What Have You Got Against Progress?

April 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to find a liberal politician these days. Hillary? Nope. Bernie? Not him either.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and others of their generation used to be Liberals. No longer. They’re Progressives. And of course, so are newer faces like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Is there a difference? In a NY Times op-ed today, “When Liberals Become Progressives,” Greg Weiner of Assumption College says Yes there is. He’s wrong. Or rather, if he’s right, he’s right only in his own particular definition of these words.

“Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.” He sees Progressives as uncompromising, almost totalitarian. Progressivism is a steamroller flattening anyone and anything in its path to social improvements – tradition, the Constitution, individual rights; nothing is safe. “It supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.”

I’m sure that Chuck and Nancy, Hillary and Bernie, Cory and Kamala and the rest would be surprised and delighted to learn that their power was so awesome.

Of course, Prof. Weiner knows what’s really going on. It’s a change of name, not of policy.* “In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use.” Even as a name change, Weiner says, it “augurs poorly for Democrats.” He’s wrong. It was a brilliant bit of renaming and rebranding. It trades a label that was at best peripheral to American ideas and ideals for one that has a more central place in American culture.

The pantheon of American values includes ideals like Freedom, Equality, Success/Achievement, Democracy, Patriotism, and others. But no observer of American culture has ever seen Liberal as one of these terms that have such deep resonance in the hearts of Americans. That may have made it even easier for Republicans to turn “Liberal” into a slur.

But Americans do believe in Progress. Politicians can rail about ideas and policies that are liberal. But who will speak out against Progress? Back in the 20th century, the term was so unassailably positive that General Electric made it the core of their brand.** Progress was their most important product.


Yes, that’s conservative saint Ronald Reagan pitching progress. The idea of progress may have lost some of the sanctity it had in the 1950s, but it’s still highly positive. Not to Prof. Weiner. He still loves the “liberal” label. He says that those on the left “would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it. I wonder how many politicians (and their brand consultants) who are trying to win elections would agree with him?

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* Weiner does not mention any actual policies. Nor does he specify what he means by “the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.” Presumably, he means the right to discriminate against LBGTQ people.

** Back then, we spoke of “image” rather than “brand.” It’s really the same thing – how the public perceives the company. The main difference is that the word “image” suggests that the whole thing is a fake, an imaginary facade that PR guys have created to manipulate the public. “Brand,” by contrast, is as honest and unpretentious as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. This change from “image-mongers” to “brand consultants” is itself one of the great examples of rebranding.

Couch and Context

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s nothing unusual about a girl sitting on a couch, backpack beside her, writing in a notebook. But this was in a bus shelter on Columbus Avenue.


I crossed the street to make sure that it was an actual bus stop and not some temporary prop. It was the real thing.


But why would the MTA put a couch at a bus stop – besides the obvious reason so that people can sit on it and write in their notebooks. It took me a few seconds to catch on. I had seen this couch before, but in a different context, which is why I didn't recognize it immediately. Maybe you have seen it  too.

Bad News – This Kid Got Accepted at Lots of Colleges

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re a Republican, you probably think that Whites suffer more from racial discrimination than do Blacks.* One of the ways that Black people make things harder for Whites is by applying to college.

You have probably seen this video of the Black kid in Houston, on his computer, reading his acceptance from Stanford. Full scholarship. Family and friends scream in delight. He breaks down crying. It’s touching. He applied to 19 other schools with similar results.

The DC local Fox News program could not let the moment go without some criticism He had, the anchors complained, applied to too many schools. At each of those schools, they said, his acceptance meant that some other applicant was put on the wait list.**


The Fox reaction had nothing to do with race, right? That kid in the video  – that kid who jumped the line and displaced “someone else who worked really hard” –  just happened to be Black.

Still, there was something hauntingly familiar about the Fox take on college acceptances. Then I remembered it – the “Hands” ad. That was the TV spot Jesse Helms ran in his 1990 campaign for Senate in North Carolina. The ad showed a man’s hands opening a letter (no computer acceptances back then). The voice-over was explicit in playing the race card.



Affirmative action in 1990, college applications in 2018. In Republicanland, everyone knows that a White person just doesn’t have a chance any more.

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* A Public Religion Research Institute poll (WaPo summary here) asked voters if Whites were “under attack.” Sixty-three percent agreed.  Is there “a lot of discrimination” against Whites? Forty-three percent of Republicans agreed. Against Blacks? Only 27% of Republicans agreed.

** Colleges send out more acceptances than they have places for. They make fairly good estimates of how many of those accepted students will choose another school. I would imagine that those estimates take into account the average number of schools that high schoolers apply to.

“Mi Amor” — My Larry David Moment

April 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Larry David, in his pre-”Seinfeld” standup years, did a bit about familiar and formal pronouns in Romance languages.* “I’m glad I wasn’t the owner of a big hacienda in some South American country [pause] because I’d never know whether to address the workers as tu or usted.” And he would explain the delicacies and conflicts associated with each pronoun.

David did not exactly kill as a standup. Or as he put it, “I sucked.” But when I read about that line, I thought – it’s pure sociology. It’s Goffman, it’s social class, it’s culture. By choosing one pronoun you are, as Goffman says,  “projecting a definition of the situation” and the role relationships within that situation. We Americans, with our ideals of equality, do not feel comfortable with vertical relationships. We don’t like to admit that social class distinctions exist. Economic inequality, that’s OK. But cultural inequality, that’s evil elitism.**

Fairway, my local grocery store, is not a hacienda, but I had that same Larry David moment this morning.

Let me back up. I’ve been shopping there for years. The long-time workers there  – we recognize one another and exchange brief pleasantries. I try to use what little Spanish I have. A while ago, I noticed that the workers, at least in male-female exchanges, address one other as “mi amor.” There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s very casual –  the equivalent of the British “luv” (“Care for a cuppa cha, luv?” asks the waitress.)

I wanted to be “mi amor.” After all, I’ve known these cashiers for ages. Some of them ask after my son, who they remember from when he was a toddler. I comment, always favorably, when they change their hair style. When I pay in cash, I tell them to keep the pennies. (I told you this was very Larry David.) Hey, what about me? Why can’t I be “mi amor”?

And then, a year or so ago, it happened. One of the cashiers, Arelis, a woman of at least fifty, started calling me “mi amor,” and I did likewise to her. A dream fulfilled. I was “mi amor.”

This morning, I wound up at Arelis’s register. “Buenos dias, mi amor,” etc. I had only a couple of items (three red peppers and a slice of manouri cheese, if you most know). On the screen, it said $5.00. “Five dollars,” said Arelis. “Exactly?” I said and then added “En punto,” She was surprised and said something in Spanish about how much Spanish I know.

I demurred. The only reason I know “en punto” is that it’s in the one line of Spanish poetry I know –  “Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde,” from a famous poem by Garcia Lorca. But could I recite the line to Arelis? Is the poem famous enough to be recognized by a grocery store cashier from the Dominican Republic? If not, I feared that explaining how I knew “en punto” would come off as elitist. I would become the over-educated Americano, and that elevated status – like using usted rather than tu –  would disqualify me forever from being “mi amor.”

I handed her the $5 bill, said, “Buen dia,” and went on my way.

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* For a short video of David, somewhat older, doing this bit, go here

** Donald Trump’s supporters don’t mind that he has a ton of money – who wouldn’t want a ton of money? – because he shares not just their political views but their cultural preferences. Speaking about “Rosanne” to a rally of his supporters, Trump said, “It’s about us,” as though Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago were just slightly spiffier versions of the Connor house in Ohio. The crowd cheered.