Monday, June 30, 2008


Herzl was way, way off when he said that the Jewish state should use German and not Hebrew, Hebrew being, according to Herzl, too challenging. After day 1 of German class (the day after turning in my grades for the French class I co-taught--this is an action-packed summer, linguistically at least) I can say for sure that Herzl did not know what he was talking about. Hebrew does not have fifty different ways of combining an article and a noun. Words in Hebrew might well be written in silly letters, but they are, in most cases, quite short. Granted, for native German speakers (or German-influenced 19th C Central European Jews), German would have been easier than Hebrew, which was kind of Herzl's situation, but objectively, ordering a train ticket in German has to be tougher than doing the same in Hebrew.

After my class, I met up with Jo for dinner at the Second Avenue Deli. Somewhere between the matzo ball and the kreplach, I'm hoping something of German or German-like language started to sink in.

Never thought I'd say this,

but I wish I were Kim Cattrall.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Make it stop (seriously)

Over a year ago, a man wrote in the New York Times about how, although he went to school in Boston, his children, especially his teenage twins, are not quite Boston material. These twins may not go Ivy, but presumably they're capable of reading simple English, which is why I was surprised to see that this same man has yet another article in the paper about these very same twins, about their continued mediocrity:

"My twins never had the same view of high school that I did. Through ninth grade I’d pressed them relentlessly about their class work. But as much as I yelled, as much as I grounded them, they did not become the top students their older brother and younger sister are. I don’t know how to explain it. They’re smart. They’d been in gifted programs. They just weren’t interested."

I didn't immediately remember the author's name, but soon enough it was clear this was a follow-up to that other, memorably cringe-worthy parenting article: "I had been a top student [...]" Ah yes, the Harvard man coming to terms with his academically-challenged twins.

He seems to have outdone himself this time, though, mining the family photo album for an adorable childhood shot of the twins (Overshare of the Year Award, we have a winner; I know I'd like to see my own childhood pics juxtaposed with tales of my high school failings), and by offering up a passage that so one-ups any from the previous year's installment:

"As an education columnist, I had long advocated for vocational schools, but thanks to Adam, I saw the importance firsthand. Adam had been miserable in A.P. English Composition during junior year, but in senior year he loved the carpentry course at our county vocational school, hopping out of bed before dawn to catch the bus."

Really. The time has come to end the first-hand-account parenting articles once and for all. Or, if newspapers refuse to take that step, then at the very least, how about refusing to print the ones whose subjects are more than old enough to read the piece at the moment it appears.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pickiness and minimalism

I've had an iPod with video capacity for well over a year. I had yet to use this function until maybe a week ago, when Jo showed me how podcasts work (oh the Humanities!). Soon after I inadvertently stumbled upon the most addictive videos ever, which are cutting into my usual subway activities of reading and open-eyed napping. The videos? Mark Bittman, aka The Minimalist. Each video podcast is a mini-cooking show just long enough that you see the dish from start to end, but short enough that if you are distracted by what Bittman's cooking, you won't miss more than a couple subway stops.

Inspired by watching Bittman cook dish after dish that in reality I know I'd never want to eat, but that looks so good when prepared in minimalist cooking-show glory (scallops in cream sauce and deviled eggs, in particular, are both items I'd immediately eliminate from a menu when deciding what to order, but Bittman convinces us that both are plate-lickin' fantastic), I decided to photograph my own latest culinary achievement. I'm not a bad cook, but as a photographer, I appear to be hopeless, so while it looks like somebody vomited on a salade niçoise...

... I promise that I prepared not one but two elegant and delicious light summer meals. (Jo confirms my assessment, both of the photo and of the reality behind it.)

But back to Bittman. As I've mentioned, of all the dishes I've watched him prepare (and it's getting to be a whole lot) I can't think of a single one I'm likely to make. This is because Bittman will cook everything, whereas I have an aversion to mayonnaise, cream sauce, whipped cream, sour cream, butter (except in pastry), and a wide range of foods (but especially, it seems, condiments) beyond those I've mentioned. I'm certain that when I eat out, I unknowingly eat and enjoy all the foods I find too disgusting to make at home. You will see that I wrote earlier in this post that I am not a bad cook. Well, is this possible for someone who's never outgrown aversions to so many common ingredients? I'm thinking not, which is why for me, the Bittman videos are educational, showing me that foods I like are made with foods I ostensibly wouldn't touch.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Apolitical thought of the day

Forever 21 would be amazing if it only stocked clothing in something below a (large) Medium. I'm not saying the store should go all H&M on us and make an 8 that fits like a zero--the opposite and perhaps more unpleasant end of the cheap-fashion spectrum--but it's really frustrating to look through a rack of surprisingly well-designed sub-$20 and even sub-$10 bright-yellow flapper dresses only to realize it's never going to happen. (After seeing two women with my complexion wear and look fabulous in bright yellow, I'm on the quest for a dress of that color, but cheap, because I will soon enough decide that the color does not look good on me at all.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is the Pill organic?

On what evidence does Kay Hymowitz base her assertion that "girls tend to like babies"? Puppies, sure. Kittens, why not. But babies? I could point out that neither I nor my female friends ooh and ahh at every toddler, but that would be missing the point. Hymowitz would respond that it's just that in my milieu, girls are brought up to hold the 'unnatural' view that having a child in one's teens or early twenties is a nightmare scenario; our aversion is the result of our urban-liberal elitism, which cancels out the maternal instinct that would otherwise kick in around 10th grade--or given today's still-earlier onset of puberty, 5th or 6th.

Hymowitz explains, "In most cultures in human history, 15- or 16-year-olds were seen as viable mothers (only after being married off, of course), so biological urge coincided with social need. But in more complex societies like ours, in which a long period of education and wealth accumulation is necessary to prepare for an advanced labor market and marriage, adolescent baby lust poses a big problem."

Sadly, we've reached a point where both the right and the left lament all manner of human progress, embracing biological determinism and dreaming of a return not to a 1950s Golden Age, but to an 1150s one. Not only should 15-year-olds find husbands for their babies rather than restraint and/or birth control to keep from having one. We should also avoid eating anything our "great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food." (Guess anything that isn't gefilte fish is out; comments at Gawker make similar points.)

Michael Pollan and the real-food movement presumably do not share much of a fan base with social conservatives telling young girls that it's natural to want a baby of their own. But the notion's the same: the Pill is not something your great-great-grandmother would recognize as a contraceptive. To advocate use of birth control, or even prolonged abstinence, is to fight nature, and nature, many would have it, wins every time. For Pollan and Hymowitz, "complex societies like ours" are something to be ashamed of. To disagree with this view isn't to denounce environmentalism, or to say that to be civilized is to do the exact opposite of every biological impulse. It's just to say, a) when used in these sorts of pseudoscientific discussions, 'natural' is (pardon the academic language) a construct, and b) the capacity to go beyond our biological inclinations, and to eat foods that do not happen to be growing/crawling in front of us, these are what make us human, and so should not be condemned with such enthusiasm.

I know nothing

"The new graduate student's lack of humility is a stunning thing, perfect, seamless, and unbreakable."

Would that this were true. If taking grad classes and attempting original research hadn't taught me that I know nothing, teaching for the first time ever last fall sure did the trick. How could a grad student not be humble?

Beyond the requisite blogger-narcissistic use of my own case as an example, I'll add that I've rarely if ever witnessed PhD students behaving the way Megan McArdle says so many of us do. While a time does come when you realize you know more about your narrow topic than nearly anyone else out there, you will learn, whenever you bring up said topic, that your friends, even your friends in grad school, even those with similar interests, will only want to hear so much about it; the challenge of showing why your narrow topic has broader significance keeps you (you=me, but I'd imagine others as well) convinced that you do not, in fact, know everything. Plus, I've never known any of my classmates to "develop an amused contempt for anyone who is not in a PhD program." On occasion grad students idealize life outside academia, convinced that those with real, grown-up jobs have it made. That said, it could be that egotism in grad school and beyond correlates with gender, thus explaining why, in my humanities cocoon, I see so little of the behavior McArdle describes. I can't say with confidence that McArdle is wrong, because what do I know?

That said, in the quest to be one of those people who reads a book (or, has started a book) on a topic and holds forth on that topic with utmost confidence, I'm now reading Eric L. Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. The book contextualizes the question of whether Jews are white, a question I've addressed with limited confidence after reading exactly no books (directly) on the subject. Also, turns out I'm unintentionally doing background reading for my off-blog research--it's amazing how whole paragraphs about 19th century American Jewry could be about the French variety. I had no idea that American Jews prior to the American Revolution were considered a Jewish "nation," only to have to define themselves religiously once they became citizens of something else called a nation that had to come first. Surprisingly, the main difference between the experience of Jews in the 19th century US and in France at the same time has nothing to do with the rather significant differences between the French and American revolutions and their aftermaths. The difference? In the U.S., blacks were (and are) the minority group, whereas in (metropolitan) France, Jews held this role. That, more than any philosophical difference between France as a nation and America as a nation, seems to have played the biggest role. More thoughts--expressed arrogantly, I hope--when I've, well, finished it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's Right?

About a year ago, I asked, "why bother calling yourself 'on the left' when you disagree with much of what the left as it actually exists has to say, and agree with at least as much (or on the issues you find most important) with the right as with the left." This was in response to a Dissent Magazine event where I'd heard various proposals for reforming the left that were, in all practicality, calls for shifts to the right, given what the spectrum looks like these days.

Now I'll join some others in asking the same question of the right. Why call yourself a conservative if what you want to see from conservatism is that which is commonly understood as liberalism? Unlike Amidon and Yglesias, I could accept without too much questioning that Grand New Party is a conservative book. It's far too good of a rebuttal to that New Yorker article on the evils of the right for that to be the case. I suggest reading the article, then the book. That said, a conservatism that is anti-Bush and anti-status quo poses some of the same problems as a liberalism sympathetic to the pro-life movement and to the War on Terror. The purpose of the book is how to rescue the Republican Party and the conclusion is that the party should help the working class; had the book been about how to improve the lot of the working class, would the answer have been, by reviving the Republican party?

Side note: there's a similarity between the way conservatives--the authors and others--discuss the Sexual Revolution and the way liberals, particularly liberal academics, treat the question of women's rights in other cultures. It seems the argument goes something like this: the Pill benefited middle-class and wealthy women, but this same sexual freedom hurt the poor. In other words, it is elitist to call ready access to birth control an unqualified good. Some conservatives practice what they preach and some do not, but this doesn't matter because it's not us who require governmentally-imposed restraint, it's them. Sure, we have no problem with gay marriage, but they, well, to respect them one temper one's enthusiasm for gay rights. Being for gay rights thus comes to be defined as elitist, because elites are leading the fight.

This argument, if I'm getting it right, reminds me of the postcolonialist-left take on women's rights abroad, the argument against which neoconservatives argue with understandable enthusiasm: sure, in the West women demand freedom and define freedom as X, Y, and Z, but if we are to respect other cultures, we must respect their vision of freedom. If women in a given culture must stay indoors, we should explore their freedoms and influence within the indoor sphere, and must consider that men, too, are limited by not being allowed to take part in this sphere. We must consider that women forced to cover themselves head-to-toe are no less free than Western women coerced by the Great Sephora into covering their faces with brightly-colored goop. In other words, it's Orientalist and xenophobic to suggest women's rights, as understood across the political spectrum in America, have an obvious application abroad.

I'm baffled by why those who argue that at home, birth control and legal abortion are absolute goods, are not the same people who argue that feminism, as it's generally understood in these parts, applies to women not just across class, but across national boundaries. Either "sexual freedom" means the same thing everywhere, or it does not. Maybe I just need a more relativistic understanding of relativism, but I'm confused. What am I missing?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


A restaurant recently opened on the 4th Avenue edge of Park Slope, called "Bigotes." This is one letter short of certain failure in the neighborhood, but so long as the letter doesn't tumble from the sign, they should be in the clear.

Paul Gowder asks, "What is bigotry?" He sees a difference between "[t]hose who hold a negative attitude toward, e.g., blacks, women, and Jews" and those put off by evangelical Christians. Predictably enough, a commenter asks,

"[...] how you think prejudging a Christian is any different from prejudging a Jew?"

According to Gowder, the difference comes from two facts: that "there are no known true reasons to hold a negative opinion of those groups [blacks, women, and Jews]," and that Christians, unlike BWJs, are not discriminated against in contemporary America.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to hold a negative attitude towards any group. One could point to Jews, blacks, or women as the disproportionate cause of whatever one dislikes about the world today, backing this up with statistics.

Yet the commenter who sees no difference between hating Jews and hating Christians misses the point. What makes Jews, along with blacks, and women, different from evangelical Christians is simple enough: choice. One chooses to be an evangelical Christian, whereas one is Jewish (whether or not one believes), black, or female for life. One can point to rare cases of Jews who change names, convert and blend into society at large without people remembering that they are Jewish, although of course to point out such people would be to, um, remember that they are Jewish. The equivalent for gender is of course sex change, which is also quite rare. For race, there is, I don't know, Michael Jackson? In nearly all cases, black, female, and Jewish are immutable qualities. So to hate people on account of a quality over which they have no control is true bigotry, whereas to hate a group on account of its voluntary behavior is pretty much fair game. Thus it is not anti-Semitic to hate Hasids, not racist to hate followers of Al Sharpton, and not sexist to hate women who identify with "Sex and the City."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Black Vogue

Vogue asks, "Is fashion racist?" A better question: Should we look to fashion for justice? Reading about the new "black issue" of Italian Vogue, all I could think was, ugh. Why ugh and not, how brave? For one thing, imagine an all-white version of Essence. Seems unlikely? 'Letting' black women into Vogue is a way for Vogue to say, we define fashion, and if we say you count, you count, but if not, you don't. Next, it's telling that the editor of Italian Vogue remarks, proudly, "'Mine is not a magazine that can be accused of not using black girls.'" Um, "girls"? Aren't models women? OK, not all, but Liya Kebede, the model offered as an example of a "black girl" used by the magazine, was born in 1978. What's telling is not that a black woman is called a "girl," but that in 2008 it is only in the fashion industry that this would happen; Kebede is a "girl" not because she is dark-skinned, but because she is a model. But more to the point: following the "black" issue will be what, exactly? What could it possibly mean to write, as Cathy Horyn does, that "Racial prejudice in the fashion industry has long persisted because of tokenism and lookism." What sort of hiring process for models would not entail "lookism"? If a "black" issue is a temporary move away from hiring models on the basis of their looks, how are black women supposed to see this issue as a step in the right direction?

We are supposed to celebrate models who represent 'real' women, but time after time, the 'plus-size' models are a) not all that large, and b) conventionally-attractive, curvy, pin-up-ready blondes. We are supposed to be delighted whenever a non-white model makes an appearance, but only those who 'count' as minorities but look plenty white have any success. Regardless of blondness and skinniness, no one under 5'8" has a shot at this profession, which must be generally accepted as just, since even the diversity-celebrating, emaciation-shunning America's Next Top Model has a height requirement, and no one (well, nearly no one) ever suggests this is unreasonable. Excluding black or overweight women is tragic; excluding the petite, well, life isn't fair. Same goes for women who look 'ethnic' but do not fit into a neat box of 'the black one,' 'the Asian one,' or 'the Latina.' Once the tokens have made their appearances (or not, as the case may be these days), it's back to Slavic blondes, with no room to spare for those who neither appease nor generically please.

The list could go on--what about the middle-aged? the undeniably plain-looking? --but the obvious answer to all of this is, as long as some women could work as models and others could not, all attempts at affirmative action, whether on account of race or weight, will feel like tokens, or will serve as reminders that one can be 'too' black to be a black model, too fat to be a plus-sized model, and so on. I say, how about an end to attempts at making fashion appear equitable, an end to the hypocrisy, and let magazines and designers render themselves useless by printing images of the same girls over and over again. Eventually someone will wake up and realize, look at all these new people being born, look at all these people happily coupling off, and notice how few of the women pursued by men and envied by their fellow women in any way resemble models. Then it won't matter that models all look like one another and not like regular women, that is, if modeling still exists as a viable career.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An endless array of olives

I did not leave Brooklyn for the whole weekend. That said, I managed to see Swedish furniture and mermaids; eat Turkish food and yuppie cupcakes; and attend a Republican book party. All in Brooklyn.

This is somewhat helping me with my regret of the moment, which is that Jo and I did not move to Queens. Astoria, or Greater Astoria, or whatever the area was we took a look at, seemed far superior to Park Slope. When I mentioned to anyone that I was considering this move, my sanity was questioned. But why? Why would lower rent, less smugness, a comparable commute, and proximity to Greek cafés and groceries possibly seem like a bad idea? The answer is that Everyone Loves Park Slope. It's the Obama of neighborhoods. If you don't like it, no, if you don't love it, you're the one with the problem. As someone who likes--but does not love (or for that matter hate, or else I'd have moved)--both the candidate and the neighborhood, I do sort of feel like a bad person. There's so much about it that's great, and while what initially drew me to the area still holds, there are drawbacks to liberal paradise, the East Coast edition.

But I'm kind of, kind of, coming around. Thanks to Northern European household accessories (and to a certain Northern European individual capable of installing said accessories--window shades, at last!), my apartment no longer looks like a grad-student hovel. Sure, for an infinite selection of olives (a dreamlike vision, much like that of having a dishwasher) I have to go all the way to Sahadi's, not to a corner grocery store, as might have been the case in Astoria, but as first-world problems go, this is minor indeed. The contrarian in me wants to hate, but the UChicago alum in me who remembers life without ready access to non-rotten fruit and fancy cheese is still a little bit thrilled.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


It's a good thing I've got months' worth of pasta and years' worth of reading material, because I am never leaving the apartment again.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Contemporary journalism genre #432:

"'Harvard is unimportant,' by Harvard grad X." Such an article may also be about Yale, Columbia, or elite schools generally, but Harvard always presents a better case.

Along with genre #671, "The Diaper-Changing Memoir," genre #432 needs some serious overhaul. If you are going to write about how name-the-Ivy, your alma mater, isn't all it's cracked up to be, by announcing this in a major publication, you've already contradicted yourself. After-the-fact regrets about having not gone to a more humble institution--however sincere--do not ring true when these regrets express themselves in the form of articles meant for a general audience. Of all the subjects an article could be about, only one--'the Ivies aren't so great'--requires, by definition, an author with an Ivy affiliation. As I commented--more succinctly it seems--on Rita's blog, "If you didn't go to Harvard and say Harvard doesn't matter, no one will believe you. If you did go and say this, and say it in a national newspaper, no one *should* believe you."

An echo-chamber effect ensues, with many readers (including but not limited to those who did not go to elite schools) immediately understanding that the article would not exist if it's argument were true, or if the author actually believed his own argument. What's left is a small group of people, rightly proud of their accomplishments, pondering and questioning the meaning of said accomplishments, because taking a critical stance is more noble and sophisticated than rah-rah school pride.

Neither childrearing nor the quality of elite universities need be declared a taboo subject, but there ought to be a better way.

(Via Rita and Amber, respectively.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Forced segues

-Gawker on the Weekly Standard on Hyde Park. Huh?

-On the topic of 'huh,' today was Day 1 of teaching myself Dutch. Ik ben extremely confused by the word order, but as skilled as ever at rote memorization of verb conjugations. Give me a language and a stack of index cards... But, as I learned when showing off my new Dutch skills to Jo, I am still incapable of pronouncing a single word of this language.

-Quite possibly, the problem is that I am too short to speak Dutch. Both the Dutch and the Flemish are ridiculously tall. This is my attempt at a segue into Amber's post (and the many interesting comments) on the lunacy that is height-extension surgery. To these individuals, the men going berserk because they fail to reach 5'10", I suggest a foray into Flemish cinema. You will soon enough learn that even where everyone is tall, things can be gloomy from time to time.

As for short men not getting dates... who knows? My guess is that (to generalize; comes with the territory) short men don't want to date short women, a) because they don't want short children, and b) because the ability to attract a conventionally 'hot' lady (and such a woman is, apologies to Ms. Portman, tall) is itself a form of compensation. Of course you will not get short women complaining that 'only' tall men like them, except, I'd imagine, in specific cases when a specific short woman likes a specific short man. But in general, this kind of complaint gets classified with 'I'm too small, even the XS at chain stores doesn't fit me,' or, better yet, 'I have two dishwashers.' A thought best kept to one's self.

Women, of course, are not supposed to care about our own height, just weight. Well, to quote the song, I wish I was a little bit taller. Not to attract men--on the subway in the summer, there's more male attention than any woman could possibly appreciate--but so that, for once, I would get the right of way on a crowded sidewalk. It has never happened, because everyone is taller than I am, and the taller person gets the right of way. This sounds unimportant but in lower Manhattan, it would make all the difference in the world.

-Speaking of lower Manhattan, the keffiyeh is now officially over, because I saw two very obviously Modern Orthodox high school girls wearing them. It is now just a trendy scarf, whatever attachment it was supposed to have with an accompanying trendy cause is now a thing of the past.

-And finally, on the subject(s) of gender and politics, I finished the Coontz book, The Way We Never Were, whose title I seem to have gotten wrong in my last post on the subject. If it had been about how the traditional family as social conservatives imagine it never really existed, then it would have been amazing. Instead, while she does address this (and has, quite well, more recently), there were a lot, a lot, of mentions of how much better things would be if Americans would only look to contemporary (1990s) Europe, or better yet to precolonial-period Native Americans, and model our families after theirs. So much for trying to convince a right-wing, center-right, or even centrist audience of her arguments. That Scandinavia is fantastic does not make me want a village raising my (theoretical) child. But moreover, her refusal to attribute any antisocial behavior to personal or communal failings--unless the behavior is exhibited by white, Protestant, middle-class heterosexual men--brings a good amount of the book into the territory of Left that reminds me why I would feel uncomfortable with that label.

Coontz fails to address the "Sex and the City" question, that is, what to make of the many women--some fictitious, some not--who want nothing more than a 'traditional' family, but through their own misunderstandings of/halfway approach to feminism, end up single and menopausal. Granted in 1992, one would have to have been remarkably prescient to mention "Sex and the City," but the phenomenon it explores was not invented with Carrie and Big. Whether or not we should, by an abstract feminist standard, most women I know--and, I'd say, most men--want good ol' hetero monogamy for themselves, even while most are plenty accepting of other routes for those that ideal would not satisfy. Regardless of why we want this, we do, so in this sense, a turn 'backwards'--albeit one that allows for change, encouraging, for example, legally-recognized gay marriage--is less intrusive than suggesting we abandon the nuclear family altogether.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One letter off

I was curious to see what the latest socialite blog was all about (the perils of having your vacation fall when everyone else is away/at work), missed a letter, and ended up here instead of here. I can't be the only one who made this mistake.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nostalgia debunked

I'm reading Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Weren't. First off, this is the first non-fiction book I've read since who knows when that's not about France, Jews, or both, and so is an appropriate choice for my not-quite-summer not-quite-vacation (my coteacher is on this week). As for the book itself, it's strongest point is that the 'golden age' social conservatives point to when discussing the family cannot be pinned down to any one period, because the age never existed. She also points out that just because there was no golden age does not mean some things haven't gotten objectively worse in recent years. (So many negatives in that sentence. Sorry!)

The counterargument that keeps popping up in my mind--and may well be answered somewhere in the second half of the work--is that all Coontz shows is that no modern period was one of idyllic family life. The Victorians and the 1950s suburbanites may not have met the standard to which social conservatives hold the American family. But what about the family of the 15th century? How were marital relations during the Spanish Inquisition? Given the place in reactionary thought of resistance to both Enlightenment values and 19th century liberalism, why would we assume that the conservative golden age of the family (which, I agree with Coontz, is always implied but never pinned down) is somewhere in the post-Voltaire epoch?

More on the book once I've, well, finished it. Till then, an unrelated thought: if you're a grad student living in New York, feeling sorry for yourself that you live in a city filled with fantastic-sounding restaurants, but only go on occasional nights out, to places that look fancy but are deemed "cheap" by mainstream publications, I highly recommend this website. All you do is enter the name of a favorite restaurant (or, strangely, school cafeteria) and you will learn things about what goes on behind the scenes that will make you want to have pasta at home every night till you graduate.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orientalism today

The J.Crew catalog arrived, and it has a theme: Morocco! This means that the models and their polo shirts are ostensibly in Morocco; the clothing itself is no more Moroccan than usual. It takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine that anyone would pack for Morocco and bring along exclusively clothes from J.Crew. Some of the photos, though, are really something else. I can't seem to find a way to link directly to the image (it flashes briefly on the J.Crew homepage, and is in the catalog), but there's one shot of one of the blonder models, in full prep garb, encountering an exotic water salesman, a dark-skinned 'native' complete with all manner of headgear and layers. The catalog includes a description of this colorful character--the man, of course, not the model. Needless to say, there is no mention of where one can purchase the man's rather impressive hat, or whether it also comes in Heather Gray in the size of your choice.

If you are looking for postcolonial-minus-the-post attire, you could always go with Banana Republic, on account of the name, but a better choice might be Tory Burch, whose line was "inspired by outfits her mother wore while vacationing in Morocco." It's hard for me to picture what this even means--what an American (I'm guessing Burch's mother is/was American) would wear in a specific foreign country. Does tourist clothing vary by destination? I'm thinking of what my classmates wore while studying in Paris--more scarves and artfully messy hair than they'd have gone with at home, although it could also have had something to do with unseasonably cold weather and lukewarm dorm showers with minimal water pressure. I'm also picturing Edina and Patsy's Maghreban adventure. So I guess what a Westerner dons in Morocco would be something vaguely 'Oriental' but not so much so as to appear to be trying to blend in.

Some Westerners, however, blend in with the locals so much that they serve their kids scorpions instead of raisin bran! On the one hand, as a slightly picky eater, I'm jealous of Matthew Forney's kids, growing up in China without the option of plain pasta for every meal. On the other, I was put off by the fact that the article was basically the author congratulating himself on his benefiting from having the best of both worlds, being well-off in a place where others are starving, and thus having kids who are not fussy like those whose parents commit the child abuse that is raising children in the suburbs.

I don't think of myself as especially touchy about things that contradict PC, and I am most definitely not Chinese, so this is not personal, but the confident declaration that China is a country "where people eat anything" threw me for a loop. Really, in all of China? Anything, or just things that aren't sold at Zabars? It might be on balance a good thing that we as a society have gotten enough past political correctness that I feel almost ashamed to have found the J.Crew catalog and the piece on Chinese omnivores at all disconcerting. That said, there's something to be said for admitting that at least part of the PC era's influence is worth keeping around. Like a bowl of scorpions, Edward Said is best not swallowed whole.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Park Slopers Against Social Justice

I was a bit surprised that neither the discussion of Linda Hirshman's article about the feminist movement nor the original piece bring up what might well be the main problem with "intersectionality," that is, with a "feminism" that has morphed into a universalist struggle against oppression, namely that some fights for the underdog contradict the more basic principles of feminism. When discussing, say, radical Islam (or radical anything else, but Islam is the one that comes up the most), while a feminist would condemn certain practices or traditions, a "feminist" who is simply a leftist or a humanist will point to the oppression Muslim men face in this or that country; will insist that Muslim women are more oppressed as Muslims than as women; and in extreme cases, will denounce as sell-outs those Muslim women who subscribe to a 'Western' feminism. One must then mention that France is/was racist (a generalization, but, as with any other country, not entirely untrue) if one wants to write a post, on a feminist blog, about women forced to undergo hymen restoration surgery. Feminism must be anti-racism, whereas anti-racism need not concern itself with feminism.

Maybe this is just because I'm both female and Jewish, but maybe not. Either way, to me, "intersectional" feminism brings to mind a mentality common among politically-aware Jews on the left, namely that fighting anti-Semitism is inherently parochial. A Jew who commits himself to fighting anti-Semitism has failed to triage the world's problems. Anti-anti-Semitism must at the very least incorporate anti-racism (says my man of straw, but I assure you he's not alone), but should put the cause of anti-racism first. What this means is that even if 'anti-racism' is irrelevant to anti-anti-Semitism, even if the anti-racist party line on a given issue will offer indirect support to anti-Semitism, one simply must prioritize. To put fighting anti-Semitism above all else is, goes this line of thought, a waste of energy, one could even say, it's like a "feminism" centered around the plight of women who, relatively speaking, are not that oppressed. Do Jews in America, in France, in Israel, have it worse than the rest of humanity, now, in the year 2008? If not, isn't it almost... bigotry to put the struggles of Jews as Jews above the struggle of female, gay, poor, or non-white-looking Jews, or, better yet, oppressions affecting those outside the community?

It seems clear enough that both women and Jews (and, I've heard, Jewish women) fall into the category of "human" and thus, as Maureen Tkacik points out regarding women, "care about people" in general, not merely our "partners in demography." This is well and good. But just because women and Jews can, do, and should support causes beyond womanity and Jewry, respectively, does not mean that feminism and anti-anti-Semitism must declare their work as 'isms' over, and blend in seamlessly with the 'isms' of the day. Neither of these fights is over; achievements in both are always on the verge of reversal.

Though it would be convenient if there were, there is no general movement that could rightly call itself favoring 'social justice.' Often enough, each oppressed group's demands conflict with those of other oppressed groups, leaving the only people fair-minded enough to fight 'oppression' generally those who are not in any way oppressed. One can favor social justice as a principle upon which to make decisions, but there is not and could never be an officially socially-just word on all manner of conflicts. What I'm trying to say, hidden perhaps underneath much rambling, is that I agree with Hirshman, but would take what she says a bit further, and apply it to at least one other case as well.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Practical question...

...for female and/or fashion-savvy readers: what does one wear to teach a class when it is ten zillion degrees outside, and twenty zillion on the subway platform? I don't need to dress office-formal, but informal summer clothing has a way of making the wearer look either skanky, ten years old, or, worse yet, some combination. I've tried variations of the t-shirt dress (longer on me than on the 6' model), but these strike me--and more importantly the skeevy men of the subway--as a bit... revealing. Is the answer discomfort? Accepting that summer teaching has a different dress code than winter teaching? Bringing a change of clothes for once I get to the air-conditioned building? Abandoning my current look for a combination of linen and hemp-derived fabrics that send the message that I am in my mid-sixties and will not let my friends vote Republican? I am seriously leaning towards this last option, which is clarifying, all of a sudden, how it came to be that teachers dress in that distinctly teacher-y way.

The Zohan

What "Brokeback Mountain" is to "Yossi and Jagger," the hilarious "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"--not "Munich"-- is to "Walk on Water." They are the same movie, except that "Zohan" is American while "Walk on Water" is Israeli. In both films, a Mossad agent undergoes a slow transition from Zionist meanie to pacifist hero, falling in love, along the way, with an 'enemy' woman--the German granddaughter of a big Nazi in "Walk on Water," and the Palestinian sister of a big terrorist in "Zohan." Make love not war, star-crossed lovers, and all that.

I point this out not to show a greater trend of American movies ripping off (inspired by?) Israeli films--there is, to my knowledge, no such trend--but to ask what is going on, such that any movie about Israel, to be a more general success, has to involve a happy ending in which the male lead not only abandons violence but gives up on Israel altogether. I would say it's just something about the movies, but I don't really know. Living in New York, I am constantly meeting Israeli expats, not ex-Mossad hairdressers, but plenty of ex-IDF grad students, actors, waiters... Some will return, many are delighted to stay in NYC for ever and ever. From mounds of anecdotal evidence, I'd started to assume nearly all Israelis wish they could live in New York, a happy thought for a chauvinistic New Yorker but a sad one for a Zionist. And yes, sometimes people hold contradictory viewpoints.

Needless to say, Israelis who live in New York cannot possibly be representative of all Israelis. Some must live in Israel, lo? I did meet some on Birthright, the soldiers who accompanied our group. They seemed thrilled to serve their country, and not the least bit tempted to move to America, no doubt because of the ugly-American-tourist behavior they got to witness by riding along on our bus. That said, these Israelis were picked to represent Israel on a Zionist youth-trip, and so are also not so representative.

So what lies between the two extremes, between the expats and the rah-rah patriots? Since I have not yet had a chance to live in Israel, I'm going to go with what I've learned from Israeli cinema. In plenty of Israeli movies, it is simply a given that the characters are Jewish (though often enough, secular) Israelis, and that they will continue living in Israel after the credits roll. These films are neither pro- nor anti-Israel, except inasmuch as any movie about Israel that does not end with the protagonist's triumphant emigration and/or intermarriage is, by default, on the "pro" side. Really, any film that sends any message other than, Israel is by definition bad news, is pro-Israel. The message can be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian, pro-gay, pro-anything, critical of the government or apolitical, and the movie will still be pro-Israel. It is only when a 'happy ending' is defined as abandoning the country that a movie about the place fails to be pro-Israel.

That said, "Zohan" was amazing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Jo and I witnessed some highly anti-Flemitic language at, of all places, a certain well-known fabulous lox-and-more establishment on the Lower East Side. Several workers were discussing how you say various expressions in Dutch, and one explained that "Goodbye" in Dutch is "chchchchchchch." It turned out one of the people behind the counter, the one doing most of the mocking was Israeli, and really in no place to make fun of "ch" sounds. Another, who seemed to be American, pointed out that the Dutch speak better English than Americans and, if not Israelis generally, than certainly this Israeli in particular. Much like anti-Semitism, anti-Flemitism is often expressed openly in front of its targets, because Flemings, like Jews, blend in well enough with the crowd. But just because you aren't aware that you are in the presence of Flemings does not make it OK to express your anti-Flemitism freely.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

More "studies"

The time has come to defend my honor against the National Review's Phi Beta Cons blog. First I learn that I am a "French Studies major" (an odd way to refer to someone in a doctoral program, but a good way to belittle the author of an article you dislike). Then I discover that in "studies" programs "you generally get grad students not intelligent enough to enter mainstream fields taking on an intellectual project that is, theoretically, more demanding." I appreciate the thought, but lest the Phi Beta Cons be concerned, I am in two different departments, one of which is French Studies, the other of which is French, which I believe counts as a mainstream field. Both are plenty rigorous, further evidence that the denunciation of "studies" programs comes from those with little knowledge of what's being discussed. So, before going any further, let it be known that I am not an undergrad, nor am I incapable of getting admitted to a 'mainstream' program. In other words, to borrow from the esteemed scholar Eric Cartman, respect mah authoritah!

As for the substance of the Phi Beta Cons counter-offense: I confess that I have not read every single conservative critique of academia ever written. This does not disqualify me from commenting on the subject. I've read plenty on the topic, far more than the works I cite specifically in my article. Had I listed the lot, it would have been a list, not an article, but my blog archives contain plenty more examples, for the curious. To make "sweeping claims" on the basis of "a few examples" is pretty much inevitable in the format of an article this length. For what it's worth, while I have seen the occasional decent critique of academia from the right, such as the discussion of academics' tendency to "problematize" rather than answer a question, these are rare, so rare that this is the only one that immediately comes to mind.

I'm still left unsure as to what a conservative critique of academia would even be. The "excellent" article Robert VerBruggen points me to--Charles Murray's piece on "educational romanticism," is, according to Murray's own introduction, "the story of educational romanticism in elementary and secondary schools," and thus not an article about higher ed. Next, Travis Kavulla writes, "My impression of what conservatives are demanding is, in a word, rigor." Liberal academics, too, demand rigor, and would disagree if one claimed that they did not. What do conservatives mean by "rigor" that differentiates their rigor from that of liberals? As I pointed out in my article, academic silliness--the Dartmouth prof being the obvious example--appears silly to those across the political spectrum. Each conservative attempt at "exposing the silliness that currently has a home in academia" further removes the possibility that serious academics (on the left or right) will care what conservative critics have to say, since plucking the most absurd examples of behavior in any field and examining them out of context fails to tell you anything substantive about what's going on.

The reason this concerns me is in part that I am arguably on the right for academia, or at least for the humanities, if only because, the way the world works these days, to defend Israel as a Jewish state is to be on the right. But it's also that, looking at things from the perspective of someone who is neither on the left nor on the right enough to count fully as either (but not in the sense described in this book), looking at things as objectively as possible, I do not think the conservative critique as it currently exists benefits either conservatives or academia. Right-wing denunciations do not push academia to the right; they certainly do not make the seminar room a friendlier place for conservative students or faculty. And, from the perspective of academia, a whole range of the political spectrum represents itself as hostile but ignorant, which in turn does not help in terms of checking the more extreme cases of politically-correct blather that do turn up from time to time and require well-reasoned take-downs. If anything, the conservative critique as it currently exists pushes academia further to the left.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Overshare and the First World Problem

The first-world problem is an idea I first heard about when a college friend started a facebook group about them, perhaps the term was his invention. Prime examples: Starbucks put lowfat and not skim milk in my latte; I'm too tired from my i-banking job to make time for yoga; my Greenwich Village apartment is too small to comfortably fit my 18 boxes worth of clothing. Not all first-world problems are explicitly materialistic. Sometimes they're just dilemmas that require conditions of comfort to arise, such as, 'Does he like me? Let's discuss it over drinks.' What ties together all first-world problems is that while a friend might, just might, be sympathetic, if you allow the NYT Styles section to interview you, mentioning these sorts of problems will cause an avalanche of comments suggesting you volunteer in a soup kitchen--or better yet, in Iraq--to put things in perspective. It's quite clear that the share becomes the overshare definitively only once the fluffier sections of the New York Times take up your story. A commenter telling Emily Gould to stop being narcissitic (implication: stop being narcisisstic on the cover of a major magazine) might have a point, but until your friend reaches Carrie levels of self-pity, to be a good friend you let the other person vent, even if the complaint in question is objectively of little consequence.

But at a certain point, even friends lose interest in one's nonsense, or at least this is how it ought to work, (fictitious) Ms. Bradshaw's (fictitious)experiences to the contrary. Inner turmoil about problems that would sound idiotic if voiced have one rightful home, and that is in fiction. If a character in a novel is sufficiently developed, it is possible to identify with that character enough that its problems become your own, and that it starts to make sense why something that was not objectively tragic could cause immense misery. One expects novels to speak of the whole range of human situations, not just the Important ones, so it will be the rare reader of Proust who gets to the part where Swann realizes he's over Odette and thinks, 'With all the poverty and misery in nineteenth-century Europe, he worries about this?'

Reality entertainment of all kinds removes the barrier that allows us to truly care about first-world problems not our own. Once the problems are of another, real-life person, they elicit calls for real-world perspective. Obviously a fictional character fussing about her 18 boxes of clothes comes off as a fool--as Carrie does in the "Sex and the City" movie--but the standard for narcissism is that much lower when real people are involved.

Fiction works as an outlet to allow us to acknowledge that even ridiculous-sounding problems matter, without taking away from our real-life acknowledgement that on another level, they do not. It permits us to look at narcissism with compassion. What it also allows is for us to cover the full range of human experience without humiliating actual, existing people.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I wrote an 'overshare' article about my personal life in which I discuss my secret blog--and which is accompanied by shots of my many arm-tattoos. You can find this article by clicking here.

Just kidding, as you will see if you click on the link. What I wrote was an explanation of why conservative critiques of academia are usually so lame. No tattoos, arm or otherwise.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'In my day...'

Rita justifiably takes issue with one of the sillier and more error-filled denunciations of Young People Today. All I can contribute to the discussion is an anecdote that will dispel all notions of kids these days being the downfall of our civilization. Recently my mother was at the store buying moth balls. An elderly man came up to her and told her, "Moths don't have balls." This man was, by virtue of his age, a product of a better time, a member of the Joseph Epstein generation of superior beings. This is just one example of why claims of generational failure can be entertaining, can make you think, but are, by and large, more "grouchy" than productive.

Where I part ways with Rita on this topic is that I do "think criticisms of youth culture are empty bluster." At least most of the time. For too many conservative writers, it is as though crude behavior were an invention of each new generation. Until these dreadful times, every adolescent was an intellectual, but in a good way, not uppity, but choosing the Great Books over the "Girls Gone Wild" cameras, to throw in some anachronism. All of this stems from a simple misunderstanding: the art and literature of the past seems better than that of the present because we're only exposed to the good stuff. An imperfect but useful analogy is how in America we think of French food as fancy because in the U.S. we only get upscale French restaurants--even French cafés are a bit classier than average--and not the crepe stands or hypermarchés. Which is to say, unless critiques account for this tendency, we will keep being confronted with false comparisons--Saul Bellow versus the winner of "Farmer Wants a Wife."

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sexy time

Clementine and I just saw "Sex and the City, The Movie." Why not to see it:

1) The most unrealistic thing about the movie is not the $500 shoes or the willingness of young, good-looking men to have sex with older, average-looking women. It is that a woman like Carrie would have any friends at all, let alone friends who dote on her 24/7. Seriously, when she gets ditched by her dull but allegedly jumbo fiancé, her friends wait on her as though she were Mother Teresa on her deathbed. Samantha actually spoon-feeds Carrie yogurt during the latter's recuperation. But why? It is a friend's job to tell a dumped pal to gain some perspective, not to act as though the person has just learned her hut and entire family were wiped out in a storm. So you were stood up by a trazillionaire, big deal! He seemed boring anyway, and was incapable of sending unplagarized email, he's just that good of a writer. Where there's one dim-witted banker, there are others, what was so special about this one?

2) I'm now in favor of arranged marriage. Really. This movie is the best argument ever for women not halfway embracing watered-down feminism, only to discover at 45 that they are not as attractive to men as they were at 15. In all the time these women were overanalyzing their relationships, they could have been long married and busy worrying about something else, say, their work, or even fashion, their alleged interest.

3) Fashion? No, there wasn't much of that, unless the movie was actually filmed in 1992. The movie's constant stream of racism (to be discussed more later) felt not-so-2008, so in a way the clothes helped, in terms of internal consistency.

4) First Charlotte won't eat food in Mexico because eww, Mexico's dirty! This is presented as one of her charming quirks, not as her being kind of racist. Next there's Miranda, whose approach at looking for an apartment is to follow the only white guy she sees walking around. Then Carrie hires a curvy--sassy, even--black assistant who waits on her hand and foot, seemingly unnecessary given that her friends do this as well. This plot line only adds to what had already been the case: everyone in any way marginal dreams of fetching stuff for the not-so-fab four. Gay men just adore straight weddings, and exist pretty much to improve the aesthetic lives of women whose own lovers are bulky straight dudes who communicate in grunts. (I kept waiting for Big to say, "Feels like an Arby's night." To continue on the "Seinfeld" theme, I also wanted someone to tell Carrie, "Maybe the dingo ate your baby," that is, what Elaine says to an irritating woman at a house party who has just announced, "I have lost my fiancé, the poor baby!") And where to begin with Charlotte's Jewish husband, a constant reminder (more so in the show than in the movie) that Jews are quirky, crass, rich, and grotesque, but do they ever make good husbands! And none of this is even post-PC humor, ala Borat. It's just pre-PC ignorance. Why?

5) I might not really be a woman, or at least not an unmarried straight woman living in New York. Because I identified with exactly none of this movie, found none of the men or shoes attractive.

Why to see it:

1) Carrie's spiky belt is pretty cool, if a bit like one I had in high school. Maybe it's time to bring the belt back, that is, to remove it from one of the two microscopic closets it's probably on the floor of right now!

2) It's an excuse to watch over two hours of TV and feel like you're taking part in a cultural phenomenon, or at least watching a film.

3) There could be something empowering about a 50-year-old woman dumping a blond (if bland) model with a perfectly-chiseled torso, simply so she can go around having sex with other, similarly-chiseled contenders. That is, if it were remotely believable that her plan would work out in the end. But it's kind of conceivable that her fantasies will come true, and all told, Samantha comes across as the least objectionable of all the characters by such a long shot.

4) There's something very "Absolutely Fabulous" about the movie, perhaps more than the show.

5) Whoever you are, however superficial and materialistic, you will leave the movie feeling like a self-righteous hippie.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Francophilic oddities

As a Francophilic Zionist, I feel obliged to welcome the existence of Francophilic conservatives. Not that Zionism implies (or should imply) conservatism, but the principle's the same.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Peace in the thematically-Middle East

It can't be, but it is: the semester's papers are all in. I'm on summer pseudo-vacation, which means 'only' teaching, but after a semester of not not thinking about work for two seconds, the finite work of lesson-planning and teaching for three hours a day, every weekday, really does feel like a vacation. Today, Jo, my parents, and I checked out the the Israel parade, where we were not blown up or anything. There was just a touch of security for the event, just a little bit. Yesterday was also Middle Eastern-themed. Jo and I got lunch at the fabulous Zaytoons, then shopped at Sahadi's, which has amazing olives, spices, and so forth, but also (listen, fellow grad students) slightly cheaper pasta than most other establishments. And infinitely longer lines; could be that we were not the only grad-students to have noticed the 50-cent-per-box-less-than-Key-Food De Cecco. The scruffy, late-20s crowd ahead of us on line suggested we were not.