A survey question is only as good as its choices. Sometimes an important choice has been left off the menu. I was Gallup polled once, long ago. I’ve always felt that they didn’t get my real opinion.
“What’d they ask?” said my brother when I mentioned it to him.
“You know, they asked whether I approved of the way the President was doing his job.” Nixon – this was in 1969.
“What’d you say?”
“I said I disapproved of his entire existential being.”
I was exaggerating my opinion, and I didn’t actually say that to the pollster. But even if I had, my opinion would have been coded as “disapprove.”
For many years the American National Election Study has asked:
How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?
The trouble with these choices at that they exclude the truly disaffected. The worst you can say about the federal government is that it can be trusted “only some of the time.” A few ornery souls say they don’t trust the federal at all. But because that view is a write-in candidate, it usually gets only one or two percent of the vote.
This year the study included “never” in the options read to respondents. Putting “no-way, no-how” right there on the ballot makes a big difference. And as you’d expect, there were party differences:
Over half of Republicans say that the federal government can NEVER be trusted.
The graph appears in this Monkey Cage post by Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph. Of course, some of those “never” Republicans don’t really mean “never ever.” If a Republican becomes president, they’ll become more trusting, and the “never-trust” Democrat tide will rise. Here’s the Hetherington-Rudolph graph tracking changes in the percent of people who do trust Washington during different administrations.
This one seems to show three things:
Trust took a dive in the 1960s and 70s and never really recovered.
Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.
I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.
Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture. What’s curious is how that historical trend seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.
O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century. From Fox News Insider:
“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”
Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.
If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s. That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right. It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation. We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.
But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children. No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.
The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.” I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.
The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II.
From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google). The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s, continues through the Reagan and Clinton years.
But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to decline.
And what about “Merry Christmas”? According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground. But Ngrams tells a different story.
If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s. Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around.
Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.”
In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular. In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one. In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again.
By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one. Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”
O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.” But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.
Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen stopped, waited, looked left, right. He had been driving nine hundred miles, had nearly a hundred more to go, but if there was any impatience it was only the steady growl of the engine which could just as easily be called a purr.I chided him for stopping; he told me our civilization is founded on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.
One December long ago, I got a ride home from Boston to Pittsburgh with Murray in his black VW Beetle. He was a graduate student, I was an undergrad, and in those days the trip took twelve hours. We got into Pittsburgh some time after 2 a.m. The streets were deserted
In Shadyside on Fifth Avenue, not far from my parents’ condo, we came to a red light. Murray paused, then drove on through.
“Sociology allowed me to do that,” he said.
I can’t remember his explanation, but I think it had something to do with “rules in use” and the negotiability of norms. That’s interesting, I thought. Maybe it was even convincing, though I still turned in my seat to see if there were any cops behind us. There weren’t.
Murray was right. At that hour of empty streets, waiting for the green serves no rational purpose. When there is no traffic, traffic safety is not an issue. But Bruce Hawkins’s dad is also right. He takes a more Durkheimian view: rationality is not the basis of society. What makes society possible is people’s attachment to the group and its ideas – its values, its beliefs, and its stoplights.I wonder what Murray would have said now about this poem.
Way back in 1978, Mark Fishman wrote an article titled “Crime Waves as Ideology.” It referred to the way in which TV news gets organized thematically in ways that make non-trends appear to be trends. Fishman pointed out that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves — sudden increases in the number of stories even as 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. Today we’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice.
Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping. Consider: on a recent 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. The related story is actually an entirely unrelated story.
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. 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.
Here is another example in a screengrab 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 real trend? Probably not, but it is a news theme.
The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)
When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place the tatami floor with the others, my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor. The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.
I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.
It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.
Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.
I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated. Now that assumption was shattered. But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on feeling of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.
When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.” In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us. We experience that emotion as personal. But in an important way, it is also social.
olden days a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking, But now lord knows — Anything goes.
— Cole Porter, 1934
Poor Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post. He’s being raked over the liberal coals for this recent observation:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled – about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York – a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts – but not all – of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, gagging at a Black-White couple and their biracial children is, in fact, racist. So let’s focus on the word that Cohen uses to avoid that obvious conclusion – conventional.
Conventional: conforming or adhering to accepted standards; ordinary rather than different or original.
Matthew Yglesias at Slate seizes on that word and those “people with conventional views.” Yglesias too calls Cohen’s column “racist,” but more to the point, he provides some Gallup-poll evidence that interracial marriage is the new conventional.
Or as Cole Porter put it in a 1935 production:
When ladies fair who seek affection Prefer gents of dark complexion As Romeos — Anything goes
Porter was bemused; Cohen is troubled. My spider sense tells me that if he’s not actually one of those people with conventional views repressing a gag reflex, he at least feels some strong sympathy for them. But they are on the wrong side of 21st century history, and not only on interracial marriage. Consider that parenthetical comment:
(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)
First, this is a pretty good example of one of my favorite rhetorical devices, paralipsis (or is it apophasis?) – saying something while saying that you’re not saying it. “To keep this discussion one of principle and not personalities, I won’t even mention that my opponent was arrested for wife-beating and has been linked to the Gambino crime family.”
Second, as with interracial marriage, opinion on homosexuality has shifted considerably. Here’s the GSS data.
In less than twenty years, the Always Wrong delegation has shrunk from more than three-fourths to less than half. As Cohen says, this change has “enveloped” only parts of America. The gag reflex is still strong in the East South Central, which comprises Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky – the most unenveloped (unreconstructed?) of the GSS regions.
Despite the recent liberalizing trend, the Always Wrongs outnumber the Never Wrongs by more than two to one.
But wait, Cohen is not from the South or Appalachia. Like Bill deBlasio, he’s a New Yorker born and bred. (DeBlasio is from Manhattan, Cohen from Far Rockaway, Queens.) But there might be one other demographic source of that gag reflex – age. Cohen is 72. Here’s how his peers feel about people who share Cole Porter’s sexual orientation.
Among septuagenarians and their elders, those gagging at gays have a large 3½-to-1 edge.
Cohen is probably making the mistake that many of us make – projecting our own views as more widely held than they actually are. Journalists may be especially prone to this kind of projection, preferring to write about what “the public” or “the voters” want or think, when simple first-person statements would be more accurate. So when Cohen says, “to cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all,” he may be talking about himself and the country he grew up in — Far Rockaway in the forties and fifties. But in 2013, that Far Rockaway is far away.
Republicans tend to be Second Amendment absolutists. The NRA and their representatives in Congress haven’t yet weighed in on the specific issue of, say, banning assault rifles in LAX, but they just might argue that such a law would be an unconstitutional infringement of the right to bear arms.
The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and when it comes to the Establishment Clause, Republican ideas become a bit more nuanced. Here are the results of a recent YouGov survey. The question was, “Would you favor or oppose establishing Christianity as the official state religion in your state?”
Democrats and Independents oppose the establishment of Christianity – “strongly oppose” is their modal response. But a majority of Republicans favor making their state a Christian state, and of those, most (two-thirds) are in the “strongly favor” pew.
This is not to say that Republicans are unaware of the Establishment Clause. “Based on what you know, would you think that states are permitted by the constitution to establish official state religions, or not?”
Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say that the Constitution does not permit state religions. They just think that on this one, the framers of the Constitution got it wrong.
Republicans are only a bit less enthusiastic about establishing Christianity as the official religion of the entire country. “Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?”
A plurality, 46% – almost a majority – want to correct the Framers’ careless omission by amending the Constitution. We can’t know specifically what the people who favor this have in mind. Republicans themselves probably differ in their ideas. Maybe only symbolic gestures, like invoking Jesus’s blessing on public events. Maybe public indoctrination – requiring Christian prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Or maybe more tangible forms of support – giving taxpayers’ money directly to Christian organizations for explicitly religious purposes.
In any case, this is an interesting piece of data to keep in mind for next time a representative of the political right argues that the Constitution is unamendable and inflexible.
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.
This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. 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 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.”