Saturday, September 29, 2007

Poh and sham

What's the obvious follow-up to a French grad student happy hour and a UChicago alumni mixer? Easy--a physics department picnic! I just played baseball, for the first time in years, with a couple of Israeli grad students. I only realized I needed to throw the ball when one of them shouted, 'poh, poh!,' a sign that my Hebrew is better than my American. I also spent a while convincing someone from physics that I am American and not French. This of course never happens in the French Department. And finally, I had a reunion with a fellow UChicago alum who's now at NYU, whom I didn't know way back when. I'll attribute this to Chicago being a big school, not to either the school's geekiness or my own.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Excessive use of "ph"

For a long list of reasons, I ended up at the UChicago "Phoenixphest." One of the people I was there to meet I never met; the other I did, which was cool, so now I have one fewer 'imaginary' blog-friend. I also got to see a few pre-existing real-life friends I see otherwise, but all told rather wish I'd just organized something on my own with the relevant people at some bar in the East Village, one where a night out is less than $15 and where the 40-ish single male banker set is a bit less prevalent. The dark underworld of Manhattan wealth is composed of aging, possibly high-income men at "young alumni" events preying on the class of 2007. Uh, bonne chance. The problem with an event held in a venue best suited to a low-end but expensive bar mitzvah is that it attracts desperate-seeming men in striped shirts. I don't know quite how this happens, but it does. A couple of my old classmates expressed a desire not to socialize. But they (you!) were, well, at the event. You can bring UChicago to an open bar, but you can't make its alums interact. For some weird reason I find this reassuring. Keep UChicago Nerdy!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

It could be worse, you could be a model.

Of all the injustices in the world, one you're least likely to hear about is how much harder it is for middle-class teens to go out drinking than it is for their fabulously wealthy and/or famous peers. For all the talk of a 21-year-old drinking age, it's normal to see pictures of underage socialites, actors or models in America holding a glass of not-milk at a party. This is sophistication. Meanwhile college freshmen must detag every Facebook photo in which they are even possibly drinking a beer. For the plebes, there are potential employers to worry about.

I was wrong. It's actually unfair to the rich, beautiful, and famous that they are permitted alcohol prior to 21, the age at which scientists agree the human body can at last tolerate liquor. It is far better to be 20, carded, and spending the evening with your sober friends at a Starbucks, till its 10:30 PM closure. (Of course, if the underage were not exposed to photos of their more glamorous peers drinking, they would never consider doing so in the first place). Similarly, isn't it terrible that models are permitted to smoke in restaurants? It's bad enough that they have to go around being better-looking than everyone else and receiving glares from us civilians waddling through Union Square West, that they are above the law, that they go to fabulous parties at an age when other kids go at most to a Rated R movie. It's tragic, really. Of course the real tragedy is that no amount of decadent behavior or dieting will make anyone other than a Latvian 10-year-old resemble the women pictured in Guy Trebay's article.

So bad it's good

A while back, Will Baude blogged about his book addiction (and now the link to that post is kaput). 'Book addiction' struck me as silly at the time, and it still does. Far sillier but along the same lines is piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about academics' "guilty pleasures." Both Sean Carroll and Jacob Levy see the results as proof that academics are geeky. While I'd be the first to admit that academia is not the racy world of Philip Roth's imagination, who considers bike riding a "guilty" pleasure? Studying languages? What else, reading more papers in one's field than absolutely necessary? Tutoring underprivileged youth? Consumption of fair trade chocolate and red wine in moderate, sensible amounts?

One of the comments to Carroll's post gets it right: "What this poll shows is just that academics need to be very careful about their public images." Now it's probably true that academics are not confessing to heavy drug use because they tend not to be heavy drug users. But really. Does no one read Gawker? Browse the racks at H&M (or, if male, the aisles at Circuit City)? These are guilty pleasures, though ones I know nothing about.

Confessing to a guilty pleasure does not mean declaring that you spend most of your free time doing that activity, just that, of what you do in your free time, you consider this activity the least consistent with the image you wish to present to the outside world/how you see yourself. For example, Hebrew conversation class Tuesday nights, not guilty; 'Gossip Girl' last night, guilty.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Life decisions

It came down to a choice between these and never buying coffee/food out for the rest of grad school, or these. No contest, so I never even tried on the former. Is a pointy toe really worth an extra $115? Do I even want a pointy toe, all things equal? But I must say, for all the fuss about knockoffs, the expensive stuff is never knocked off when you want it.

Things were so much easier as a student in Hyde Park.

The range of acceptable opinion

The NYT published 10 letters about Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia. In all of them, the only reasons anyone comes up with for why inviting the leader might have been a bad idea are that a) there are more important Iranian leaders, and b) he did not receive a warm enough welcome. Not one suggests that the invite was a transparent publicity move, aimed more at getting people riled up than at promoting dialogue, or that inviting people who espouse nonsensical views to speak at a university is, at the very least, questionable. Also, none of the letters praise Ahmadinejad's views. None of the letter-writers suggest that gays do not exist, or that the Holocaust is just a myth, or that Israel must be gotten rid of. Yet in comments to the NYT articles on his visit, many readers clearly feel either a) that it was wrong to invite him, or b) that the man speaks the truth. Instead what we get from the Times are a few letters about Bush being bad and about how we're obviously going to be dragged into a war with Iran next; one letter about how it is "Orientalism" to insult someone who encourages human rights violations in a far-off land (even if many 'authentic' Iranians are also upset!); and a letter from a refugee from Nazi Germany so high-minded that she thinks it's great that an America school would host a Holocaust-denier, but unfortunate that he was not treated better. Good liberals all of them. No one speaking up for the 'intolerant' crowd protesting his visit, nor anyone showing just how well-received he was in some quarters.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Toddlers of the Mosaic persuasion

The latest issue of PresenTense, Ariel Beery et al's new mag, is filled with articles about Jewish babies. As I might have mentioned, I think the most ridiculous thing about Judaism in America today is the community's emphasis on making more of us, as though, by refusing to marry a non-Jew, you're retroactively sticking it to Hitler. Surprise: racial anti-Semitism encourages neither conversion to Christianity nor Jew-Gentile mixing. If you're a Jew (or gay, disabled, Roma, etc.), anything short of suicide is sticking it to Hitler. It's that easy!

But back to PresenTense. First there's Ben Brofman doing the unthinkable and praising Birthright Israel for its emphasis on hookups. But it's a joke. Kind of. He even suggests, tongue in cheek, that the organizers distribute "intentionally defective condoms." Of course no Jews have STDs, so unlike secular hookup-fests, Birthright skankiness is nothing but a force of life and continuity.

Eric Ackland, in what appears to be utter seriousness, suggests Jews look to Orthodoxy if they want to have Jewish babies. In this he is correct-it is hypocritical, not to mention ineffective, for parents to be open-minded about their children's dating partners but then demand that these same children, after a few decades in the secular world, surface with Jewish spouses. While I don't share these natalistic views, it's indisputable that more Orthodoxy would lead to more Jewish babies.

In his bio, Ackland writes of himself, "He’d love to walk the walk and have a large family, he’s just gotta get hitched first. That’s the trick." And if the most promising candidate turns out to be a non-Jewish woman? Here's where we get to Ariel Beery's article. Ariel argues that Jews can stop worrying about intermarriage. Kind of. His point is that the threat to continuity is indifference, of which intermarriage is just a symptom. If you care about being Jewish, your spouse will too, whatever he may have been raised. After giving examples from the Torah of men marrying out, Beery discusses a Jewish woman whose husband not only converted but "ended up co-founding and co-directing NYU’s program for nonprofit management and Judaic Studies." A Jew is thus one who feels Jewish. Works for me. The catch with the communal vision of Judaism is, aside from the inevitable halachic arguments, where does this leave born Jews who've opted out? If the point of Ariel's definition is to expand the numbers of those who count as Jewish, wouldn't it ultimately lose at least as many Jews as it brings in?

Up for discussion

The main justification I've seen from reliable sources for why having Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia was a good idea is that an open discussion gives the world a chance to see dumb/evil ideas for what they are, and gives the audience a chance to show how horrible 'we all know' it is to deny the Holocaust or to wish Israel off the map. The thing is, many Americans think the Iranian leader is kinda-sorta right on both counts, and have interpreted him as a sort of exotic Walt-Mearsheimer with that silly but forgivable non-Western quirk of homophobia. His visit to Columbia was not a chance to prove him and his worldview wrong, but rather a chance to have a fair-to-both-sides debate about the self-determination of the Jewish nation and over whether genocide is really such a big deal.

Jacob Levy is right that shooting down Ahmadinejad before he even spoke made him look sympathetic. And he's right again when he notes, "One can refuse to invite." But he's missing something when he writes that "One can invite, and treat courteously, while relying on the general principle that such an invitation does not imply endorsement of the views expressed." There are different levels of endorsement. One extreme would be a pro-life group inviting the Pope to give a speech, i.e., preaching to the converted. The other would be a Campus Democrats group inviting a Republican speaker with whom they know ahead of time they will disagree on almost all the issues. But any invitation implies that there's a serious discussion to be had, and that there is a good-faith case to be made for both sides. On some level everything is up for discussion--Should 3-year-olds be allowed to marry? How about horses?--but in reality, organizations and individuals must set parameters for debate, with the understanding that a logical argument isn't an effective response to everything, and that responding logically to nonsense can at times imply that the nonsense is itself a reasonable position. Ultimately what made Ahmadinejad 'look good' was a combination of a) what Levy said, his unfriendly reception, b) the fact that he was invited at all, implying that Columbia does think his views deserve a platform, and c) the happy coincidence that Walt and Mearsheimer paved the way for many of Ahmadinejad's arguments. And thanks to W & M every protest from a pro-Israel Jew is interpreted as part of a vast cabal whose power needs to be checked. As if Jews are not, well, frightened, and justifiably so, by any of this.

Again, we're pretty much screwed.

Monday, September 24, 2007


In what was surely a conspiracy, Ahmadinejad decided to speak (and thus be protested) exactly when my weekly class meets. So I missed the nonsense going on uptown. But from coverage of it, it looks like there's some confusion over what exactly 'free speech' entails.

1) Ahmadinejad's 'right to speak': If I wanted to give a speech to all of Columbia University about, say, my current quest for a pair of black patent leather pointy flats (any suggestions?), I would have a 'right' to stand on the campus there and speak, but would not have the right to the attention of the whole campus, or to endless security and disruption of campus activity, or to be taken seriously. Nor is it my right to be invited to speak, anywhere. As with banal speech, evil speech may be permitted but need not be given a platform. We need to remember that a choice was made to invite a speaker. Does every last individual have a right to a few minutes of Ahmadinejad's time? It's pointless to remind naysayers of the leader's 'right to an opinion' or 'right' to express his views, as though either of these gives him the privilege of speaking at Columbia or of being given even an ounce of respect. The question should be, was it a good idea to invite Ahmadinejad to Columbia?

2) More than anything, Columbia is trying to get attention, much-needed now that it has lost Labyrinth Books to its rival Princeton, not to mention lost relative status to its neighbor a few express stops south.

3) Making any overtures to the Palestinians gives a person enough left-wing credibility that he will have a 'progressive' following even if he ignores the rights of women and the existence of gays. This in some way relates to why 'pro-Israel' and 'right-wing' are now used interchangeably. Position on Israel trumps all. (Though for the record, unlike Dave, I'm no fan of civilians with guns). So a pro-Israel social and economic left-winger is, in fact, a conservative. Socialist Zionism is, by this definition, neoconservatism. Someone in favor of the continued existence of the Jewish state but against the Iraq war and President Bush generally? A far-right racist extremist.

4) From the NYT comments:

If we are a country of free speech he should be allowed to speak. But wre are not a country of free speech. Anyone that challenges Zionist control of are government and media is made silent. We have simply become the police force for Jewish concerns.

5) It's really not worth the bother. We're pretty much screwed.

Hess and anti-colonialism

This weekend I started reading Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess's 1862 declaration of Jewish nationhood. Yes, pre-Herzl. Our bearded friend claimed not to have read Hess's work until after writing The Jewish State. Could be. But what's fascinating about Hess's take is that relates the fight for a Jewish state to the national struggles of all oppressed peoples. He specifies that he is talking about those oppressed either by the East or by the West. So Hess in a sense anticipates Tunisian Jewish intellectual Albert Memmi, who sees Zionism as a form of anti-colonialism.

This is what critics of Israel-as-a-Jewish-state always seem to miss. Israel is not an imperial consolation prize for the Holocaust at the expense of a group of people, the Palestinians, with nothing to do with it. Nor would any reasonable person say that Israeli policy ought to be immune to criticism on account of Jewish history. Israel is more accurately seen as yet another postcolonial state which, in its independence, has not always done things as elegantly as countries with less new and volatile existences, largely but not entirely due to circumstances over which they had no control. Though of course always necessary, reform in such cases simply cannot mean a loss of hard-won independence. Suggesting that Jews should return to the status of at best tolerated minorities wherever they live is not an acceptable (morally or pragmatically) answer to the region's conflicts.

In what way were the Jews colonized? For a people to have been colonized, it need not have lived in complete autonomy prior to colonization--the Ottomans preceded the French in various spots, for example, so the fact that there was no independent land of Israel in, say, the 18th century, is irrelevant.Here I am paraphrasing/botching Memmi: The confusion comes from the fact that Jews, unlike other groups, identified and were identified as nationally distinct but lived all over the world.

In other words, if Jewish national independence were to have happened without displacing anyone at all, there would have to have been a tiny Jewish state in each of the countries with a Jewish population, from Germany to Iran. I mean, with email and the Internet, anything's possible, but in less distance-learning-friendly eras, such as when Zionism began and when the state of Israel was born, a state effectively had to be in one place. The Holocaust enters into it, then, above all in that however morally justified Jews would have been to demand these (absurd, as we've already seen) mini-states in Germany, Poland, France, Italy, etc., as great as this might sound from a Palestinian perspective, what do you think the demand among Jews would have been for an autonomous Jewish state in 1946 Germany? Perhaps those Europeans who spent years claiming, violently, that Jews were an Oriental people with no place in Europe should have first consulted the Palestinians. It's a bit late for that now.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's wrong with Paris?

The next time someone asks me about French anti-Semitism today, I will suggest that he look at the comments to mainstream articles in the American press about Israel, or about any subject with some tangentially Jewish subject matter. The latest batch: the responses to Roger Cohen's NYT piece about Sarkozy's taboo-breaking presidency.

Time will only tell how this guy Sarkozy pans out…but his initial endorsements by our mainstream media and people like Cohen (and other Jewish intellectuals in America) is telling and, needless to say, very troubling for this American.

Notice that there are on the one hand Jews in America, and on the other, Americans. Along with, well, that the fact that some Jews favor a politician is in itself "very troubling."

Then, here's a good one:

Who do you play racket-ball with, roger? SarCONzy has been using the right-wing playbook from the start. Claiming the victimization of French Jews* and the Catholic Church while calling the more pigmented ghetto youth slime.. He has also pushed for morals(catho, of course) to be taught in the public schools. H B Levy suggests that he has been an apologist for Vichy..your attitude about anti-immigrant rhetoric is Panglossian, at best.

*In France, I’d take being Jew over Maghreb any day.

Except that French Jews today tend to be of North African origin, so contrasting "Jew" and "Maghreb," is absurd, as is the remark about pigmentation. Believe it or not, it is possible to be concerned for the fate of French Muslims without making snide remarks about how French Jews have it easy.

Yossi and Jagger II

Eytan Fox's latest movie, "The Bubble," in a sense picks up where "Yossi and Jagger" left off. The potentially hunky Ohad Knoller, whose name is now Noam, not Yossi, has taken Jagger's final message to heart, and is living a happy and gay life in Tel Aviv, but has not fully abandoned the military career he for some reason cherished.

Much of the conflict in the movie comes from a dilemma over how to be a good liberal. Freedom for gays is good, but looking down on Palestinians for making life impossible for gays in their society is, well, anti-Palestinian. How can you be culturally sensitive while imposing progressive values not shared across all cultures? By the end of the movie, the answer to whether you can have it both ways is beyond obvious. Also beyond obvious: a character active in Hamas is named Jihad.

In this movie, Israelis are basically Americans. We never meet Israeli characters who are not white and carefree. To judge this movie by its own standard of leftiness, where was the internal Jewish-Israeli race and class conflict? We do leave 'the Bubble' (the pseudobohemian yuppie crowd of Tel Aviv, looking far more Upper East Side than I remember from visiting that city) long enough to learn that the Arabs, on the other hand, are poor and oppressed. There's this strange underlying theme of how the Palestinian family in the movie, relatives of Noam's boyfriend Ashraf, is partly in Jordan, an Arab state where things are better. If there were another Jewish state somewhere, in or out of the Middle East, where things were that much calmer, which of the movie's Jewish characters would have chosen to stick with life in Israel?

As in "Yossi and Jagger," women and and the accompanying heterosexual encounters in "The Bubble" are, how to put this... silly. In "Yossi," Goldie was a skank and Yaeli would not have sex unless she was a) in love and b) surrounded by candles, music, and Champagne. Realistic, because women do in fact come in these two varieties. In "The Bubble," Lulu's big complaint is that men always abandon her after sex. The happy end to Lulu's story comes when an acquaintance with whom she's exchanged barely more than the occasional smile announces he would like to marry her and have children with her. Such a pronouncement might sound like a pickup like only Borat would use, but it gets the girl.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Baseless accusation confirmed

Do they hate us because we complain, or do we complain because they hate us?

Michael Gerson's op-ed, "Seeds of Anti-Semitism," is one of the few I've read that emphasize, if superficially, the historical angle of the Walt-Mearsheimer accusation. In context, one sees that their argument has been made and discredited endless times throughout history. Anyone familiar with the history of this conspiracy theory is bound to doubt that its latest incarnation is any more reliable than the others. This, not knee-jerk, Holocaust-related reaction, explains a good part of why so many rolled their eyes at news of a work on 'the Lobby.'

Gerson's op-ed is just forceful enough to set forth a long string of comments, most of which pretty much confirm his thesis, including one beginning, "This Iraq war manufactured for you by the following Jewish Americans," followed by a list of names. This comment cleverly brings in a jibe about Jews being capitalistic exploiters. Well done!

Predictably, Gerson refuses to refer to the work as anti-Semitic. So it's acceptable to describe the argument as being just that, but saying so makes one a whiny Jew or Jew-sympathizer. (I do not know Michael Gerson's religio-cultural identity nor do I care to Google it). At least one of the commenters attributes this refusal to a lack of conviction on Gerson's part: "It must pain Gerson that he cannot call Walt and Mearsheimer anti-semites. Not only can he not do that-because it seems he has at least some minimal appreciation for the facts and sound judgement-but he does not have the standing to weigh in with such academics." Really, he might as well have just said it. If you're going to complain, do it right.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the other hand

What's interesting about these 'Canon wars' is that the warriors assume a situation that was in fact a huge exception in the history of American colleges, a five-minute period, give or take, at the University of Chicago. The debate is, when you get down to it, over what curriculum to provide for a group of students composed of many women and minorities. That the student body itself is neither all-white nor all-male is assumed, which is bizarre, since in the Golden Age of Great Books, this was not the case. 'Preserving the canon' is not necessarily the conservative choice; the status quo could just as easily mean reading lists that reflect the demographics of the student body, i.e. Toni Morrison. On the other hand...

The problem with a curriculum that's sensitive to, say, blacks, gays, women, Jews, Asians, and Latinos, is that it establishes a canon of its own, a catch-all list of identities worth defending. It attempts to define, once and for all, who gets to count as the underdog. This approach attributes an implied privileged status to all who fall outside these specific bounds. The socially awkward, the freakishly hairy, the snootily brilliant, and the shockingly tall are not especially worth sticking up for, if they happen to be straight, Christian men with Mayflower ancestry. This is not just about oppression of groups vs. of individuals; the same goes for Armenians, former-Yugoslavians, and other groups whose tragedies could not be explained within the 'race' boxes of an application form. With multiculturalism, in a reverse of the Dead White Male-ism/Orientalism that preceded it, there is a homogenization of groups that are incredibly diverse: a Swiss banker and a Romanian orphan are both 'white,' as were Spinoza and Aristotle.

What's appealing about the Great Books is not that they reveal to us our civilization, but that they are often irrelevant to contemporary Americans' experience of the world in all but their universal qualities. The advantage of a Western Canon is that at this point in America, almost no one will find his own ethnic group's concerns addressed. This, incidentally, sheds some light on why Americans tend not to be as horrified when we learn in school that 'we' are descended from the Pilgrims as our French counterparts are when they learn about 'our ancestors, the Gauls'; the French educational fiction is far more likely to be true for many given classroom.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What's a war without Canons?

I finally got around to reading Rachel Donadio's article, "Revisiting the Canon Wars." Hmm. A couple thoughts:

[Tony] Judt also denounces the balkanization created by interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs. Multiculturalism “created lots and lots of microconstituencies, which universities didn’t have the courage to oppose,” he said. “It’s much more like a supermarket — kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.”

Judt misses the obvious counterargument: in the implied Golden Age of American education, the universal Student studied the universal Culture. But when the student was in most cases a white, Christian male and the culture studied was that of the West, the glorious university was in fact an "identity constituency" of its very own.

In “The Closing of the American Mind,” [Allan] Bloom himself wrote that a liberal education should provide a student with “four years of freedom” — “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.”

Job training is only "inevitable" if a student, after four years of Plato, is able to find a job.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The old switcharoo

"Beauty and the Geek" has a new, stereotype-defying incarnation. Of course the girl's a grad student.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

To the nth degree UPDATED

You will be stunned to learn that I found Duke professor Alice Kaplan's account of life in Paris as a scholar of French history and literature a worthwhile read. Replace "Paris" with "Tel Aviv," or better yet, "Paris AND Tel Aviv," and that's my dream life. I find it hard to believe anyone would read her article and not think how amazing it would be to spend one's days doing research at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporain and taking breaks for the city's best espresso. And maybe this is, in fact, everybody's dream life.

In other academic news, Jacob Levy weighs in on the Times story about the rise of the unfunded MA program. I agree that there is a problem with these programs re: social mobility, although my sense is that people whose main concern is escaping from an impoverished childhood rarely go on to any humanities or social sciences grad program, funded or not, doctoral or MA. It is possible to support yourself on a grad stipend -- so studying Renaissance poetry is not in the same category as being a competitive horseback rider -- but supporting anyone else would be another story. But... just because life isn't fair does not mean it cannot be made more fair. But how?

As for the fact that some kind of graduate degree is often necessary to get the jobs one seeks as a recent college grad, is the answer better-funded graduate degrees? A system (as in Belgium and, if I understand correctly, Canada) in which an MA is often the degree for which one goes to university? Or is the problem the liberal arts degree itself? Should education from 18-22 be centered on future employability? Perhaps, if four years of 'learning to think' often mean a few more years getting credentials without which employers will assume you incapable of thought.


Via the ever-useful Arts & Letters Daily, Yale prof Anthony Kronman says the exact opposite of my last suggestion above. He suggests that college students should spend more time learning the meaning of life (which is...?) and less being channeled into professions. College, he argues, should be time spent free from practical concerns, with Plato and Hegel rather than marketing and communications. He attributes the lack of universal enthusiasm for a 'Great Books' education to political correctness, to campuses where anti-colonialist gender studies now dominate. This probably has some truth to it, although the appeal of more practical majors is far more threatening to such a program than is an opportunity to read texts through a gender lens. The 'dead white men' argument is hardly the best against an overly involved liberal-arts education. Once they have gone far in figuring out the meaning of life, once they have had the admittedly exciting experience of finding the works of Rousseau and J.S. Mill decipherable... where are these humanities majors going to find jobs, let alone make it into the "leadership class"? Or is he really just referring to the three schools from which one can graduate and, the idea is, find work on the basis of the school's name?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Misrepresentation II

Why am I a) automatically registered for a course at NYU's business school, and b) invited to Stuyvesant's class of 1957 reunion?


Matthew Yglesias blames critics of Walt-Mearsheimer for misrepresenting their work, and for reading anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messages where none exist. He and I clearly disagree on what an accurate representation of their work consists of, but let's say he's right. As I commented on his post (but decided merits a post of its own): what about all of Walt and Mearsheimer's supporters who are delighted that it is now socially and--better yet--academically acceptable to declare Jews the root cause of all evil? Even for those of us who have read their article, paper, or book (just the article, in my case), it can be hard to respond to their message without taking into account its reception. The number of blog-comments to the effect of, 'We all know the Jews got us in this mess re: Iraq/Bush/everything,' referring directly or indirectly to their work, is astounding.

I've already asked to what extent we can blame W-M for this avalanche, if they did not intend it (which is debatable); now I'm asking whether it's really fair to expect Jews to respond to W-M without noticing said avalanche. W-M are not addressing only political scientists, who might be expected to produce a more dry, point-by-point discussion of what realism does or doesn't mean. The fact is that Walt and Mearsheimer's work has a specific meaning in the specific context in which it appears, and has become the rallying point for all sorts of traditional anti-Semitic anger. So maybe the answer is to respond to their paper and the avalanche separately, making explicit which part is a critique of the work, which is a critique of the avalanche, and how much the two can justifiably be connected. But it's absurd to suggest that we can look at one with no mention of the other.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Perils of yuppification: the 'new' Chickpea

Chickpea on Astor Place used to be a reliable source of cheap, edible falafel. Not Israeli-quality, of course, but a reasonable choice all the same. Now, not so much. Be warned: they have raised the prices and Starbucksized the decor with new-agey quotes about chickpeas and their health benefits, but that's the least of it. They now proudly offer "baked falafel," in such flavors as "spinach broccoli" and "jalapeño." Not promising. The woman in front of me on line insisted that they still had falafel-flavored falafel, so I ordered this. It was indeed non-fried, although "baked" is a stretch. It passes through something like the conveyor-belt toasters in college dining halls, and emerges slightly browned and tasteless. With an application of tehina that no doubt more than replaces the calories saved by the not-frying, the falafel itself becomes fit for human consumption. (Or was the issue a fire hazard from deep-frying, with 'health' used as a cover?) The problem comes when you reach the hummus. It may or may not be hummus, but whatever it is, it's best left alone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pursuit of knowledge

I am now both taking and teaching a language class. Not the same one. But this is really the way to do it. I get to remind myself how language teaching looks from the other side, and to learn, finally, the future tense in Hebrew. Or, I will learn the future tense in Hebrew, at some point. This is something I should have done ages ago. Dutch, in any tense, is also supposed to fit into this year, as is getting a drivers' license. Strangely, learning Dutch is both more relevant to my life and more likely than my getting behind the wheel of a car.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The meek shall inherit the blogs

I'm going to ask a similar question to the one Amber does: Why are the major political bloggers--who, and this is key, influence the direction of this country's political thought--men of a certain demographic? And relatedly, why are so many women going on to grad school?

The urge to be listened to is neither male nor female, and it's the rare person who pursues knowledge with no thought to the day when he may pass his interpretation of that knowledge on to the impressionable. But women, before speaking about any 'important' subject with confidence, before they can confidently note that mere bloggers have misspelled their last names, feel the need to have qualifications backing them up. I would add on an apologetic, 'I don't have statistics backing this up, perhaps I am wrong, perhaps gender roles have evolved more than I am giving them credit for,' but that would be unfairly providing support to my own case.

I can't say whether this makes women or men 'better' but it seems women are far more likely to consent to a hierarchical academic structure, in which everyone knows their place and speaks only as much as is appropriate, than are men, who as college sophomores may feel they really get Iran, whether or not this is the case. To give a gendered interpretation of the Walt-Mearsheimer brouhaha, one thing repeated in the articles about the pair is that they feel their article was initially rejected by various publications that didn't have the courage to publish it, and that those who, having read their rants, do not want to pay them more attention are simply avoiding a taboo subject. It's all about bravery and machismo. Whereas if a woman sent off an article and it was rejected, I'm willing to guess that she would consider the possibility of factors such as weakness of the article itself.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Unsolicited advice

A year into a grad program, I feel qualified-ish to answer Rita's question about going into academia. Not that she asked me, but I have been asked this by other people in a similar situation. As is the case with anything, I do not know what people should do with their lives, thus the "ish." An extra "ish" for being just one year in. But here we go:

There's a spectrum of readiness for grad school. Some people know from early childhood that the one possible thing they could do in life is study and teach about illuminated manuscripts. Everyone in their family since the Renaissance has studied these manuscripts; their ancestors prior to that were creating them. Never so much as pausing to take a coffee-shop job, they go from college summers working in libraries' special collections straight on to grad school.

Unless this sounds familiar, you're bound to be less than certain about whether grad school is the way to go. But for those with the qualifications and interest, but without a priestly calling, how to decide? The way I'd go with is to think of all the things you might do, and then, if grad school is the one that sounds best, do it. If not, don't.

There are several problems with presenting academia as a calling, something I've often heard done. For one thing, grad school does not begin and end with being a smart undergrad with a passion for a specific subject. You actually have to go to school, do the work, and otherwise do things beyond just basking in your specialness. This is as it should be, it's how you learn. I would imagine that if you enter grad school believing yourself to have been chosen in some divine way--as opposed to the usual way, by an admissions committee-- you'd be more likely to be disappointed than those with a strong interest plus an understanding that whatever it is you decide to do for a living will involve proving yourself from time to time, unless you happened to win the Nobel Prize in utero, or have the last name Windsor.

The other problem with this approach is that it implies there are no rewards to grad school other than the spiritual connection you have with your subject. As with any job one has freely chosen, finding the work stimulating is its most important aspect. However it is simply not true to say that this is all grad school has going for it. It involves a certain amount of prestige, the company of intelligent people, and, depending on the fellowship situation, may well pay better than a whole range of interesting-sounding entry-level internships, and is probably far more likely to lead to higher-paid work in the future. Not high, but higher. Again, while it would be ridiculous to go to grad school if you did not find a particular subject worth devoting a great deal of time and thought to, it should not be presented as the ultimate sacrifice.

Master of my domain

I have a graduate degree! Not the big'un, but I'm excited to say that I passed my MA exam. Woohoo! But between this morning's oral exam and the inevitable stress-related onset of a cold, I have barely the energy necessary to blog, let alone go out and celebrate at the now-traditional post-exam Bulgarian nightclub. After a 20-hour hibernation, perhaps, a haircut.

"Now you're qualified to have a Weblog." -Jo, mocking me yet again.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reasons I'm feeling not-so-sharp

1) Jo just "fixed" my printer. By plugging it into my computer, plugging it into the wall, and clicking "print." It had been "broken" for months. He finds this amusing. Which is entirely justified.

2) My first attempt at picking office hours involved me picking a time when I am free, but when my class meets with the other teacher. It's been a tough week.

3) I am excited about the debut of "Gossip Girl."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Answer me this

Why are we supposed to care about the 'quality' of the clothing we purchase? Short of items that fall apart when washed or worn a lot (something that is at least as true of delicate designer items as of those purchased at Ye Olde Navy), how durable must clothing be? When realistically it is all once drip of pizza grease away from imperfection. And I know from personal experience that clothing in the Gap price range lasts for years; given that sizes and styles change, what's the use in clothing lasting for decades? Or is quality about fit? That is probably too case-by-case, and some women may well fit best into H&M. Or is it knowing that a garment was hand-stitched? Is a slight difference in texture that you alone can detect worth paying so many times the price of the knockoff or equivalent? Would one shade of denim or length of handbag handle be subtly better than another if the opposite shade/length was the one possessed by the more costly item? In other words, it could be that 'quality' is just a hoax that convinces clothes-shoppers that they are doing something other than tossing away money that could have gone to something useful, including one Forever 21 outfit and, say, a house. But if it brings the consumer pleasure to believe she has the 'best' of whatever item exists, and that this is for a reason that goes beyond a superficial preference, so be it.

I know Rita also questions the concept of clothing as an "investment." But Julie Fredrickson and Amber Taylor argue in favor of investing in--as opposed to just buying because it's nice-- the occasional purse. Amber gives some concrete examples of poor quality, but these strike me as easily avoidable if you purchase clothing in a store rather than online, and give it a good once-over before heading to the register.

Don't get me wrong, I understand why quality matters in other areas of life. Poor food or water quality and you're left with at best a bad taste in your mouth and at worst a stomach issue. And high-quality cheese is a different food from processed. In fact, it is entirely possible that I only understand quality when it comes to cheese.

Beyond the binary

So much of the discussion of Larry Craig's foot-tapping escapade has emphasized the "gay" in "anonymous gay sex," and has read his behavior as a sign of repression. If only he were a Democrat, he'd be just now getting back from Provincetown. But is it possible that some men, for whatever reason, desire free, anonymous sex, no outside parties involved, and as such are left only with men as possible partners? Is anonymous bathroom sex mainly about there being two men, or, in a world of coed bathrooms, would it be more of a free-for-all?

The reason this is worth asking is that every behavior deemed abnormal has a corresponding 'normal' behavior we are supposed to assume a person would switch to if less disturbed or repressed. (Male) pedophiles whose victims are girls are assumed to be a twisted subset of heterosexual men, while those who prefer boys are discussed as an upsetting minority of men who, given the right treatment and conditions, would have husbands. But are these assumptions correct? How much does gender even matter, when someone's interest may well be, above all, risk?

It seems absurd to imagine that somehow, medically, everybody is underneath it all a monogamously-inclined individual just waiting for the right man or woman to come along, given the relative novelty of 'inclination' having anything to do with marriage, or of a monogamous gay relationship being a socially acceptable option in much of the West. And our culture's obsession with homosexuality as the be all, end all, gives the gender of the partners far more attention than other, more telling aspects of various situations.

Note: This post is a bit devil's-advocatish, so feel free to advocate for either side.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Point taken

So maybe the point is to "sit in a room with some books." But it's an awful lot of books, understood?

La rentrée II: Why French instructors don't get fat

I did not get an iced Americano, because I forgot that I like these and ordered an iced coffee, out of habit. The good news is that there's a coffee shop near where I teach that is open and serving caffeinated beverages before my morning class. The really good news is that they take the NYU "campus cash," so after ordering and panicking about a run to an ATM, I was able to use money I forgot I even had to purchase breakfast. The bad news is that this place sells the smallest muffins I have ever seen. Microscopic. They are in fact displayed with the use of a microscope. Which sort of limits the breakfast possibilities.

"So my country can be free"

And it continues. If every time someone posted a comment on a blog with some variant of, "Our Jewish-Israeli lobby got the terrorists at our throat," I discussed the post on this blog, I would have no time left for grad school, grocery shopping, or sleep. So I'm just going to point out that what Walt and Mearsheimer have done is far more sinister than I first thought. Initially it seemed as though they were simply holding Jewish ('pro-Israel') lobbyists to a higher standard than all others, and were unwilling to accept that by definition a lobbyist is fighting for something that is not already agreed upon as in the national interest, or else no one would need to bother asking politicians to hold this or that position. It seemed they were urging Jews (sorry, the "Israel lobby") to be less pushy, which, while offensive, is relatively innocuous.

But it's become clear that Walt and Mearsheimer's greater message is that America is in danger; that 9/11 happened; that honest, all-American kids are dying in Iraq; that the rest of the world hates us; that this is all because of the Jews. This is a very different idea than that one or another particular policy or funding scheme needs tweaking.

The world's lack of enthusiasm for Jews has been demonstrated enough times throughout that it is easy to understand why a country that appears favorable to Jews would be less than popular. To put it in high school terms, America befriended the world's dork, and so it shall be shunned; Israel is the world's dork (Israelis, though, are indisputably cool), and so it shall be shunned and spat upon. If America would only ditch the loser, it could go back to being the naive and prudish football quarterback it once was, friendly with all but taken seriously by few.

Monday, September 03, 2007

La rentrée

Tomorrow morning I will teach. I have yet to decide if I will wear a striped shirt and/or a scarf and/or a beret and/or a decorative baguette. That I will drink an iced Americano, however, is a sure thing.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Two-state solution

If you're craving more accurate news on Belgium, something beyond false accusations of that country having inspired the German nudist movement, here's an update on Belgian politics, via Matthew Yglesias, from Ingrid Robeyns. With the government still not formed, it appears that Jo's brother was not making things up when he said that the next time I visit Belgium there may no longer be a Belgium. Will France bring in Wallonia? With the Netherlands adopt Flanders? Is Flemish Dutch really Dutch spoken with a French accent? If the two Belgiums split, which side will get the frites? Will a struggle ensue like the one over falafel, with both sides vying for full credit? When the reality of the situation is that it is human nature to deep-fry all nearby food items, and 'credit' in these cases is irrelevant.

The UN of my brain

This has by far been the most multilingual week of my life. Between lessons all the new language instructors from the different languages give to one another, Jo's family visiting, and a post-exam trip to a Bulgarian nightclub (which was, by the way, amazing), not to mention the Israeli-Dutch world that is my iPod, it's a miracle if I still recognize English. If I were more intelligent, I would be fluent in German, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Spanish by now. But too many high school-era hours in front of Lifetime have rendered such a situation impossible. Now all I know is how not to become a bulimic 14-year-old drug addict with twins on the way. Useful in its own way.


I guess she'll be keeping her name.