Is That a Thing?

October 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one – the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.



Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative. 

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? about difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? about mental illness and violence? about ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?  No. None of the above.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years. 

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing. 

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme – they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. (I wonder what the stabbing-death-story demographic is.)  Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Mark Fishman wrote about this thematic organization of TV news in his 1978 article “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  We’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice it.  Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  A possible consequence that Fishman pointed out is that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves – sudden increases in the number of stories while the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.

Here is another screen from the Daily News website.


A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools – is that a thing? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

Careers Night

October 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our annual careers night. Or it might be or bi-annual careers night, or even tri-annual. Some years we have it, and some we don’t, and this year we did.  It’s our attempt to answer the age-old question, “What can I do with a degree in Sociology?”

We know what some sociology graduates have done – become head coach of the Steeles or First Lady of the United States.  But since those jobs are currently taken, we were lucky to have three of our recent graduates on hand to tell us what they were doing. 

We had a pretty good turnout – at least fifty students.


And here are our speakers: Emman Hamdan,  Jessica McCabe, and Kristine Nemec.



Emman is in her first year of an MSW program at Rutgers. 


She’s taking courses and “shadowing” a social worker in the field. She said that her Sociology at Montclair had prepared her so well that the instructor in one of her courses had asked her not to speak up in class so that the other student could wrestle with the questions. 

Kristine got her degree in May, but she is already a consulting company.


Back in the spring semester, when Kristine was in Chris Donoghue’s section of Senior Research Project, Chris got an inquiry from a medical board. They needed a survey.  Kristine was on it immediately. She singlehandedly designed the survey and is now analyzing the data. She plans to do further consultant/contract work. 

Jessica is working for two non-profits. At the Masakhane Center in Newark she is a sex educator, where, she says, the insights of sociology have helped her tailor her approach for the needs of an inner-city population.


She also works at the National Council of Jewish Women, a different p;opulation (Short Hills ain’t Newark). After looking at some of the surveys Council had done, she said to herself, “Prof. Ruane would not have liked the construction of this survey.” She told them so, tactfully, and offered to do it right. So now she is their unofficial in-house survey maven.

The speakers were great, and the students were very interested to know what might lie on the other side of a sociology degree.  We really should do this more often.

The Revenge Fantasy - Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave

October 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic  points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.
Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.


It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.  The classic example is the Charles Atlas ad that used to grace the back page of those comic books.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

For the sake of brevity and clarity, here is the Reader’s Digest version in three frames – one before the magic transformation, two after.


As I’m sure others have pointed out, this scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of US foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach. 

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully. 
12 Years a Slave though, doesn't present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.
Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):
 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.
From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it. 

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life, the results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

Separate Ways

October 15, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six years into a marriage is about the peak year for divorce.

Six years ago the ASA proposed to Malcolm Gladwell.  We gave him the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, which
honors individuals for their promotion of sociological findings and a broader vision of sociology. The ASA would like to recognize the contributions of those who have been especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives and research.
We were virgins. Malcolm was our first.  He swept us off our feet. He was cute and funny, and famous - he had TED talks, he’d been on NPR! But more important, he made us feel good about ourselves.  It wasn’t just the flattery of his beautiful words and clever phrases. He really paid attention to us, we thought, gazing deeply into our articles. He told us that what we did was important, relevant.

It was too good to last, and now the break-up seems imminent.  You can see it coming in tweets like this one by Matt Salganik of Princeton sociology.


Christopher Chabris, the author of the linked piece in Slate, is not a sociologist, he’s a cognitive psychologist, but you sense that sociologists too are seeing the same flaws. 

Oh, why didn’t we see them before. It’s not as though anybody has really changed all that much. The faults were always there. In fact, some sociologists did see them.

Here’s a clip of Robb Willer telling his social psych class about his experience as a panelist at the ASA session where Gladwell was given the award.


Chabris, in his deposition, speaks of our naïveté. Oh, yes, maybe we sensed that Malcolm wasn’t always telling the truth, but we rationalized.
perhaps I am the one who is naive . . . I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights.
But he was playing us for a fool. He lied to us
according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth especially when your audience is so vast . . .?*
Oh well, these things happen. Life goes on.  We try again and again, kissing frogs (remember that date with David Brooks back in 2011?)** and hoping for a true prince.

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* Chabris here is echoing Macbeth:
“I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.” (V, 8)

** The list of award recipients is here.

The Vaper’s Drag

October 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

A question in the Social Q’s column of the Times today asks about the etiquette of electronic cigarettes at a dinner party.  In his answer, Philip Galanes expains what e-cigs are ( “battery-powered vaporizers . . .that deliver synthetic nicotine Users exhale an odorless white vapor”).  He continues,
The “vaper” (yes, that’s the colloquial term for users) should have asked your host and tablemates . . .
I don’t really care what the answer is, but I love vaper.  I just wonder how many people will get the reference.  It hark back to viper, which in the first half of the twentieth century was slang for a marijuana smoker.  The term did not survive the marijuana boom of the 1960s, though I have no idea why. Reefer and pot survived as terms for marijuana, but boo disappeared. So did viper. Sill, some historical artifacts remain, notably Stuff Smith’s 1936 song “If You’se a Viper,” which begins,
Think about a reefer five feet long.
Wikipedia says that it’s “one of the most frequently covered songs about marijuana.”  The best-known of these covers is probably the one by Fats Waller (himself the compser of “Viper’s Drag”).  Fats cleaned up the grammar (“If You’re a Viper”) and slowed down the tempo.  But here’s the original.



As the song says,
When your throat gets dry, you know you’re high.


Fearing Democracy

October 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Let’s give Michelle Bachman her due. She speaks her mind. She also speaks the minds of other Republicans who won’t: Her words are what oft was thought but ne’er so outrageously expressed.

Yes, she likened Obamacare to crack.
President Obama can’t wait to get Americans addicted to the crack cocaine of dependency on more government health care.
Some keen-eared liberals detected subtle racist overtones in that metaphor. Heavens no. I’m sure Rep. Bachman’s intentions were pure. But let us ignore the possibly offensive metaphor and look at the substance of what she said.  After all, her idea, even without that metaphor, is something you can hear in many Republican hangouts. 

Taken at face value, her statement is saying that in a democracy, the people cannot be trusted.
 Because, once they enroll millions of more individual Americans it will be virtually impossible for us to pull these benefits back from people.
All they want to do is buy love from people by giving them massive government subsidies.
What she’s saying is this: If the government does something that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of the people, it will be impossible to undo that policy using democratic means.

It may seem odd, at least to those of us raised on an ideology of democracy, that there’s a danger in the government enacting programs that people like. But that seems to be what Bachman and other Republicans fear.  Their worst nightmare is that once Obamacare is fully implemented, it will be successful; people will like it, and they will vote for the party that created that program. 

That fear about the electoral consequences of a successful Obamacare is overblown if not downright incorrect. But that fear does reveal a deep distrust of democracy and of ordinary voters. 

The Redskins — No Offense

October 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston


The Redskins have been in the news lately  – on the front page of this morning’s Times, for example –  and not for their prowess on the gridiron (they are 1-3 on the season). It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so.  “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.

President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”

Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive,* and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it.  I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities.  The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.


The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos.  And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.”  This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American.  His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by Russell Means of the AIM: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”

HT for the hats: Max

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* Football fans of a certain age may remember Washington’s running back John Riggins, who had a few good seasons but is most remembered for his comment at a 1985 National Press Club dinner. He was seated next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and he was drunk. He passed out, slid to the floor, and slept  through Vice-President’s Bush’s speech. But before that, he told the justice, “Loosen up, Sandy baby. You’re too tight.” I’m sure his remark was not intended to give offense.

Pointless Post in Useless Blog

October 9, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Post this morning had me at hello, or rather, at headline.


It’s an allusion to one of the Post’s most famous headlines, from 1983.


(This was long before the era of the Kristal-pouring, gold-card strip club, with sports stars and hedge-funders tossing out benjamins for lapdances. In 1983, a topless bar was most likely a seedy joint.)

Today’s headline was an homage to Vinnie Musetto, author of the “Headless” headline. He had been freelancing at the Post since his retirement in 2011, but in August, the Post cut him off entirely, claiming budgetary constraints. Among Post headline writers, he’s gone but not forgotten.

The news story (here) has relevance not just for headline writing but for matters of criminal justice, law, and culture as well.

Jessica Krigsman, who had been arrested for being topless in a Brooklyn park back in the summer of 2012, is now suing the city for violating her rights.  Her encounter with New York’s finest wasn’t exactly like “Law and Order.” She knew her rights, and the cops didn’t.
“I’m like, what? Haven’t you heard of People v. Santorelli?” Krigsman said she told the cops. . . . “This has been legal since the ’90s. Call your supervisor!”

One of the cops told her to “stop mouthing off” and threatened her with arrest, court papers say.
The cops put her in pink handcuffs and took her to the precinct.

Krigsman’s knowledge of relevant case law comes with her professional territory. She’s not a lawyer, she’s a stripper – “a burlesque dancer who performs a fire-eating bondage act.”  The Post explains:
She stripteases and eats fire while straddling a man whose hands are tied and is bound to a chair.

A description for the event reads: “Prepare to be strange, prepare to be altered! There will be nudity, blood, vulgarity and many other unspeakable things.”
Even the Post can’t make this stuff up.

It’s Not About Obamacare

October 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why are some Republicans willing to shut down the government and to force the US to default on its debts in order to prevent a health care system very much like the one instituted in Massachusetts – a plan designed by a conservative think tank (the Heritage foundation) and instituted by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney)?

Maybe it’s not about health care.

Four years ago, in the early days of the fight against Obamacare, it seemed to me that healthcare was a symbolic issue, a matter of status politics. (That post is here.)  For many of the protesters, the question was not which healthcare policy would be good for who. The question was: whose country is this anyway?

These were Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” – older, white, non-urban – and they had long assumed that it was their country.  And they were right.  But the 2008 election was a rude reminder that they were becoming a minority – less influential, less powerful, less respected. The passage of Obamacare would somehow inscribe that diminished status into a law.  So Obamacare became the decisive battle in the fight to “take back our country.”* If we lose, if Obamacare takes effect, it’s their country.

In this apocalyptic style of thinking, Obama and Obamacare balloon from political opponent into something close to absolute evil.  And if you’re fighting evil, compromise is not an option.

Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s recent book, Change They Can’t Believe In, fills out this picture of the adamant Right. The Tea Partistas are not just a more strident versions of traditional conservatives.  Issues that engaged the traditional right – e.g., a muscular foreign policy – are not so important to them.  They are much more likely to emphasize the illegitimacy of the Obama administration. 

Parker and Barreto found differences like these by comparing the postings on Tea Party websites with those of National Review Online. (The National Review has long been the voice of conservatism – and not even “moderate” conservatism – but it’s not Tea Party).  The NRO posts were mostly devoted to policy matters. But on the Tea Party sites, over half the content had a flavor that Parker says is “more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics” – conspiracy theories, and attacks on Obama.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The data come from graphs posted at a WaPo Wonkblog interview with Parker (here). I don’t know what their coding scheme was, and I wonder about some of the absent topics. Immigration is the only domestic policy issue on the charts.  No guns, no healthcare, no taxes, etc. 

When Republicans think about Obama, legitimacy is the overarching issue.  Here is a word cloud of focus groups of Republicans – from Tea Party to moderates – asked about Obama.**


While all saw Obama as a liar, the Tea Partistas and Evangelicals said that what the lies and deceit were hiding was a socialist-Marxist agenda and that Obama himself was a Muslim and a tyrant,a non-citizen, a supporter of terrorism, and a “masonic Devil Illuminati.”  In fact, the word cloud shows devil turning up with the same frequency as dumbass (though for all I know, those could be n = 1).

In sum, the hard-core right views the Obama government as illegitimate and corrupt, and they fear that its success will mean total transformation of American society, a transformation in which they and people like them will lose status and power. That success, they fear, will come from the new health care law. As Andrew Sullivan says, “nothing represents their sense of loss and anger more powerfully than Obamacare.”

So don’t ask why some people are willing to shut down the government and to have the US default on its financial obligations, with all the damage that may bring to the economy of the nation and the world, in order to thwart a change in healthcare policy.  It’s not about Obamacare.

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* In my “Repo Men” post (here), I offered some data showing that his imagery of “taking back our country” is much more a staple of out-of-power Republicans than Democrats.

** A pdf. of the report by Stan Greenberg and James Carville is here .

The Daughter Also Rises

October 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I still recall a Times wedding announcement from a few decades ago. The bride’s given name was Scarlett.

Why, I wondered, would someone name their daughter Scarlett? The text of the announcement pretty much answered that. Her debutante party had been a Gone With the Wind Ball, with the family’s estate transformed into Tara. 

Names are always, to some extent, a projection of parental ideas onto the child.* The question is: to what extent? It’s one thing to name your kid Jayden or Isabella because you think it sounds like a cool name – unusual enough to be hip, not so unusual as to be weird.  It’s another to saddle your child with your very specific fantasy derived from some novel or movie you imagine recreating in real life.  (Scarlett, I recall, had become an actress, so she may have been comfortable playing out other people’s fantasies, even her mother’s.) 

I had thought that this sort of naming had waned, so I was a bit surprised by this sentence in a post at The Monkey Cage, a political science blog:
First up is Brett Ashley Leeds, a professor at Rice University who has published widely on issues of international security, especially alliances.
I know nothing about Prof. Leeds or her work or her parents.  Nor do I have any idea what effect her Hemingway-derived name might possibly have had on her.  I expect that she has not taken up with journalists suffering from what we now call erectile dysfunction or with 19-year old toreros.  (I would also expect that she has long wearied of references like these.) I do note however that her post, “Why is work by women systematically devalued?” has a sentence about the effects street names might have on children. She writes, “from honorary names . . .they will receive messages that are likely to produce a subconscious bias.” I’m reluctant to make any such guesses about cause and effect.  But perhaps the messages that kids get from the names their parents give them is something Brett Ashley knows about.

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* Names are parental projections, of course, only in societies where parents are free to choose the names of their children.

Chess Problem – In a Real Game

October 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

(No sociology here, just what Chris Uggen calls “self-indulgery.”)

I am not a chess player. I haven’t played since my kid was in grade school, and during  Saturday morning tournaments, when the kids were playing their matches in the lunch room, some of us bored parents in the auditorium would sit on the stage and play our patzer’s version of the game.

But last Saturday I was at the farmers’ market in Union Square, which also has a lane for chess players. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I figured these were canny players.  The match in the foreground above reminded me of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” – how many times had I watched our VHS of that movie – where a park hustler competes with a grandmaster for the chess soul of a young prodigy.

For a minute or so I watched this game.  When I got home and browsed through my photos – mostly of things like apples and radishes -- I took a closer look at the board.  It was white to move.:


Here’s a diagram of the position.


White pushed his pawn to h4, attacking black’s knight.

White Black thought for a while, too long in fact, for he made some move with his queen. He had been so lost in thought about the line of play following that move that he forgot that he was about to lose a knight.

But neither player saw the killer move that black had.  If you know anything about chess, you’ll see it immediately.  It’s the kind of position you might find in the chess problem corner of the newspaper (“Black has a crusher”), on the same page with the Jumble and Funky Winkerbean.  But there it was in a real game.