cloud from Trump’s inaugural speech.Words take their meaning from context. It’s the valences of _America_ – the words and ideas that the speaker connects it to – that convey the message. “American carnage,” for example, was a phrase that grabbed the attention of many people. But it was just a variation of _disaster,_ the term Trump preferred during the campaign. _Carnage_ is more graphic, but it carries no special overtones. “America first” does.This was not one of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks said with little reflection. Trump even repeated the phrase.The other unusual word in the cloud is _back_. This echoes Trump’s campaign theme that he will return the US to some glorious past, mostly by restoring industrial jobs for men. (See this post of two weeks ago.) WE WILL BRING BACK OUR JOBS. WE WILL BRING BACK OUR BORDERS. WE WILL BRING BACK OUR WEALTH. AND WE WILL BRING BACK OUR DREAMS.This economic nostalgia often combines with a social and moral nostalgia – a longing for a time when norms, society, and identities were stable and predictable. As Archie Bunker sang each week at the “All in the Family” theme song “Those Were the Days,”
(Click on an image for a larger view._)_America_ and _American_ are no surprise. They appear frequently in many inaugurals. But they occupy a more prominent place in Trump’s speech. Compare Trump’s with the first inaugurals of Obama and George W. Bush.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, IT’S GOING TO BE ONLY America first, America first.Trump’s writers, possibly Trump too, worked carefully on the speech. They must have known that after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “America first” became the watchword of those who did not want the US to join European nations in the war against Hitler.* So just in case anybody hadn’t already gotten the idea, Trump is saying that the US will not intervene in Europe if some strongman marches into neighboring countries to seize today’s version of the Sudetenland or Poland. Putin probably loved this speech. Estonians, not so much. “America First” was revived in recent years. It was similarly isolationist and similarly anti-Semitic – the most prominent member of the 1940 committee was Charles Lindbergh – and, no surprise, pro-Trump.
And you knew who you were then. Goils were goils, and men were men._Back_ also echoes the “Take our country back” meme so popular among conservatives for these last eight years. (See “Repo Men.”) In sum, the word cloud shows, as many observers said, that the inaugural speech sounds very much like Trump’s campaign speeches. It has the same combative tone, and it runs on the same assumptions about American history: America used to be great, with abundant industrial jobs for men, few imported goods, and few documented immigrants, all of them documented. The world is a zero-sum game, and we were winning. Then They (liberals, globalists) took over the country. All aspects of American life became disasters. Foreign countries were beating us. But now, I (Trump) will restore that glorious world. Does this describe reality? Or is it, to use another term prominent in the word cloud, a dream?
JANUARY 14, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ In academia, we’re tough on plagiarism, especially when it runs to more than just a copied sentence or two. Plagiarism is one of those areas where we lean towards moral clarity rather than wishy-washy liberal moral relativism. I think. I’m putting my syllabus together, and it looks like I’ll have to make a change in my boilerplate about plagiarism, Plagiarism and cheating on papers or tests will result in a 0 for that assignment and perhaps an F for the course. But it may also get you a job with Donald Trump. In case you hadn’t heard, Monica Crowley, Trump’s choice to be U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communicationsplagiarized big chunks of her Columbia Ph.D. thesis. . She has excellent conservative credentials. She worked for Nixon and more recently for Fox News. She has said that Huma Abedin’s parents were “essentially tools of the Saudi regime.” Her views of the Syrian refugee crisis were also straight from right field. She wrote in the Washington Times that “The EU is apparently intent on committing continental suicide” by letting in so many Muslims. They “are using the European Union’s open doors-open borders policy to reach the West for social welfare and the longer-term goal of spreading Islam.” Crowley is a serial plagiarist. It wasn’t just her Ph.D. thesis. Her book _What the (Bleep) Just Happened_ had at least “fifty instances of copying directly from conservative columns, news articles, Wikipedia and in one case a podiatrist’s website.” (Politico) The Wall Street Journal published her 1998 column, an appreciation of Nixon, which borrowed considerably from a Commentary article some years earlier by Paul Johnson. When Trump appointed her, she spoke of his “vision, courage, and moral clarity.” That figures. She obviously shares Trump’s vision of Muslims. And now it’s clear she shares a similar morality. So it’s almost certain that she’ll keep her job, nor will the plagiarism damage her standing among conservatives. Academics, by contrast, take plagiarism more seriously – usually. Columbia has not said a word about whether the university might rescind her doctorate. Columbia is a prestigious Ivy League school. I guess it remains to be seen whether their standards are as high as those of Montclair State. Here is a screenshot of just part of the thesis plagiarism as highlighted by Politico, which has many other examples.
(Click for a larger view._)
JANUARY 12, 2017_ _ _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The day I heard that Travis Hirschi had died was the same day I read this Vox article by Jenése Desmond-Harris about “acting White.” I sensed a common element, but what was it? Both Hirschi and Desmong-Harris were questioning widely held ideas. Hirschi had thown down challenges to the criminology theories that dominated the latter part of the 20th century,* and Desmond-Harris was trying to debunk the widespread idea – even Barack Obama seems to have accepted it – that Black kids who did well in school were often rejected by their peers, who accused them of acting White. But the similarities were more specific than just skepticism about the conventional wisdom. What they were both skeptical about was the idea of cohesive “oppositional” cultures. Hirschi’s “control theory” of delinquency emphasized what he called the “social bond,” a social and psychological connection between the individual and conventional society that restrained impulses to break the rules. An important element of that bond was “attachment” to other people and to institutions like school. This seems sort of obvious. Common sense tells us that the closer a kid is to parents, peers, or teachers, the less likely he is to commit crime. But what about “delinquent peers”? Here common sense tells us attachment is no longer a damper on crime. The closer a kid is to peers who commit crimes, the _more_ likely he will be to commit crimes. Hirschi rejected that idea. It derived from a romanticized picture of youth gangs as hives of solidarity and mutual support, something like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.” But in Hirschi’s view, real gang members were no more likely to have solid friendships than they were to break out singing “Tonight” in tune and in unison while doing tightly choreographed dance numbers on the streets of New York. In the real world, delinquents were, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, “detached drifters.” Detached from others and from social institutions, they drift, often into scenarios that are self-defeating and sometimes criminal Desmond-Harris’s article similarly questions the picture of a Black student subculture solid in its opposition to the oppressive and White-dominated institution, the school. She says that although it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence – “African Americans who say they were good students in school and were accused of acting white” – there’s little in the way of good systematic evidence. She quotes Ivory Toldson, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, criticizing Roland Fryer’s article, “Acting White: the Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students” (here ).
the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.
It seemed that the "social price" paid by the lowest-achieving black students was actually far greater than the price in popularity paid by the highest academic achievers.
It’s not quite as simple as that, as the graph from Fryer’s paper shows.
Turning “attachment to peers” into something you can actually measure poses some real problems, and any method will be subject to criticism. Still, I think Hirschi would feel vindicated by Fryer’s data. The effect is especially strong among Whites, but for both Whites and Blacks, kids who get lower grades have fewer friends. Disaffection (lack of attachment) seems to be general. Attachments, whether in school or in friendships. require some self-control. Kids who act impulsively and unpredictably are not going to do well in either setting. So the kids who are not much invested in school are the kind of kid it’s hard to be good friends with. The detached drifters may sometimes for oppositional cultures and groups, but these are weak substitutes for those of the conventional world of conventional teenagers. --------------- * Hirschi’s criticism of then-current theories was most explicit in A General Theory of Crime (1990), with co-author Michael Gottfredson. If you were in criminology, it was a book you couldn’t ignore. I remember one session at a crim conference in the early 90s where Rich Rosenfeld presented some data he and a colleague had from research in progress. I have no recollection of the topic (homicide maybe) or the findings, but they were somewhat puzzling. In the Q&A, when someone asked Rosenfeld about this he said, “We don’t even have a theory Hirschi and Gottfredson _wouldn’t _like.”
JANUARY 8, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans will act this week to repeal Obamacare – or at least start to repeal it. Their previous votes on the matter were symbolic gestures. Now they Republicans can actually repeal it because they now control the Senate, the House, and the Presidency. They can do repeal the law even they do not represent the majority of the electorate. Kevin B. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, has closely examined the returns – he got House data from the secretaries of state of all fifty states – and graphed the results (here). The truncated Y-axis makes the results look more dramatic, but the point is the same. Republicans won control of the White House and Senate though far more people voted for Democrats. Republicans’ share of seats in the House is greater than their share of votes for those seats.The ramming took the form of votes in the Senate and House to pass the bill and then the signature of the president. In all these, the Democrats had a majority of the votes, and unlike the Republicans today, those Senators, Representatives, and the President had all received a majority of votes. Most people would see this as the normal process of lawmaking in a democracy. The Republicans saw it as force-feeding. This time around, it really will be more like ramming – a minority government passing legislation that most Americans do not support. According to a Kaiser poll, only one in five favor immediate repeal. , The minority government will pass more laws, probably very quickly, i.e., in the first 100 days. Even now, they are trying to rush the confirmation of Trump appointees even before the ethics reviews have been completed. The Democrats could legitimately characterize these laws and appointees as being “rammed down the throats” of the American people. But they probably won’t. Liberals seem to be a bit squeamish when it comes to imagery suggesting the blunt use of force, even when they are the victims. Republicans, as I have argued elsewhere (here), are much more comfortable with the idea of torture. Their response to accusations that they were ramming something down someone else’s throat would probably resemble Trump’s response to accusations that he paid no taxes: it’s a matter of pride rather than shame. --------- * The Republicans seem to prefer metaphors that show a deep concern with violation of the body. A year earlier, when it looked like the CIA might have to stop torturing people, the conservative talking point was that this new policy would “emasculate” the CIA. (See this earlier post here.)
(Click on an image for a larger view._)Back in 2010 when Obamacare was being passed, Republicans’ favorite phrase in describing the process was “ram down the throat.” This gem must have been issued from GOP central; everyone on the right was using it. The Affordable Care Act, they said, was being “rammed down the throat” of the American people.* I Googled it.
JANUARY 7, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The sexual dimporphism in Disney films that Philip Cohen keeps pointing out (here, for example) is nothing compared to gender differences in the recent presidential election. Trump was the man’s candidate, as the 538’s pre-election maps clearly showed.
“I ain’t gonna be a nurse; I don’t have the tolerance for people. I don’t want it to sound bad, but I’ve always seen a woman in the position of a nurse or some kind of health care worker. I see it as more of a woman’s touch.”
Health aides earn a median wage of $10.50 an hour. Mr. Dawson used to earn $18 an hour making railroad traction motors. “I was a welder — that’s all I know how to do.”
That’s from a recent New York Times article (here) about the disappearance of traditionally male jobs. (Note the welder’s nod to politically correct views about gender: “I don’t want it to sound bad, but . . .”). The projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the trend will continue. Of the fifteen jobs expected to have the greatest growth in coming years, all but five currently employ more women than men.
(Click on an image for a larger view_.)Maps based on the actual vote would, I suspect, be just as different. But why? At Sociological Images, Alisha Kirchoff (here) suggests that Trump took his inspiration from Putin. Trump could not imitate Putin stunt for stunt – let’s try not to imagine a shirtless Trump on horseback, and the hair thing pretty much precludes emerging from the seas in scuba gear – but he projected a liking for toughness, even violence, and a generally combative view of the world. His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy. No doubt Trump’s attitudes and actions towards women were odious. Some people saw them as profoundly anti-woman. But even for those who saw them as normal masculinity expressed more frankly, this part of the Trump persona was probably not sufficient reason to vote for Trump. True, his views of foreign policy evoked the image of a Mark Burnett game show, a world of winners and losers where one side beats the other by being stronger, more clever, and perhaps more ruthless. But foreign policy is rarely decisive in elections. The Trump persona may have had some appeal. Men might have envied or identified with the wealth winner, the man who says what he thinks uninhibited by norms of decency, the guy who gets gorgeous girls. Besides, he was going to crush the forces of political correctness that were repressing men in the same way that he would crush foreign countries that did not fully do what we tell them to. But the Trump promise was not just that he would be men’s champion, doing what they could not themselves do. More important was the promise that with Trump in office they could restore their masculine identity throught the most important element of that identity – manly work.The Trump campaign was a Viagra ad transposed to the labor market.
JANUARY 4, 2017 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ When I was a child, I remember, I heard my parents say dismissively of someone, probably a politician, “Yeah, some of his best friends are Jewish.” I didn’t understand. How could my parents resent someone who had Jewish friends and said so publicly? When I was a bit older, I understood – anti-Semitism is not merely a matter of personal friendships or public sentiments. What reminded me of this incident was today’s Washington Post story on the letter signed by over 1100 law professors opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. The Post leans toward framing the issue as one of personal bigotry. It excerpts this sentence from the letter: “Nothing in Senator Sessions’s public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.” The opposing statement comes from William Smith, an African American who has been Sessions’s chief counsel. “In the last 30 years, they probably haven’t spent 10 hours with him. I spent 10 years working with him . . . as his top legal adviser. There are not statements that he made that are inappropriate.” Is Jeff Sessions a racist? Is he, as the law profs say, “racially insensitive”? These questions are irrelevant, barring a history of blatantly racist statements or membership in the Klan. But also irrelevant is the question of whether some of his best friends or advisors are Black. That “1986” in the law professors’ letter refers to a case Sessions, as US Attorney, brought against three African American civil rights leaders who helped elderly Blacks – some housebound, some illiterate – complete their ballots. The case was so flimsy that the judge dismissed more than half the charges for lack of evidence. On the charges that did go forward, the jury quickly found the defendants not guilty. Was Sessions’s racist? Well, if you bring trumped-up charges against three Black people – charges that carry sentences of 100 years – it’s a pretty good guess that you want to scare everyone, maybe especially other Black people, from doing what those people were doing. In this case, what they were doing was helping more Black people to vote. But Sessions’s motive need not have been racist. I suspect they were more political. It wasn’t that the voters being helped were Black; it’s that they were voting for Democrats. In the US, especially the South, there is such an overlap of race, lack of education, poverty, and political party that laws and legal actions that will suppress Democratic votes need not appear explicitly racist. The new laws in North Carolina and elsewhere that make it harder for people to vote are race neutral in their language. But so were literacy tests and the poll tax. (See my earlier post and joke here.). In prosecuting the Black-vote workers, Sessions was merely invoking the law in its majestic equality.* Does Sessions have Black friends and advisors? Has he spoken nicely about civil rights? The more relevant questions are about the cases he brought when he was a US Attorney. In what ways did these advance the cause of civil rights and racial equality? Or stall that advance? (For more on this question see this op-ed from three DoJ civil rights lawyers.) It’s like the question of whether Steve Bannon – the man Trump has chosen as his chief strategist – is an anti-Semite. His defenders, of course, say no and point out that he has worked for Jews and hired Jews to work for him. But under his leadership, Breitbart became, in his words, “a platform for the alt-right,” a category that includes people who really are blatantly anti-Semitic. But hey, some of his best friends are Jewish. ---------------------- * “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges” — Anatole France.
DECEMBER 29, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The second movie I blogged about, nearly ten years ago (here), was “Words and Music,” a forgettable romantic comedy with several original songs and two big stars – Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. What I saw was a movie that was less about romance and more about career success. In fact, I wondered if maybe all American movies were about success.* Yesterday, I saw “La La Land” and had the same reaction. The trailer, intentionally or not, makes this same point. It starts with the two stars – Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) – being hit with abrupt career setbacks. Mia is rejected at an audition after she speaks one line. Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano in a restaurant because he plays one song of his one in addition to the simplistic Christmas song arrangements on the owner’s playlist.In that earlier post, I said, “In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.” That’s not where “La La Land” goes. In “La La Land,” what most concerns the lovers is not their relationship but the other person’s career. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her passion to write and star in her own autobiographical play. Mia encourages Sebastian to pursue his passion – creating his own club as a home for mainstream jazz. In their most passionate scene, Mia tries to persuade him to be true to his dream rather than take a lucrative deal to go on the road with a pop-funk group headed by John Legend. Given these well-worn ideas, the dialogue is predictably predictable. Fortunately, that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s not primarily concerned with telling you about Mia and Sebastian’s careers, or about their relationship. What “La La Land” wants to tell you about is movies – Hollywood musicals of the classical era. It’s full of the cinematic cliches (maybe tropes is the better term) of that period, and there are deliberate allusions to specific films. That’s what makes “La La Land” so enjoyable. It’s like pulling a school yearbook off the shelf and paging through it, recognizing old friends you haven’t seen in a long while and remembering what they were like. From the opening scene – a freeway traffic jam that becomes a huge production number – you’re hooked. Sebastian and Mia are not real people; they’re movie characters. So if their motives and feelings are familiar cliches, that’s part of the game. It’s not just Hollywood musicals that inspire the film. The Jacques Demy musicals of the 1960s – “_Les Parapluies de Cherbourg_” and “_Les Demoiselles de Rochefort_” with their bright colors – also get a large wave of the hand. At least one of the songs seemed like a deliberate attempt to emulate Michel Legrand. And the plot at the end strongly resembles that of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” though with an added Hollywood-ending variation that may be the best thing in the film. The wrong note, to my ear, was Sebastian’s piano playing. Big props to Gosling for learning to play the piano – that’s really him playing, they never used a piano double – but when he plays solo, it does not sound at all jazzy. He has a photo of Bill Evans that appears twice for a split second, but there’s no Evans in his sound, nor is there a hint of bebop-tradition pianists from Bud Powell on. The writer-director of the film, Damien Chazelle, has an obvious affinity for jazz. His previous film “Whiplash” centered on a young man trying to become a jazz drummer and had several moments of solid big band jazz. (For more on “Whiplash,” see this post from four years ago.) The combo scenes in “La La Land” do sound like real jazz, and it looked to me as though they too use real musicians playing, not actors pretending to play to the pre-recorded music we hear. But to repeat, the movie is not about playing jazz or opening a club; it’s not about auditioning and acting writing a play; and it’s not about love. It’s about exactly what the title says – Hollywood. ---------------- * The first movie discussed in this blog (here) was clearly a critique of the American ideology of success – “Little Miss Sunshine.” It too seemed like an homage to a movie of the 1940s – “The Grapes of Wrath.”
DECEMBER 27, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ How should a liberal think about Oklahoma? It’s just about the most politically conservative state in the Union. Oklahomans voted nearly 2-1 for Trump. Hillary got only 29% of the vote. Oklahoma was just as conservative a half-century ago. They don’t like liberals now, and they didn’t like them back then. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey got 32% to Nixon’s 48%. And 20% of the vote went to George Wallace, an avowed racist. Only five years earlier, Wallace had famously declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Times change. The arc of history, at least American history of the last 50 years, bends towards those liberal policies once hated by conservatives. Even in Oklahoma, nobody is campaigning to bring back Jim Crow. Other attitudes too look a lot like what Sooners opposed back then. Claude Fischer makes this point at his excellent Made in America blog (here) by offering a retrospective on an important conservative Oklahoma document of 1969 – “Okie From Muskogee,” the Country-Western hit (with some crossover popularity) by Merle Haggard. It was a culture-war statement, defending traditional ways and attacking the 1960s urban, college-educated liberals, the counterparts of the people who today are the objects of so much resentment among Trump supporters. They resented us then, and they resent us now. But the ideas they resented us for back then they have now come to agree with.
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
We don’t make a party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do
Times change. Hairstyles change – “long and shaggy” is now country.
Perhaps as a consequence of this relatively recent change in attitudes, rates of teen birth, including births to the unwed, are higher among country folk than among city folk. I guess it takes a while to get the hang of it. Maybe in fifty years, Sooners will look back on Trump the way they now might see George Wallace or Nixon and the Vietnam war, which they once supported. Merle Haggard himself had a change of heart. “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song,” he said. He also supported Obama and Hillary. Meanwhile, I know that I am supposed to realize that the good people of Oklahoma are in fact good people and that we should not deplore their ideas and political choices. The recent books by Arlie Hochschild and Kathy Cramer paint a sympathetic and understanding picture of Trump supporters in Wisconsin and Louisiana, respectively. A similar book could probably have been written about Oklahomans – now or in 1969 – and liberal readers might have regretted their lack of empathy for the heartland. But they would also have found it hard to separate the political views from the people who held them – to have thought that these people who supported a very wrong war and who opposed civil rights were fine people. I keep thinking of what an old friend, an Oklahoma native, said many years ago. He had grown up in Tulsa and still spoke with that Southwest twang. But he had left and wound up going to universities in the great cities of the North (New York, Chicago). He never looked back. He became an educated, urban liberal. One day, there was a front-page story about a natural disaster in Oklahoma, a tornado that had killed people and destroyed homes. I noted that he seemed unconcerned, almost hard-hearted, about it. “It’s Tornado Alley,” he said. “That’s where the tornadoes come, and those people keep building and rebuilding their houses there.” I imagine he might be saying the same thing about the Oklahoma earthquakes today. If you keep voting for politicians who give the oil and gas companies free rein, don’t complain to me about the consequences. “Still,” I said, “don’t you have some sympathy for their loss?” “No,” he said. “Why not?” “ ’Cause they’re a bunch of fuckin’ Okies.”
Left: Chris Stapleton with his armful of CMA awards. Right: Georgia Line, CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, who will perform in North Carolina despite the LBGT laws. (Click on the image for a larger view.)Drugstyles change. Even in Oklahoma, marijuana is now legal for some medical purposes. Non-medical weed and other illegal drugs, notably oxycontin, have achieved at least a niche market of country users. As Fischer notes, current C/W hits refer openly to getting stoned and rolling joints. As for old-timey romance (“holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo”), the percent of rural and small-town residents who say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all” has doubled since the 1970s and is now the majority opinion.
DECEMBER 17, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is very good movie, not just for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. That is, it avoids several cliches of American movies; it if more honest and more powerful. Lee Chandler (Casey Afflek), is a troubled man, forced to become guardian of his 15-year old nephew Patrick when Lee’s brother Joe (Patrick’s father) dies. Lee was not always troubled. The opening scene, seven years earlier, shows Lee, Patrick, and Joe fishing on Joe’s boat near Manchester, north of Boston. It’s all good family fun. It’s also the opening of the trailer, which sketches the plot of the rest of the movie as well. In the intervening years, tragedy has befallen Lee, and he lives with its pain. He works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy south of Boston. He lives alone in a single room there. He is withdrawn – asocial with flashes of anger. We know how this will go. The Lee-Patrick relationship will be rocky at first, with arguments and misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, Lee will not only become a good and willing surrogate father, but with Patrick providing subtle advice and help, he will become a better person. He’ll be more sociable and less angry, he’ll find a good woman, he’ll get a better job. Not quite. That’s the scenario we’d expect from Hollywood, where children are in most ways better than adults. Adults become better people by dealing with kids (“Kramer vs. Kramer”). Or kids help the adults overcome their silly problems (“The Parent Trap,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). Even teenagers are more capable than adults at dealing with life’s problems. (See earlier posts on “The Descendants” and “The Kids Are All Right.”). In fact, “Manchester” has what seems like a deliberate comment on films where children manoeuver adults into what turns out to be a successful relationship. As they sit in the car outside his girlfriend’s house, Patrick asks Lee to come in and talk with the girl’s mother. (“Can you at least hang out with her so I can be alone with Sandy for half an hour without her mother knockin’ on the door and askin’, ‘How.s it goin’?’every twenty seconds?” “This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation, and it’s good for neither of them. In the end, the relation with Patrick brings not some grand transformation but maybe a glimmer of hope. Lee will still not become Patrick’s guardian. But he does move to Boston, a half-hour closer to Manchester, and takes he two-room apartment so that Patrick can visit. But Lee is still a janitor, he is still alone, and he still gets drunk in bars and starts throwing punches. The other anti-Hollywood virtue of the film is its honest treatment of working-class people. “Manchester” refuses to portray them as noble in the face of adversity à la Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” And as A.O. Scott says (here), comparing it with other Boston working-class films, “This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives.” Nor is upward mobility an issue. You could imagine Lee insisting that Patrick go to college – trite dialogue like “You don’t wanna end up like me.” But when Patrick says in passing, “I’m not going to college,” that’s all there is. The world of “Manchester” is White working class and largely male. But these are not the people at Trump rallies, resentful, on the attack, vowing to take back their country. Lee is just a man trying to come to terms with the challenges and sorrows of his life, some brought on by his own actions, some handed to him.
DECEMBER 3, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ The big news today is that the president-elect called Taiwan. Big mistake. The American Conservative (here) calls it “the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior.” That’s our next president – impulsive and ignorant. Not a good combination for the leader of the free world. Those traits were not a liability in the election campaign – maybe they were an asset – but foreign governments are not the US electorate, and every gesture carries great meaning. If the US talks with Taiwan, China will be upset. In fact, they just lodged an official diplomatic complaint. I sympathize with Trump’s ignorance on this one. The story reminded me of one of the early posts in this blog (here), ten years ago, about a similar issue of who could talk to who. North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved. It was like those disputes from my childhood.
When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.
In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.
I imagine Trump’s reaction on being told that the phone call was a major blunder. “What, you mean I have to pretend that Taiwan doesn’t exist? That they don’t have phones? They’ve got terrific phones, the best. Believe me. And I know they exist, bigly. Great economy. That’s why I want to put up hotels there. Fantastic, classy hotels. Besides, it was just a phone call.”
A State Department official tries to explain the rules about talk and that if you really want to communicate with Taiwan, you have to go through other channels. As I said at the end of that 2007 post
When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.
NOVEMBER 28, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.” Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. _Hostess _and even _actress_ seem to be going the way of_ authoress _and _poetess_ a century or more ago.---------------------- * The more durable -ess forms include royalty (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).
(Click on an image for a larger view._)This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names. Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago. I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s _masseuse_. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of _masseuse_ and the decline of _masseur_. here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.
NOVEMBER 24, 2016 _Posted by Jay Livingston_ Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him. This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here). The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass. ------- * “Unorthodox” bills itself as a “fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.”_ _But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember.