Saturday, December 29, 2007

But what will happen to The NY Sun?

First an ode to Christmas, then this. Note the fascinating bio of William Kristol, which in such a short space makes clear a) that he hates the Times, which he has just agreed to write for, and b) the role nepotism presumably had in the younger Kristol's success, or at the very least, the role that Irving had in his place on the political spectrum.

Award for silliest health advice ever goes to...

...not "Personal Health" columnist Jane Brody, after all! The award instead goes to psychiatrist Paul Steinberg, also writing in the Times, on the subject of drinking. "If you must binge, start at age 40, not at age 16." This from's current most-emailed article.

Indeed, it is better to be irresponsible at a point in life when one might actually have some responsibilities (including young children), and when one is far more likely to own a car. The advantage to age 40? Early binge drinking has "significant, though often subtle, effects on the brain and cognition." (Prepare to ignore the reality of how almost all the intelligent and unintelligent people you know spent college.) But more obviously, this suggestion has all the practicality of advising that one first begin to experiment with neon hairdye, purchase Goth spiked platform shoes, or whine to one's parents about how things can be so unfair upon reaching middle age.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

From blob to edible!

Not promising, and very much stuck to Saran Wrap.

Browned on top! Or would have been if I'd been five minutes more patient.

One knife for jam, one for Nutella!

Not putting any bakeries out of business any time soon, but the rolls were rather tasty, considering the amount of straying from the recipe necessary to achieve what I imagined to be the consistency of bread dough.

Keeping my day job

Because it's vacation, I am reading some books that are only tangentially related to France and Jews. First is Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which I'm finding flawed but useful, for reasons I will get around to explaining once I've finished it. Next is Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings. I'm never sure what to make of Jewish-themed collections put together by those other than the writer herself (or, in some cases, himself) . Clearly the decision not to collect one's own writings under this theme was a conscious one. But that should not prevent critics from finding themes. I just wonder if these thematically-centered books should be heavier on the critics' analysis than on fully-reproduced but reassembled works of the writer being discussed. But whatever, I'm intrigued, so we shall see. And finally, Frederic Jaher's The Jews and the Nation: Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France looks worth tracking down, to get the often-elusive non-France perspective. Far too often I find myself implicitly comparing the situation of French Jews, whether in 1800, 1900, or 1960, with that of American Jews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, i.e. the obvious. Reading this book will, I hope, be a way out of that trap. Not that it's always a trap, but it can't hurt.

In other vacation news, an attempt at baking bread is going not quite as planned. It either won't rise or will fill the entirety of my very much NYC-sized apartment before the hour is up. If neither of these events transpires, I will photograph the happy (if oh so unlikely) result.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What "Jew York Times"?

The NYT Weddings pages are filled with page after page of couples getting married by rabbis. The paper's most-emailed articles are often on Jewish-related subjects. And the city in which the paper is based has maybe some Jews, not to mention non-Christians of other sects, and many of all atheistic bents. The Times is by no means a local paper, but its spiritual center is no more than a bagel's throw away from Zabars.

So answer me this: What's the point of today's leading editorial? Cited in full to reveal full ridiculousness:

When Christmas Morning Comes

This is a simple holiday. Ask any child, or, better yet, ask yourself what you recall from your own childhood Christmases. Presents, yes, and shopping and decorations and the return of familiar songs and the smells of baking and perhaps the cadence of a few verses from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. What persists above all is the feeling of finally going to bed on a dark winter’s night full of hope for what the morning will bring. Even jaded adults can remember how that felt, and they remember it as viscerally as they remember anything. The emotional truth in that transition lies at the heart of Christmas. It captures the most basic rhythm of our lives — going to bed at night and getting up in the morning — and makes us keenly, happily aware of it. That rhythm is all the more stirring because the season is so penetrating, the winter darkness so long. Both of the basic stories we tell about Christmas, the shepherds in their fields by night and the peregrinations of Santa Claus, fill the darkness with life and possibility. A stranger, an extragalactic visitor wise enough to look past all the shopping, might be forgiven for thinking that this is the festival in which we celebrate the magic of sleep. After all, what other holiday do we attend in robes and pajamas? The optimism, the generosity, the charitable warmth of Christmas do stem, of course, from the pattern and the meaning of the biblical story. They have their source, too, in the sense of regeneration now that we’ve turned this darkest corner of the solar year. Christmas is imbued with a more everyday hope as well, a recognition that the transition from sleep to waking always carries with it the immeasurable gift of a new day. The very premise is hopeful. No one expects to wake every day as joyfully as a child at Christmas, or to sleep as badly the night before. The gift of possibility is there every morning.

For those who share my fascination with French-Jewish history, "regeneration" obviously jumps out, although the use--if not the context--here is quite different. But, um... "Ask any child" about "the cadence of a few verses from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke"? In New York City? Really?

The language of universality, of how "No one expects to wake every day as joyfully as a child at Christmas," and how Christmas "captures the most basic rhythm of our lives," is poetic but bizarre, along with the persistent use of the first person plural. What kind of horrible person's heart doesn't soften upon hearing the word "Christmas"?

Admittedly a good number of non-Christian New Yorkers go in for the tree-and-gifts celebration, and still more enjoy a day off from work whenever one's offered, but what this editorial evokes is something between a New England WASP fantasy and an Old Navy commercial, not Christmas as it is nondenominationally understood. This editorial is a story that takes place in a house, not an apartment, but quite possibly in an L.L. Bean catalog. The characters are a multigenerational family of Christmas adherents and, presumably, a golden retriever.

So why is any of this a problem? It's simple, just like Christmas: For Jews who are truly bothered by Christmas, and who want to live in a country where the inconvenient days when everything shuts down are at least our own holidays, there's Israel. For Jews who've fallen head-over-heels for the Ralph Lauren lifestyle of let's-overshoot-the-mark assimilation, there's nearly all of America. For those who can deal with the Christmas music and decorations for a couple months but would prefer to rest assured that they are not the only non-participants, there's New York City. What this editorial does is place the Times, a representative of the city, on the same side as Huckabee in the "War on Christmas." What I want to know is, why?

Monday, December 24, 2007

A break from tradition

This might come as a shock, but I was not the only one to think of the newly-reopened 2nd Avenue Deli, rather than Chinatown, for December 24th early dinner. OK, not so much of a shock. So while the rest of my people flocked to the Matzo Ball, I enjoyed the namesake soup, along with half of a pastrami sandwich, and a never-ending pickle bowl, yum! The meal ends with something called a "Bosco shot," which is chocolate syrup mixed with seltzer, in a shot glass of course, thus confirming the stereotype re: Jews' preference for food over alcohol. Sure, there's an extensive Israeli wine list, but there is no proper wine, no matter how kosher, to match with such a meal.

Let the hibernation begin.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


At a cafe early this evening, I noticed a copy of a magazine left behind by whomever had been sitting at the next table before. Blake Lively, aka "Serena" on "Gossip Girl" was on the cover, so I of course had to turn to the page with the relevant article (or, as it turned out, list of preferred clothing/shampoo brands/varieties). Just as I learned that Ms. Lively didn't used to care about shampoo but now buys (insert product placement here), who should walk into the cafe but... Dan from "Gossip Girl"! OMG! With a woman who might have been his mother but in any case is not the one who plays his mother on the show. It took all my restraint not to say, when he was standing close by, "Congrats on the New Yorker story," but a) I had too much of the cookie I was eating in my mouth at the time, and b) I have a bit of self-respect. I did, however, watch as a girl who was maybe 10 got his autograph, and she had exactly the thrilled look on her face that I would have had at 10 doing the same.

But it gets better. All of a sudden, after a few moments pretending to be fascinated by my coffee, I look up and who should be going to sit with Dan and his real-life mother but... Serena! This was just too much. "Dan" looked just as excited to see "Serena" as he does on the show, suggesting that the line we draw between "Reality TV" (which we all know is semiscripted anyway) and shows like "Gossip Girl" must be questioned.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Done! continued

So after a careful reconsideration, the pants were a no-go. The reconsideration included a second opinion from my mother: the pants are apparently (and, alas, I'd have to agree) more for a 16-year-old--although presumably not Jamie-Lynn--what with all of the decorative zippers and embroidered birds (not as odd as it sounds, but still sort of odd). What I neglected to mention in the last post was that prior to considering the pants, I got a superchic shirt-dress-thingy at Uniqlo, one that is, I hope, age-appropriate, and that without a doubt does not bear Kate Moss's name.

In other news, two celebrities spotted in the course of a day more or less in Soho: Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Stipe, along with countless anonymous models, none of whom look like they spent the past week wearing pajamas and eating cheese; if they were also writing papers about French theory, they found other means of reaching the finish line.

"We met in church" UPDATED

Paper three of three is in. I celebrated by getting a cappuccino and almond croissant in Nolita and reading "Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings," or some of it, at any rate. Didn't quite finish the croissant either, but let's just say I came a lot closer. Then I walked around Soho and tried on a quite reasonably priced (at Barneys but on sale) and chic-looking pair of "Kate Moss for Topshop" jeans, which I might get--they are the right length, which means they are automatically equivalent to a $15 cheaper pair of tall-person-length pants, but they are a bit low rise, and I'm not a fan of that look.

In case this makes me sound like too much of an intellectual, I should note that I have been avidly following the Jamie-Lynn Spears story. My reaction was about the same as what it was to the baby-production of her older sister.


The official social-conservative word on the matter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paper-induced insanity?

Or does this American man whose family just decided to upgrade from pied-à-terre to château look just the slightest bit like Pierre Bourdieu?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The real danger of procrastination

I'm writing my last paper of the semester. I stopped for a moment to look at a couple blogs, and what do I find? A link to an article about decade-long humanities and social sciences doctoral programs (!) and a contest asking professors to submit the silliest sentence from papers written by their grad students (!!!). I get it, I get it! Back to work...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Faith, Cheesiness, and Freedom

Matthew Yglesias writes, of Huckabee's less-than-subtle "Christmas" tv ad, "Of course the more secular Jewish liberals complain, the better Huckabee will do." Speaking as one who counts as two of the three identities just mentioned, I'd say my first response to the ad was remembering that NYU opened a branch in Tel Aviv, there is a way out... but my second response was, this is actually a good sign for America. If a candidate feels he has to go out of his way to show that he celebrates Christmas, he is arguing against a rather strong current of such a stance not being tolerated. His ad reminds viewers not of Christmas, but of the "War on Christmas," and offers up the now-standard persecuted-minority presentation of what was once default white American Protestantism. His staged Christmas observance comes across not as a natural outgrowth of a Christian leader in a Christian country, unaware that anyone might behave otherwise, but as a man advocating for but one of many possible agendas.

If he wins, on the other hand, save me a falafel.

Banality and alterity

First, Jews wishing to claim to be no different from other men did so by asserting membership in the majority, in the dominant ethnic group of their land. When this didn't work, the modern-day, liberal-minded equivalent of those previously-mentioned Jews decided to claim that Jews are no different from other oppressed minorities, oppressed, if nothing else, on account of being in the minority. If we can't show that we're basically WASPs with less per-capita blondness, then we can at least rest assured that we have a place alongside blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and gays.

Felicia R. Lee has a fascinating (in terms of this question, at any rate) profile of Jamie Kastner, writer, director, and producer of "Kike Like Me," a film about Jewish identity. Kastner refuses to answer the question of whether or not he is Jewish, although his subject matter, along with Lee's description of "the curly-haired, 35-year-old Mr. Kastner" (the accompanying photo confirms this) push one to believe he might not be, say, Chinese. He gets defensive in the interview when asked if he himself is a Jew, assuming that the only reason someone would want to know would be anti-Semitism or a desire to set him up with their daughter. But it's for Kastner to decide what faith or lack thereof to adhere to. What's interesting is not so much Kastner's refusal to declare himself one thing or another, but his fear that his movie about Jewish identity might be mistaken for... a film about Jewish identity.

“I’ve always seen this not as a film for Jews particularly or about Jews but about identity, about what it means to be an outsider,” Mr. Kastner said in a recent phone interview. “There are certain issues for those who are perceived as other.”

Ah, the amorphous "other," friend of grad student and, apparently, documentary filmmaker alike. Kastner is not afraid to provoke, yet he is afraid to come out and say that he made a movie about Jews. It's not enough that the movie is directed at all who are interested, it has to be about every subject matter possible. He cannot simply show the film and let viewers draw their own comparisons, he must assure the wary audience from the get-go, this isn't about Jews, this isn't about Jews, until they relax and realize that it is, in fact, a movie about human beings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Try lingual

Jo and I took a field trip uptown, which included a visit to the wonderful Fairway supermarket. Over by the Israeli cucumbers (called Persian cucumbers at markets not on the Upper West Side) I overheard a woman ask her companion, "Aifo haagvaniot?" I know so little, but I do know a) how to ask "Where are the tomatoes?" in Hebrew, and b) where the tomatoes are at the Fairway. So I answered, gesturing in the direction of the tomatoes, "Shahm." Then the woman said something very quickly, and I had no idea what was going on, and could barely hear what she said, regardless, because of the thick fake-fur hat I was wearing at the time. I answered that that was pretty much all the Hebrew I knew, and, I believe, repeated this at least a second time... and then she said that she'd been speaking English, and she wanted to know something about deliveries. It's a sad fact that Israeli-accented English plus furry hat equals Hebrew I do not understand. After feeling oh so smart, in just a few short moments, I felt oh so ridiculous.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's American for "Travail, Famille, Patrie"?

How about "Faith, Family, Freedom"?

For the record, I still think "covenant marriage" is a load of nonsense, for the very same reasons I listed in the Maroon way back when.

Bad for the Jews

Where schwarma and shady business deals meet.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Better than steroids

I went to the gym twice in one week, which has to be some kind of record. I cannot believe this article about how, if you think about something other than running, you can run for longer than you could otherwise, doesn't mention the obvious: television. Any television will do. Today it was a show called "Yes, Dear," which I'm pretty sure is the worst of the post-Seinfeld unwatchably bad sitcoms, but I remember the show more vividly than the agony of minute 28 of 30 of the run. I mean, a "South Park" would have been better, but it's painful to laugh and run at the same time, so in a way what you want is one of those shows with a laugh track that doesn't correspond to any real punch lines. If I had a headset with one such show on loop, I could totally run a marathon. Don't quote me on that.

In other news, re: the gym, why must the nomadic Belgian waffle truck park itself out front?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Will Baude, formerly of Crescat, is ridiculously smart.


Professional athletes are not allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs, although it's clear these drugs, well, enhance their performance. The latest "cycle" of America's Next Top Model was an officially non-smoking one, and even included a "competition" to see which "model" could pose best for an anti-smoking ad, thus removing the one common feature the participants might have had with real-life fashion models.

If models can't smoke and athletes can't use steroids, what can't grad students do during finals? After the latkes and gnocchi of last week turned me into quite the potato, I was shooting for not overdoing it at the end-of-semester parties. By overdoing it I mean cheese. And there's evidence that I have gone overboard with the cheese at past events, but to be fair, NYU's French Department serves some very fine cheeses, and the parties always seem to occur at just that not-quite-dinner time when, try as we might to be sophisticated, we still believe dinner ought to be consumed. It all seemed hopeful enough until I arrived at the holiday party to see that this was among the possibilities. Rationalizing that paper-writing requires copious cheese consumption, especially if the papers in question are all about France, I dug in. Hope the models and athletes have more willpower.

The java jacket, undressed

The deli across from my department, where everyone gets coffee, is part of what appears to be an ad campaign for Maidenform bras, and has been, on and off, all semester. What this means is that every cup of coffee people bring to class has wrapped around the cup, rather than the usual brown-paper hand-protecting slip, a photograph of the head and torso of a sultry woman with impressive cleavage, wearing only a flesh-colored push-up bra. So you sit in class, look around the room, and there are all these near-naked women. I can only imagine how distracting this is for those who find breasts interesting.

"No photo available"

Tad Safran, the screenwriter who just published a cliché-filled article about how British women are ugly while American women are high-maintenance, is on IMDB, yet there are no pictures of him to be found.

Via A&L Daily.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Police activity"

Another anti-Semitic act in the metro. A gang of youths heard one person wish another "Happy Chanukah" and began harassing and beating the Jews, since, claimed the attackers, Chanukah is when the Jews killed Jesus. Won't those French anti-Semites ever stop?

Except this wasn't in Paris or a notorious banlieue, but on a train in NYC, headed from Manhattan to Brooklyn. One car away from the one Jo and I were in on Friday night, as it happens. All we witnessed was police sprinting through our car to the next; then, once the train pulled into DeKalb, more police running to the car in question from outside the station. A man in our car told us there were "rowdy teenagers" in the next car, causing him to move to the one we were in. All we learned from the police was that there was "police activity" on the train. Well, clearly. We had actually moved closer to the action, inadvertently, before realizing there was any action, after fleeing the opposite end of the car to get away from a garden-variety subway pervert who was alternating between asking all the women nearby on dates and graphically describing acts that go on between two men. The back of the car seemed the way to go, until we noticed the cops running towards where we were from the direction of where we had been standing. But I digress.

If violent anti-Jewish acts happen in NYC subways and New Jersey towns, why are American Jews so intrigued by French anti-Semitism, which from what I understand manifests itself in about the same way? Since hate crime is counted differently in different countries, I'm not sure how one would go about comparing numbers, but I don't know if numbers are even the issue. When a Jew is attacked as such in France, it's described as a message about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust/Vichy, i.e. some greater conflict. When it happens in America, it just falls into the melting pot of how we interpret hate, i.e., looks like someone didn't get the P.C. message, or is too anti-social to know that attacking people on the basis of race, creed, etc., is wrong.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The definitive first-world problem:

'My townhouse in Manhattan is too big, so big that I needed to get an espresso machine for each floor.'

I challenge all to come up with a problem that better fits the definition than the one presented in "Town House Living: The Untold Story," in this week's NYT Real Estate section.

Restaurant hagiography: Bianca

What struck me first about Bianca was how much it resembles Upper West Side Italian restaurant Celeste. Not so much the decor, but the dishes and prices all looked familiar. Turns out Bianca's officially the downtown version of Celeste, but the real difference with Bianca is the Gorgonzola gnocchi. As a connoisseur of the some-pasta- with-your-cheese? genre, I'd have to say, this one makes the rest taste like Kraft or, worse, like whatever combination one comes up with when, due to a lack of grocery shopping, the only cheese around is one that doesn't make sense to put on pasta (say, Camembert), but ends up on it for lack of other options. In other words, that was some good gnocchi.

A man at a table next to ours ordered what appeared to be the thinly-sliced filet mignon with rosemary. At $15 that was the most expensive thing on the mostly-sub-$10 menu, which by NoHo standards is respectable but by graduate student standards (not to mention person-who'd-just-eaten- a-plate-of-gnocchi standards) it seemed excessive, which is not to say I won't go back and try that and everything else on the menu.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What's a Jew? A not-Christian.

Is there a positive definition of Judaism? There are plenty, but if we removed all the negative definitions, how many Jews would be left? As Steve points out on Jewlicious, many "American Jews have replaced Judaism and Torah study with a secular obsession with the Holocaust." Being Jewish isn't just about remembering genocide, it's also about not celebrating Christian holidays. From a NYT article on interfaith couples torn between Christmas and Chanukah:

“I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” Mr. Klain said. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”

I'd have to say, that's pretty much it for a lot of Jews. A Jew is someone who doesn't celebrate this, who doesn't eat that, and who cannot live in a certain number of countries at any given time. These are all true, and can remain so even for Jews who get nothing positive out of being Jewish. You can choose whether or not to seek out the positive (by which I mean not just fun aspects, but anything that's not just about not doing something), but the negative's there whether you want it or not. And the reality is, if you took away from the 'community' all who are only Jews because they don't eat pork, don't tell their children to believe in Santa, or who continue to identify as Jews to spite anti-Semites, and whose interest in organized religion is zilch, whose interest in worrying more about being Jewish than they already do is nonexistent, it's not clear how many would be left, something those concerned with numbers might want to consider.

Decadence and realism

Withywindle of Athens and Jerusalem agrees that social conservatism implies middle-class values but disagrees that we can use the word "bourgeois" to describe these values in the American context. Too French? I'm all for accepting that French words exist in English--just because they're not keen on returning the favor doesn't mean we have to follow suit. But the point of this post is that middle-class/bourgeois values showed up in a big way in last night's Gossip Girl. Serena's uptight mother finally came around about Dan Humphrey, her rebel-socialite daughter's non-high-society boyfriend. She tells Dan that since Serena's started seeing him, she comes home at a reasonable hour, doesn't drink, and doesn't do drugs. He's what's known as a Good Influence, the dream of every teen parent, on-screen and off-. Dan, who is middle class-ish, brings Serena the middle-class values she so desperately needs, because as we all know by now she's not getting them from her mom or Blair, certainly not from Chuck... In the very same episode, which was, I should note, a bit more interesting than the accompanying pasta, Dan's mother, who has recently reappeared after some fling or other, also imposes middle-class values, announcing that Dan's sister, Little J, is grounded and cannot go to a debutante ball. To be grounded is, of course, very bourgeois. The other characters are above the middle-class law and can go anywhere they want, whenever they want, so long as they marry and go to college in ways that conform with what's needed to stay in the upper class.

But is the Humphrey family really as bourgeois as all that? The father is an aging rock musician, and he lives in Williamsburg. The mother, an artist, sleeps around, literally, and only lives with her husband and children when it suits her. That they nevertheless send their kids to school on the Upper East Side suggests that they might be bourgeois bohemians, but the more likely possibility is that... wait for it... the show makes no sense whatsoever.

"Tribal Jewish backwardness" UPDATED

It's great how much easier it is to be a universalist humanist when nothing about you screams 'different.' If you are a white man, not too old or young to be taken seriously, if you look, oh, I don't know, like this, and have a name that is in no way 'ethnic,' it is much easier to wonder why these other folks make such a fuss than it is if, through no fault of your own, you visibly belong to an 'identity' group. You may begin with no feelings of solidarity whatsoever, but, reminded enough times of 'what' you are, you might soon enough see the limits to the 'we're all just human' outlook.

While I don't believe anything is gained by declaring one ethnicity the American ethnicity, I agree that it's a good idea to consider white Americans as having a specific ethnicity, one with no direct equivalent in Europe, but one with a history all the same. It reminds us that there is no such thing as an unhyphenated identity, that everyone has both an ethnic background and some relationship to the politically-defined nation-state in which he lives. No one is 'just' an American, because ethnicity, even that of the majority, cannot be lined up with the political definition of America.

If Christopher Hitchens argued against publicly-funded displays of religiosity, he would make a fair but less-than-controversial point. If no nativity scenes, then no menorahs, the end. But that's not his point. Christmas trees are, he explains, not about Christianity. Sure, they're used in that way, but if you look at the history, these tree-things were around before. They're just being used wrong, he wants us to believe. But, right or wrong, they are used this way, and if Hitchens thinks they're pagan but the rest of the country thinks they're Christian, it's fair for non-Christians to respond to them with an understanding of what they mean, not what they should mean according to Christopher Hitchens. The whole country shuts down on December 25 for something called "Christmas." Is that, too, a reference to the Vikings?

Menorahs, meanwhile, are about "tribal Jewish backwardness." Hitchens won't differentiate between the allegedly tribal and backward Jews from the Chanukah story and Jews today who observe the holiday. Presumably Jews are still being backward, not just because of what Chanukah apparently celebrates (shocker: I don't share his interpretation) but because we stubbornly insist on not accepting the universal innocuousness that is the Christmas tree, our modern-day equivalent of Greek philosophy, something applicable to all humanity.


I don't feel like this post was precise enough, so before anyone comments (anything could happen), I should add... The main point is not what Hitchens's name is or what he looks like and whether as a white man he does or does not have the right to whichever opinions, but rather that behind much of what presents itself as universalism or humanism is in fact a celebration of the culture and opinions of the majority (or, in some cases, elites of the majority) rather than of an ideology that really does allow for the well-being and participation of all human beings.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chappy Chanukah!


An article in Commentary (link: Arts and Letters Daily) describes a positive turn in the social life of this country. Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin tell us that teen drug use is down, crime is down, welfare and abortion rates, also down. (The authors, who seem to have an otherwise socially-conservative bent, note that this last one had something to do with "the greater availability of birth control." There you have it.).

Somehow the authors switch from a discussion of issues about which people across the political spectrum agree, and that they note have improved in recent years, to noting the one downturn, the one exception to the overall upswing, which is "the family." They explain that "the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend."

Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.

From this they conclude: "The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family."

The authors have found a contradiction where none exists. The increase in premarital cohabitation is in fact part of a trend of improvement. Now that young people are no longer too stoned to think rationally, they understand that it's not such a bad idea to live with a person prior to committing to a life together. Hard as this may be to reconcile with social conservatism, some people take marriage so seriously that they wish to enter into it only when they are sure they will not change their minds.

As for the alleged social problem of out-of-wedlock births, it's important to remember that this includes the children destined for same-sex-parent families, where the parents cannot legally marry in most situations. Parents who choose not to marry (whether put off by religion, discriminatory marriage laws, diamond-ring commercials, or the NYT weddings pages) but who live as married are also offering up "illegitimate" offspring. The classic Lifetime movie scenario of the naive high-school junior whose boyfriend dumped her for a freshman upon learning of her pregnancy is only one of many that count as out-of-wedlock births.

The authors ask, "How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy?" A start would be not making reference to "the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty." These areas are not as related as all that, even if some correlations can be measured, some of the time. A universally-accepted value judgment can be made regarding one set of issues, but not regarding the other. To be fair to the authors, they admit the possibility that illegitimacy might not be the cause of all social problems. But that's only a first step. Allowing individuals, congregations, and families to determine what counts as marriage in the moral sense, and leaving the state out of it, is the only way to move past this abstract and non-existent entity that is "the family."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Trendy coffee bar leads courageous fight against gentrification

Mule, the coffee bar where I worked on grad school applications, is featured in a City section article in the Times about the "graduate students and artistic types" who have unwittingly made posh yet another once-industrial section of Brooklyn. Of all places for gentrification to have spread, it is certainly shocking that the next avenue over in Park Slope (not to mention one that's the site of three convenient subway stops) was the latest to fall. It's clear that when the article's author, Saki Knafo, quotes an "unshaven barista" on his fears of neighborhood development, there's more than a bit of irony involved.