Better check my birth certificate

I just don’t *get* Johnny Carson, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, horror movies or car racing.

I watched about half of the Johnny Carson special Harold linked to, and it reminded me of the how distant I am from important parts of American culture. The list of things that I simply don’t get is dismayingly long: Carson (and Leno and Letterman and Conan O’Brien), Sinatra, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Lewis, horror movies, car racing, fishing, hunting, apple pie.

To the best of my knowledge, my father wasn’t a Kenyan Muslim, so my un-Americanism is puzzling, especially since it’s patchy: I think John Wayne is way under-rated as an actor, and I’m a fan of barbeque (beef ribs, not pork) and loved pro football until the owner of the Colts betrayed Baltimore. The last two should be pretty conclusive on the nationality question, since as far as I can tell no furriner can stand either BBQ or real football, as opposed to that silly thing with nets where you actually use your feet.

How unusual is this? What’s on your list?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

39 thoughts on “Better check my birth certificate”

  1. Late night TV never moved me. On the other hand, Sinatra, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Lewis — these are talents and icons on another plane entirely. So that, I don’t get.

    Find some videos of Martin and Lewis hamming it up and especially of Lewis’s comedy dancing. They perfectly embodied the manic energy of America liberated after 15+ years of depression and war.

    Westerns, on the other hand, always left me cold. And John Wayne particularly. They bore the hell out of me. Europeans love Westerns though, from Karl May to Sergio Leone. Go figure.

    But in the end what I love about America are all the weird cultural intersections that never happen anywhere else. Film noir, for example: A really interesting cross between American sensibility and that of immigrant artists who made it here. Or the love affair between Jews and baseball, recorded in Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel,” and Michael Chabon’s “Summerland” — and sometimes requited in the figures of Koufax and a few others.

    1. John Wayne isn’t just Westerns. Check out The Quiet Man. I think it’s probably my favorite John Wayne movie, and it’s about as unWestern as you can get.

      1. Actually, you’re right. I do like that movie quite a bit.

        And it’s about an American in Europe! (Sort of.)

      2. Don’t forget “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Also a classic. Couldn’t believe I had never seen it before.

        1. That’s a very atypical Western… in fact it’s about the end of the West. And I wouldn’t say John Wayne is who I remember the most from it. But, yes.

  2. The list would go on longer than anyone would want to read.

    I always tell people “I didn’t grow up in the US — I grew up in New York City.” I feel much more at home in Western European capitals than I do in 99+% of the US.

    1. You know, here’s the interesting thing. I love visiting Europe and in some ways might prefer to live there. My parents, aunts, and uncles, all grew up there. I have tremendous respect for their achievements.

      And yet. What I love the most about being in Europe is being an American in Europe. It’s there that I perceive most clearly just how American I actually am… and what I admire the most about our society.

      I’m reminded of talking with Israelis about authors like Bellow and Roth, so clearly Jewish here. What they perceive is just how American these writers are in their sensibility.

      And what is that sensibility? The belief — however often traduced; however often the costs, to ourselves and our society, prove far higher than we could have imagined; however often we fail — that we can be anything we want to be.

      I believe that. That’s my religion.

      Which, by the way, doesn’t make me a Republican. Not by a long shot. Because supporting that high-wire dream requires a strong safety net.

    1. This actually occurred to me as well.

      Murray’s quiz – or was it AEI’s? – immediately struck me as problematic when I first read it. Much of what it is doing is finding a correlation between non-mainstream ethnicity and non-working class ethnicity (or culture). But it tells you less than you might think. Socio-economic status is defined by both education level and income. Yet one can clearly be undereducated and high-earning, or highly educating and low-earning. While there is a correlation between education and earning power, it isn’t as strong as the correlation between education and culture.

      In the end, the quiz is a lot like Murray’s thesis. It pretends to say big things, but ends up cherry picking and forcing facts into narrow boxes.

      1. Murray. His smartest move was finding a doddering Harvard psychology professor to provide cover. A radical behaviorist who became a radical nativist. The common denominator being that both approaches are radically simplistic.

    2. […]
      Misleading Fable

      “Coming Apart” is really two entirely separate works of potentially valuable social science held together by a misleading fable. Because Murray is best known as the author of “The Bell Curve,” we might call the two subjects the Upper Tail (the quiz is for them) and the Lower Tail (MTV’s trashy “Teen Mom” is for them).

      The Upper Tail includes roughly the top 20 percent of the white population by education and occupation, although Murray focuses primarily on the much smaller slice he calls the “new upper class.” These people constitute maybe 5 percent of the population as a whole and “run the nation’s economic, political, and cultural institutions.”

      The Lower Tail is roughly the bottom 30 percent of whites. Here, again, Murray is most interested in the extremes: the third or so of the Lower Tail, maybe 9 percent of the population as a whole, who are seriously messed up. The vast middle — the people who do eat at Applebee’s and vacation in Branson, Missouri — rarely appear in “Coming Apart,” except as a foil to make the Upper Tail feel bad.

      Can You Pass the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ Test?

      1. I first encountered Charles Murray when he wrote the book, Beyond Probation, in which he purported to show that high-rate delinquents who were incarcerated had lower crime rates when released. In fact, this was just regression to the mean. Soon thereafter I read his Losing Ground, and felt that he had interpreted the welfare, education, and other statistics nicely, but really messed up in his interpretation of the crime statistics (my bag). I then found out that thefolks at the Institute for Rpesearch on Poverty felt that he did well in theother domains, but misinterpreted the poverty data. I find it hard to believe anything he writes.

    3. Murray includes a question about jobs that make you hurt at the end of the day, but to him headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome do not count. I am guessing that he is excluding office and computer keyboard jobs here, but there are a couple of things that he does not seem to know about that make him look like a charlatan.

      Headaches can happen to people who work in badly ventilated spaces where carbon monoxide is present, like in work sites where there can be auto exhaust and where key pieces of equipment can leak. Carpal tunnel syndrome is not caused by most forms of computer keyboarding in a reasonable ergonomic position, but it sure does afflict people who have high force/high repetition jobs, especially in cold environments, like meat cutters and poultry workers. Either Murray thinks that these are cushy jobs which the cultural elites gravitate to, or he is running to the bank with information which is impressionistic and half baked.

      Remind me who this guy is and why he has any credibility with anyone.

  3. Not so fast on the barbecue test. I had a somewhat surreal evening a couple of years ago in North Carolina at dinner with a transplant Texan police chief took me to his favorite local BBQ place, which he’d talked into serving brisket (BBQ in the Carolinas in pork), which I introduced to two staffers of Chinese and German origin respectively. They loved it, as did a Greek graduate student later on…

    1. No matter where you go in the South, you will find plenty of folks who will tell you there is only one right way to cook barbecue, and it’s … which will be different depending on where you are. There are at least eight distinct styles of barbecue just for pork. Then you’ve got the ribs, the beef, and the chicken.

      There are three kinds of religion in the South–the church kind, the NASCAR kind, and the barbecue kind. And not necessarily in that priority order.

    2. David Kennedy
      for people who are from North (or South) Carolina, there is no such thing as “the Carolinas” just North Carolina or South Carolina. To further digress, my granddaddy used to tell me that “if South Carolina ever wants to secede again, they should let North Carolina know and we will host the going away party”….And yes, BBQ is a noun, a thing, which is pork cooked slowly, best served with vinegar based sauce (my brothers and sisters from West of Raleigh are wayward when it comes to BBQ sauce). I can live with people in Texas thinking BBQ it is another thing (beef), but it is decidedly not a verb (you grill hot dogs, etc.). You are welcome.

      1. Beef (usually brisket) isn’t just a Tejas thing. That habit goes west at least through New Mexico and north at least to Kansas City. In Kansas City, though, there is acknowledgement that pork ribs work awfully well too. I’m told that tritip is the native California barbeque, but color me unconvinced.

        The essence of barbeque is large cuts of cheap meat, smoked.

      2. Barbecue is a noun. It is most definitely not just pork, though. Barbecue includes, for sure: pork, pork ribs, beef brisket, and chicken.

        The Kansas City Barbecue Society runs barbecue competitions all over the country. They certify barbecue judges, and teach barbecue schools. And the KCBS barbecue contests include the above four categories, all of which carry point awards adding up to the total score of the competitors in trying for the Grand Champion award at each competition. You can’t be a premier barbecue cooker if you haven’t mastered all four meats, and you can’t be certified as a KCBS judge if you can’t judge all four.

  4. I’m not a Xtian, nor am I a big fan of red meat or guns. I can’t stand mainstream spectator sports at all, and I actually have respect for science & education. John Wayne & Chuck Norris can both fuck right off. When I was in college, working for the student paper, I overheard someone talking about the new foreign student they’d hired. Since I was the only recent hire, I was bewildered until I realized she was talking about me. Do I count as ‘merikun?

  5. Mark–that’s messed up, especially re Sinatra. And the NBA, which went unmentioned in your post.

    1. Ah, but Mark did mention the Baltimore Colts. Why, one of my most traumatic memories of childhood was the day the Colts lost to the LA Rams when Johnny Unitas failed to complete a touchdown pass after 47 consecutive games in which he did. I stood around the playground just stunned that the world had come to an end just like that. The approach of Christmas did little to alleviate the raw pain.

      I think that Unitas’ record still stands, though. Maybe knowing that would have comforted that kid on the playground.

  6. Hmmm…

    Late night TV? Agree completely. Sinatra and Elvis? No. The 50’s Sinatra is the best of the kind, and Elvis (at least the Hound Dog/Blue Suede Shoes Elvis) is no less than one of the founding fathers of rock and roll (along with Jerry Lee and Little Richard). Marilyn? Well, she was in some really good movies (The Seven Year Itch), but she was in some real clinkers (Let’s Make Love). And I just never got Jerry Lewis at all. For slapstick, give me the Three Stooges (either Curly or Shemp versions). Horror movies? Bring them on. Either the classics or some of the more recent gore fests (I love me some high school assholes getting it in the neck, chest, or wherever). I’ll admit to a fondness for auto racing (just as I enjoy watching downhill skiing – I guess it’s seeing someone doing something I’ve done, only doing it on the edge of control). Fishing? When I would go backpacking with a friend of mine I’d let him catch dinner, and I’d curl up under a nearby tree with a book. Hunting? I was never interested in getting up at some ungodly hour to tramp around in December in NJ in pursuit of a deer. Nothing morally against it, as long as you eat your kill, I just wasn’t interested. And there’s nothing wrong with a good apple pie, warm, topped with ice cream.

    I’ll agree with you about John Wayne (at least in the early years, before he became a right-wing icon – his performances in Stagecoach and The Quiet Man are quite good) and barbecue. Football? No. Just no. I got points in the Murray quiz for having been in marching band (which meant I attended every football game during high school), but that was because, if you played brass, woodwind, or percussion in our school (I played french horn), if you wanted to be in orchestra you had to be in symphonic band first (and try out for orchestra), and if you were in symphonic band you were, ex officio, in marching band. Football was just a boring side effect of wanting to play serious music. For team sports I’ll take hockey and baseball.

  7. The Bubble Quiz was fun. I came out between my small town West Virginia roots and my life today in which I do not own a TV (Very un-American apparently).

    The most sensible parts of the quiz I thought were questions like Do you have an evangelical friend and have you hung out with smokers. Many assessments ask people just “are you X?”, but within the nos are people who don’t give a toss about people who are X, people who befriend people who are X, and people who loathe people who are X. When you dig into those gradations you get a better sense of who people are and a better understanding of how the country is getting along (or not).

  8. I thought it was laughable that depending on your score Murray puts you into categories of lower class, recently upwardly mobile from the lower class, 2d gen or more upwardly mobile from the lower class, and long-term middle or upper class, etc. As if everyone were always rising from the ranks.

    He completely overlooked a massive, growing segment of the population: people who were born middle or upper class and have begun descending into the working or lower class.

    I scored 43, and was categorized by his survey as recently (first generation) upwardly mobile.

    In fact, I’m descended from blue-bloods, professors, and doctors, but my class status has declined throughout my lifetime — like so many in my cohort (Gen X) and those right before us (late-born Boomers).

    1. @Betsy: Great point about him having no recognition of downward mobility.

      1. Well, thnks, but it is not so much a great point as it is an omission of such a kind as to betray incompetence on the part of the social researcher/commentator that missed it. You gotta be a real noob or boob to skip merrily past the wrecking of the middle class that is the socioeconomic hallmark of our turn of the century.

  9. Since I am no longer an adolescent and cannot be a bored housewife, I don’t get most of the current American culture. Superhero movies, Oprah, Rihanna, reality TV, and mixed martial arts spring to mind. Sinatra, Elvis, and Marilyn I get, but don’t much like– the arrival of the Beatles in my early childhood made all that seem old hat.

  10. I don’t think you can really call John Wayne “underrated” these days–the book on him is that he was typecast, operated within a limited comfort zone, but occasionally produced really outstanding work, a la “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” and “True Grit.” Sounds about right to me…

    1. John Wayne played John Wayne. His performance included acting in various movies.

  11. I was born in the USA and have lived here all my life. I’m an atheist, don’t own a gun, wish the President were more progressive than our current one, and am willing to pay higher taxes in order to ensure that everyone has meaningful access to health care. I also don’t get the Three Stooges and rarely, if ever, have a Big Mac Attack. I don’t eat cheese out of a spray can and don’t require my tacos to be wrapped in a giant nacho cheese Dorito. And I don’t get why Americans have such a bad attitude about sex. On the plus side, I am overweight, out of shape, and diabetic, though I’m working on these things.

  12. I’m somewhere between unmoved and nauseated by the succession of usually single-named, frequently dead female divas who somehow equate vocal gymnastics with vocal talent. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Aaliyah, Kesha, Adele, Rihanna. The list seems to go on and on, like that last fermata in one of their songs.

    1. I totally agree. Icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn were better singers than any of the women you named could ever hope to be and neither had to resort to what I call the “Tarzan yell” school of singing.

      While we’re on the subject of American cultural phenomena: I’m still trying to fathom exactly why any of the Kardashian women are famous. As far as I can tell, there’s not an ounce of talent in the entire family.

      1. Here is a comment I agree with totally and absolutely.

        Listen to Sarah Vaughan for a few minutes and you will forget all those alleged singers you name.

        But why does Mark not apreciate Sinatra?

  13. I am between unmoved and nauseated by the succession of (often one-named, frequently dead) female celebrity singers whose fans confuse vocal gymnastics with vocal talent: Whitney, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Kesha, Adele, Beyonce …

    Also, I live overseas and faithfully report all my income and accounts to both the US and a foreign government.

    So, yes, maybe I should give up my passport, if only Chuck Schumer would let me.

    1. (sorry about the double-post – the first one didn’t show up right away.)

  14. I’ve taken the Murray quiz before I saw it here, and was disturbed by its tone both times. I’ve consciously resisted what Murray sees as “authentic” American habits, such as evangelism, NASCAR, and eating insane amounts of unhealthy things.

    I resist these tendencies because I find them stupid–in the most fundamental sense of that word. They waste resources, have a short-sighted view of humankind’s place in a global ecosystem, and are disgustingly unhealthful. And yet I’m the one who has to be defensive about my belief system? Our values are seriously out of whack.

    I’m a 24 on his “elitism” scale, and I frankly don’t care. My bubble is intentionally thick, because I find smoking, eating fried/fatty foods, and believing that some guy rose from the dead, zombielike, to save all of humanity ridiculous, infantile, and idiotic. I choose not to hang around smokers, guns, and fried foods because these things will kill me. I’ll defend forever my healthful, conscientious, environmental perspective. Until I’m shot or die from second-hand smoke or being hit by a petroleum-guzzling monster truck, (only to then be posthumously baptised as either a Mormon or an evangelical.)

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