Thursday, January 31, 2008

Breaking: Israel not a part of Scandinavia

Orientalism is about the West oppressing the East, prolonging colonialist violence--just ask the late Edward Said. True supporters of Western civilization are supporters of Israel and vice versa.

While you're unlikely to hear both the above remarks from the same person, there is a certain consensus that Israel is of the West. I've had my doubts, and these doubts were confirmed when I read fashion writer Amy Odell's account of her Birthright Israel trip.

The Birthright cheesiness is off-putting, there's no way around it. As Odell notes, and as I've also mentioned, the Mega-Event (like Shmuley Boteach) is an example of lowest-common-denominator Christianity getting injected into Judaism to make it all more festive. And, also like Boteach, the Mega-Event does what it can to ensure that all hip and/or intelligent Jews abandon ship.

But what Odell dislikes is not Birthright, but Israel. She says of an Israeli singer at the Mega-Event, "I can’t say I enjoy his Hebrew wailing." Granted this was probably not the best musician Israel has to offer, but it soon becomes clear where Odell's post is going. When she writes, "We dance and mingle with aggressive, swarthy Jews for as long as we can bear," you have to tell yourself that she is Jewish, so of course this isn't racist. You have to avoid imagining how the remark would look if "blacks" or "Arabs" were in its place, because... right.

Odell seems to think the point of Birthright is to encourage Diaspora Jews to move to Israel. While I wouldn't object if that were the case, it's not. The point is to be more involved in one's own Diaspora Jewish community. But in any case, here are Odell's reasons for not moving to Israel:

I certainly don’t feel like this is my homeland. And I certainly don’t feel like I want to move here. In fact I feel no connection to this place at all. I feel more connected to London, simply because I so loved drinking Guinness at picnic tables at 11:30 a.m., and cheap shopping during July sale season. Israel doesn’t have beer or shopping like that, and it looks decrepit and third worldish.

Israel does have beer and shopping (scroll down for evidence), but in a sense, point taken. Israel is not London. The men are hairier, the food spicier. One could almost say there's something exotic and Oriental about the place.

What's in the borscht?

I'm in full agreement with Matthew Yglesias that Communism did not eliminate demand for attractive women, and that Anne Appelbaum's hypothesis makes not so much sense.

I'd imagine we now think of Russian women as beautiful because there are so many Russian (and Estonian, Latvian, Ukrainian) models. The most likely reason for this trend is that the former USSR is the best place to find women who fit the ethnic ideal of the West if not most of the world, i.e. are some degree of blond, but lack the non-modeling opportunities of women in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands. It's easier and costs less to convince a modelesque junior high school student to drop everything and head to Milan if her alternatives are bleak. So while tall, blond women abound in Northern and Western Europe, the 'Dutch woman' does not evoke high fashion, whereas the Russian woman (or, more accurately, Russian 15-year-old girl) does. The fall of Communism makes it easier for modeling agencies to reach this resource, but the girls/women in question are desirable precisely because capitalism hasn't yet worked for all.

Mon dieu!

Last night I went to hear Christopher Hitchens debate cringe-inducing televangelist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in order to decide once and for all if God exists. Since Hitchens is more cleverer, it appears that God and gods alike are figments of our monkey-brain imaginations. Which is correct, but I found myself wishing the rabbi could make one coherent point, not just evoke the Holocaust every two seconds, only to call Hitchens 'not a Nazi, but.' (The obvious third panelist should have been Jonah Goldberg, since fascism was at least as much up for grabs as religion.) There was also far too much talk of circumcision, which was obviously intended to get a rise out of a very circumcised 92nd Street Y audience, but is a topic that simply cannot be discussed in a meaningful or interesting way, and loses its South Park-type fun quite early in the going.

But there are decent points to be made in favor of religion (says this atheist) that Boteach was too busy embarrassing himself to make. The anti-Hitchens argument would have to go, fine, your way hits at the truth, but it doesn't cover the entire human experience. Science does not tell us how to approach our own mortality, just what happens to our cells as we age, and so on. So that would be point one.

Point two would be the relative recency of dividing in separate categories what we now call 'religion,' 'nation,' 'ethnicity,' and so on. A call for atheism and rationalism all around would not destroy the categories of Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic all in one go. Each religion (well, each variant of each religion) remains tied up with the culture and traditions of the so-called religious groups. Would all of this survive if the religious basis were tossed, as Hitchens suggests? Or would we be left with a world in which the only thing determining what we eat is science?

Which brings up point three--where there's now such irrationality as fish on Fridays and entire peoples not eating pork, there would instead be allowing Jane Brody to scold us whenever we eat anything fried. And this is where what Boteach said about Hitchens' approach not being fun can be manipulated to actually make sense. If Hitchens is right, and we do live a limited number of years with no afterlife, do we really want science telling us what to put in our bodies? One could argue, it's good to at least know what makes us live to 100, then decide if it's worth the sacrifice, but the human impulse to moralize is strong, and can be applied more strongly the more rational basis there is for any given restriction.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Going steady

Is it true that men are afraid of commitment while women dream of a first date who'll show up ring in hand? Clearly not--women break up with men who are serious about a relationship they themselves are unsure of, and vice versa. It's far more socially acceptable for a man to claim to not want to be tied down, and for a woman to express interest in being married 'one day,' than vice versa, but is there any difference in how either gender actually behaves? When he decides a relationship isn't working, a man may give as a reason his need for freedom, while a woman may emphasize her need to be with a man she could see herself marrying, or who's ready to marry in X months from now. But ultimately, men and women both settle down when they meet the right person. The difference is in the justification given when yet another relationship doesn't work out. So it feels like men and women want different things, but... not so much.

Which brings up the Kay Hymowitz article Rita just wrote about. For some reason, every discussion of singles or young-people-today starts from the premise that all things equal, women wish to marry while men do not. When women do not wish to marry, goes the argument, it's because there are no willing, appropriate male partners. When men do, it's from societal pressure. It's also generally assumed that men are innately programmed to pursue as many women as possible, as though what has historically stopped women from going from one man to the next had nothing to do with the likelihood of unwanted (and dangerous) pregnancy. Hymowitz speaks of "frustrated young women," forced to deal with men unwilling to start families at 25... as though these women wanted to do so themselves. Which, as she even admits, they do not. If men's interest in videogames makes them like teenagers, what does that make women whose interests include stilettos and pink cocktails?

The truly frightening thing for social conservatives is not premarital sex or prolonged adolescence but rather the blurring of gender roles. As long as the narrative remains 'boys will be boys,' and as long as single women--even middle-aged, sexually active single women--are presumed to on some level dream of white weddings, there can be articles about 'young people today' that end on a hopeful note. If it turns out that neither men nor women are as marriage-focused as was once the case, but most men and women will nevertheless eventually tie the knot, well, this scenario is scary. It means there's a chance that men and women are not approaching these matters from terribly different perspectives. Even if 99% of the population ended up in a heterosexual marriage, this outcome would still be a disaster from a social-conservative perspective if men and women were entering into the institution as undifferentiated (except in some important ways) partners.

Haute hypocrisy

We can all agree that a photo, in Vogue, of a model strutting down the catwalk is an example of high fashion. How about a shot of that same model having cigarette #50 of 500 that day, following the show, on a side-street nearby? Apparently models shot out of context count as "real people." A Newsweek article documenting the growing popularity of "real people" as opposed to the robots we are used to begins with a discussion of Scott Schuman, whose blog, The Sartorialist, is leading the way in this new trend. Real people, it seems, live only in New York, Milan, Paris, or Stockholm, and only in trendy/wealthy neighborhoods of those cities. Real people include French women who look like all other French women (or Parisian, at any rate) and thus are meant to elicit awe from us lowly American women who are so pathetic as not to be French. Other real people one might discover are children of Jane Birkin, men attending fashion shows, women with way more money than everyone else, women with more glamorous lifestyles than everyone else, and, of course, models, or those rejected from modeling agencies on account of being too skinny.

There's nothing odd about any of this. The beautiful, urban, and rich are more fashionable than everyone else, because they are the ones setting the standard. Circular much? An exceptionally well-put-together outfit from Abercrombie and Fitch, or a larger woman in plus-size Prada, will not make the cut. If it's true that "the trend of using real people to sell clothes attests to a fatigue with skinny, expressionless models in ads and on runways," the response, it seems, is photos of skinny models in their spare time. A more 'natural' look, for sure, but not in the way the Newsweek piece seems to suggest. At least with Vogue there's no pretense of the shots being anything but fantasy.

Monday, January 28, 2008

That's Vichy

Ruth Franklin argues that it is wrong to market Suite Francaise author Irène Némirovsky as a Holocaust writer because her earlier works, written prior to the Holocaust, were not flattering to Jews. Franklin sees the author's ultimate fate, death in Auschwitz, as "an irony that could have come directly from her own fiction," and implies that Némirovsky on some level had it coming. So much of Franklin's article has an anachronistic interpretation of what was known when and what constituted morality in which circumstances. She seems to find it exceptional that Némirovsky wrote a letter to Pétain asking to be spared, as though this were itself evidence of the author's friends in high places, when in fact this was not an unusual thing for Jews in France to do once the anti-Jewish laws appeared. It's not as though Pétain was responding in kind. Franklin writes,

Who can blame Némirovsky for trying to save herself and her family? Still, it is hard to suppress a cringe at her language: "I cannot believe, Sir, that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honorable foreigners." And more to the point, this language was entirely consistent with the representations in her fiction.

In an unjust system, people fight for what they can get. This much Franklin understands. Némirovsky was not fighting for the Jewish people, but for her own family, which she did not consider to be Jewish. To her it was an injustice that she was being persecuted as such. In a sense she was right in noting the injustice of her fate being mixed up with that of people she did not feel she had anything in common with. As for her fiction...

The tragedy of the Holocaust was not simply that good, proud, philo-Semitic Jews were killed as Jews. It was more that no differentiation was made between those who considered themselves to be Jews and those who did not, those who loved Jews and those who had negative or indifferent feelings towards things and people Jewish. Némirovsky may have been an anti-Semite whose ideas indirectly encouraged (or, more likely, capitalized on existing) anti-Jewish sentiment at what was in retrospect a dangerous time. But what's upsetting is not that she portrayed greedy Jews with big noses without offering up blond and generous Jewish characters as counterparts, but that she was a victim of the Holocaust despite her antipathy towards Jews. In a way, this is the best sort of author to be marketed today as a 'Holocaust writer,' since her example reveals the purely racial (or more accurately, imagined-racial) definition Hitler and Pétain employed.

The convention of applying the term 'self-hating Jew' to those of Jewish ancestry who are anti-Semites is itself anti-Semitic. It's declaring that Jewishness is a race, that it's fate, and that options for even non-Jewish Jews must remain limited. While it doesn't sound like much of a disaster to limit the options of 'ethnic' Jews such that they may not be anti-Semites, it is fighting anti-Semitism with more of the same. Much as anyone might think it the only moral option for Jews is marrying in, promoting Israel, or keeping Shabbat, the second you start telling people that if their name is Goldberg, they should feel one way or another about these issues, you're playing the same game.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Beautiful men

Via Reihan, here's a wonderful article by Min Katrina Lieskovsky in Elle telling women how to date male models. I sympathize with this concern. It's great to see a women's magazine drop the focus on women primping to impress men for one minute in favor of sitting back and letting the men trade carbs for the gym for us. I have long advocated a feminism of more, not less, beauty all around, and am glad to see this catching on. Women care about men's looks, and it's time these concerns come out in the open. Obviously in the real world, for men and women alike, this does not always mean appreciating the model aesthetic (luckily, says she who is 5'2"). The ideal is not a rise in cosmetic surgery and eating disorders for both sexes, but rather an awareness on the part of men that a little attention to detail doesn't hurt, that we're looking right back at you when you look at us.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"I'll have the lot."

Were you thinking of taking a book out of NYU's library? Think again. Either tomorrow or the next day, I'm heading to campus and taking out all of them. Or nearly all. A lot, in any case. Possibly enough to merit bringing the massive backpack we got for trips to the laundromat. I will look oh so glamorous on the subway.

Oh, and along the lines of not recalling books one has already taken out, it's best not to search the stacks for books that are already in your apartment. I'm learning...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Woes of Gentrification UPDATED

A close relative of the First World Problem is the Woe of Gentrification. An example would be the barista of a hip coffee bar complaining that the neighborhood is getting too upscale. Another would be using the fact that a French bistro is closing to signal that the gentry have arrived. In other words, a woe of gentrification occurs whenever someone uses the term 'gentrification' or insinuations thereof to denote the arrival of a cafe or shop he happens not to care for--or the closing of one of his haunts-- in a neighborhood that was already charming and expensive.


Not sure if this counts, but comparing restaurant sushi to "ghetto sushi from Whole Foods" has an air of woes-of-gentrification about it. It's all about the shifted scale on which the new slums are all areas except 5th and Park Avenues and the new diet of the poor includes an $8 lunch.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Grad Students Not Plagued By Toxic Sushi Epidemic

Why, in an editorial about toxic tuna sushi, does the NYT feel obliged to explain why sushi is appealing? "New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi." Imagine the same said of pizza. Isn't the fact that a food is readily available enough evidence that people like it? Is sushi-liking so improbable that it must be piece-by-piece (no pun intended) laid out?

A mindset, a mystery

Maybe it's just me, but I find it hard to understand how a Diaspora Jew can care a great deal about Israel without ever considering booking a flight. Joseph Epstein writes, "Much as I admire Israel, its accomplishments, and the courage of its people, I prefer to live in America, where my ethnicity puts me in a small minority of the country's population, a condition I rather prefer." (via). So far this kind of makes sense. Later, in response to a discussion of the new anti-Semitism based on anti-Zionism, he adds:

As someone who feels a strong link with Israel, I have never for a moment thought of abandoning the United States to live there. As a writer it would cut me off from my subjects; as a man it would uproot me painfully. One of the greatest strokes of good luck in my life has been to be born and live in the United States. And yet, as a Jewish American with an historical sense, it is impossible for me to be unaware of how important the state of Israel is.

I as much as anyone can understand why sometimes, given one's line of work, it's simply not feasible to move to Israel. And any move, even one where a job and apartment are waiting at the other end, is stressful, and means giving something up. People care about more than one thing, and often having a career and remaining with one's friends and family are an easy win over even the most sincere desire to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv and drink Zionistic blended iced coffee all day long. This I know quite well. However, in the scenario I describe, there are at least competing desires, of which moving to Israel is one. Whether my staying put is the result of self-serving rationalization or is in some greater sense the right thing to do is another matter.

What I don't understand with Epstein--who I believe does express how many Diaspora Zionists feel--is not why he feels no guilt at staying where he is, since he has his reasons and it's his own life and all that, but why he presents moving to Israel as almost tragic, rather than as an option he himself cannot go through with. In other words, I don't think Zionism is incompatible with living outside of Israel, nor do I think, when you look at it objectively, that all Zionists must live in the Jewish state. If the only people supporting the existence of Israel lived in Israel, the world would be a very different place. It benefits Israel that there are pro-Israeli non-Israelis, and is probably better for Israel if not everyone with warm feelings about the place actually up and moves. But Zionism ought to be incompatible with a belief that living in Israel must be dreadful. At this point it's a country, not an idea, and if you're that put off by the country, you're either still at work on the Uganda plan or, I would say, not all that Zionistic. And returning to the first of the two Epstein quotes above, if you think that it's better to be a Jew in a minority non-Jewish country than it is to be one where Jews are the majority, then you fundamentally disagree with the common thread of all types of Zionism, and whatever pro-Israel sentiment you have is limited to respect of differing viewpoints and fraternal hope that Iran not nuke the place.

Of course, had Epstein truly "never thought for one moment" of aliyah, he wouldn't have his reasons lined up for why he must must must stay in the States.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why I don't write fiction UPDATED

Since people are continuously banging down my door asking for a WWPD novel, I thought I should explain why none exists. It's not that I don't write fiction--I have, on and off, better and worse, since high school--but I am wary of inflicting it on the world. Thing is, although I don't write semi-autobiographical stories of the adventures of one Fifi Maltzman, I do tend to write about places and situations I know, and there's enough of what I know floating around in fiction today. No one cares about academic types, Manhattanites, Park Slopers, Hyde Parkers, Spence girls, or Stuyvesant nerds. A way of complimenting a work in the NYT Sunday Book Review is to exclaim, "Nothing about the Upper East Side!"

Even if against all odds I came up with something original to write about any of these worlds, any mention of Tasti-d-Lite, school uniforms, or the Six train would put anything I wrote into the pretentious-blather genre, and would leave readers (as if there would be readers) begging for "books with dragons on the cover" and stories about Kansas and Inner Mongolia within. For a time, being familiar with NYC was an advantage and meant a person could write relative crap as long as it referenced upscale 5th Avenue department stores. That time may not be over, but I've internalized the American populist idea that you are not really from America, did not really have a childhood, if it all took place where "Sex and the City" was shot.


Here are some more thoughts about the "real America" of which I, with my prejudiced conviction that squirrels are not food, will never be a part. I could call it a religious dietary restriction, but that wouldn't help deflect charges of membership in a coastal cabal.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Only 18%?

Best one yet.

Birthright Israel, in a nutshell

"'It's so different but so inspiring to be part of that [the IDF],' said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses. 'I would want to move here and join the army' too."

Recent history

A few days ago, I pointed out that "Judaism-as-religion-only is a relatively new invention." In an article about the history of marriage (via), Stephanie Coontz writes, "Many people managed to develop loving families over the ages despite these laws and customs, but until very recently, this was not the main point of entering or staying in a union." My "relatively new" and her "very recently" refer to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, respectively. I mention this because clearly 1800 does not count as "recent." The use of this rhetorical device, of adding the word "recent," is to show that ideas many hold as timeless and universal are in fact products of well-documented historical changes. Thus left-wing insistence that Judaism is and always was nothing but a religion, and right-wing attempts to save marriage as it has always existed, are both fundamentally flawed.

Coontz's article, by the way, is pretty great. Rather than advocating ways to change how families organize themselves, either towards a regressive or progressive ideal, she points to how things have changed and suggests ways to make the best of the current situation. She views the contemporary institution of marriage as both weaker and better than the older versions, which strikes me as correct. Obviously when marriage partners are chosen by families and not up for discussion, divorce rates will be far lower than when marriage is a contract based on mutual consent of the partners. It is inconsistent to rule out premarital sex but allow that partners make their own love matches at 20. Without familial and societal force, those early marriages are bound for failure. And if it is impossible not to mention ill advised to encourage early marriage, one must accept that the 35-year-old brides and grooms are not likely to be virgins.

Coontz's refusal to suggest people live their lives according to a government-instituted plan is refreshing, since it acknowledges that family values come not from Mike Huckabee but from your own family. If you family values atheism and acceptance of all sexual orientations, those are your family values. She notes, "The right research and policy question today is not 'what kind of family do we wish people lived in?' Instead, we must ask 'what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?'" This is far too sensible, I am left with nothing contrarian to add.

OK, almost nothing. In referring to "a world where the social weight of marriage has been fundamentally and irreversibly reduced" and arguing that "we will not meet the challenges of this transformation by trying to turn back the clock," Coontz implies a linear march forward of history. Whereas with every step towards progress, there is a reaction from those who see the same step as dangerous. Just as for many 19th century French Jews, Judaism remained more than a religion, many 2008 Americans do not accept the inevitability of premarital sex, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. Some people--gay and straight--are more comfortable with rigid social structures than they are with freedom to fall in love and pair off accordingly. It is anachronistic in its own way to imply that a French Jew who believed in a Jewish "nation" was somehow less 19th-century than one who believed himself to be a Frenchman of the Mosaic faith, or to suggest that an American is less 21st-century if she wishes to remain pure for her future husband, and thinks others should do the same. Accepting things as they are (or were) means acknowledging the whole range of opinion of an age.

Eventually, what's progress and what's reaction becomes blurred. The idea of a Jewish nation, once a relic, must have had its supporters, because now you can book a flight to it. Predictions of a final triumph of the Enlightenment tend not to prove accurate.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

From Staples to Chanel

Winter/Christmas/Festivus break is now over. I am going to be the most organized grad student/TA/human being ever, thanks to a trip yesterday to the most boring store in the world. I now own:

Three new binders.
One new folder.
One three-subject notebook with pockets and perforated/hole-punched pages.
Four new pens, which Jo and I will fight over, but which, unlike the pens from last semester, still contain ink.

Before the serious lesson planning/binder-filling begins, some final notes from vacation:

Snack, a tiny Greek café on Thompson Street in SoHo, is amazing if only in that it's one of the few spots in the area with a grad-student price range that I had not noticed until a couple days ago. Since I also went to high school in lower Manhattan, I have many years worth of experience looking for sub-$10 meals in all the wrong places. The restaurant has a $10 per person minimum at lunch, meaning that I will probably not go back any time soon, but the food was quite tasty. I had a girl-food lunch of arugula-roasted pepper-feta salad and Greek iced coffee (a bit like Tel Aviv iced coffee--sugary, overcaffeinated, and great), while Jo ordered a gender-appropriate lamb sandwich that looked to be a classier version of schwarma. The couple next to us were discussing how wonderful it would be to live on a certain street in Park Slope which happens to be where we live, and then mentioned something about a dissertation, so there, in a neighborhood filled with jet-setters, we felt right at home. Although at one point a super-wealthy-looking middle aged woman entered wearing a coat that was to my Old Navy bathrobe what Jo's sandwich was to schwarma. Apparently it helps to be a local if you want to eat at Snack, according to this rather disturbing reader review, but it didn't seem to hurt to be from an outer borough.

After the feast, we saw Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum, where I confirmed that I am in no way an intellectual by noticing that the main character's dresses were by Coco Chanel, and, despite the iced coffee, taking mini-naps throughout, waking only to notice a new design. I'd rather have Chanel making my dresses than Robbe-Grillet writing my subway reading.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Everything the whole Upper West Side wanted to know about North African Jews

Contrary to popular belief (and to the number of comments on a recent post: currently at zero) everyone wants to hear about Tunisian Jews. So much so that by the time we got to Lincoln Center to see Villa Jasmin, a movie by and about Tunisian Jews, the showing was sold out. I was stunned, and hoped this was a good omen for someone whose research interests lie in this area, and who had some reason to be concerned. Luckily the standby line moved quickly, and we ended up with a second-row view of not only the film, but also director Fèrid Boughedir's pre- and post-movie discussion.

The movie, based on Serge Moati's novel, was made for French TV, and as such includes, near the beginning, a gratuitously bare breast of a beautiful, napping Frenchwoman, a character who is mostly irrelevant to film itself. The movie is ostensibly about a son's quest to find out his Tunisian Jewish family's past; the lovely woman is his pregnant wife, who prefers mild to spicy food and is otherwise non-Tunisian, but doesn't say much. Nor does the thirty-ish son, for that matter, who is also pretty but pointless to the story. An otherwise interesting movie about Tunisia around World War II is interspersed with close-ups of a moved-looking young man in surprisingly chic tourist clothes.

Most of what makes the movie interesting is the history. Who knew that there were once many Jews in Tunisia, and that of these Jews, there were two mutually antagonistic groups, the higher class also the newer arrivals, much like German versus Russian Jews in the US? Who knew that the Nazis showed up and made life difficult for Jews who were not even European? Not impossible, as in Europe, but still.

Basically, unlike many other World War II movies, this one presents a history not familiar to the general--or at a Jewish film festival, general-Jewish-- audience. This is not the only recent movie to show the North African side of the war, but it is especially strange to see a movie with Nazis and Jews both featuring prominently in which the Holocaust is not even the major problem the characters face. While the director explained that unlike Algeria, Tunisia still permits Jews to visit and even live in the country, the switch from a community of 200,000 to several thousand suggests that something happened around Tunisian independence. As is clear from the movie (based on a novel which is based on a true story, as the director repeatedly mentioned), some Tunisian Muslims thought the German invasion might help the cause of independence, while some Tunisian Jews truly believed the oxymoronic tenet that France is the bearer of universal culture. In other words, no good guys or bad guys (other than the Nazis, who fit the latter role too well), and no happy ending once the Nazis leave. (Is 'Nazis stole my villa' a first-world problem? I'd have to go with no.) There isn't even much time to reflect on the Nazi invasion, since the next struggle--what an independent Tunisia might look like-- had already begun well before their arrival.

The political message of the movie, if any can be deduced, is that Tunisian Jews were wrong in embracing French language and culture, and ought to have stayed friends with the Arabs, or else their history would not have turned out so bleak. But how bleak is it to live in France, visit Tunisia, Israel, or wherever else whenever you feel like, and have a stunning wife unafraid to show her breasts for no particular reason? For all his family tragedy, life in France, from what the movie implies, is perhaps a bit empty spiritually and culinarily (not a word, it seems) but still preferable to life in Tunisia. Preferable defined as where the main character and many like him prefer to live.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Is it wrong...

...that after reading this post, I have no unsupported social commentary on home-versus-public schooling, but can only think, so that's what a PhD in French prepares you for, teaching a 9th grader Latin. And I don't even know Latin.

Everything you always wanted to know about North African Jews

Tunisia: good for the Jews? Or just desperate for tourists? Could be, but maybe not. In any case, I wouldn't suggest that Jewish singles leave the Upper West Side for Tunisia any time soon, since it's apparently a happy but tiny community, about the Jewish population of the Fairway around 11pm, not nonexistent but not what it once was.

Parochial school

The New Yorker story about the Myspace teen suicide was hard to put down, upsetting, and... frustrating. Something about the tone of Lauren Collins's article reminded me of how kids from the Midwest at UChicago would often imagine the kids from NYC perceived of them. Sometimes, unfortunately, they were correct. The juxtaposition of New Yorker-language and Myspace-middle-school-ese doesn't help, but the anthropological descriptions of what a town in the Midwest is like, what Victoria's Secret sells, these almost feel like exotic travel writing. In some places, you see, middle-class families live in these things called houses, near but not flush up against other houses. The houses aren't just for the weekend and summer, but all year long. Neighbors are not just random furniture-moving sounds from the apartment above. In some places, you actually socialize with them!

Collins refutes the idea that the story has much relevance to those, say, who read the New Yorker: "But Channelview and Dardenne Prairie, where teen-agers still have after-school jobs, are not type-A parent/overscheduled kid kinds of towns. Like Wanda Holloway, Lori Drew may not have represented a helicopter parent so much as a more ancient archetype: the resentful neighbor." I don't know the author's background--perhaps she herself grew up in a town like this and is trying to make it comprehensible to Manhattanites, and what reads as condescending is meant as straightforward explanation--but leaving aside the motivation, there's something NYC-parochial about this article. Which I'm sort of OK with--it's in a magazine calling itself the New Yorker after all--but I have yet to figure out how a NYC-centric magazine (or individual) can discuss the Heartland without sounding either patronizing or self-hatingly convinced of its own insufficient Americanness. So perhaps this article, which cannot possibly be the latter given the subject matter, is the best that can be hoped for.

But the more obvious question is why Collins doesn't mention that perhaps use of antidepressants starting in elementary school put Megan Meier over the edge.

"In the third grade, Megan told Tina that she wanted to kill herself. The Meiers took her to see a psychiatrist. Megan was prescribed Celexa (an antidepression drug), Concerta (for A.D.D.), and Geodon (a mood stabilizer)."

Hasn't it been shown that these drugs can drive the young to suicide? Being thirteen is horrible, whether the bullies are online or off-, your age or middle aged, or even if you are the bully. But of all the self-destructive acts and thoughts, hanging herself is a very strange thing for a thirteen-year-old girl to do. It could be that blaming the Internet, blurred parent-child boundaries, and stuffy towns is missing the point, missing what took an everyday crappy situation and made it a tragedy. Sort of like blaming insufficiently examined creative writing rather than gun availability for the Virginia Tech massacre. But what do I know, I'm a pro-gun-control New Yorker and thus elitist until proven otherwise.

"But who am I? That's one secret I'll never tell."

This post, arguing that Judaism is a religion and not a race, means well but makes no sense. On a basic level, it's true, Judaism is a religion, for sure, and no one race encompasses all who are Jews (Ashkenazi awesomeness genes aside), thus Judaism is indeed not a race but a religion.

This was always something that stumped me growing up: who are Jews? It's a seemingly unanswerable question until you break it down. Who are Jews according to whom, when, and in which country? All Helen Jupiter's post on Jewcy explains is that to some progressive Americans in 2008, Judaism is a religion. This definition appeals to the open-minded, to the belief that no one should be held back from self-invention. But Judaism cannot be only a religion in a universal sense if not all believe it. One could argue that Judaism should be treated as just a religion, and in fact that's what Jupiter argues. It's just the "is" that fails to convince.

The idea that Judaism might be just a religion was invented in France at the time of the Revolution, in order to find a way to emancipate that country's Jews. Previously, where there were Jews, there had been "Jewish nations," not mini-Israels with tanned and toned soldiers, but communities with a specific place with respect to the state. Part of chucking the system of "privileges" and corporate groups during the French Revolution meant that "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals." Quelle bonne idée! The issue at the time was not race, but nationhood in the pre-nation-state sense of a people with common interests, practices, what have you. Not a nefarious cabal with well-hidden lines of mutual support, but an all-out, out-in-the-open community. Sort of--there were also the "Portuguese" Jews who lived officially as Catholics until gradually "coming out" (in the words of Ronald Schechter) as Jews after some time living in France--but that's another story. The point here is that it was not racist, before 1791, to suggest that Judaism was more than just a religion. It was! Neither Jews nor gentiles would think to deny this. If anything, it was racist to ask Jews to give up autonomy before allowing them to great honor that is membership in the French nation. (Pierre Birnbaum and Arthur Hertzberg explain this all so very much better than I just did). One could even go so far as to say that Europe colonized the Jews, much as it did "Oriental" peoples in Asia and Africa, in asking them to shed all particularity in order to even hope for a nod of recognition from the so obviously superior French. (Here, Albert Memmi has some ideas, not that this is anything but an over-botched summary).

In other words, Judaism-as-religion-only is a relatively new invention in Jewish history, a history which goes back I would guess at least to 1700, maybe even before. French Jews accepted the religion-only definition, not always but often, and so it eventually became offensive to imply that there was anything more to it. Fast-forward a century. Political Zionism revealed that some Central, Eastern, and Western European Jews believed Judaism was more than a religion. Some Jews all over had never adopted this 'enlightened' definition. Yet many had. A racial definition (or any definition including more than just religion) would offend some, while a religion-only definition would not include all. This remains the case today.

The only way one could offer a convincing case for Judaism-as-religion-only would be to say that a Jew is a person the religious version of whom is an observant Jew. This definition includes atheists, but allows the converted-outs their free will and does not shove them into a racial definition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Resolutions broken

My new semester's resolutions will have to be of the starting... now! variety. Because:

1) I have yet to buy binders. Or, say, hang up my coat.

2) But I did purchase an amazing, mod/1940s/fake-Chanel-looking sweater-dress at Uniqlo. No photo online, but if I wear it and someone (paparazzo? fellow grad student?) takes a picture, I will post it, because the dress is fantastic.

3) There was a primary in Michigan. This much I know, but not much more. A few moments in the US History section at Housing Works nearly put me to sleep, probably due to an unshakable association of American history with high school or, worse, middle school history class. Back to the French-Jewish studies.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Grad school lesson of the day:

Do not recall a library book you may have already checked out.

Meh (or, Finding myself, Part III)

Despite a full awareness that my true self is still floating around beyond my reach, I am putting a temporary stop on all the political confusion. More pressing goals include finishing a paper, starting work on another, and, if I'm really decadent, getting a haircut before the new semester starts. I've gone this route before (the cut, not the Scientology), and it looked acceptable. But it would mean giving up on the growing-out-my-hair project, which is really just being too much of a grad student to get a haircut for several months. But "growing it out" sounds so much more glamorous.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Finding myself, Part II

Some on both sides are racist.

There you have it.

Much of the response to my last post and those before it has been denials or minimizations of the role that bigotry plays in encouraging individuals to choose the right or the left. For every true believer in the institution of marriage, for everyone worried about sin, there's someone else who wants to see an amendment against gay marriage because a man and a man, that's icky. For everyone genuinely upset about the death toll in Iraq, there's someone convinced that the Jews got us (the real Americans) into this mess. For everyone concerned that our students are not getting enough Aristotle or Mill, there's someone who's never read anything by Toni Morrison but is convinced that there's no way a black woman writer could be anything but a PC plot to oppress the white man. For everyone... that's the idea, and no, I do not mean to imply a literal one-to-one correspondence.

If you decide you're for the left or the right, whether 51% for or 100%, you will have to minimize the amount of bigotry floating around on your side. It's easy, if you choose the right, to acknowledge that there are voters on the left who are there because they want to destroy the stranglehold Israel and the Jews have on our precious nation. If you're on the left, it's no problem admitting to yourself that some vote Republican because they see sex-as-pleasure as fine for men but not women, and are threatened by anything that would change the natural state of affairs. But once you go with one or the other, you have to pretend that the bigots on your side are the exception, while the opponents are probably motivated by prejudice above all else.

The reason that the right has something of an edge in all of this is that political correctness, which prevents open racism and sexism, does not prevent all forms of anti-Semitism. While it remains no more acceptable to say "I hate Jews" than to declare one's hatred of any other group, if one can spin anti-Semitism as either pacifism or populism, then it suddenly rises in acceptability. An anti-Semite can paint himself as one who courageously says what the powers that be would rather he did not, but say it he must, for our boys in Iraq, for our lower-middle-class here at home. Of course, such rhetoric is not limited to the left, and could potentially shift from the populist-paleocon right to that wing's mainstream. But this isn't about making predictions, it's about finding myself. And what I've found is that pointing to the bigotry of one side or the lack thereof on the other will not be enough to convince me either way.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Finding myself, Part I

As part of my quest to figure out once and for all which of the two main political parties I should belong to, I took the same quiz as Daniel Drezner, and learned that I am totally a Democrat. Since there's no candidate socially liberal and pro-Israel enough to make for an obvious pick, I'm left about where I was at in 2004, unsure of what a Democrat or Republican's foreign policy would end up looking like (I'm still convinced that if Gore were president in 2001, we'd now associate fighting terrorism and defending Israel with the Dems), but quite sure of where things would go in terms of domestic nonsense if almost any of the Republicans came out ahead. I do not believe that "biology is destiny." So, to the left I go.

But something holds me back. Among Republicans, it's a given that people vote for one issue or another, and that someone might be against abortion, for an aggressive foreign policy, or against tax increases, and simply willing to accept whatever else comes with their issue of choice. Whenever someone on the right who's clearly on the right on account of just one of these reasons claims to truly care about another, it comes across as disingenuous, and as a pragmatic attempt at getting a Republican, perhaps himself, into office. Among Democrats, there's this sense that you a voting for the left, and that every issue within the movement is supposed to have some logical connection to every other other. If you care about gay rights, you must not only accept a candidate's opposition to Bush's War on Terror, but must see the two as part of one and the same struggle. When, quite clearly, they are not. Feminism, meanwhile, is supposed to have some inherent connection to anti-racism, but once again, no such luck. One form of identity politics is more likely to conflict than coincide with another. Yet a coalition of the oppressed (or various groups designated as oppressed, roughly coinciding with actual oppression) is supposed to channel poor immigrants and native-born workers, the pro-choice and the anti-gun, into one coherent cause. If for whatever reason your oppressed group is not among those in the established canon, you are better off heading to the right than taking the left's list as a work in progress, as general principles that could as easily be applied to any situation.

But more to the point: I have been far from delighted by the Bush presidency, but now that opposing Bush so often means opposing anything (see Comment #2: Hilda and I both knew what Edwards meant) that could be perceived of as Jewish politics, I'm reluctant to consider myself on the left.

I should point out, to preempt contrarian comments, that the above paragraph is an impression, poorly explained and probably wrong. As I argued a hundred years ago, the problem with the right-left, two-party divide is that issues with no obvious connection to one another get lumped together on both sides, making it difficult to enthusiastically support any one candidate without compromising principles. But my sense, largely anecdotal (via articles, blogs, books, and, yes, face-to-face conversations), is that it's far more startling to hear someone on the left grudgingly accept rather than enthusiastically embrace the officially leftist stance on an issue than it is to witness someone on the right doing the same. So much so that when someone on the left doubts one of that side's tenets, it's hard to believe that they wish to still identify as on the left, while few are doubting Jonah Goldberg's right-wing-ness, although his book is about as far from the mainstream right as some of the Dissenters are from the mainstream left.

"Carefully guarded and protected"

Two things baffle in Caitlin Flanagan's op-ed, "Sex and the Teenage Girl," part of the NYT's new campaign to offer up opinions held outside of one ten-block stretch of the Upper West Side. One, for a social conservative piece, it comes across as altogether anti-baby. She writes of ""the bitterly unfair truth of sexuality: female desire can bring with it a form of punishment no man can begin to imagine, and so it is one appetite women and girls must always regard with caution." She assumes that when teen girls get pregnant, it's always unintentional. Whereas the truth is that a girl or woman dead set on not getting pregnant will take the necessary precautions (and no, this does not have to mean abstinence, but more on that later). Contrary to what other pages in the Times would have you believe, some people feel ready to launch into adulthood before age 30. Whether or not they should is another matter.

Relatedly, her op-ed provides no insights for how to help the girls who inevitably will get pregnant, intentionally or not, no matter what's done to protect them. Flanagan asks for society to prevent our young darlings from getting knocked up, but offers no community- or governmentally-based answer to how we should deal with the babies that do appear unannounced. It's not anti-baby to call teen pregnancy a problem, but this strikes me as overboard from someone clearly not on the Planned Parenthood end of the spectrum. If, as she argues, "[b]iology is destiny," and sex means such different things for men and women, why try to get around this in any one way? Why not force girls and not boys to marry once they get these urges, even if that means the weddings start soon after the bat mitzvahs end?

But back to the biology-destiny conundrum. For some social conservatives, including, it seems, Flanagan, it's as though no one ever came up with the idea of using the Pill or similar plus condoms, or of the difference between premarital sex with one, two, or a thousand partners. Or, that one can simultaneously see nothing in principle wrong with premarital sex and believe that it's best not to sleep with everyone you date. There are ways of being super-careful that did not always exist, but now that they do, responsibility is no longer limited to abstinence. Flanagan speaks of "the rudely unfair toll that a few minutes of pleasure can exact on a girl," as though sex for pleasure bears the same consequences as rape. Biology is unfair, in that the precautions remain geared more protecting one partner than the other. But it is only "destiny" if you believe all this stuff about 80-year human lifespans is hogwash.

But Flanagan insists that every girl is an indulged crush away from triplets. "Pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. This stark fact is one reason girls used to be so carefully guarded and protected — in a system that at once limited their horizons and safeguarded them from devastating consequences." Used to be? When? Where? By whom, and at what cost? The quote that follows refers to Victorian England, which is meant as a broader stand-in for the glorified social-conservative Past, when things weren't bad like they are today. The past might also be the pre-Monica era, the 1950s, or the Middle Ages, depending. Part of this particular fantasy involves not mentioning that there are still places where girls are "carefully guarded" against the pleasure they might otherwise seek. Of all the ingenious ways societies have come up with to prevent girls from getting hurt/shaming their families, teaching them that there are ways around "destiny" remains by far the best.

Tangentially related, but fascinating: Jamie-Lynn's parents are named Jamie and Lynne. I'm starting to think that this, and not "a few minutes of pleasure," is the source of all her problems.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Least kosher crime ever:

Here's what happens when you cross a mixed grill with high school idiocy.

In unrelated but also icky news, an argument for marrying as far out of your ethnic group as you can.

Friday, January 11, 2008

New semester's resolutions

Neither January 1st nor Rosh Hashanah has any particular meaning in my life, but the start of the new semester most certainly does. So, resolved:

1) Binders! By which I mean organization in general. I used to subscribe to a variant of the attitude Rita describes in this post, except rather than bragging about papers done in one night, I was somehow convinced that pulling a decent paper out of a messy apartment was more impressive than citing from alphabetized books and tab-containing binders. Apparently all of this was evidence that I am, in fact, mentally ill. A broad definition of mental illness, I'd say, but there you have it. Appealing as it is to have a backpack-organizing personal assistant, I think I'll make it to Staples and back on my own.

2) Aside from binders, not buy anything, ever. Among purchases of the past several months that were of no use whatsoever: these shoes, liquid eyeliner, silver pencil eyeliner, and yam-quail-egg tuna. No more gratuitous trips to Sephora, even when my grad-school buddies suggest them. I will not succumb to temptation in the form of $4 two-use nail polish bottles!

2a) Attempts at reducing portion of income spent on coffee are probably futile; cheese, definitely.

2b) Continue to wear $??? fabulous Camper boots every day, until price-per-wear becomes acceptable, at which point, just every other day, because they are Camper and thus will neither fall apart nor go out of style. I will be picking up my AARP newsletters in these boots.

3) Revive once-passionate interest in U.S. politics. Despite periodic threats that I will leave for more falafel- or waffle-filled pastures, it looks like I'll be here for a while, so it might be time to, say, decide whether I'm a more a Democrat or a Republican.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

First world problems: My Japanese food is too authentic

For some grad students it's ramen. For me it's pasta. The overabundance of pasta in my diet makes me especially picky about the occasional meals out. Especially Japanese food, which tends to have quite the dollar-to-calorie ratio. So I was really looking forward to an $8 (four-plus boxes of pasta) tuna sashimi and rice bowl, only to have it arrive completely drenched in a mix of grated yam and quail egg. I know that's what it is, because I've been unpleasantly surprised before. The texture is a bit like natto, which I actually like, but much, much stickier. Sticky is a problem for the finicky eater, because try as you might to push it aside or onto a plate you're no longer using (and, as an aside, thank god this was not on a first date) doesn't work, it just keeps oozing back, and has, it will soon become clear, already coated every single grain of rice, and every piece of otherwise perfect tuna.

The ridiculousness of the situation was made all the more so by the fact that this was the first time in a year I'd convinced my boyfriend to try Japanese food... and he liked all his dishes. Granted I steered him towards some more fully-cooked items, but still, I was the one who left wishing we'd gone with Belgian.

Answer me these:

What is fiction? Is the difference between literature and can-be-used-against-you not the distance between reality and what's on the page (greater, one imagines, in fiction than in rant), but rather the quality of the prose? My sense is yes. Whether we're speaking about violent plays or an unreadable livejournal calling itself "fiction" while discussing real-life situations, something horribly written is rant and thus evidence, whereas something well-written is literature. One can point to the unfairness of an important author's depictions of real people, but the quickest way to place yourself on the wrong side of history is to limit a brilliant artist's creativity.

What is libertarianism? Here's a helpful introduction, but I'm still confused.

What is conservatism, and why would a libertarian today identify as a Republican? If social conservatism went (returned?) to the left, would this topple the right, or are my political views shared by more than three other people?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Another smashmortion, UPDATED

this time in the Gossip Girl season finale. First, when Dan thinks it's Serena who's with child, he explains both to his father and to a baffled Serena that he'll stick with her no matter what she decides. So far so reasonable, although it's extremely unlikely a real-life Serena would do anything but have an abortion. But again, realism is not the GG way. But then there's Serena, soon after, telling a reluctant Blair to take a pregnancy test, explaining that her friend needs to know if she and Chuck are having a baby. Birth control is presented as a choice made only by the slutty (Serena and her Pill, Chuck and his condoms). As with "Knocked Up," it's vaguely clear that abortion exists as an option, but it's a given that pregnancy means there will be a baby, as though it would be too tragic to state outright that a 17-year-old might not go that route.

Surprise--no one's pregnant, Dan and Serena fight and make up, Serena and Blair fight and make up, and otherwise this episode left the imaginary Upper East Side unchanged. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that a show that is essentially set in a nostalgic fantasy of the 1950s would not be on the cutting edge of feminism. But in some ways, it is. In tonight's episode not one but two beautiful women aggressively ask out Dan's father Rufus. Being a mother stops almost none of the women in show from sleeping with whomever they please. The adult women are unrealistically enlightened, or skanky, depending on one's take on these matters. So really it's only the high school kids whose prudery makes the show seem to come from another age. Social conservatism may be a lost cause for the middle-aged, but the youth are on board all the way.


The academic applicability of Gossip Girl never fails to impress.

The lady has a point

As I argued not long ago, I don't see the prospect of Clinton II as any sort of feminist victory. That said, Gloria Steinem's argument, that sexism is still more of a problem than racism, strikes me as plausible. This is a variant of something I've noticed before. It's not that other issues don't matter, it's just that on a truly day-to-day level, not a minute goes by when this one ceases to be important.

Leaving the questions of prejudice and victimization aside, think about college rooming assignments, bathrooms, locker rooms, schools in general... In all of these cases, segregation by sex is uncontroversial or simply the norm, whereas segregation by race is considered evidence of society's failure to right past wrongs. Someone who announces racial preferences for romantic partners is a racist; even calls among Jews to fight intermarriage on religious grounds are often interpreted as racism. Yet no one's considered a sexist on account of being gay or straight rather than open to all over-18 members of humanity. While race and sex both matter, and racism and sexism both continue to exist, it has become socially unacceptable to believe that race should matter, whereas we pretty much accept that gender will always matter, and tend to accept or fight sexism within that framework. And there's the biological fact of who can and cannot get pregnant backing all of this up.

On an anecdotal/personal/subjective level, I'd have to say that being a Jew affects me far less in terms of how I look at US politics than does being a woman. And I say this as someone far more in the Jewish Studies realm than the Gender Studies one, and as someone who is well aware of contemporary American anti-Semitism. But when I see something like this... If a socially conservative government decides to abolish birth control, for the unmarried or altogether, this would affect me as a uterus-having individual first, and as someone with a different view of Jesus's significance second.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"Not a girl, not yet a woman"

There are many wonderful things about being a grad student. The not-so-wonderful one is that until you go gray, everyone thinks you are a college student, with all that this implies in contemporary America. Real estate brokers treat you like a child incapable of paying rent on even the saddest of 100th floor walk-ups. When you walk around NYU with your backpack, you get the, "ugh, NYU students" glare from passersby, distraught over their neighborhood's purple-flag "invasion." Meanwhile, to Student Health, a student is a student, so they assume that you spend your weekends (no, weekdays and weekends) in a drug-induced haze, hooking up with everything that moves, and ask you your "major," at which point you attempt to explain that you are, for their purposes, middle-aged, and they don't buy it for a minute. You still speak to job-having friends and family about things like "final papers" and "spring break," which will forever sound like you're referring to five paragraphs and Cancun. You know you're a grown-up, but anyone who has to claim this about herself is, of course, a child.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Mormons: sober and giant

Are Mormon's really taller than Jews? From the Prince of Our People, in this week's NYT Mag: "If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller." I should have known starting the cappuccino habit at a younger age than Jamie-Lynn was at conception was not the way to go.

But seriously, are Jews, in 2008 America, any shorter than anyone else? In 1930, probably, but now? I'm no giant (again, cappuccinos), but the men in my family tend to be upwards of 6'2". So how tall are Mormons? Are they like the Belgians and the Dutch? I'm picturing Salt Lake City as some kind of Antwerp minus the avant-garde fashion and abbey-made beer.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

More "liberal fascism" UPDATED

This is one of the best blog-comments I've ever seen. It offers a clear-as-you-could-hope-for explanation of how the right came to be associated with fascism, and why many on the left do not share Jonah Goldberg's conviction that conservatives are merely those who put individual liberty above all else.

So, back to populism: The question of where to draw the line between genuine attempts at creating equal opportunity regardless of class background and the creation of new hierarchies in which those most moved by the sight of the Jesus fish (in my mind forever associated with Elaine's boyfriend Puddy), with the most blue-collar self-presentation, shall occupy the highest position is one that must be posed with more vigor.


From the obvious department, Huckabee will not be receiving the Jewish vote. From that same department, if you want to look more Jewish (or black, Asian, female, gay...) than you already do, have your photo taken next to Mike Huckabee.

"Position is unpaid"

Most of the part-time jobs on the list from my department require either being a native French speaker or having experience babysitting. I grew up in NYC, to American parents (no luck on point #1) as an only child in a building occupied mostly by the over-70 (so much for point #2). My superglam non-academic job experiences are more in the filing/shelving/cappuccino-frothing realm, and none of these had much to do with the French major (except for the shelving; I am amazing with call numbers). So imagine my delight when an email came in about a position as a literature blogger. I already read literature and make bloggings! Before I could assess whether I'm even looking for a part-time job to begin with, I reached the bottom of the job posting: "Position is unpaid." I guess the folks behind this blog anticipated potential candidates would react as I did, since it seems the email really got around, well beyond the world of humanities grad students: here it is on Gawker.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

This is not a review

I finished Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism a few days ago, was considering writing up something long on the book, may still do that, but for now, a few comments, not quite strung together.

1) I'm not sure what to make of a book whose purpose is to argue against "what most people think." Do most people really believe that the only danger to liberty is found on the extreme right? Isn't it well-known that "Nazi" comes from an expression that includes the word "socialism"? Isn't the notion that the worst regimes come from where the extremes of the left and the right meet, i.e. from over-the-top populism and (often) anti-Semitism, relatively well-known and well-accepted? In other words, are people really as ill-informed as Goldberg's book demands its readers be? If it does not come as news to you that, say, anti-Semitism has roots on the Left, you are perhaps less likely to be so swept up in the book's argument as to consider it plausible that there is something fascist about Hillary Clinton.

Those writing for an academic audience tend to do something between assuming the reader has read everything else on the subject and making the book accessible to those who only just became interested in the topic. This means that key words are defined, minor historical figures are identified, but ideally one may still get something out of the book if one already knew what acculturation meant in Algeria, who the Reinachs were, and so on. Goldberg expects readers to be so shocked by the revelation that fascism was part of a broader early 20th century culture (or, as he would have it, that everything early-20th reeked of fascism) that they are willing to throw out all prior assumptions--even the accurate ones--about the present.

2) Goldberg makes a decent argument for libertarianism or classical liberalism. What he fails to do is make any sort of argument for supporting conservatism politically as it actually exists in the United States in 2007-8, i.e. the real-life Republican party, home of the "values voter" who will support whichever candidate promises to make America most like his Christian sect of choice. Goldberg's point is that government intervention to remake the entire country and interfere with the individual's personal life is fascist. He (unenthusiastically) favors gay marriage, and argues that libertarianism would be perfect if it could account for children and foreign policy. So why a whole long (arguably too long) book on the fascist left and a measly conclusion on the domestically-interventionalist right? It's not as if Huckabee's the only Republican candidate playing this game, nor is it as though "compassionate conservatism" or Democrat-esque policies are the only interventions Republicans have in mind.

3) Fascism is, as everyone knows, tied up with notions of purity. Goldberg denounces the puritanical War on Smoking throughout the book, but offers as evidence against the "fascist" hedonism of the 1960s the rise in STD rates in 1968 Berkeley, as evidence that the natural laws are not meant to be messed with. What makes smoking but not promiscuity fall under the rubric of personal liberty? (Another small but irritating inconsistency--why is Betty Friedan's remark comparing housewifedom to a concentration camp disgusting and unworthy of comment, while a whole long book about the Hitlerian Democratic Party is to be celebrated?)

This leads me to another, related, critique. It is a common human impulse to seek out purity in one form or another. From the perspective of individual liberty, some manifestations of this inclination are far more innocuous than others. Insistence on purity in one's shampoo and cosmetics, in one's show dog, or in one's diet, is all perhaps unnecessary from a scientific standpoint, but is certainly far less damaging to society than demands for racial, spiritual, or ideological purity. When the government steps in and demands the purity of everyone's shampoo, show dog, and breakfast cereal, it might be channeling an impulse to interfere with things that actually matter.

Ultimately the problem with fascism is in its exclusive definition of the state. Either you're part of it or you're not, and you can be excluded regardless of your included status in the pre-fascist regime. Somewhere along the line, "right" came to stand for an exclusive version of America (Gay? Not Christian? Sorry.) and "left" for the side that lets everyone in. Goldberg may want to shatter this "myth," but the fact remains that people do self-identify as "right-wing" when seeking out policies that promote certain forms of exclusivity.

4) Repeatedly and in reference to various historical situations, Goldberg speaks of the "feminine" and "masculine" or "maternal" and "paternal" sides of fascism. This is what in academia is referred to as a gendered reading, or looking at a question through the lens of gender. If someone were to describe this analytical method to Goldberg's National Review, it would surely get mocked on Phi Beta Cons.

5) That said, it is worth telling a lot of readers (more, alas, than read scholarly books on Dreyfus-era French Jews, if the Strand's remainders are any indication) that student protests are not necessarily innocent and well-meaning and have a history of proto- and all-out fascism. Although this is by no means Goldberg's central emphasis, it is worth pointing out that anti-Semitism was originally a left-wing phenomenon, and never fully made it over to the right. And finally the ambiguity of the term "progressive," the ever-growing list of unrelated and often conflicting causes that one is expected to have a certain take on if one is to be considered in favor of a better future, are a big part of what keeps me from identifying as on the left, so on some level it's interesting to see this concept critiqued, even if it's not the strongest critique possible. #5 does indeed contradict #1, but I really don't have a sense of a) who is reading this book, and b) what these readers do or do not already know about European history.

6) Finally, two questions for Goldberg, or (more likely) for the reader who wishes to put himself in his libertarian-leaning shoes.

a) If being neither right nor left means being a fascist, as someone who considers herself neither one nor the other on most days, I am concerned. Relatedly, isn't a libertarian, in contemporary America, neither right nor left?

b) The Dreyfus Affair: which side was fascist, by LF standards? On the one hand, you've got the anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom went on to be honest-to-goodness WWII Nazi sympathizers. On the other, you have the Dreyfusards, whose victory led to France's separation of church and state, and to an overall reaffirmation of Third Republic "liberal fascism" (by Goldberg's definition).