Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.

   


The Day they Defined Dixie Deviance Down

August 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thinking About the Unthinkable was the title of a 1962 book about thermonuclear war. The author was Herman Kahn. In an earlier book, Kahn maintained that thermonuclear war, like any other war, was both possible and winnable.  Critics responded that to even bring discussion of such a war into the realm of rational debate turned the horror of mass annihilation into an acceptable idea.

A half-century later, Donald Trump is helping to bring the ideas of White nationalism – once closeted and unacceptable – into the realm of legitimate political discourse. At least, that’s the argument made by Emily Badger in the New York Times today* (here)

Critics fear that Trump is inviting white supremacists out of the corner, helping ideas that have become widely reviled in America to be redefined as reasonable opinions — just part of the discussion.

It’s what Pat Moynihan called “defining deviance down.” People can change their ideas so that what had once been deviant is now acceptable.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how norms change. People who write about the process wind up using the passive voice, a lot, as Badger does with both verbs in the second part of that sentence:  “ideas that have become widely reviled”; “to be redefined.”

Who is doing the redefining?

It probably helps if the the green light on expressing those ideas comes from an important and mainstream source – the leader of the free world, for example. Or how about a respected magazine, not Brietbart or the Daily Stormer, and how about a “Senior Fellow” some place, just to give the whole thing the trappings of scholarship? 

So here we have Arthur L. Herman, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, writing in the National Review. His article bears the title “Confederate Statues Honor Timeless Virtues – Let Them Stay” (here). If you have any doubt as to how wrong Herman is historically, read the Eric Foner piece I quoted yesterday, or see this article by Justin Fox at Bloomberg. Fox, in a footnote, cites a relevant statistic: in the 1890s in Alabama there were 177 lynchings.   

What Herman does in his article is not so much defining deviance down but rather standing it on its head. Those 177 lynchings, he argues, were good times compared with the court decisions and passage of civil rights laws seventy years later. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

[Robert E. Lee’s] dream of a new South descended into Jim Crow after he died. This is in fact the best argument that those who want these statues gone can make: that the “reconciliation” between North and South was done on the backs of blacks, and that the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow were the price America paid to have peace in the aftermath of civil war. From a historical point of view, it’s almost convincing, even though what American blacks suffered under segregation was nothing compared to what liberalism has inflicted on them since the 1950s, as it destroyed their families, their schools, and their young men and women’s lives through drugs and guns and the gangster-rap culture “lifestyle,” which is really a death style. [emphasis added]

For much of his article, Herman sounds like the stereotypical old White man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, though he’s barely into his sixties. Perhaps his views about the relative joys of Reconstruction and Jim Crow will fade as the people who hold those views age and depart this plane. But it’s also possible that when those views are given the official stamp of National Review and the Hudson Institute, they become, even for younger people, less deviant and more thinkable. No doubt, Herman Kahn, one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, would be pleased.

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* Badger cites two noteworthy sociologists, Tina Fetner and Sarah Sobieraj

The Statues That Were Never Built

August 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ASA meetings in Montreal, someone (and I wish I could remember who it was) told me that the blog post of mine he really liked was the one about “negative space” (here). It’s from 2012, and I had only the vaguest memory of it, but here’s the gist. It started with what my grad-school roommate had said about the life drawing course he was taking.

One evening he came home and reported that the teacher had given a brilliant instruction that allowed him to make a real breakthrough.  What the teacher had said was this:
    Don’t draw the figure, draw what’s not there.  Draw the negative space around the subject.
In social science too, the solution to a problem sometimes starts with thinking about the part that isn’t there.

Today’s New York Times op-ed by Eric Foner (here) provides an excellent example. Much has been written in the past week or so about the statues of Robert E. Lee and other heroes of the Confederacy that are now central points in a political-cultural tug-of-war. Historians examine the provenance of the statues – who put them up and when – to reveal what these chunks of stone are saying. But, says Foner, we can also learn a lot about the statues and their meaning by thinking about the statues that are absent from the public square.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

According to a YouGov poll, most of the public (54%) see the statues as symbols of Southern pride. Only half that many see them as symbols of racism. And a plurality of the respondents disapprove of removing the statues, though there is an understandable difference between Whites and Blacks.  (I’m puzzled by the high rate of “No Opinion,” especially among Blacks.)                       

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)


I would expect that most of the statue supporters in the South would say that they are motivated by Southern pride and not racism. But after reading Foner’s article, I wonder ow would they respond to a proposal that their town square add a statue of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet? Or Frederick Douglass? Or the first Black senator from their state?

America’s Youth — Lost Yet Again.

August 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, The Atlantic posted this article by Jean Twenge, and some of my Facebook friends linked to it with favorable comments.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
Just from what you can see in this graphic, I was skeptical.

1. Kids and Trouble. When I see titles like this, I immediately think of “Trouble” from “The Music Man” and “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie.” (What can I say – I was raised on LPs of Broadway shows.) I’ve mentioned these in posts going back ten years (here) and more recently (here).  Apparently, you can get a lot of attention by telling people that the youth of America are going to hell in a handbasket, or in this case, an iHandbasket.

2. Crying wolf. Jean Twenge sounded a similar alarm not all that long ago. Generation Me (2006) and The Narcissism Epidemic (2009).  I noted my doubts about the latter here.

3. Question titles.  Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”*

I’d like to explore the evidence – it seems that the main source of Twenge’s data is Monitoring the Future, a long-standing survey housed at ICPSR – but it’s complicated. The survey gives different forms to different samples of different age groups (8th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders). And in 2012, the survey changed the way it compiled the surveys. Anyone who knows how to work with MTF, please raise your hand.

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*This is a slight variation on Betteridge's Law