Making the Facts Not Matter

June 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People get a clearer picture if you tell them what someone or something is rather than telling them what it isn’t. I’ve said that a few times in this blog (here, for example) in connection with writing. But it’s something that Donald Trump seems to know instinctively.  Here are two True/False items.

True or False: Donald Trump is president of the United States.
True or False: Donald Trump is not president of the United States.

Regardless of what you wanted the answer to be, the second statement took you a fraction of a second longer to get. Positive statements are clearer and more quickly understood .

The same principle applies in political combat as well. When the news or opponents point out that Trump is lying or that he’s done something worse, Trump doesn’t spend much time denying. He prefers to go on the attack, making counter accusations. Or he makes positive claims about himself. It doesn’t matter that these accusations and claims are without a basis in reality.*

The front pages of New York’s tabloids the day after James Comey appeared before a Senate committee illustrate the strategy of Trump and his supporters both in the Senate and at the New York Post.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The Daily News lists the Trump lies suggested by Comey’s testimony. (For some reason, the News omitted Trump’s statements about Comey and the FBI, statements that Comey said were “lies plain and simple.”)

The Post puts “liar” in quotes, highlights Republican criticisms o fComey, Loretta Lynch, the Clintons, and the New York Times, and quotes the Trump camp’s curiously sunny view of the testimony.

Trump did not respond to the Daily News headline. He did not say, “I am not a liar.”** As we’ve learned from Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” that kind of denial turns the spotlight on precisely the question the speaker wants the public to ignore. That denial would link “Trump” with “liar” just as surely as Nixon’s denial linked his own name with “crook.”
                                                                           
If you can get people to make that association – person and trait – even though they may not be fully convinced that it’s true, you’ve gained a lot of ground. Trump senses this. It’s the basis of his name-calling strategy: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco repeated endlessly. We can already see where Trump is going in the Comey matter. If he hasn’t been tweeting it out yet, it’s probably because he can’t decide between “Leakin’ Comey” or “Leaker Comey.” If Trump can get people to think that Comey is a bad guy – a leaker – they will more easily ignore whatever factual information Comey provides.

The larger point is that, at least in the short run and maybe longer, the facts are less important than overall image. Once we have a mental image of someone or something, we will filter the facts in a way that keeps that picture intact. If Trump can convince his followers (and perhaps others) that the mainstream media is “fake news,” they can more easily discount or ignore any facts reported by CNN, NBC, USA Today.

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* Last week, Trump said “Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it's doing very well.” In fact, there was no tax bill. His administration had not sent a bill to Congress. He also issued a tweet blaming Democrats for the large number of unfilled positions in his administration. But as Politico pointed out, “The Trump administration has formally nominated just 63 candidates – 39 of which have been approved – for 559 key positions that require Senate confirmation.”

*The next day, Trump did deny that he had said some of the things that Comey reported, but more important he said that he would testify under oath. (Don’t hold your breath. Trump has also said that he’d release his taxes, remember?  Anyway, the Congressional committees where Trump would testify are controlled by Republicans. Would they call Trump in to testify under oath when Democrats as well can ask questions?)

Boom Goes London, and Boom Par-ee

June 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ben and Jerry’s response to Trump and the Paris Accords is dripping with irony (irony in the literary sense that they mean the opposite of what they are actually saying).


Here’s reason #3.



The irony (the other kind of irony) is that many Americans agree. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 after I’d seen Randy Newman at Carnegie Hall (the full post is here):
“Political Science,” written at least 35 years ago, still sounds like the voice of American foreign policy based on American exceptionalism – a belief in our inherent goodness and innocence, a disregard for the decent opinions of other countries, and a readiness to use violence on those who disagree.

    No one likes us. I don't know why
    We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
    But all around, even our old friends put us down
    Let's drop the big one and see what happens

    We give them money-but are they grateful?

    No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
    They don't respect us-so let's surprise them
    We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.

It’s a more closely reasoned version of John McCain’s “Bomb, bomb Iran.”

Here’s the full version from a 2011 London concert.


(You can hear t he original recording by a much younger sounding Newman on “Sail Away” (1972), his third album (here).

Here we have the US, well-intentioned but misunderstood, and if all those other countries refuse to understand and refuse to do what we want, well, whatever happens, they’ve got it coming.  (“They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.”) It’s possible that this view of the relation between the US and the rest of the world has lost some of its strength since Newman wrote this song. (Most Americans were born after this song was written.) The song seemed out of date in the Obama years. Still, the persona Newman adopted for this song nearly a half century ago sounds much like our current Commander-in-Chief, the person we selected to be in charge of US foreign policy.*

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* Before the 2012 presidential election, Newman released “I’m Dreaming.” It was four years premature. Here’s the last stanza. (Listen to Newman sing it here.)

I’m dreaming of a white President
‘Cause things have never been this bad
So he won’t run the hundred in ten seconds flat
So he won’t have a pretty jump shot
Or be an Olympic acrobat
So he won’t know much about global warming
Is that really where you’re at?
He won’t be the brightest, perhaps
But he’ll be the whitest
And I’ll vote for that

Elections Have Consequences . . . for Norms Too

June 1, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did Donald Trump’s campaign and election cry havoc and unleash the dogs of racism?

Last June, hauling out Sykes and Matza’s concept of “neutralization,” I argued (here) that Trump’s constant denigration of “political correctness” allowed his supporters to neutralize norms against racism. If PC means that the people who condemn racism are wrong or bad, then what they are condemning must be OK. The logic might not be impeccable, but it works. I wasn’t sure that Trump had caused an increase in racist attitudes, but he gave people a license to express those attitudes.

Aziz Ansari made a similar point on Saturday Night Live  the day after the inauguration. (Apologies if you have to wait through an ad.)


Ansari’s version is much better than mine, and it reached a slightly larger audience. But there’s another important difference. I was talking about the message Trumpistas took from Trump himself before the election. Ansari is talking about the message they got from the electorate. The election changed their perceptions of the norms about expressing anti-immigrant views.

It’s as though minds of half the country had been clouded by “pluralistic ignorance.” That’s the scenario where each person thinks X but assumes that everyone else thinks Y, so everyone keeps their true ideas to themselves. Then something happens that reveals those previously hidden preferences, and suddenly everyone feels liberated. From the Trumpista perspective, Trump was Dorothy throwing a bucket of water to dissolve the Wicked Witch of Political Correctness, and now all the Munchkins were free to express their feelings about Mexicans and Muslims (and perhaps others).

The 20% increase in hate crimes after the election certainly suggests that racists felt liberated by the election. Unfortunately, because of the uncontrolled variables and the small sample size,* this bit of evidence is hardly conclusive.

But we now have some experimental evidence on the topic. In the two weeks before the election, three economists** surveyed Mechanical Turkers in eight very Red states. The MTurkers were asked, in addition to other on-topic questions, if they would authorize the economists to make a donation on their behalf to a strongly anti-immigrant group, FAIR.  Mturkers were told, “The founder of FAIR is John Tanton, author of `The Immigration Invasion' who wrote ‘I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.’”

For half the MTurkers, the donation question included this:

Note: just like any other answer to this survey, also your donation decision will be completely anonymous. No one, not even the researchers, will be able to match your decision to your name. [emphasis in original]

The other half were told:

Important: in order to ensure the quality of the data collected, a member of the research team might personally contact you to verify your answers to the next question and the following ones. [emphasis in original]

In addition, some of the people were told that Trump was certain to win their state. Others were given no information.

The results strongly support the idea that norms – or at least people’s perceptions of the norms – makes a big difference. People who thought their choice would be public were much less likely to make the anti-immigrant donation – 34% vs. 54%. But that difference held true only for people who were not told how popular Trump was in their state. Among the people who were told basically, “Trump is a sure thing to win your state,” knowing that their donation would be public (i.e., known to the surveyors) made no difference in their willingness to donate.

If the researchers had stopped there, they would have been able to say
  • there seems to be a norm against giving money to anti-immigrant groups
  • the knowledge of that norm makes people less willing to make a donation to blatantly racist anti-immigrant group if even one stranger can know about that donation
  • if people think that many others in their state support an anti-immigrant candidate, they no longer feel that they need to keep their anti-immigrant views to themselves 
The results of the election gave the researchers a natural experiment to find out if the norms – or at least perceptions of the norms – had changed. Had Trump’s victory caused the scales of pluralistic ignorance to fall from the eyes of these Red-state Turkers?

The answer was yes. The election had the same effect as did the information about Trump support in the person’s state. It obliterated the difference between the public and private conditions.


To people who were reluctant to let their agreement with FAIR be known, Trump’s victory said, “It’s OK. You can come out of the closet. You’re among friends, and there are more of us than you thought.”

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* The sample size is essentially one. As Duncan Watts says in Everything Is Obvious. . . Once You Know the Answer, the difficulty in assessing cause and effect in a historical event is that history is run only once.

** Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, Stefano Fiorin, “From Extreme to Mainstream: How Social Norms Unravel,” NBER, May 2017 (here)

In Japan, Butthead Is a Really Smart Detective

May 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son was still a toddler, someone gave us a copy of Everyone Poops by Taru Gomi. It took a refreshingly good-humored approach to the topic.



Was this typically Japanese? I remembered that when I was in Japan decades earlier, the government had tried to get Japanese men to stop the practice of public urination. It was not uncommon to see a man, back turned discreetly, peeing at the roadside. The government’s concern was not the effect on sanitation but on tourism. They were afraid that Western visitors would be turned off.

Some Westerners might have a similar reaction to today’s high-speed-train version – instead of an “Occupied” sign on the door of the toilet compartment, there’s a window. Even without reading, passengers can see if someone is using the urinal. Cultural anthropologist Dave Barry explains:

[On the train] there are men’s rooms with with urinals and convenient windows on the doors so that people walking past in the corridors can look in, apparently to determine whether the room is occupied. I found this out by accident when I went into one of these rooms and closed the door behind me, without noticing the window. I was facing the wall, engaging in standard rest-room activities, when I happened to glance around, assuming that I would see a nice, solid, totally opaque door, and instead-YIKES I saw three schoolgirls about eighteen inches away, causing me to whirl back toward the wall and become grateful that I was wearing dark pants, if you catch my drift. [Dave Barry Does Japan, 2010]






    

















And now Japan has fiction in the spirit of Everyone Poops – Oshiri Tantei, (tr. The Butt Detective), currently the most popular children’s book series in Japan. This Japanese answer to Nate the Great has a head that looks like a butt, with an eye on each cheek. Like any detective, Oshiri Tantei gets a call, finds the clues, uses Sherlock-like logic to solve the crime, and tracks down the bad guys. The story usually ends with him confronting the criminal and blowing him away – not with his gat/roscoe/heater, but with a fart. The title of each book begins with “Pu Pu” (fart, fart), e.g., Pu Pu, The Riddle of the Disappearing Lunch Box. Here’s a 40-second promo for the books.




For a full story – a jewel heist – go here . (Spoiler alert, the diamond was heisted by three snakes.)

Maybe the Japanese do have a generally more accepting and less fraught view of children and excretory functions. This cartoon video for kids gives an idea of how the Japanese approach potty training. It seems remarkably similar in tone to Everyone Poops and Oshiri Tantei.