Who's Calling Who a Nazi?

September 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brendan Nyhan excoriates Tony Blankley for a Washington Times article accusing the mainstream press of being propagandists for Obama. Blankley writes:
This is no longer journalism — it is simply propaganda. (The American left-wing version of the Volkischer Beobachter cannot be far behind.)

This is the kind of editing one would expect from Goebbels' disciples,
(Volkischer Beobachter was the official Nazi newspaper. Goebbels was the Nazi Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda .)

We can be outraged, but we can’t really be surprised. It’s Godwin’s law:
As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a
comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
It applies to other media, not just Usenet. Maybe it was Blankley, or maybe it was Rush ("feminazi") Limbaugh, or maybe it was my memory of William F. Buckley, Jr. on Firing Line, but I have the impression that people on the right are quicker on the draw here – more likely than liberals to whip out their Nazi weaponry. So I did a quick Google search pairing Nazi and Hitler with a few politicians. I figured that attacks on liberals would be more likely to invoke the big baddies.


I don’t know how Google’s algorithm works. I suspect the recent references carry more weight, hence the landslide victory for the current candidates, McCain and Obama. Even so, attacks on Obama were more likley to mention Nazis and Hitler than were attacks on McCain.

The big surprise was Bush. Only a relative handful of Internet writers paired him with the Third Reich. As recently as May, Bush himself was comparing Obama to those who had appeased the Nazis, so even though Bush was the one linking Obama to Nazis, articles about this incident would have turned up in a “Bush and Nazi” search.

In general, though, the data support my idea. Obama v. McCain, Gore or Kerry v. Bush. And former VP Al Gore, who hasn’t been in office or run for anything for eight years, still gets more Nazi/Hitler references than does current VP Dick Cheney.

Senator Obama and John

September 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Maybe to Senator Obama it’s not a lot of money.
I don't know where John is getting his figures.
A lot of people might be interested in Senator Obama's definition of “rich.”
John, it’s been your president . . .who presided over this increase in spending.
Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand.
And so John likes – John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007.
And so it went in last night’s Presidential debate.

“If my 76 year old mom is any indication,” wrote a commenter on a conservative blog, “Obama lost Florida tonight. She was very put off by Obama calling McCain ‘John’ over and over, while McCain never deviated from referring to ‘Senator Obama’.”

Obama’s choice of names for his opponent had to have been deliberate. As that last example shows, he called McCain “John” when he referred to him in the third person and when he addressed him directly. Had the Obama campaign run focus groups, done research? Were they afraid that calling him “Senator McCain” would be too deferential to the “experience” that McCain is making so much of? They must have known about the Floridians and thought it was worth the risk.

But where is the cutoff point? I’m old enough that I’m still surprised when people I don’t know at all, people much younger than I am, start right off addressing me by my first name. The telemarketer offering me new services, credit card reps I call about a problem with by bill, tech support in Bangalore. Machines too. I log in to some website where I’ve registered, a bank perhaps, and “Hi Jay, pops up cheerily on the screen.

Younger people apparently take this first-naming for granted and don’t give Obama’s use of “John” a second thought. Perhaps they are even put off by McCain’s formality, as though he were lecturing Obama on manners. (One focus group found McCain to be “condescending,” while Obama was more “caring.”). But where, between the twentysomethings and the septuagenarians in Florida and elsewhere does the preference shift from first name to Senator?

Filling in the Blanks

September 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology is about the social situation, about context, and how it shapes what people do, what they feel, what they see. The micro version is words. Show people cards with incomplete words
  • S _ O R T
  • R _ C E
  • P O L I _ E
  • S _ Y
Sport, Race, Police, Shy. That’s easy. Except if it’s an Asian woman showing the cards, people are more likely to see Short, Rice, Polite, Shy (why not Soy?).*

Which word you see depends on the cues in the immediate situation. It also dpends on your background, your expectations, your interests. Here’s a magazine whose graphics department thought they could afford to hide a few letters.


Those of us who do a lot of sewing would see instantly that the magazine is Butterick. But try showing it to your students. Or colleagues. They might fill in the blanks using a schema from some other (what’s the mot juste here?) background interest.

Me, I’ve just gotten the pattern for my Halloween costume. I figure I'll finish the basting next week, but the facing is going to require a lot of backstitching, and I just don't know how I'll manage.

* Gilbert, Daniel T. and Hixon, J. Gregory, “The trouble of thinking: Activation and application of stereotypic beliefs.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 60 (491, 509-517).

Hat tip to Doug at Photshop Disasters.

Randy Newman - Ambivalence and Irony

September 25, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Randy Newman has perfect pitch. Maybe not for musical tones (or maybe he does, I have no idea) but cultural and political ones. He sings most of his songs in character, and the characters are a variety of unreliable narrators who embody different strands of American culture.

“Political Science,” written at least 35 years ago, still sounds like the voice of American foreign policy based on American exceptionalism – a belief in our inherent goodness and innocence, a disregard for the decent opinions of other countries, and a readiness to use violence on those who disagree.
No one likes us-I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money-but are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
They don't respect us-so let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.
It’s a more closely reasoned version of John McCain’s “Bomb, bomb Iran.”

Most of Newman’s characters are not people like us or like him. But he makes us have some sympathy with them despite their distasteful ideas, even the anti-Semitic, anti-elitist, racist voice of “Rednecks.”* Instead of “Ebony and Ivory,” it’s Ambivalence and Irony.

The ambivalence haunts even the love songs, like “Marie,” which seems merely beautiful until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this guy is a cad.
And I'm weak and I'm lazy
And I've hurt you so
And I don't listen to a word you say
When you're in trouble I just turn away
And yet, his feeling is real.

In “The World Isn’t Fair,” the narrator drops his child off at an exclusive school and imagines a conversation with Marx
All the young mommies were there,
Karl, you never have seen such a glorious sight
as these beautiful women arrayed for the night
just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens
And they'd come there with men much like me –
Froggish men, unpleasant to see
It’s like Harold Brodkey’s line, “To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die.”


I just saw Newman in concert at Carnegie Hall, so I could go on. But I realize this might not be what younger, blogger-rockers are looking for. (“My demographic,” Newman told the audience, “is white males, fifty-two to fifty-five.”) You can see Newman doing most of the songs he did at Carnegie Hall by going to YouTube and searching for the concert he did in Stuttgart two years ago. But to hear his more recent political song, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” catch him at the MacWorld expo.


* “Rednecks” is another song from the 70s that could have been written last week (except maybe for the refrain line about “keepin’ the niggers down”; even rednecks don’t speak that explicitly today).

Just Coincidence, Right

September 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Clinton surplus inherited by Bush:
$300 billion


Bush deficit:
$400 billion

Amount Henry Paulson says he needs to bail out the US economy:
$700 billion

Bear With Us

September 23, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In my post a few weeks back about stuff kids bring to college, I had a photo of a teddy bear lying atop a pile of belongings that included pink bed linens. Obviously, it belonged to a girl. (There was a purse in the picture, but even without it. . . .)

A couple of days later, Lisa at Sociological Images had a post reminding us that pink was once the color for boys. She linked to an article by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian.
The Sunday Sentinel in 1914 told American mothers: “If you like the colour note on the little one's garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”
Goldacre uses this bit of history to debunk the claim recently made by evolutionary psychologists that girls’ preference for pink was an outcome of evolution.

But what about the teddy bear? Isn’t there something feminine, a maternal instinct perhaps, that leads girls to keep these soft, childhood objects? It is only girls, right?

Wait, now I remember seeing NYC sanitation trucks with a teddy bear mounted on the grill like a bowsprit mermaid. And Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited who takes his bear Aloysius with him to Oxford.

Now there’s a DVD* about a Teddy bear snapshot exhibition by Canadian Ydessa Hendeles – thousands of photos from the early twentieth century of people posing with their bears. And it’s not just girls.

*The DVD is of a documentary film by Agnès Varda, who interviews the visitors to the exhibit.

Hat tip to Magda

Happy Blogday to Me

September 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog is two years old today so I’m allowing myself one day of what Chris Uggen calls “self-indulgery.” In nearly every other post, I’ve tried to follow the rules for this blog that I started out with:
  • Posts would be something our undergraduates could read and would want to read.
  • Posts would have some sociological content, however tangential.
In other ways, the blog has turned out differently from what I first expected.
  • I set it up as a department blog, hence the name, but it quickly became a solo effort.
  • I thought that the readership would be mostly our undergraduates, but few, if any, of them read it.
  • I originally thought of posts as something like op-ed pieces – 700-800 words weaving together two or three related strands of thought. Now, I try to keep posts shorter, with more graphics, and with only one idea per post.
I never imagined that I’d wind up writing 300+ posts – three a week for two years. At first, I thought I might manage one or maybe two posts a week for at the most two months. That’s why I thought it would have to be a group blog. There were times times when I felt I had absolutely nothing left to say. But then something would spark my interest, and ideas for posts would pop out of every corner. I have a file of unused ideas, most of them past their sell-by date.

The rewards of blogging, at least for me, are two: First, as a friend put it, blogging is instant gratification. The turnaround time between writing and publication is zero. You get an idea or take an interesting photo or find some data. You write it up, you click, and it’s out there. Second, blogging has allowed me to make some contact, however minimal, with other bloggers, and they are a smart, funny, lively, and friendly bunch.

My main disappointment is that the readership is small, and the comments sparse (I was encouraged by Andrewska’s kind words on his blog). I feel like a comedian in a radio studio telling a joke and having no idea if anyone out there laughed or even if anyone was listening. If I do shut down the blog – and I have often thought I might – that will probably be the reason why.

I have now gone back and read through the posts, and I was surprised to find that I liked most of them. The list below is not necessarily the ten best. They’re just ten that for different idiosyncratic reasons I’m fond of.

The Pursuit of Bada Bing, April 13, 2007
I, You, We, May 14, 2008
The Institutionalization of Hysteria, September 29, 2007
Contributions and Attributions, April 18, 2007
Mendacity, October 27, 2006
Cheating the Executioner, November 5, 2006,
A Fine and Public Place, November 8, 2007
Sweat Equity and Magical Thinking, December 3, 2007
Moral Nostalgia and the Myth of the Authoritarian Past, February 27, 2007
Closed for vacation? May 15, 2007,

That’s My Narrative, and I’m Sticking To It

September 18, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The narrative about A-Rod and the Yankees hasn't changed from the start of the season (NY Daily News)
I wasn’t all that surprised to see the word narrative turn up in the sports pages of the Daily News. You see and hear the word everywhere these days, even in cooking.
For Ms. Dunlop [author of The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook], Hunanese food ''embodies a narrative of place.'' (NY Times)
Every time I hear narrative, I ask myself whether it could be replaced by the simpler term story. Almost always, the answer is yes.
Its hard to pick one narrative. The Palin narrative is she is in a war with the mainstream media. (Jim Pinkerton of The American Conservative on Fox)
I watched [McCain] begin that long narrative about his prison camp . . . (Wall Street Journal editor Dorothy Rabinowitz on Fox)
I'm used to all the faddish terms that come from sports and business. (The bottom line is that we need a new game plan.) Issues, replacing the more prosaic problems, crossed over from psychotherapy, but now everyone uses it, even people not usually given to psychobabble. An e-mail at work informed me that the maintenance department had taken care of the “issue” that had shut down the elevator for two hours. And before the start of football season two years ago, I heard a retired linebacker say on ESPN, “Well, the Jets have right tackle issues this season.”

But how many of these crossover words come to us from semiotics and lit crit? Now, even the right wingers who decry and denounce English professors for their impenetrable language and leftish views freely throw narrative into their commentary.


Articles from US and World Publications and TV and Radio Transcripts containing the word narrative.

My own sense that narrative had fully entered the mainstream came about four years ago. The teenager formerly in residence was in ninth grade, and that season he was watching “The Apprentice.” One evening, he said that two of his friends watched it and discussed the show the next day in school. “But their narrative is often different from Mark Burnett’s narrative.”

I had a sort of "Watch your language, young man" reaction. When I was his age, I would have thought that “The Apprentice” was Donald Trump’s show, not what’s-his-name. I wouldn’t have known the name of the producer of this or any TV show. Nor would I have known that the producer, far more than anyone on screen, was the true force shaping the program. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what the producer did. And if I had known, I wouldn’t have thought of it as “creating a narrative.”



Politics - The Hollywood Version

September 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
It’s like a really bad Disney movie, “The Hockey Mom.” “Oh, I’m just a hockey mom from Alaska,” and she’s president. She’s facing down Vladimir Putin and using the folksy stuff she learned at the hockey rink. It’s absurd.
Matt Damon knows the movies. He has picked up on a theme that has run through American films for decades: the triumph of innocence over intrigue. Damon is thinking of Disney comedies, but the idea is so deeply embedded in American culture that it underlies darker entertainments as well.

Typically, the ordinary American – honest, incapable of guile – lands in some nefarious web of intrigue and deceit woven by powerful but evil people. These are often foreigners, but they can also be domestic gangsters or malefactors of great wealth, the kind of people who drink expensive wine or collect modern art. In a word, elitists.

The official authorities, especially if they wear uniforms, are no help. They are either incompetent or in cahoots with the bad guys. In fact, they are usually a hindrance, threatening or even imprisoning the hero. Yet our hero, through good old American straightforwardness and resourcefulness, outwits the baddies, disrupts the their plot, rescues whoever was in danger, and restores the world to order. If there’s a pretty, single girl, he winds up with her too. Innocence beats intrigue every time.*

It’s not just Disney, and it’s not just Spiderman, Batman, and other films derived from children’s comic books. It’s Capra, Hitchcock (“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North By Northwest”), and dozens of lesser directors. Maybe it’s even Matt Damon movies (I confess, I have not seen or read “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if it contained some of these elements.)

At least Damon has the good sense to know that the world of movies is not the real world, and that being the plucky hockey mom might not necessarily qualify someone to be one septuagenarian heartbeat away from the presidency. But the PR strategists that work for our politicians try to present the real world as though it were a movie, and the public often seems to accept that presentation.

The networks should be running “Wag the Dog” on a continuous loop.

*My favorite counter-example is “The Third Man.” The protagonist (played by Joseph Cotten) thinks he’s in an American film, but he’s not. He’s in a European film. His friend, the man whose innocence he tries to prove, turns out in fact to be a baddie, just like the British officer has said. And even though Cotten realizes that the British officer was right and winds up killing his friend, the intrigue, conspiracy, and evil in Vienna will continue. And he doesn’t get the girl.

Alas Poor York

September 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I speculated that McCain’s boost in the polls following the Republican Convention might have been something different from the usual post-convention bounce. If people were reluctant to vote for Obama because of race, the convention, especially the speech by Sarah Palin, might have provided a legitimate cover for preferences that were based on racism. Instead of being against Obama, they could be for McCain and Palin.

It was speculation, and I hoped it was wrong. But the All Things Considered discussion with a panel of voters in York, PA provided some evidence that was depressingly consistent with this idea.

Some people repeated the criticisms of Obama that the Republicans offered at the convention. Like experience. Here’s Don Getty, a retired cop, white
“I don't think there is a problem with a black man,” says Don Getty, a retired police officer, who is white. “I personally don't think Obama is the right one. He doesn't have the experience. . . . He was a community organizer. Nobody's ever told me what a community organizer is.”
This conveniently ignores Obama’s years as a legislator in the Illinois Senate and the US Senate, but at least it’s a rationale.

More disturbing is Leah Moreland, an older, white woman:
“I look at Obama, and I have a question in my mind,” she says. “Years ago, was he taken into the Muslim faith? And my concern is the only way you are no longer a Muslim is if you are dead, killed. So in my mind, he's still alive. . . . There is something about him I don't trust,” she says. “I don't care how good a speaker he is, I just can't trust him.”
It’s possible that the “something” about Obama she can’t trust has nothing to do with race, but her clinging to misinformation about his religion makes me think otherwise.

Both these people are testimony to the invisibility of racism. Leah Morland says, “I really was totally unaware of prejudice . . . there was no prejudice in my home.”

Officer Getty says,
“I can't recall any privilege that I got because I was white,” Getty says. “I mean, I went to city schools. But I don't know of anything that I got because I was white that the black kids couldn't have gotten the same thing.”
NPR followed this statement immediately with that of Maggie Orr, a black woman whose family was the first black family in a suburb in 1963.
We weren't wanted there, of course, and the whites did everything they could to intimidate us to get us to move. But my parents were staunch-hearted people. We weren't going to budge. So, of course, we stayed there. We endured it all: the break-ins, the house being messed up, the whole nine yards, being called niggers.
The white police officer doesn’t see that his ability to move into a neighborhood – probably one with better schools and city services – constitutes white privilege. It’s just something he takes for granted. I also wondered how easy it would have been for a black man to have gotten on the York police force when Officer Getty was starting his career.

This invisibility plays into the Republican strategy, for if there is no racism in the US, then efforts to ensure African Americans access to housing or jobs are catering to a “special interest” (Blacks). Obama has tried very hard to avoid the perception of the Democrats as representing the interests of blacks. Meanwhile, the Republicans decry the politics of special interests and insist that we come together, rise above party, and put “country first” by voting Republican.

Culture and Social Construction

September 12, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to gynecological exams, all I know is what I read in the papers – mostly, Joan Emerson’s classic 1970 article, “Behavior in Private Places, Sustaining Definitions of Reality in the Gynecological Examination.”

The problem for the participants in the exam (patient, doctor, nurse, staff) is to maintain the definition that this is not a sexual situation but a medical one. Given the nudity, the touching and talk of sexual areas, it takes some work to create and sustain that definition.
Some routine practices simultaneously acknowledge the medical definition and qualify it by making special provision for the pelvic area. For instance, rituals of respect express dignity for the patient. The patient’s body is draped so as to expose only that part which is to receive the technical attention of the doctor. The presence of a nurse acting as “chaperone” cancels any residual suggestiveness of male and female alone in a room.
Maybe here. But in France, that’s not how it happens. Meg, a Kansas girl who wound up in Paris (was a tornado involved?) and blogging as La Blaguer à Paris*, writes about it with only sight exaggeration.
Here’s what to expect when you go for ze Exam:
Doc - Mme Blagueur? [offers ungloved warm hand] Please follow me.
You - Bonjour! [sits in chair at office desk] I am here for my annual poke.
Doc - Congratulations. Now take your clothes off [indicates table and returns to typing].
You - What here? Yes? Erm... [stands, removes everything south of waist, drapes clothes hastily over office chair while hiding bits behind computer monitor].
Doc - The top, too.
You - Even the bra?!!
Doc - Your bra cannot save you, American.
You - I see . . .
Doc - Let’s begin. Do you mind if I smoke?
The error of cultural expectations goes both ways. Meg tells of a French woman going for an exam in Chicago. The nurse handed her what might have been a folded paper towel but which any American patient would immediately recognize as a “gown.”
The young American doctor, when he returned after a suitable interval, found a very hot French woman sitting buck naked on the table, a paper gown in her hand.
What really struck me in Meg’s story was the bottom line. When the exam is over,
there will be a quick exchange of insurance cards or, if you’re paying in cash, 28€.
That’s about $40. If you pay in cash. Otherwise it’s just the insurance card. And if you do pay cash, you then dip your card into a little machine at the doctor’s office, and the system immediately reimburses your bank account the government’s share (i.e., most) of the payment.**

We Americans should be thankful that we have HMOs and insurance companies and that our medical system hasn’t been contaminated by European ideas like socialized medicine with its elaborate and inefficient bureaucracy.


*It’s a trans-language pun. In French, to blaguer is to kid around, not to blog (though I often wonder with this blog, who do I think I’m kidding?)

** Commenters on Meg's blog put the cost closer to 80-100
, with about half that reimbursed.

Bounce or Bradley?

September 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The first poll released after the Republican convention (USA Today/Gallup) showed McCain going from even or even 5-6 points down to a 54-44 lead. Subsequent polls have the race still even, and the USA Today/Gallup poll may be a statistical anomaly. Even if it’s accurate, Democrats are hoping it reflects a post-convention bounce which will, like most such bounces, diminish with time.

But there’s another explanation that should be more unsettling for Democrats: the disappearance of the Bradley effect – the inaccuracy of polls when voters claim to be undecided rather than say they will vote for the white candidate over the black candidate.

For example, in the New York City mayoralty race of 1989, an African American, David Dinkins had defeated Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and was running against Rudy Giuliani. Polls taken shortly before the election showed Dinkins ahead by 15 percentage points or more. He won by two.

Adam Berinsky, guest blogging at The Monkey Cage, puts it this way:
In that election, the preferred candidate of older Jewish Democrats (or, as I like to call them, Mom and Dad), Ed Koch, lost a contentious Democratic primary to David Dinkins, who is black. Considering that many older Jewish Democrats had never in their life voted for a Republican candidate, a vote for Giuliani in the general election could be seen as nothing but a vote against Dinkins. Indeed among Jews over 50, 30 percent claimed that they didn’t know who they were going to vote for a week before the election, even though 93 percent said they would definitely cast a vote . . . . These are the precise circumstances where we would expect to see the polls perform poorly – and they did.
I prefer the Dinkins example to that of Tom Bradley (California, 1982) or Douglas Wilder (Virginia, 1989) because it had a sequel that adds to our understanding of the Bradley effect.
In 1993 Dinkins again ran against Giuliani, this time as an incumbent. In that election, unlike 1989, the pre-election polls were very accurate. One explanation for the discrepancy in the performance of the polls between 1989 and 1993 is that in 1989, Democratic voters could not openly oppose Dinkins without appearing to be racist. By 1993, however, they could oppose Dinkins because in the intervening 4 years he had established a poor record of performance.
In other words, racism was looking for a rationale. Once it had that rationale, it no longer needed to stay in the “undecided” closet.

Could something similar have been happening in the current Presidential campaign? Let’s assume that there are some voters who are reluctant to vote for Obama because of his race. Maybe they don’t even admit that to themselves, and they certainly don’t admit it to pollsters. Instead, they think and say, “I’m not sure. I don’t really know enough about the guy.” Then they see McCain and Palin at the convention, they see the clips on the news. They like what they see, or at least they see nothing to dislike. Now they have the “information” to justify their decision, and when the pollsters call, they can honestly say they’re for McCain.

Palin and Torture, Party and Gender

September 9, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he’s worried that someone won't read them their rights?”
Sarah Palin was standing up for torture, and the Republicans cheered.

It was then I finally realized: these people actually like torture. Oh, of course you can’t come right out and say that torture is a good thing. But that was the idea the convention conveyed. You don’t tell a story over and over again unless it’s a story you really like, and the story the Republicans told and retold was the story of John McCain’s torture.

Previously, my explanation for the acceptance of torture had emphasized two elements – tribalism and bureaucratic rationality.

Tribalism is all about who. Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people. Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them. What’s moral is what’s good for Us. This morality does not extend to Them. If We torture Them, it’s all right. If They torture Us, it’s an atrocity.

Bureaucratic rationality is about why. Torture is wrong if it’s done for sadistic pleasure or for personal vindictiveness, just to see your enemies suffer. That’s the picture we liked to paint of Saddam as torturer. But if you use torture as a rational means to a goal (“saving American lives”), and if the torturers are impersonal, if they derive no personal pleasure from torturing, then torture is O.K. President Bush used to refer to the torturers as “our professionals” (impersonal, efficient, unemotional) and extended the rational-legal angle by getting White House lawyers to write justifications using the impersonal language of law.

But the Republicans in Minnesota seemed to view torture not just as a regrettable but necessary tactic. Torture became a romanticized test of toughness, the ultimate chapter in the Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche version of masculinity. Only wimps have qualms about torture or worry about the niceties of human rights or the law. Real men can dish it out, and they can take it. Accordingly, in all the repeated invocations of Sen. McCain’s ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, there was never any condemnation of the North Vietnamese as torturers, only the extolling of McCain for his toughness, patriotism, and other manly virtues. It was as though torture were not so much a violation of basic human rights and international law but a ritual that served to separate the men from the boys, painful but ultimately ennobling. And like the harsh fraternity initiation, those who have undergone it look back on it with something resembling nostalgia. See, you crybabies, the Republicans were saying, torture’s not so bad if you’re man enough to take it.

Surely others have commented on the Republicans’ long-standing effort to define the difference between the parties in terms of gender stereotypes: Republicans – tough, strong, and masculine, Democrats – soft, weak, and feminine. For the GOP, a woman on the ticket had the potential to confuse that imagery. Ms. Palin had to convince the party faithful – and those who shared their traditional expectations about gender – had to convince them that she would not weaken the party brand with feminine softness. So she played up her toughness. Don’t be misled by the lipstick, she said. She was the pit bull who would not hesitate to use torture.

The Last Shall Be First . . .

September 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her comment on the previous post, our new colleague Faye noted that “Brits avoid using last names as first names.” But this style has become increasingly popular in the US. Last year the top 250 names included
  • Mason (37)
  • Hunter (57)
  • Carter (80)
  • Tyler (91)
  • Cooper (95)
  • Tanner (149)
  • Sawyer (240)
Twenty years ago, only Tyler made the top 250. It’s also popular in the UK, ranking 27th last year for baby boys.

In the US, it was probably the wealthy who started the last-name ball rolling. Humorist Calvin Trillin says that when he was at Yale in the 1950s, the upper-class WASPs who had attended schools like Andover and Choate tended to have names like Hatcher Thatcher Baxter III. Or Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, Jr. Or . . . but you get the idea.

Over the decades, following the general social class trend in names described by Levitt and Dubner (the Freakonomics guys), Carter, Hunter, and the rest have trickled down through the system.

But why here and not in the UK?

My guess is that British ears, especially upper-class British ears, still hear the working-class overtones in these names. These names, after all, derive from common trades. The upper class, who did not do such common work, so they did not have surnames like Farmer, Miller, or Baker (Baxter, by the way, is a variant – a “bakester”). Thatchers worked, thatching roofs. They did not own land. Hunters hunted, Carters carted, and Tylers tiled.

The upper class were quite merry in olde England and had no need to emigrate. It was the Baxters and Hatchers, not the Forsyths, who came to America to seek their fortunes. Enough of these tradesman descendants were successful in the New World, and the class system was open enough, that their names lost their working class connotations. But they did retain the aura of England, the “AS” in WASP. These were “classy” names, as contrasted with the foreign names of later immigrants.

As Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” noted in his short-lived stand-up comedy career, only WASPs can get away with this last-name ploy. He envies media people like
Stone Phillips, Anderson Cooper, Shepard Smith . . . . Jews can't do that. Jews can’t use last names as first names. “This is Teitelbaum Moskowitz, and here are tonight’s headlines.”

What's in a Name? It Depends on Where.

September 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby? Good old American Republican names like Track, Trig, Willow, Piper. Certainly not elitist British names like Nigel or Phillipa.

In fact, nowadays there’s a good deal of similarity in the popular names here and in the UK. Among girls, six names are in the top twenty for both countries (Emily, Isabella, Grace, Chloe, Hannah, Olivia).

There are also differences. Lucy and Charlotte, #8 and #12 respectively in the UK don’t even make the top 100 here. Some names popular here, like Ashley and Alyssa (#13 and #14) are all but unknown across the pond.

On the other hand, the Madison explosion is making its way east. She went from 203rd to 3rd in a mere ten years here (1990-2000), and is now 39th in the UK. Many people think that the movie Splash” put the name out there, and it caught on.

Thanks to Sarah Palin, something similar may happen with Willow, Piper, and Bristol. Here, but not there, at least not for Bristol. I have no idea how the Palins came up with Bristol, but I’d bet a lot of money that they’re not familiar with Cockney rhyming slang.


Popular Girls Names (UK, 2006. US 2007)

UK . . . . . . . . . . . .. .US
1. Olivia . . . . . . . . . Emily
2. Grace . . . . . . . . . Isabella
3. Jessica . . . . . . . . Emma
4. Ruby . . . . . . . . . Ava
5. Emily . . . . . . . . . Madison
6. Sophie . . . . . . . . Sophia
7. Chloe . . . . . . . . . Olivia
8. Lucy . . . . . . . . . . Abigail
9. Lily . . . . . . . . . . .Hannah
10. Ellie . . . . . . . . . Elizabeth
11. Ella . . . . . . . . . . Addison
12. Charlotte . . . . . . Samantha
13. Katie . . . . . . . . Ashley
14. Mia . . . . . . . . . .Alyssa
15. Hannah . . . . . . . Mia
16. Amelia . . . . . . . .Chloe
17. Megan . . . . . . . .Natalie
18. Amy. . . . . . . . .Sarah
19. Isabella . . . . . . .Alexis
20. Millie . . . . . . . .Grace

King and Queen

September 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

John McCain cancelled a scheduled interview with Larry King “as punishment for what his aides said was an unfair interview of a McCain campaign spokesman by the network host Campbell Brown on Monday night.” (Story in the New York Times ).

The claim of unfairness says a lot about the culture of politics and journalism.
ed. Here’s a clip from the interview.



What was unfair? Brown tried to get the McCain flak, Tucker Bounds, to answer the questions she asked.

First, she asks a question about Sarah Palin’s readiness to be commander-in-chief. Bounds’s answer is all about McCain. So Campbell Brown says (at 0:47), “I asked you about her.”

Then there’s this (at 2:11 in the clip), described by the Times
“Can you tell me one decision that she made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, just one?” Ms. Brown asked.

Mr. Bounds responded, “Any decision she has made as the commander of the National Guard that’s deployed overseas is more of a decision Barack Obama’s been making as he’s been running for president for the last two years.”

Ms. Brown pressed again, saying: “So tell me. Tell me. Give me an example of one of those decisions.”
Apparently, what’s unfair is to insist that a politician answer the question and if he doesn’t to point out that he has not answered it. At least in US journalism. If you listen to the BBC news, you’ll hear interviewers asking pointed questions, and when politicians – even cabinet secretaries – are evasive, the journalist will say, “But you haven’t answered my question,” and then repeat it.

In the US, such a demand is “unfair” to a candidate. If the interviewee is an office holder rather than an office seeker, the demand is “disrespectful.”

In a post about the film “The Queen” many months back, I speculated about the advantages of monarchy, of separating the role of ceremonial head of state from the role of political leader, rather than combining them as we do. A follow-up post quoted a British journalist on the cultural differences this has for political journalism. These posts focused on the Presidency. But the cloak of respect for the institution may flow farther down the line, so that we prefer all politicians, candidates for higher office, and their spokespersons to be treated with deference.

Or maybe, it’s just that we have a norm that face-to-face conversations – even interviews with politicians – should be “nice” rather than confrontational.

Or maybe not. At the same time that McCain was ducking Larry King, Obama was agreeing to go on Bill O’Reilly’s show. It will be interesting to see whether O’Reilly treats the Democratic candidate with greater civility than he shows to most guests he disagrees with. Maybe, Obama will be able to finish an answer to a question before O’Reilly interrupts him.