School Shooting + Guns + Flag — How Embarrassing

May 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Embarrassment happens when someone sees something you don’t want them to see, and you think that they will draw an impression that is not the one you want them to have. It’s embarrassing to be discovered cheating (on a test, on your spouse) because then people will get the impression* that you cheat – an accurate impression, but one you don’t want them to have. It’s like Michael Kinsley’s observation about politics: a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.

Less than an hour after the gun slaughter in Santa Fe, Texas, a man showed up at the school carrying a large flag and a large pistol. Someone tweeted a video of him, adding that another man said that what the gunslinger did was “an embarrassment.”

It was embarrassing because someone might see this flag-waving gunslinger and get the impression not just that flag-waving and gunslinging are part of the American way of life, our American exceptionalism, but that these go along with our exceptionally high number of school massacres. Someone might get the impression that the guns and the massacres are just as American as the Stars and Stripes.

The man in the video had committed a gaffe.

Anyone who has taken intro sociology will recognize that I’m using Erving Goffman’s ideas about impression management and the presentation of self.

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)

Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties

May 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A “traitor to his class” – that’s what wealthier Republicans and conservatives called FDR. Here was a man who came from wealth yet whose policies were more directed at helping the poor and unemployed, even at the expense of the rich.

Tom Wolfe’s most famous work is probably “Radical Chic,” the 25,000-word piece that ran in New York Magazine in June, 1970. It was about “a party for the Black Panthers.” Wolfe too casts a cold eye on wealthy people coming to the aid of people who were on the wrong side of the social system, iin this case, twenty-one Black Panthers accused of a variety of offenses including conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, police stations, the New Haven Railroad, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Thirteen of the accused had been arrested and bail was set at $100,000, in effect denying them bail. They had been in jail for over a year. Leonard Bernstein had been persuaded to hold a fund-raiser for them in his apartment. Wealthy people, some of them famous, were invited. So were the lawyers and some members of the Black Panther Party.

You’d think that a journalist covering the event would pay extensive attention to the legal side of things – the charges, the evidence, and so on. You’d also think that in reflecting on the article years later in an interview with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the journalist would mention, at least in passing, that the eventual trial had lasted eight months (New York’s longest and most expensive ever at the time) and that the jury took only a couple of hours to return not-guilty verdicts on all 156 charges (twelve crimes x thirteen defendants).

You might think that, but if the journalist is Tom Wolfe, you’d think wrong. Wolfe didn’t really care about the legal charges. He didn’t care about the issues of justice or race or politics that the people at Bernstein’s apartment were talking about. What he cared about was Style.  His goal in the article was to mock these rich White people, many of them Jewish, for trying to incorporate elements of Black style. For Wolfe, the gathering – the discussion and donations – was not primarily about justice. It was merely one more attempt by rich people to appear hip. As Wolfe told the Nieman interviewer

This is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — [. . .] They’ll never be a starker contrast between, to use a fancy word, two sensibilities.

The cover for this issue of New York Magazine captures Wolfe’s message –three wealthy-looking White women (I have no idea who designed their dresses; Wolfe, no doubt, would) raising their fists in the Black Power salute.

Wolfe is very good at style and status. Nobody does it better. The article is awash in observations of clothes, colors, fabrics, objects.

The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.

No detail is too trivial.

Lefcourt and Quat [lawyers for the Panthers] start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . . 

You might think that devoting this much attention to a mint – a mint for godssakes – serves mostly as a vehicle for Wolfe to show off his knowledge of merch (Marthinsen bowls) and his prose. But the Nieman interviewer, tells Wolfe. “This is a beautiful thing, the way you puncture the tension with a mint.” Shows you how little I know about journalism.
There’s another problem with Wolfe’s New Journalism – the almost imperceptible shift from the reporter’s observation to the novelist’s omniscience. I hope to say more about that in a later post.

Names 2017: Boys and Girls Together

May 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Boys names can become girls names, rarely the reverse. But that is true only of individual names. With the overall distribution of names, in at least one way, boys are becoming more like girls.

When a name crosses over from one gender to the other, girls follow the boys. A name that had been exclusively male starts to gain popularity for girls, with a consequent loss in popularity for boys.  It’s the “there goes the neighborhood” effect that Stanley Lieberson first pointed out. When girls start moving in, boys move out. (See this post).

For example, around 1960, Brook started to rise in popularity as a name for boys. Barley ten years later, the name was adopted by parents of girls. In a decade this girls  name quintupled in popularity. The number were still small, but where before it was not even in the top thousand, it rose to nearly #500 in popularity. Parents felt they could no longer give a boy that name, and Brook soon became an all-girl neighborhood. With an “e” added, Brooke eventually broke into the top 50, while baby boy Brooks all but disappeared.

(The graphic is from Baby Name Voyager. Click to enlarge.)

But if we look at changing patterns in names —  the variety and variability—  the genders switch places.  The curve of boys names is becoming more girl-like.

Fashions in names have resembled fashions in clothes. Women can wear a variety of colors and styles; men’s choices are more limited. Look at prom pictures. The guys are all wearing pretty much the same black tux. Everyday business wear for men widens the spectrum only slightly. Remember how Obama was pilloried by the right-wing for wearing a tan suit rather than the usual gray or black that all other men wear. But for a woman, it can be an embarrassment to be seen in a dress worn by even one other woman.

Similarly in names, parents of boys were happy to give their sons the same old names —  William, Christopher, John, etc. Boys could be given the same name as the father. But for girls, parents were more likely to want a name that was different (but not too different). One of the trends of the last several decades is that parents of both sexes have tried to come up with less common (but not weird) names.  Consequently the sheer number of different names has burgeoned. Compared with names in 1997, the number of girls names had increase by 60%. But for boys the number had more than doubled. Boys are still trailing girls, but they’re trying to catch up.

The increase in names is not simply a matter of an increase in babies. In fact, more babies were born in 1997 than in 2017.

The trend towards a more female-like variety also appears in the proportion of babies accounted for by the most popular names. Forty years ago, nearly 38% of all boys had a name that was among the 20 most popular. For girls, the corresponding rate was 26%. Parents of girls were more likely to look for less common names.

That trend – the search for more unusual names – increased for both sexes, but more so for boys.  By last year, the boy-girl gap of forty years ago had narrowed to one percentage point.

The desire for something new also means that fashions change more rapidly. Traditionally, women’s clothing styles came and went in a year or two or even in a season while men could keep wearing the first suit they’d ever bought (if it still fit). But fashions in male names (and probably in clothing too) have become more fleeting. Look at the top 20 names for each gender at 20-year intervals.

Of the top 20 boys names in 1997, more than half had been there 20 years earlier. For girls, only five of the top names of 1977 remained in the top 20. Jump ahead twenty years to 2017. Now, among the boys, only 5 names from 20 years earlier are still popular. And for girls, only two — Emily and the surprisingly durable Madison.

The convergence might be part of a general trend towards less rigid gender roles. If so, then the trend towards a greater variation in boys names should be slower in regions that are less evolved when it comes to gender roles. Or perhaps it’s part of the change towards viewing the child as a unique and very special individual, one who deserves a unique and very special name. That change in turn may have a lot to do with the decrease in the number of children. But these are just highly speculative guesses.

UPDATE: Tristan Bridges has much better graphs showing these same trends. He uses the top 10 rather than the top 20 and finds that in 2017, for the first time since 1880 when the census started keeping the count of names, the top 10 girls names accounted for a higher (though only very slightly higher) proportion of all girls names than the corresponding proportion for boys.  His post is here.