Monday, June 28, 2010

No Sidewalks: The Road to Neuroeconomics at the Opera House

A preface in which our narrator peers into the umbilicus

Dr. Norbert Manchego told me at a graduate school interview that my intention to become a social neuroscientist was a trendy decision driven by internet-hype, and that the questions I professed interest in would be better addressed by a neuroeconomics approach. More than a little taken aback by such a bold assertion, I would never have believed that in a little over a year, I would count Manchego as one of my favorite contemporary scientists. I shrugged the professor’s words off as the product of overzealous allegiance to his discipline, as I had already all but decided to accept an offer in a social neuroscience lab.

During the spring of my first year of grad school, a second professor decided on my behalf that I wanted to study neuroeconomics, but this one had the power to forcibly enroll me in a seminar on the topic (despite my tactful yet explicit protest). While the addition of a third course to my already overfull plate made for an overwhelmingly hectic term, it resolved any lingering confusion as to why Manchego thought he knew better than I did what I wanted to study. He was mistaken about the roots of my interest in social neuroscience (I first read of the field as a freshman in college in a journal article given to me by my uncle, although I was largely ignorant as to its nature until I read a textbook pilfered from the trunk of a friend [and, oddly enough, future labmate]), but he was on the money in his assertion that neuroeconomics paradigms are an ideal tool for asking questions about the means by which brains of distinct organisms operate in concert.

When the good Dr. Cummings prevailed upon me to write something for Tropics of Meta, I was almost immediately certain that neuroeconomics would be the focus of my post. After a dozen pages full of more false starts than a kindergarten swim meet, I realized that I was incapable of writing something that was simultaneously short, sweet, and remotely innovative on the topic. Instead, prepare yourself for what will assuredly be nothing short of an orgasmic scientific thrillride, divided into multiple installments as determined by the lyrics of The Olivia Tremor Control:

Neuroeconomics at the Opera House:

Part I: Historic Properties

Eager as I am to dive right into the brain, a brief look at the economic historical antecedents of neuroeconomics is in order. If you’re a neurd (like I am) or are already familiar with some of the basic principles of economic decision-making, please sit tight for the next installment in which we put the neuro in neuroeconomics. On the other hand, if this is new to you (or if you need a quick refresher), fire up your imagination for this truly mind-blowing hypothetical situation:

Say you find yourself in a coin-flip situation where you have the chance to win some money with no risk of losing any. Which of the two payoff schemes would you prefer?

A. Heads: $10, Tails: $10

B. Heads: $20, Tails: $0

Blaise Pascal (remembered by mathematicians for his famous triangle and forgotten by junkies for inventing the syringe) claimed that there is essentially no difference between these scenarios, because the expected value of both outcomes is the same. Expected value is equal to the potential gain conferred by a decision and the probability of receiving that gain, stated mathematically as EV = G * p(G).

In our example:

EV(A.) = $10 * (1) = $10

EV(B.) = $20 * (.5) = $10

This formula represents the first normative model of human decision-making behaviors, but its failure to accurately predict the choices that people actually make was noted early on by Bernouli, another mathematician (famous for deriving the physical principles that explain the properties of Frisbees). What he pointed out was that the 50% chance of winning nothing makes option B. far less attractive to someone who is flat broke and hasn’t had a bite to eat in three days (and thus values a guaranteed $10 more highly) than to someone with a belly full of caviar and a wallet full of cash. Bernouli proposed that rather than considering expected value to predict behavioral choices, one should instead consider expected utility, which accounts for different subjective preferences across individual decision-makers based on dispositional and situational factors. Somewhat confusingly, the words “value” and “utility” are often used interchangeably in the literature, but it can be safely assumed that, unless otherwise stated, any reference to value implies that it is subjective value (which is essentially the same as utility).

Neoclassical economics is based on rational choice theory, which relies on the assumptions that individual preferences are rational, that such preferences can be mapped onto objective values, that people are self-interested, and will consistently make decisions based on mathematical calculations of the expected utility of each choice. In 1953, Maurice Allais threw a wrench in the works of this notion at an economics conference with an experiment demonstrating that even professional economists consistently violated expected utility theory when presented with a series of similar, but slightly more complex hypothetical choices. Followed by a swath of behavioral observations of decision-making behavior that could not be explained by rational choice models, neoclassical economists were forced to draw one of two conclusions:

A. expected utility theory only applies to certain situations (implying a so called “bounded-rationality”)

B. people are just bad at maximizing utility

One way that economists have sought to account for the inconsistency between normative models of rational choice and descriptive accounts of observed human decision-making was by suggesting that choices are actually determined by multiple systems that determine behavioral outcomes. In what is referred to as a “dual-process model,” it has been suggested that human decisions are guided by two broad mechanisms a slow-acting “cold,” cognitive system, rooted in recently evolved cortical structures that carry out rational calculations of which we are consciously aware and a fast-acting “hot,” affective system, based in evolutionarily older limbic structures that induce objectively incalculable emotional states. Such dual-process models for economic decisions also require a mechanism that integrates the output of rational and irrational systems to calculate the value/utility by which actions are ultimately chosen.

Since the late 19th century, economists have pined for what Francis Edgeworth referred to as a “hedonimeter,” a machine that would allow researchers to index value based on physiological signals. With this sort of tool, differences in individual preferences could be rationally explained by variability in objectively measurable, biologically determined correlates of value. It should come as no surprise, then, that many economists regarded the advent of neuroimaging in the early 1990s as the holy grail for which they had searched for more than a century.

Next time, fMRI and the quest for a hedonimeter in Part II of Neuroeconomics at the Opera House:
We feel ok, which is how we feel, most of the time now

Guest science correspondent Ricky Nickles is a doctoral candidate in psychology at an educational establishment somewhere in America.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tramps Like Us Swagger Like Us

M.I.A., the Boss, and the Class Politics of Pop

I once asked the country rock musician Langhorne Slim if his songs were based on his own personal experience. Singing of love and loss, and “life in a small town,” he could have been mistaken for a grizzled old country-westerner who had lived hard – at least judging from the lyrics. Slim admitted that he grew up in suburban Bucks county, outside Philadelphia, and his songs did not exactly reflect the place he was coming from. But he also pointed out that musicians create different characters and personas, just like novelists do – and we don’t usually give writers of fiction a hard time for speaking from the perspective of someone unlike themselves.

Such questions have been raised about a variety of performers throughout the history of pop music – from Bruce Springsteen, who has been condemned by the experts on working-class life at the New Republic for being “inauthentic” in his portrayal of daily struggles of ordinary New Jerseyans, to rappers like Jay-Z or Biggie, whose detailed tales about living poor and dealing crack may be based more on imagination than they’d care to admit. When Saigon talks about shooting crackhead Reggie in the leg and stuffing two bodies in the trunk, he declares, “I’m not just giving you shit to critique, everything I rap about I lived in the streets.” One wonders if Saigon should be incriminating himself if he really is serious about his kneecapping past.

There is a bigger question at stake here, one that students of the humanities and social sciences will know well – can you write about or sing about someone else’s experience without inevitably getting it wrong? Does each ethnic group, religion, or class get to write its own history? Is Steinbeck’s memoir
Travels with Charley greater than The Grapes of Wrath, because the author was not, in fact, an impoverished okie? Is someone who has always lived in comfort and security unable to access the truth of another’s experience of poverty and fear?

Recently, the Sri Lankan rapper-singer M.I.A. has come under fire for identifying herself with the Tamil struggle in which her father was involved, and for seeming to advocate violence in songs like “Paper Planes” (with its sounds of guns cocking and cash registers cha-chinging). Part of the critique seems to be that since M.I.A. left Sri Lanka as a child and grew up in the UK, her identification with the rebel movement rings false.

More important, critics claim that the singer simplifies a complex and painful political struggle by creating an illusion of heroic – and violent – rebellion. To my mind, this criticism seems to be about on a par with blasting the Clash for not investigating violations of civil liberties in Nicaragua on its
Sandinista! album, or telling Biggie that he should have written a more thoughtful treatise on the drug war. Even if Rage Against the Machine unwisely championed the destructive Shining Path movement, at least they provoked discussion of issues that were otherwise largely ignored in the US.

Perhaps M.I.A. is just striking a pose, infusing her volatile mash-up of cultures and styles with a revolutionary ardor – a vague feeling of anger at injustice and inequality that struck a chord with many listeners in the waning days of the Bush regime. “Third world democracy,” M.I.A. growls. “I put people on the map who never seen a map,” she claims. Rage, in this case, is as globalizable as cheeseburgers and lead toys.

In other words, the would-be Tamil Tiger swaggers like a third-world rebel to position herself against the global status quo, which we all know stinks, no matter how you slice it – much like an American rapper who uses a language of aggression and menace to disrupt the illusions of a happy, orderly, capitalist society – to be the outlaw, the Robin Hood, the dangerous man. A rapper who’s never so much as shoplifted a candy bar before, to say nothing of selling crack, can tell stories of taking from the rich or breaking the law to survive – “making some money to feed my daughters,” as Biggie put it. Does that make them “inauthentic”? Maybe.

This whole discussion of who’s really “real” and who isn’t leaves many questions unaddressed.  For example, who is so real that they get to judge – to throw the first stone, so to speak? Some instances may be so galling and contrary to reality that they are difficult to ignore, e.g.
Kanye West saying “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman,” as if he didn’t grow up the privileged son of the English department chair at a major university.

But what are middle class or even rich kids supposed to sing about? Like Weezer, they could write about life in suburbia (“In my garage, I feel safe…”). The question reminds me of a recent episode of the Starz sitcom
Party Down, in which a bubble-headed blonde actor asks an elderly black man to teach him the blues. The aged gentleman tells him to think about his painful experiences, and all the actor could think to sing about was his Xbox being broken.

In fact, the much-loved and much-maligned Vampire Weekend offer a fine example of this tension. Critic Jim DeRogatis, a noted and accomplished hater, can barely conceal his loathing for the Columbia-educated rockers (perhaps the first musical stars to come out of the school since Jack Kerouac last hit a bongo drum). The Weekend’s songs about Cape Cod and Jackson Pollock irritate DeRogatis to no end, and he could not believe that the band named its second album
Contra, with an Aryan girl in a polo shirt gracing the cover. To DeRogatis, this seemed to be a direct reference to the Clash’s Sandinista – and worst of all, “they backed the wrong side!”

The young woman who debated DeRogatis on the radio could not get him to acknowledge that Vampire Weekend’s image as WASPy elites had a touch of humor to it – or, at least, that the band was being frank about who they are and where they are coming from. They may ham up their privileged look in videos for songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” but at least they’re not denying their background like a certain diplomat’s son who ran around acting like a working-class outlaw.

Perhaps some songs just ring truer than others, conforming to some loose gestalt of reality that we as listeners recognize and understand – whether it is the Clash singing about unemployment or the Spanish Civil War, or Bruce Springsteen singing about hopeless young people whose only means of escape are horsepower and velocity. Or, for that matter, Vampire Weekend singing about the Ivy League and Martha's Vineyard.

Alex Cummings

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Footballers: American Antipathy toward Soccer

Don’t waste your time on soccer kid it’s a game for commie pansies …

- Sports columnist Dick Young
Over the past 20 or so years, the study of history through sites of leisure and sport has expanded. No longer do historians simply view sport as spectacle alone. Instead, scholars have considered the meanings and cultural importance of sport in the lives of a nation’s people. For example, Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996) proves to be a largely theoretical text focusing on issues of transnationalism, identity, and social imaginaries. Built on the theoretical underpinnings of Foucault and Habermas while drawing upon the work of numerous anthropologists before him most notably Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Clifford Geertz’s focus on meaning and representation, Modernity at Large attempts to incorporate the “work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity.” (3)

Yet, despite these academic flourishes, Appadurai includes an essay on the importance and meaning of cricket for Pakistanis, Indians, and their respective diasporas. For Appadurai, cricket is not just cricket; he argues, “for the former colony, decolonization is a dialogue with the colonial past, and not a simple dismantling of colonial habits and modes of life. Nowhere are the complexities and ambiguities of this dialogue more evident than in the vicissitudes of cricket in those countries that were once part of the British empire.” (Appadurai, 89) Accordingly, among other issues, the indigenization of the sport by South Asian and African populations represents legitimate cultural and national agency as Appadurai points out that “indigenization is often a product of collective and spectacular experiments with modernity, and not necessarily of he subsurface affinity of new cultural forms with existing patters in the cultural repertoire.” (90).

Not only ivory tower academics have ventured into cultural territory. Recent cultural productions like the movie Invictus or the Disneyfied Remember the Titans, ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30, and popular works like Nick Hornby’s fantastic book on Arsenal (a prominent British football club) fandom, Fever Pitch, represent only a few popular examples. As Hornby suggests in his introduction, “the book is also, in part an exploration of some of the meanings that football seems to contain for many of us. It has become quite clear to me that my devotion says things about my own character and personal history, but the way the game is consumed seems to offer all sorts of information about our society and culture.” (Hornby, 11) Of course, Hornby also immediately applies constraints to this framework acknowledging that not EVERYTHING can be viewed through such lenses: “I now accept that football has no relevance to the Falklands conflict, the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War, childbirth, the ozone layer, the poll tax, etc. etc., and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who has listened to my pathetically strained analogies.” (Hornby, 11).

Still, while Hornby is right to caution individuals from casting cultural nets to far and wide, it remains a fact that soccer for many people acts as a proxy for larger anxieties, nationalisms, and beliefs. The dissolution of the post communist Yugoslavia illustrates the manifestation of these tensions clearly through sport. Croatian and Serbian sides occupied proxy positions reflecting national tensions pulling the former communist republic apart into ultimately six countries (depending on how one categorizes Kosovo). Tragically, considering the talent that each of the nation-states have exhibited respectively, the late 1990s and early 2000s could have been about the Yugoslav juggernaut. Instead, Slovenia and Serbia will represent their separate camps at this years World Cup, undoubtedly less formidable squads than one assembled from Tito's former fiefdom.

So let's consider this year’s World Cup competition. Even serious news magazines such as The Economist invest in sport as cultural mirror. For example, take the Economist’s recent June 12, 2010 issue. The British newsmagazine located several points of importance. First, it noted the importance of sport: “There are lots of ways to know a nation: through its literature, its politics, its myths. One of them is through the games that it plays.” (Economist, “This England: The Intertwined fates of a people and their football team”, June 12, 2010) David Beckham is compared to Peter Mandelson (a particularly gaffe prone and problematic New Labor official), both “undead” leaders who occupy role as “mentors”. England’s best player, Wayne Rooney, though skilled and committed remains “hampered by the characteristic English vices of insubordination and petulance.” (Economist, “This England”, June 12, 2010)

Through soccer, the Economist explores English relationships with the outside world (many clubs have fallen under the ownership of “post Soviet oligarchs or carpetbagging Americans”), and its own economy (apparently the England’s 2006 World Cup adventure was regrettably represented by wealth and indulgence personified by “footballer’s wives and girlfriends” unceremoniously referred to as “consorts who were famous for being famous, and for their pharaonic shopping trips and table top dancing. They personified a spreading everything – for nothing culture – the corrosive idea that young men and women could take the elevator straight to the to top, if only they were pretty or lucky enough.”) and within Britain itself (Britain remains curiously divided as anyone listening to ABC or ESPN commentators should know since several of whom have identified as Scottish and repeatedly make statements about the English team such as “Never a good idea to ask a Scotsman about the English side”) which the English national team seems to temporarily subvert (“for the next few weeks [the flag] will flutter from car roofs and on shop fronts in a rare display of English nationalism”).

While soccer may be England’s pastime, it surely remains a lesser light in American sport circles. In fact one might argue that the end of the cold war and globalization have combined to make soccer more tolerable for American fans. What does this mean? In the postwar era soccer came to be seen as an effete practice of the middle and upper classes. For Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, American soccer has come to represent the American culture wars. For example, many 1960s yuppie parents embraced soccer as a push back against more traditional American sports. This created problems as Foer discusses, “Elites have never been especially well liked in postwar American politics – or at least they have been easy to take swipes at. But the generation of elites that adopted soccer has been an especially ripe target. That’s because they came through college in the sixties and seventies at a time when the counterculture turned against the stultifying conformity of what it perceived as traditional politics . . When they adopted soccer it, it gave the impression that they had turned their backs on the American pastime.” (Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the World, 239.)

If one thinks Foer to be overstating the case, consider recent comments by eminent American soccer journalist David Hirshey. In a BS Report podcast moderated by popular sports/cultural blogger Bill Simmons, Hirshey recounted a comment made to him in the 1970s by legendary sports columnist Dick Young. Upon hearing of young Hirshey’s decision to forgo covering a Yankees road trip (a prize for burgeoning 1970s sportswriters) in favor of a NASL soccer match featuring the star Pele, Young grunted at Hirshey, “Don’t waste your time on soccer kid it’s a game for commie pansies.” (BS Report, 6/03/2010) Not exactly words of encouragement. Jack Kemp, a normally rational man (Quiet! Most readers would prefer him to Bush or Reagan no?) was once quoted disdaining the international sport rather harshly, “I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalist, soccer is European socialist [sport.].” (Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the World, 241).

One need not ascribe this to conservatives. Hipster Chuck Klosterman has denounced soccer for years. One could point out several instances in his 2004 publication Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto but for brevity’s sake here is one particularly illuminating comment, “don’t accuse me of being the Ugly American for hating soccer … It’s not xenophobic to hate soccer; it’s socially reprehensible to support it. To say you like soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. It should surprise no one that Benito Mussolini loved being photographed with Italian soccer stars during the 1930s; they were undoubtedly kindred spirits. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer. Every time I pull up behind a Ford Aerostar with a #1 Soccer Mom” bumper sticker, I feel like I’m marching in the wake of the Khmer Rouge.” (Klosterman, Chuck, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, 95) Again, another smart individual brought to irrationality by soccer. Of course, Foer explains the discomfort some Americans express toward the sport simply, “the anti soccer lobby really articulates the same fears as Enrico Miranda and Alan Garrison, a phobia of globalization.” (Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the World, 244).

The fall of communism, the rise of telecommunications, and the force of globalization have all conspired to bring respectability to soccer in America. What soccer seems to represent now for the United States is a nation grasping for its place in a global system that hasn’t turned out quite like American planners had dreamed. Globalization has meant change for other nations as well. Take for example this year’s Champions League winners, Inter Milan. Though the victor of the Italian League and an international champion, Inter failed to start or play a single Italian in the final. How does a nation revered for its soccer tradition put forth a team, FROM Milan, that lacks a legitimate Italian contributor? Globalization strikes again. England’s Premiership has undergone similar changes. At one time, teams restricted the number of foreign players each team could have. However since these restrictions were dropped, the Premiership emerged as a United Nations of soccer drawing players from around the globe, most notably Africans and Latin Americans. As result, the league’s popularity around the world has soared, but fewer English players have been able to see the pitch. When England failed to reach the European Championships in 2008 (a quadrennial tournament between European national teams), some blamed this on the globalization of the Premiership.

If globalization has brought new players to these leagues, resulting in fewer native born players, what has this meant for national teams? Well, look at Germany: it has two powerful German strikers of Polish origin and a strikingly creative mid-fielder of Turkish ethnicity. Considering Germany’s history with both ethnic groups this development might be viewed as ironic. As in other parts of life, globalization has had cross cutting effects for people. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes neither. For Americans, this globalization so far has been more a boon than a bane. It's given soccer a youthful, exciting edge in such contexts, a great improvement over its apparent “pinko commie” tradition.

Ryan Reft

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mistakes My Teacher Made: Questioning the Efficacy of Drug-Addled Hipster Educators

Dan: One thing doesn't make a man.
Drey: [laughing]

Dan: What?
Drey: One thing doesn't make a man?

One thing may not make a person, but it can certainly undo them. Dan Dunn, the protagonist of the slow-burning Half Nelson (2006), illustrates equal parts idealistic youngish public servant, doped out but functional working stiff, and part broken hearted romantic – in other words, a plurality of “things.” Half Nelson’s strength lay in its ability to level traditional narratives regarding teachers, education, drugs, and friendship. Dan may truly care about his students, but he’s also occasionally incompetent and irresponsible – unless one considers walking out of one’s classroom for a brief nap in the teacher’s lounge mid-class competent or responsible.

Slate’s Dana Stevens summarized Dunn succinctly: “Dan is like a superhero in reverse, charismatic and brilliant by day, self-pitying and self-destructive by night. He drinks, smokes, snorts coke with bar pickups, and, when the stress really gets to him, takes the odd hit of crack.” The New York Times described Dunn as a modern bohemian: “From his thrift-store wardrobe to his taste in dive bars to the socially conscious titles lining his bookcase, Mr. Gosling’s Dan makes for a credible Brooklyn hipster.” The movie drew acclaim from critics and Dan (played by Ryan Gosling) rightly received great attention.

Dan’s pedagogical approach employs dialectics to explain historical change, and Stevens points out that the movie embodies its own set of dialectics in one of Dunn’s students, Drey. For Stevens, Drey’s life encapsulates Dunn’s teachings about the dynamic interplay of opposites, as she is pushed and pulled between her teacher and Frank, the neighborhood drug pusher. The two men “seem at first like polar opposites, but their motivations and methods keep crisscrossing: Dan wants to help Drey grow up right, sure, but he also needs her to prop up his own rapidly vanishing idealism. And Frank may be looking for more cheap labor to exploit, but he's also the closest thing she has to a loving father.”

Neither one of these “opposites” is simple or clear-cut. Frank very well may be a drug dealer, but he seems to care for Drey. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis described Frank as “the charming midlevel dealer who already has his hooks in her older brother.” Dan may also care for Drey, but a habitual crack user may not be a great role model for a teenage girl. While Frank does incorporate Drey into his drug service, it hardly seemed like a permanent position. Moreover, Frank tried to warn Drey about Dan. “Don’t you think your relationship with that teacher is… inappropriate?” he asks her at one point. When Drey asserts that she and Dan are friends, Frank declares, “He’s a basehead. Baseheads don’t have friends.” One could even conclude that Frank was trying to show Drey the perils of addiction when he sends her to deliver drugs to various shady, disheveled, desperate customers.

Co-writer Ryan Fleck suggests that Frank deserved greater consideration. “If you’re white and you put a black drug dealer in a movie,” Fleck said, “you’re going to feel self-conscious about it. Is it irresponsible? The intention was to make the character as complex as everybody else, not a cliché.” Curiously, most critics seem quick to doubt Frank’s good intentions, but reflexively hopeful about Dan. Like Dan himself, perhaps they assume that the middle-class white schoolteacher, despite his crack addiction, is more likely to have the young woman’s best interests at heart – at least more so than the neighborhood dealer who simultaneously looks out for Drey and uses her as a delivery girl.

Indeed, one wonders if Dan’s good intentions amount to much. He stomps into Drey’s neighborhood to confront Frank, in a seeming fit of stimulant-induced rage and frustration. He demands that Frank do him “a solid” and leave Drey alone. Not surprisingly, Frank is incredulous. “Do you a solid? Drey is my family.” He also can’t understand why the tightly-wound neighborhood outsider thinks he has such a great grasp on what his and Drey’s relationship is like. The contrast could not be starker between the agitated Dan and the relaxed Frank, whose first question is, “What are you so angry about?”

Dan is despairing at the world he lives and works in, where the nation is sailing off into a pointless war, and where he sees a bright young woman falling into the netherworld of drugs that he knows all to well – or, at least, thinks he knows. He may teach about Attica, Cesar Chavez, and the evils of “the system”; he may even know some of the evils firsthand due to his addiction to crack and cocaine; yet he understands little about what Drey or Frank’s lives are really like. When he’s crashing on coke, though, he thinks he can march into the neighborhood and set things right.

In this regard, he is not too different from generations of white crusaders who sought to fix the problems of the poor and people of color. Half Nelson excels in part because it humanizes the heroic white uplifter of pop lore, who has reached down to help the benighted urban poor in everything from The White Shadow to Dangerous Minds. Dan is not so disillusioned and out of touch as his boomer parents; his mother speaks ruefully of once trying “to save the world,” and his father asks him if he’s teaching Ebonics in “that zoo.” But his yearning to do good and change something, anything, does reveal some short-sightedness.

For instance, Dan’s teaching may be charismatic, compelling, and intellectual, but do his students grasp it? Does he help them make the connections between dialectics – a weighty concept for middle schoolers – and the world around them? One can see a middle class arrogance in Dan, which subconsciously exalts his ability to carry these complex ideas to students even in the face of more complex dynamics. When his principal visits the classroom, frowning on Dan’s approach, she demands that he begin using the official “civil rights module” post haste. Her methods might be formulaic and state-mandated, but are they really any worse than his? Is he helping his students by talking more about Hegel than Martin Luther King?

Despite these concerns, critics applauded Dan’s approach to pedagogy. The New York Times described his teaching as “oddly effective," while Lisa Schwarzbaum sees in Dan “a charismatic, dedicated inner-city Brooklyn teacher." Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, like other critics, seemed to celebrate Dunn’s approach: “Veering off the official syllabus, he prods his kids to think about the civil rights movement and the CIA-backed Chilean coup and all of human history as a series of ‘opposing forces.’”

This is all well and good, for sure – pushing the envelope in traditional instruction and curriculum can be hugely valuable. Yet inner city educators (Mr. Reft taught for nearly a decade in NYC’s public schools including one year in the Bronx, and two in Brooklyn) could definitely find fault with Mr. Dunn’s lessons. Dan’s pedagogy suffers from narcissism and a troubling inability to address some fundamental problems facing his children. Yes, getting them to think critically remains a vital skill to be imparted, as is the ability to apply classroom lessons to real life. However, Dan’s methods ignore the socioeconomic difficulties facing his students. Though it may look nice, his classroom speeches engage a select few and promote a kind of teleological view of history. Change may always be negotiated, but this negotiation occurs on unequal terms. The outcome involves the input of more than one party, but not in equal parts.

Some observers have noted that Dan’s inherent self destructiveness serves as a larger symbol of leftist failure. “A would-be visionary who wants to change the world but can’t get his act together… is often his own worst enemy,” the New York Times noted. “It’s not a stretch to read it as a comment on the sorry state of the American left.” Co-writer Anna Boden confirmed that such an allegorical interpretation was intentional, but doesn’t this stance display the same myopia it hopes to remedy? Drey and Frank's stories serve as the vehicle for exploring the weaknesses and contradictions of a white, middle class schoolteacher. Dunn may be painfully aware of his privileged identity in a poor black neighborhood, but it doesn’t stop him from taking advantage of such dynamics to score rock.

Despite the focus on Dan, it is the 13-year old Drey who is the hero of the movie. She navigates the challenges of a broken home, a rough neighborhood, the drug trade, and a relationship with a sympathetic but self-destructive teacher, never losing her steady resolve. Half Nelson is littered with wrecked families, with characters who seek any relationship or set of relationships as a substitute. Frank insists that the neighborhood is his family, and he looks after Drey in a way her absent father never did – even if his intentions are not entirely noble. Her mother is depicted only as an overworked and worried single mother, who is rarely around. Even Dan is unmoored from his own clueless and emotionally distant kin. Drey alone seems to act as a self-reliant individual, drawing on her own strength and judgment in a world full of flawed and damaged adults.

Dan wonders at one point if one person can make a difference – a difference that, despite his best or worst efforts, he seems unable to make. Perhaps the teacher wanted to focus on fixing others because he couldn’t fix himself. And perhaps Drey represents the promise amidst poverty and adversity, as a young person who must make difficult choices for herself before she can go on to help anyone else.

Ryan Reft and Alex Cummings

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Welcome to the Power Grab

Politics in the Age of the Bailout Queen

Like so many things in this world, it started with Frank Luntz. The canny Republican strategist warned his conservative allies in the Spring of 2009 that, contrary to the conventional wisdom among many in the Beltway, the idea of reforming healthcare was actually popular with the public. Anyone who has wrestled with an insurance company over their coverage knows that the system could be better than it is. The trick for the GOP, Luntz said, would be to acknowledge that there is a problem, but cast the Democrats’ reform effort as a “government takeover.”

Everything from the “missile gap” to “flip flops” has taught us that a phrase will stick if you repeat it often enough. And the language of “takeover” has literally taken over the debate, such that many Americans adamantly believe that the recent healthcare reform law was an aggressive takeover of the healthcare industry, despite the fact that it leaves the private insurance system completely intact and offers no new government insurance (or “public option”) . The Democratic Congress is tossing the working poor some subsidies to buy insurance from CIGNA, but you would think Castro had just nationalized the Mayo Clinic the way some people talk.

Suddenly, every other liberal policy is a “takeover” or “power grab.” Writing for the hard-right New American, Charles Scaliger condemned Democratic efforts to regulate Wall Street as the “latest Washington power grab.” Glenn Beck says that Obama’s climate change bill is a “global power grab.” Even net neutrality has been characterized as a “government takeover of the Internet” by Rep. John Boehner.

Why has the rhetoric of “takeover” stuck so well? Republican chicanery is not a force with its own magic power, although it feels that way sometimes. There must be something that makes this phrase make sense.

As Luntz himself would tell you – and I think liberal linguist George Lakoff might agree – it’s not what you say, but what people hear. “Takeover” resonates with some Americans, first and foremost, because of a long and hallowed tradition of suspicion toward state power (which gave us things like the free press and separation of church and state once upon a time) and Pavlovian hatred of anything dubbed socialism. These are baseline assumptions that have hobbled nearly every liberal effort to implement government programs to help the public, including the now-sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare.

But kneejerk resistance to government programs itself cannot explain why a rather moderate healthcare reform package, many parts of which had once been supported by Republicans, was so easily labeled a “government takeover.”

The answer lies both in the political and financial fiascos of 2008 and in the deeper wells of conservative thought. First, consider the bailouts. I recall thinking that the $800 billion rescue of the banks was George Bush’s final masterstroke of willful misrule, ensuring that the incoming Democratic administration would have its fiscal hands tied and the room to maneuver on healthcare would be decisively closed.

The actual impact has been more ideological and thematic than economic, in fact. The bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit set the template for mass resentment of both the government and those who benefited. We have already seen the shocking degree to which blue-collar auto workers have been villainized by the media, which portrayed them as pigs at the trough for having the decent wages and benefits that allowed so many Americans to attain a middle class life – a standard of living that was won through hard work, negotiation and struggle.

The problem is not that most Americans hate autoworkers, though some in the Establishment undoubtedly do. The problem is that so many people in this country have been fighting to survive in the last few years, but only certain groups seemed to be getting help from the government. Like the welfare mothers of yore, whose benefits really made up a small percentage of the federal budget, autoworkers make nice targets for demagogues seeking to focus the attention of a fed up public that was looking for someone to blame.

For conservatives, the more important factor here is government intervention in the economy – a real issue, though one that has been mischaracterized by many pundits and politicians. The antistatist bent of American politics has often forced policymakers to accomplish their goals, like subsidizing middle class homeownership or providing access to student loans, through indirect means. Money is still flowing and the government is still very active in our lives, but we don’t notice because the policy works through tax breaks, subsidies, and other gimmicks.

For this reason, a tax break for Goldman Sachs would not amount to a government takeover, but a direct transfer of funds is – especially when the federal government ends up saddled with stock in banks and car companies of severely diminished value. Liberals have been quick to point out that the government is actually making much of this money back – that the deal is not so raw in the long run – but these details fail to counteract the much more powerful image of sneaky politicians shoving bags of money at the rich and well-connected friends.

Thanks to the 2008 crash, the idea of government “taking over” the banks, and then the car companies, was quite plausible for many people. As a result, Republicans had little difficulty describing any effort to regulate healthcare as the “next takeover.”

This brings us to the second, and ultimately far more important, dimension of the problem. It has to do with a difference in the way liberals and conservatives think about politics. In his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that “family values” conservatives had managed to channel the anger of voters over an unfair economy into crusades for various moral causes, ranging from abortion to Terri Schiavo. The strategy worked out well for Republicans, since the battle against evolution kept voters coming to the polls and enabled the GOP to pass its true agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. Just as Osama Bin Laden might make a better campaign prop uncaught than caught, the problem of abortion might be, for Republicans, more useful unsolved than “solved.”

This bait-and-switch theory is shrewd, but it misses some of the picture. Fox News plays on a pervasive paranoia and distrust of big institutions – at first government, and later the liberal media – to say, "You can't trust anyone, but you can trust us." And, in a sense, they play on the same impulses as left-wing critics who say that the media and the political system are rigged, corrupt, and propagandistic. The left, however, sees a self-serving corporate slant, while people on the right tend to identify the enemy as power-hungry elites in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.

Progressives are often inclined to view social issues through an economic lens, while conservatives seem to have a different sense of what constitutes the “political.” Much of the Limbaugh/Fox critique of liberalism is that snooty professors, government bureaucrats, and preachy Hollywood stars crave power -- they want to tell us what to do and how to run our lives. Fur is murder, turn down your thermostat, inflate your tires, guns are bad, and so on and so forth. Why else would Obama and Pelosi would be so determined to "take over" healthcare, the auto industry, and the financial sector? They seek power for its own sake – the liberal as know-it-all control freak.

In contrast, I think liberals tend to view power as being a means to an end – the end usually being money. Rupert Murdoch wants taxes and deregulation, so he uses his newspapers and networks to support the Thatchers and Bushes of the world. It does bear noting that conservatives also see economic motives – for example, in the interest of unions and minorities who seek handouts from the government by voting blue, as well as the perception that Democrats are bailing out their venal friends on Wall Street. Obama got more contributions from members of the financial industry in 2008 than McCain, after all.

As always, liberals have their work cut out for them if they want to sell a skeptical public on the idea that government can do any good at all. Its good works, like Medicare, have often been obscured or misunderstood, while its awesome failures are too numerous to ignore – the misguided crusade in Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, the nation’s collapsing infrastructure, and so on and on.

Now, thanks to the misdeeds of the bankers and their shills on Capitol Hill, we have a whole new problem to confront – that bailouts have poisoned the well of public opinion toward government, and Americans fear more bailout-style socialism is on the way.

This fear may be not be very well founded, but it does little good to laugh off the concerns and anxieties of our fellow citizens. When Obama tells the Tea Partiers that they should be thanking him for lowering taxes, it comes off as smug. More importantly, it seems counterintuitive to people who have seen their property taxes and sales taxes go through the roof as desperate state governments attempt to stave off financial collapse. Democrats have to find a way to counteract the Republican tactic of pitching every policy as a “takeover,” or the next government takeover will be Sarah Palin’s.

Alex Cummings

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Half–Hooking in the 21st Century: Blaming Women for the American Culture of Celebrity

New York magazine remains of the great unsung periodicals of the past twenty years. Less pretentious than The New Yorker, saucier than the New York Times, and snarkier than today’s Village Voice, much of its coverage from politics to culture provides sharp, clear, insightful analysis. So when the April 12, 2010 issue splashed the headline “The Half Hooker Economy” [and how Tiger Woods changed the game], some readers [yours truly] experienced some trepidation. Such reservations emerged not from the article's sexual content or the reality of the situation, where nightclubs, lounges, and other socially exclusive sites have employed increasingly financially prohibitive practices such as bottle service.

Rather, writer Lisa Taddeo’s title seemed to fall into the usual tropes regarding female and male sexuality. For example, wouldn’t it be more accurate to claim “half johns” truly drive the late night economy? Taddeo’s “half hookers” currently drive the late night economy only in that they provide a “service” both imposed by the clubs and requested by the clientele. Moreover, though Taddeo historicizes these developments from the late 1980s onwards, she fails to situate her “half-hookers” historically. For many working class women in the first half of the twentieth century, due to gendered economic biases, part time prostitution served as a necessary means to independent economic survival.

To Taddeo’s credit, the article grants women a sense of agency while outlining the subtle lines of difference between categorizations in this world ranging from bottle girls to half hookers to prostitutes. One of the more interesting implications of this development remains this sort of nightclub sexual specialization; each role with its specific pay scale, obligations, and demographics.

Unfortunately, the New York magazine article ignores the troubled place social arenas like clubs and amusements have long held among the public. Moreover, it fails to account for broader sexual changes that have unfolded over the past thirty years, such that one might believe that preoccupations with women’s sexuality emerged as a new phenomenon. However, Taddeo also lays out a world in which it would seem industrial like specialization has taken hold, dividing workers into four nebulous occupations each with its own particular role, bottle girls, VIP hosts, promoters, and party girls, all in an effort to supply sex without formally acknowledging its latent prostitution.

The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918 (1982), Meyerwitz’s Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (1988), and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (1986) explored women’s lives from the vantage point of their own agency. Though each author acknowledged the influence of gendered economic markets, which ultimately reduced women’s choices and ability to remain independent, Rosen, Peiss, and Meyerwitz all exhibited understandings that women served as actors not just unfortunate victims. Moreover, women’s agency in these periods created spaces for future women and men. In sum, these authors revealed the influence working women exerted in turn of the century America, helping to shape the nation’s future sexual mores.

The role of gender in urban life and its public spaces serves as a major issue for historians. Women’s relationship with cities often occurred within an unequal system that punished single working and working class women socially, economically, and politically. Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York City 1790 -1860 reveals the misogyny and hostility that urban working women endured. Economically, most unions refused to admit them and employers underpaid them. Sexually, women live in society in which many men still saw coerced sex as their prerogative. (Stansell, Christine, City of Women, 185) Reformers of the time often labeled working class spaces especially those exhibiting crowded housing, boisterous streets, and a visible public female presence as vice ridden or dysfunctional.

Attitudes toward women and public spaces changed very little by the early twentieth century. Joanne Meyerowitz’s Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 illustrates the unease that working women unassociated with family or husbands caused in early twentieth century Chicago. Popular culture and reformers “used the overt sexual behavior of some “women adrift” to spread a new stereotype of women as sexual objects.” (Meyerowitz, Joanne, Women Adrift, xxi) Types of housing like furnished room districts and visible heterosocial interactions in neighborhoods occupied by single working women drew suspicion and allegations. Similarly, Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York argues that working class and working women helped to create a new heterosocial youth culture that middle and upper class counterparts later adopted. Commercialized leisure spaces such as dance halls and amusement parks played a key role in establishing new public spaces for single women. However, female sexuality remained a dominant area of concern. The increased heterosocial nature of “cheap amusements” worried reformers who often associated commercialized spaces of leisure with sexual activity.

Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900 -1918 makes several important points but prominent among them the argument that the shift from homosocial leisure activity to a more heterosexual example caused anxiety and brought accusations of sexual corruption. Saloons, theatres, and dancehalls stood accused of facilitating prostitution. However, commercialized leisure accommodated numerous groups and classes. While prostitution existed, it did so alongside other social and sexual interactions, further complicating distinctions.

Fears about female sexuality abated in the 1920s and 30s, though certainly flappers and their popular culture presence unsettled many Americans. When World War II erupted, concerns regarding women’s sexuality once again emerged. Karen Anderson’s Wartime Women: Sex Roes, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (1981) and Marilyn E. Hegarty’s Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (2008), both explore aspects of women’s wartime contributions along with wider perceptions of female sexuality in the context of war. Anderson’s groundbreaking work explored the changes wrought by women’s movement into employment during World War II. Fears over women’s sexuality accelerated thus, the regulation of women’s behavior became a central aspect of psychological and social welfare officials as they attempted to explain and control female sexuality. Postwar America then turned to these practices as precedents to employ.

Building on Anderson’s focus on women’s wartime role, Hegarty’s work reveals the implicit double standard regarding male and female sexuality during WWII in which men’s sexual desires were to be expressed rather than restrained. Moreover, she points out the women who contributed to the war effort by laboring in leisure or service industries received little support for their efforts but rather found themselves “under surveillance by law enforcement and social service personnel” who suggested that those who eventually turned to prostitution “started out this way.” (Hegarty, Marilyn, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes, 120) Further complications regarding female sexuality emerged in a public discourse that “obligated wartime women to be sexually alluring and enticing” for servicemen. Soldiers needed “motivation and morale”, wartime society expected women “to repay him for risking his life in her defense.” (Hegarty, Marilyn, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes, 114)

More recent works such as Elizabeth Alice Clement’s work Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostituion in New York City 1900-1945 support this viewpoint. Clement notes that “the War Department … launched a propaganda campaign that, while [acknowledging] the sexual activities of non prostitutes, did so by expanding the category of “bad” women.” (Clement, Alice, Love for Sale, 243) Thus, both prostitutes and “pick-ups” spread disease thereby aiding the enemies’ war efforts, by war’s end the military harnessed the prostitute as a scapegoat for venereal disease rates. By classifying “promiscuous women” as such, the military utilized prostitution as a tool to regulate broader female sexuality.

With the end of the war came the development of a new system of dating. Beth Bailey’s From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America (1989) traces the shift from courtship to dating, focusing primarily on the latter which lasted from roughly 1940 – 1960. The initial shift to dating away from courtship moved what had been a private activity under the control of the women to a public ritual that bound dating up with the economic mindset of America. Dating became a rough economic exchange that due to gendered economic biases clearly favored men. The working class patrons of dance halls, amusement parks, and arcades in the twentieth century’s early decades, that Peiss, Meyerwitz, and Rosen so carefully investigated, helped to shape and give meaning to these new dating structures. Like Anderson, Bailey acknowledges women’s increasing role in the national economy and those of their families. If Anderson pointed to the war’s contribution to this development, Bailey similarly concludes that the economic benefits of female employment allowed middle class families to “enjoy the good life.” (Bailey, Beth, From the Front Porch to the Back Seat, 104) Even if antagonisms declined, both Anderson and Bailey acknowledge that due to this development the “crisis of masculinity” that had begun with economic and social changes at the turn of the century accelerated.

The rise of organizational men, with skills that had been in the past viewed as more feminine, and presence of women in the workforce bred fears that modern society sublimated masculinity. Women’s employment “robbed men” of their masculinity, while threatening to usurp their position as family provider. In part to order such changes, etiquette manuals and scientific theories developed to enforce performative gender roles. Rules of etiquette established the proper behaviors that protected a women’s virtue, which by mid-century had become of central value, while enforcing men’s masculinity. Such conventions did not necessarily determine behavior but enabled women and men to situate themselves accordingly, thus providing a reference point and structure for judging their own activities.

The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s upset these conventions. Birth control, legislation, and feminism combined to reshape norms. While the 1980s may have represented retrenchment in some ways, as the New Right and others attempted to impose cultural norms that privileged traditional domesticities, yet sexuality in the public sphere continued to proliferate. The more prurient aspects of reality TV, the expansion of the porn industry, sexting, and the internet, notably its social networks have had indelible affects on our national psyche. While women’s sexuality appeared to expand outward, as many enjoyed greater sexual freedom publicly and privately, its questionable how much this has served feminist interests, perhaps even contributing to the sex industry that orbits around “bottle service”.

Take for example, the controversial June 2006 Rolling Stone article “Sex and Scandal at Duke”. Rolling Stone contributor Janet Reitman explored the Duke “dating” scene or lack thereof in the wake of the Lacrosse scandal. What she found proved mystifying to even those of Generation X. Following around several female coeds, Reitman found a pervasive sense of insecurity combined with an equally nervous expression of feminist ideals. According to Reitman’s article, sorority girls and other hoping to move in the university’s highest social circles, attached themselves to athletes and frat guys, as one coed confesses to Reitman, “they are the only ones that matter really.” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sex Scandal and Duke”). Another similarly minded Duke female undergraduate summarized, “Its a BMOC thing,” she related, “They have it all – you want to be part of that.” In fact, as the article points out, these girls, raised on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera see strength in their sexuality not weakness. They see their ability to dominate or be sexually free as feminist even it still hinges on male desires. For example, “World War III” party, held annually by a Duke fraternity involves selecting the girls that members of that frat perceive as the hottest, then have them dress and behave provocatively toward rushes. As one coed named Anna described it, “It was like a huge dry orgy.” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sexual Scandal and Duke”). Anna also noted that she was flattered to participate “We were like, yes, we’re going to do this – because [the guys] choose,” says Anna, “They’re very selective …” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sexual Scandal and Duke”). Others concurred noting that an invitation signified who was the “hottest of the hot.” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sexual Scandal and Duke”). Reitman notes the perverse symmetry to this, yes, in one way the girl’s sexuality enables a form of dominance, but “on the other hand”, she writes, “it was all done at the direction of the boys, for whom the party was designed.” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sexual Scandal and Duke”).

Like Bailey’s dating structure, the emphasis on popularity emerges. Despite being some of the brightest students period, Donna Lisker, Director of the Duke University’s Women’s Center, notes that its that “men set the social rules” at Duke not women, “They throw the parties, they create the expectations, they created the standards,” Lisker pointed out, “and these women – these incredibly smart women – on some level, being accepted by their peers is so important that they put aside their values and standards. They dumb it down.” (Reitman, Janet, Rolling Stone, “Sexual Scandal and Duke”).

Reitman’s journalism stands as only one example of the new dating structures that seem to influence perceptions and sexuality. The Clinton scandal remains a constant reference point. In this regard, both the New York Magazine and Rolling Stone articles make President-intern sex references and explain the ubiquity of oral sex among the younger set. Moreover as the Aughts progressed, sex blogging by women and men proliferated. Even more traditional sources began exploring the younger generations sexual habits. If Bailey pointed out that by the 1920s sex became youth culture’s defining characteristic, “sex became [its] central public symbol … a fundamental part of the definition that separated youth from age,” (Bailey, Beth, Front Porch to Back Seat, 80) it would seem that this focus continues. Even Thomas Wolfe tackled the subject in 2004’s I am Charlotte Simmons, in which Dupont University’s, ostensibly Duke, dating scene strongly resembles that of the 2006 Rolling Stone article. Jacob Weisman’s November 24, 2004 New York Times review of the work referred to its plot as a “comic book version of college” that focused too narrowly on fraternity and sorority social structures, “But the invisible worlds revealed in ''I Am Charlotte Simmons'' are pretty much confined to the frat party scene and the familiar scandal of N.C.A.A. basketball.” (Weisman, Jacob, New York Times, “I am Charlotte Simmons: Peeping Tom”) The same criticism could be leveled at Reitman’s piece. Still, clearly convention continues to, in many ways, dictate actions, but the confusing interpretations of what “feminism” is today, proves increasingly complex. In this cultural atmosphere does bottle service and “half-hooking” seem so simple?

With that said, aspects of The New York Magazine article illustrate similar themes as those of twentieth century’s first two decades and a clear connection to more recent reflections on youth dating habits. First, it is and always has been about the money and popularity. For example, with the rise of bottle service staffing changed, “Cocktail waitresses evolved from out of work actresses into Penthouse Pet level creatures who sparred with their co-workers for client gratuities by expanding their breadth of service. Their take home pay skyrocketed fro $300 a night to $3000 banner shifts.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) Additionally, like the part time entrepreneurs of Rosen and Meyerowitz, a certain grey area exists regarding their activities. First, while bottle girls have clients, who they are expected to flirt with, there is not a clear sexual obligation. However, they do supply “models” who ultimately do sleep with the bottle girl’s clients. The allure of fame or even a tangential relationship to it appears just as important to the party girls of New York nightclubs as with the sorority coeds of Duke, as Taddeo notes, “In most cases, there is an exchange, gifts or help for success – though with celebrities, what the girls receive is often just the privilege of being with a storied name.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) Importantly, these women’s ability to remain hush hush about their hook-ups remains vital to future success, “To be a girl who is trusted, you need a track record of having slept with famous men and not talked about it. It’s an unwritten resume.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) Once again the rules seem dictated by men.

Taddeo provides a useful case study with “Kim”, a 26 year old New York cocktail waitress. Kim summarizes her role succinctly,” You’re a bottle waitress, and that means you’re half a stripper and half a pimp,” she noted, “You’re making hooker money, right? So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck … “(Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) If not true sex work, Kim herself refers to it as “bottle hookering” even comparing her take home pay to a college aged escort she knows, “Her prices are $100 for a handy, $150 for a blowjob, $200 for doin’ it … Mine are $400 for a bottle of Grey Goose, $300 for Veuve, and $700 for Cristal.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) Moreover she concedes that while she may not be technically selling sex, she offers “a form of social prostitution.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010) So in essence, Kim and others like her operate as middlewomen in the sexual process, serving as conduits for wealthy and famous men’s sexual proclivities. So where does the sex then come from? Party girls -- models, actresses and young women --who enjoy spending time in hot clubs or with famous celebrities. Bottle girls and promoters often deliver these girls to the clubs. Their appraisal of these girls often amounts to very little as Taddeo quotes one industry insider who suggests promoters often text him messages like, “I’ll be rolling deep with about a dozen hookers.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010)

Kim and many girls like her don’t lack options. Like her Duke counterparts, she was educated at a “very good East coast university.” Kim summarized her decision simply, ““I figured: I’m cute, I’m young, I can make a shitload of money, so” she says, holding up two middle fingers, “fuck it!” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 10, 2010) Many of the party girls are not very dissimilar. This fundamentally contrasts with Rosen, Meyerowitz, and Clement’s examples. Of course, the vast majority of commercial prostitution in America entraps those from lower income groups, the rise of middle and upper class markets can be clearly illustrated in what’s become the GFE or Girl Friend Experience. Now men increasingly want their escorts to provide girl friend like company. Such roles demand more than sexual skills in many cases. The imposition of middle class domesticities on prostitution suggests the continuing erasure of brightlined divisions of sexuality, clearly differentiating between prostitution and other less pejorative sexual acts.

Interestingly, the way party girls benefit illustrate several aspects of Piess and others. For example, the practice of treating, developed in the first decades of last century. Women often expressed a need for item, show, or activity, expecting their male companion to purchase said item/service/product and in return, receive some sort of sexual favor. This practice often unfolded in the arcades, amusement parks, and public theatres of the day, the nightclubs of the early twentieth century. Now compare this to today, as part-time promoter Richard Garcia explains:

“Party girls are more like freelancers, and sex is their currency. The exchange happens like this. A girl will say to a guy she has not slept with yet, but perhaps they have kissed or she’s let him touch her, “I’m short on my rent” or “There’s this dress I really want.” After sleeping with him a few times, she might say, “I need a tan. I should go to Miami.” The beauty is in the subtle gaucheness. “There is no nightly prostitution for the half-hookers” says Garcia. It’s a weekly thing, or a monthly thing. And when both sides have gotten what they want, they move on.” (Taddeo, Lisa, New York Magazine, April 12, 2010)

The intermittent nature of this sort of behavior mirrors similar efforts by working class women who engaged in “part time prostitution” to make ends meet. However, large differences remain, these girls often hail from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Their intermittency may sometimes be about finances but more often rests less desperate motivations.

If financial necessity fails to be the only driving force in this equation, what are the other dynamics at play? The culture of TMZ, “The Hills”, and other mixes of reality TV and celebrity gawking have put forth new conventions. If Beth Bailey pointed to the etiquette manuals, youth media/culture and “social science” relationship experts as the basic foundations upon which conventions were established, today youth culture remains a vibrant part of such developments. However, the pervasiveness of media – from the aforementioned TMZ to youtube – means conventions are splintering. However, this fragmentation is a tired argument at T of M. More importantly, these conventions continue to be negotiated by youth themselves, thought it remains unclear which youth. While their own manipulation of social networks et al help to determine the rules of the game, the undeniable culture of celebrity and wealth, as promoted by "Laguna Beach", "The Hills", "The Kardashians", or even the university lacrosse team, pervades conceptions.

Ryan Reft