Who’s Who in the Courtroom? Think Again.

April 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


It was getting close to lunchtime in the large jury room where two hundred or so people sat trying to stave off boredom. The clerk called forty names. Mine was one of them. He told us that when we got back from lunch we were to go to a courtroom on another floor where we would be “voir dired” for a trial.

The courtroom was still locked when we got there, and we waited in the hall. After a while the people involved in the case came back from their lunch – a couple of White men, age forty or fifty, wearing suits; a younger, very stocky Black man (thirty?), also in a suit but one that was too tight for his body; and, in a wheelchair pushed by one of the suited White men, a gray-haired White man, slender almost frail looking, wearing a plain open-collar shirt.

I chatted with a couple of me fellow jurors.  We figured that the Black guy in the ill-fitting suit was the defendant, that the man in the wheelchair must be a victim or a witness, and that the others were lawyers. 

When we were finally seated in the courtroom, the judge told us that this was a murder case. He introduced the defense counsel – one of the suited White guys; the assistant district attorney – the Black guy in the suit; and the defendant – the man in the wheelchair.

This happened many years ago, but I recalled it  after reading this article at The African American Athlete that someone on Facebook linked to.  It’s about a Black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson  who shows up early in the courtroom and takes his seat at the defense table. Soon the judge and other lawyers walk in.

And when the judge saw me sitting at the counsel table, he looked at me and he said, “Hey, hey, hey, you get out of here. I don't want any defendant sitting in my courtroom until their lawyers get here. You go back out there in the hallway and wait for your lawyer.”*


I supposed I should submit the question to Yo, Is This Racist? On the face of it, the answer in both courtrooms is Yes. White people mistook a Black attorney for a criminal defendant. You could even argue that my fellow jurors and I were doubly bigoted, for we assumed that a disabled, wheelchair-bound person was not equally capable of killing someone.**

In my defense, I would ask this: of those four people coming through the hall and into the courtroom, which one was statistically most likely to be the defendant?  I would remind those who would judge us that we had only their physical appearance to base our assumptions on. Unfortunately, this same entangling of racism and statistical probabilities comes into play in more important questions, and I find it frustrating that so often neither side takes seriously the arguments, evidence, or ideas of the other.

The incident also illustrates the power of the first impression. Once I had looked at these people and mentally cast them in their parts, I didn’t bother to check my assumptions. If I had, I would have realized that the man in the wheelchair could not have been a victim or witness. Victims and witnesses do not come to the courtroom for voir dire. They appear only for the actual trial. I’d been on jury duty enough times to know that. But this truth was so inconvenient to my first impression that it did not enter my mind.

The other incident illustrates these same dynamics: racism perhaps, but also two more general processes that affect how we see other people. First, we quickly form impressions, and these may be based on statistical realities and on our own particular experiences. And second, those impressions once formed can filter and distort any subsequent information.

I hope to have more on this and on the judge and the Black lawyer in a subsequent post.

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* This excerpt is not from the African American Athlete article. It’s from an NPR interview with Stevenson three years ago.

** There was no doubt that he had shot and killed the victim. The question would be whether it was murder or self-defense. I was not selected for the jury, so I never learned all the details of the case or the verdict. 

Those LIberal Hollywood Bullies

April 16, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tim Allen has it rough. As he told Jimmy Kimmel,  “You get beat up if you don’t believe what everybody believes. This is like ‘30s Germany.” Allen was of course referring to the many beatings and other persecutions for his political conservatism that he has suffered at the hands of Hollywood liberals. It’s amazing that he’s still standing.

Many conservatives, especially those outside the business, share Allen’s views of Hollywood. One conservative who disagrees is Rob Long.* Long lives and works inside Hollywood, mostly tilling the sitcom fields as writer, producer, and show-runner from “Cheers” to “Kevin Can Wait.” He is also an outspoken conservative (being a regular on a conservative political podcast counts as speaking out).

Recently on KCRW’s “The Business,” host Kim Masters asked Long if he shared Allen’s perceptions and experiences.

Masters: Do you find that people are negatively dealing with you because you’re a conservative
Long: Maybe. That is possible. I have never experienced it. Never. Quite the reverse. I could probably sit here and with enough time, enough memory, look through my diary and figure out how much money in Hollywood I’ve made not because I was conservative, but because my politics were somehow helpful to the work I was doing.

I usually find people in Hollywood in general to be remarkably open and interested . . .  They like to talk about politics. They like to argue about politics. They like to mix it up. But I’ve never felt that anybody said, y’know “Not him. Can’t have him around because he represents some political viewpoint I disapprove of.” It’s never been played back to me, and I don’t feel I’ve ever had any setbacks in my career, certainly none that I didn’t cause myself. I can only say my experience has been no, been fine.

I think that when politics are mentioned on screen, in a story or a script, they’re kind of  uniformly left-wing, but big deal, so what.


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*I highly recommend Long’s own podcast “Martini Shot,” where he offers his insights on Hollywood, mostly the TV business. He’s gently funny, as you might expect from a guy who wrote “Cheers” episodes, and each installment of the podcast runs only 3½ minutes

Political Baseball – Whose Fans Are Happy?

April 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Are conservatives happier than liberals. Arthur Brooks thinks so. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. And he’s happy, or at least he comes across as happy in his monthly op-EDS for the Times.  In those op-EDS, he sometimes claims that conservatives are generally happier.

When he makes those claims to the hundreds of thousands of Times readers, I point out, to the readers of this blog (hundreds on a good day), that when you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox  fans without checking the AL East standings. (Those posts are here and here.)

Now that the 2016 GSS data is out, we can compare the happiness of liberals and conservatives during the Bush years and the Obama years. The GSS happiness item asks, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days –  would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” 
                                                           
(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

On the question of who is “very happy,” it looks as though Brooks nailed it, if you can call a difference of 5-10 percentage points nailing it. More of the people on the right are very happy in both periods. But also note that in the Obama years about 12% of those very happy folks (five out of 40) stopped being very happy.

But something else was happening during the Obama years. It wasn’t just that some of the very happy conservatives weren’t quite so happy. The opposition to Obama was not about happiness. Neither was the Trump campaign with its unrelenting negativism. What it showed was that a lot of people on the right were angry. None of that sunny Reaganesque Morning in America for them. That feeling is reflected in the numbers who told the GSS that they were “not too happy.”



Among extreme conservatives, the percent who were not happy doubled during the Obama years. The increase in unhappiness was about 60% for those who identified themselves as “conservative” (neither slight nor extreme).  In the last eight years, the more conservative a person’s views, the greater the likelihood of being not too happy. The pattern is reversed for liberals during the Bush years. Unhappiness rises as you more further left.

The graphs also show that for those in the middle of the spectrum – about 60% of the people – politics makes no discernible change in happiness. Their proportion of “not too happy” remained stable regardless of who was in the White House.  Those middle categories do give support to Brook’s idea that conservatives are generally somewhat happier. But as you move further out on the political spectrum the link between political views and happiness depends much more on which side is winning. Just as at Fenway or the Stadium, the fans who are cheering – or booing – the loudest are the ones whose happiness will be most affected by their team’s won-lost record.

Blaming the Bishops

April 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who write op-eds sometimes attribute their own opinions and ideas not to themselves but to “the public” or “America.” “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks in 2010, though as I pointed out in this post, surveys at the time showed that values ranked low among the issues the public was concerned about. In January, 2016, during primary season, Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat was projecting his own feeling about “decadence” onto supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders (here) .

Thomas Groome, who came to the US from Ireland in 1972, has a similar intuition about US Catholics and why they are no longer the loyal Democrats they once were. In a Times op-ed (here) he writes:

This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.

The logic of the argument is this:
  • When bishops emphasized Church’s position favoring change on social issues, Catholics sided with Democrats because the Democrats too emphasized social issues.
  • When bishops emphasized the Church’s position against abortion, Catholics sided with Republicans because the Republicans opposed abortion.
Obviously, Groome doesn’t like the bishops’ shift in focus.  But has it really driven Catholics to abandon the Democrats? Protestants, too (White Protestants, that is), have become less Democratic, and surely they are not paying much attention to Catholic bishops.


Some of the letters that the Times printed letters in response to Groome’s op-ed agreed that the Democrats’ support of abortion rights was losing them the Catholic vote. (“I’m an Irish-Italian Catholic who would normally vote Democratic, but the incessant and strident pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party sickens me and perhaps others in the country.”)
 
This argument assumes that anti-abortion sentiment is more widespread among Catholics, regardless of whether the bishops were responsible for it. But the GSS and other surveys show little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this issue. 


Perhaps there is a difference in salience, with more Catholics, like the letter writere, making abortion their primary political concern. Unfortunately, the GSS hasn’t asked about that in thirty years, and I know of no other survey that allows for Protestant-Catholic comparisons on this question. What the mid-80s GSS found was that Catholics were indeed more likely to assign a great deal of importance to abortion. However, those Catholics were still a 20% minority. For the large majority of Catholics and Protestants, abortion was less important.


Besides, even if the views of the bishops were being relayed by parish priests, there were fewer Catholics in the pews to hear the message. Catholics have become less religious. The percent who say they never go to mass has increased while those who attend regularly has declined.


A better explanation seems to be that what the bishops say matters far less than do demographic trends. On things like income, education, urban/suburban/small town, etc. White Catholics resemble White Protestants. In presidential elections, Protestant-Catholic differences in voting have usually been only two or three percentage points. In the two most recent elections, the Republican candidate did better among White Catholics than among White Protestants (59-57% for Romney,  60-58% for Trump).

What’s significant is not that church doctrine these days has so little sway in the political views of US Catholics. We are long past the time when anyone thought that Catholic politicians would be “taking orders from the Pope.”  So it’s not surprising that Catholic voters are not taking orders from the bishops. More interesting is that religious identity has become so divorced from political identity. In 1960, Kennedy got 78% of the Catholic vote. Forty-four years later, Catholics preferred the WASP George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry 52-47. (And if you factor out Hispanics, among White Catholics, Kerry lost by an even larger margin – 56-43.)

From Kennedy 78% to Kerry 43% is a big drop. But it’s unlikely that the bishops or even abortion had much to do with it.