Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In which I overuse italics

Is it a good thing that selective colleges promise to judge their applicants 'as individuals'? Give your answer, then, if you have time, read the babbling that follows. (Or read the babbling first, it's not as though I'll know either way.)


On the one hand, maybe it's a good thing that colleges look for 'well-roundedness.' Even if the emphasis on extracurricular activities, on going beyond tests-and-grades, is rooted in home-grown American anti-Semitism, perhaps there's something to be said for admitting students to college in part on the basis of whether they get along with others well enough to work a part-time job or play a team sport. On the other, there is something upsetting about the idea that a college rejects a student not on the basis of the materials they sent in, but of an admissions committee's 'holistic' assessment of each applicant as a person.

The notion that applicants are selected 'as individuals' is related but not identical to the question of 'well-roundedness'. A school could, in theory, choose applicants on the basis of more than just their GPAs and SATs, looking also at activities outside the classroom, without claiming to know each applicant personally. But that's not what the schools do. From my own alma mater's admissions website: "Our goal in the admissions office is to extend our knowledge of a student well beyond a test score or GPA and understand, as much as possible, that student’s personal and academic qualities." And, "Above all we look for the intense curiosity that makes University of Chicago students such exciting young scholars in our intense academic community, and such lively members of campus, neighborhood, and city. This quality does not manifest itself in high test scores, but in writing that is willing to take chances, in recommendations that speak to a love of learning and active engagement in the classroom, and in the selection of a strong curriculum." (Emphasis added.) It's not merely that factors beyond SAT and GPA come into the decision. It's that miraculously, when you combine SAT, GPA, sports-team membership, and the impressions of someone's high school teachers, you have looked into their very soul.

I get why this approach is supposed to reassure applicants. After getting back a test and seeing a D in red ink, no one wants to think that that particular grade decided their life for them. Along those lines, a student with some Ds and some As might find it unfair that he is judged on the basis of the Ds, when his As are in the classes that he most enjoys. Where it matters, he's an A student, so as a person, that's who he is. Granted a straight-A student would find it unfair if colleges considered her classmate, Mr. As-and-Ds, her academic equivalent. Luckily for her, all things equal, they do not. But when Mr. As-and-Ds sees, on a college website, that they want to get to know him as a person, not a number, his confidence grows, as does his good feeling towards the school in question.

Though heart-warming to applicants, there are two glaring problems with the 'as a person' approach. But before getting to those, I should point out that the problem is most definitely not the reason most often given for it being a problem, namely that the approach destroys what would otherwise be a near-flawless meritocracy. No system that measures 'achievement' of 17-year-olds will ever come close. In a critique of admissions committees choosing to abandon standardized tests, Mary Grabar argues that the tests must remain, because grades don't necessarily tell you who are the best students. She writes: "Subjective factors can come into play. For example, women, who now make up about 60% of the college student body, on the average have better study habits and behavior than men, which can earn them higher grades." No, I'm afraid I'm not seeing how classroom conduct and preparation for exams are "subjective factors."* After all, colleges are looking for those who promise to be the best students - which includes but is not limited to innate intelligence - not those who would in theory be best at math but who in reality spent their time in math class playing games on their calculators.

OK, so, onto the problems. One is that, simply put, no selective college can get to know each applicant as a person. Your roommate once you get to college, that's someone you get to know 'holistically', for better or worse. Schools claiming to 'get to know' each applicant (and they're all, to my knowledge, making variants of this claim) are, I think, being somewhat dishonest. I say 'somewhat' because I don't question the hard work they put into assessing each candidate on the basis of all materials submitted. What I question is their assertion that the decision they reach has to do with a whole person, not with an applicant.

The other, to my mind more important, mistake is that the blow to one's ego one receives upon being rejected from, say, Harvard (to pick a school to which I've never applied, grad or undergrad) on account of being insufficient as a person is not only far greater than the one you face if told your grades, scores, and sports achievements were not enough, but is also unnecessarily insulting. If the materials you submitted showed that your achievements as they pertain to admissions to a particular college didn't add up, that's what they call constructive criticism. You can shape up and apply places as a transfer student. You can do well wherever you go to undergrad and go to a top grad school. You can accept that Harvard is not in store and excel at something for which a Harvard degree would be of no use. But if it's you, as a person, who proved inadequate, lacking in intellectual curiosity, in drive, in that certain undefinable something, what can you do? Rather than acknowledging some higher truth beyond each applicant's grades and scores, the 'holistic' approach in fact ensures that students feel they are their grades and scores, that nothing about them went unexamined by the admissions committee, and that they, well, pretty much suck at life. Not, I think, the optimal situation.

*I will not speculate further, but perhaps a conservative article on higher ed must attribute female achievement to 'subjective' factors, because god forbid it turns out women, if given an equal playing field, actually do better at something than men.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Recent discoveries, the unfortunate edition

-The cafe near campus with amazing (if annoyingly un-priced) breakfast pastries also has fabulous (and price-unlabeled) lunch pastries. Spinach-and-cheddar quiche, indeed. I take back what I said about things suspended in egg-and-cream being disgusting. They can be quite wonderful. I consider this discovery both fortunate and unfortunate.

-It turns out everyone who studies French in NYC dreams of running off to Tel Aviv. OK, not everyone, but apparently there are others. Which is a victory for Francophilic Zionism, but considering it's already impossible for Israeli academics to get jobs in Israel, the influx of not-Israeli academics studying subjects unrelated to Israel could potentially add instability and conflict to an otherwise serene region of the world.

-And finally, of course Jacob Levy has a post about the coffee-helps-the-workouts article. Can I just say: called it! My lunch the days before track practice in high school was always either a bagel or a muffin and a cappuccino (RIP Downtown Delicious, Taylor's...). Needless to say, I got a hard time about the coffee, because coffee before running is just wrong.

You know what's wrong? Running three miles after a full day of high school classes, a sizable subway commute, and on very little sleep without a good amount of caffeine beforehand.

(Speculation on how I came to be 5'2", despite two taller-than-average parents, not appreciated.)

-So there are these things called 'Jewish holidays'. I've now been asked more times than I can count when Passover falls this year, and I'm like, I know I should know this. But now I do, thanks to a somewhat pressing need to go to the JTS library on a day it's, you know, open. Old newspapers, it's been too long!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Recent (and not-so-recent) discoveries

-Although I am against bullying people to try new vegetables, I am in favor of trying new vegetables, and on that note, I'm pleased to say that leeks are one of my new favorite foods. Unfortunately the cookling method I've found that makes them most delicious (and that looks something like this), my default method for vegetables that involves pouring some olive oil on them, setting the oven to 350 degrees, and hoping for the best/not to forget I put them in, involves a) a lot of oil, and b) an hour and a half of waiting. I can imagine the leeks being good - better, even - with less oil, but I can also imagine them being better cooked for two and a half hours, or three... Which seems unreasonable. So, what does one do with leeks? A cursory look online suggests what one does with them, typically, is suspend them in an egg-and-cream mixture, or submerge them in a mushy-sounding potato soup. Blech. This, however, I could see being quite amazing.

-My longstanding dream of dropping everything and living in Tel Aviv - or better yet, not dropping everything but somehow living in Tel Aviv all the same - was reawakened when I learned that one of the participants at the NYU French grad conference was a student in Tel Aviv University's French department, but is not in fact Israeli. And while I should have realized such a thing was possible, I was all, OMG, this is possible? How do I sign up as a visiting student, trading the rain and the dysfunctional MTA for breakfast salads and platform sandals?

And then I remembered that I know how to say only a dozen things in Hebrew, half of which are offensive (thank you, Speaking Freely! I mean this unsarcastically. Stomach ailments, sexual kinks, excesses of piety, these things I can describe in the purported language of my ancestors. But, as Herzl feared, I'd have quite a bit of trouble asking for a train ticket in Hebrew.) and the other half of which are about preferences in cheese consumption. (Harbeh gvinah, bvakasha!) But now that I have some concrete evidence that my chosen profession exists in my favorite city, I have a new motivation to finally get to learning Hebrew's future tense, the most glaring gap in my knowledge of that language.

-Although the general trend of WWPD is to link to NYT articles when they're ridiculous, I've been meaning to link to one that was spot-on, a piece by Peggy Orenstein about how Facebook makes it impossible to reinvent yourself post-high-school. "It could be that my generation was the anomalous one, that Facebook marks a return to the time when people remained embedded in their communities for life, with connections that ran deep, peers who reined them in if they strayed too far from the norm, parents who expected them to live at home until marriage (adult children are already reclaiming their childhood rooms in droves)."

Orenstein predicts that "the very thing that attracts us oldsters to Facebook — the lure of auld lang syne — will be its undoing," but I think Facebook as she describes it is here to stay. Thanks to the site, I know more than I ever thought I would about the social and professional ups and downs of friends from as early as nursery school, of cousins so distant I'm not sure I could chart the connection, of friends of friends of those who are in fact my friends, and so on. Of course, they can keep posted on me as well, should they so choose.

Whereas the great fear with Facebook initially was that college grads would be unemployable thanks to photos of them passed out with their bongs, the real danger is clearly that information revealing legal but out-of-character behavior will reach parents, childhood friends, and so on. The threshold thus lowers from 'hmm, what's in that glass pipe?' to 'how unlike him to wear such tight pants/vote Republican.' And frankly, it is shocking to see evidence of people I think of as being frozen at age 8 in serious relationships, in understated formal attire, smoking cigarettes, attending law school, and otherwise acting in ways quite uncharacteristic of 8-year-olds. Things that would not be arrest-worthy or even gossip-worthy become reportable once a 'whatever came of him' context is added.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Majorly demanding

Paul Gowder mentions "the fact that econ is more demanding than, say, an English major, and econ majors know it, encouraging the kind of intellectual arrogance displayed by this type of person." Having never taken an English or economics class past high school, I can't speak to the difficulty of those particular courses of study, but his "[...], say, [...]" allows me to* infer that, as a former French major who took some but not heaps of college math, I have authoritah on the matter.

Strictly speaking, yes, anyone literate in a given language can read a book and write something about it. Whereas once numbers are involved, different people hit that wall where everything stops making sense at different levels. (Honors Calculus, Week 2, oh the memories.) But in terms of what's actually looked for in a humanities class, there too, different people hit that wall at different levels. If you've hit such a wall, it might well feel like your classmate's paper got an A because he's better at BS-ing, that there's no objective difference between what you handed in and what he did, but it could also be that he had an interesting take on Huis Clos and you didn't. It could be that you didn't hit any sort of wall, and are in fact an under-appreciated critic of Sartre, and the grading really was subjective, but that's the case far less often than students tend to think.

Also: if some college majors are more demanding than others, it's not necessarily that one field is inherently easier than the other, but that, for structural reasons, certain fields have 'weed-out' classes, whereas others are more self-selecting. With French, at least, if you were uncomfortable reading novels and writing papers in that language, you didn't pick that major; consequently the average grade in a French literature class might well have been higher than in an econ or pre-med class.

Then again, I don't at all understand what my boyfriend works on (astro-something), and he understands perfectly well what I work on. So who knows. But I'm more inclined to think means he's sharper than I am than that the humanities on the whole are for the relatively slow-witted.

* Typo fixed! No, French-majoring did not knock English out of my brain entirely.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ooh, shiny!*

Although altogether delighted with my new, painfully shiny but fully comfortable ballet flats,


I just inadvertently stumbled across the shoe equivalent of the Police Building apartments, in their unattainable, museum-item-like perfection:

These are quite possibly the most space-age ballet flats ever to exist. If $245 were an even slightly reasonable price for shoes that will, guaranteed, lose their shininess in weeks and disintegrate in months (and I know how it goes with shiny ballet flats - one of life's fleeting pleasures), and that probably are better as an idea than as a shoe... or if I'd just been bailed out by the government, or if I were a Swedish countess with an especially amazing divorce settlement, I would have a shoe closet like the one in the horrible 'Sex and the City' movie filled with them.

The oxford version seems like it would be more covetable still, because the more shiny material, the better, but they seem kind of Michael Jackson/bad '80s/hipster-would-wear-them-ironically:

This might seem bizarre, but as far as I'm concerned, the ideal shoe would be a ballet flat that resembled Sparkle Crest toothpaste. By which I mean, shiny blue with almost imperceptibly tiny silver-colored specks. If Chanel could turn the concept into a nail polish,


surely Repetto could manage a shoe variant. Not that I'd pay $245 for that, either, but it would be nice to know that such a thing existed.

*Substantive thoughts on Zionism and local vegetables to resume shortly.

It's everywhere!

Kale-induced guilt finds its way to Slate.

Belonging to a community garden sounds like a nice thing to do. But to receive a weekly box of organic vegetables not of your choosing sounds about as close as an adult could get, without joining the army, to returning to the powerlessness of a child at mealtimes. Except that when you're a child, and you're sitting there thinking, 'Not kale again', you know that when you grow up, you won't have to spend a cent of your hard-earned money on foods you dislike. Whereas when you're getting boxes of local/sustainable Goodness, week-in, week-out, there's no escape from these restraints on choice to look forward to.

On the one hand, you're getting these boxes because you chose to sign up for this service. On the other, the thought of determining what you eat on the basis of such small-scale, super-local availability sounds horribly depressing, and as such does not sound like the most sustainable approach to sustainability.

But what do I know. If you're receiving these boxes and loving it, by all means comment away.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The best of shopping

Just as I have not been updating Goodreads, yet have been reading plenty of books, I have not posted on my driving lessons, although I've had many. Many, many, and I still pretty much can't drive. The reading's going a whole lot better than the driving. They say parallel parking is hard, but what about making a left turn from one two-way street to another? In or near Chinatown? But it's not the neighborhood's fault - give me a wide, open street in suburbia and I'd find a way to not get from Point A to Point B smoothly.

That said, the great thing about the driving lessons is their location on the Chinatown-Little Italy-Nolita border. What this means is access to the most fabulous groceries and shoes the city has to offer. This time I went the Italian route, and am very much looking forward to the DiPalo feasts that await me.

Then, that Major Question of Our Age, 'Where does one buy shoes?', was answered, once and for all. I found where they keep the shoes I want, all of them. The brands whose shoes I covet most* - Repetto and Camper - were both represented and (thanks, crap economy!) steeply discounted. The shoes I ended up with were from neither of those brands and, though cheaper than the discounted Campers and Repettos, cost, I now see, slightly more than on Amazon. Boo. But still not very much, and given that I can't even reliably get deliveries to my apartment and would be too embarrassed to get shoes shipped to my office, it's kind of irrelevant. (For the lone reader still awake: the ribbon is removable, which is good because I'm still not sure what I think about that feature.) Finding a pair of ballet flats with some cushioning on the inside, that look good, that actually cover your whole sole (these, though comfortable-looking, are one dog-not-picked-up-for away from $104.95 down the drain), and that are far enough under $100 that you can live with yourself after getting them is quite the challenge. So, err, challenge met. Now, onto bigger and better things, like spinach ravioli...

*Because these brands tend to have beautiful shoes. It's not like a Burberry scarf thing. In fact, I almost wish I had more brand loyalties - an almost complete lack of brand loyalty when it comes to such things as shampoo and conditioner makes for many lost minutes spent gazing blankly at the haircare aisle of Duane Reade.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In which people are ridiculous

When not long ago I mentioned that I had tried to like kale but that alas, it's not a food I would ever seek out, a commenter would not have it, providing both a recipe for a dish involving kale and a scientific article urging kale consumption. (I don't hate kale, I just don't want it. If a dish I was served that was otherwise pleasant contained kale, I'd probably eat it, whereas unless they're very shredded and in fried vegetable dumplings, mushrooms go straight to the side of the plate.)

Unsurprisingly, our president is now getting the same treatment for making it known that he does not like beets. Come on people. You're allowed to not like a vegetable! I mean, I get that if you've only eaten the most canned-and-bland version of a vegetable, you might think you don't like it, only to discover upon trying the Alice Waters version that it's fabulous. But what if you've had the food in question fresh and sauteed in garlic and olive oil and it still made you gag? Given that all we seem to know for sure, nutrition-wise, is that it's best not to eat too much, and environment-wise, that it's best not to eat too much meat and to not have all your food flown in from halfway across the world, what are the sanctimonious masses basing this particular grievance on? Because let's face it, beets are kind of disgusting.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Screw chronology

In grad school there isn't really spring break, but Jo and I decided to have one evening of break-like activity - a non-pasta dinner and a non-free movie - to mark the end of that which is technically 'vacation'. Thanks to some especially slow-moving weekend MTA service, I'm now a matter of pages away from the end of L'Argent! Which, for the record, is still not all that much about Jews.

So first off, the movie. The new Paul Rudd buddy flick/bromance, 'I Love You Man', was kind of a disappointment. (This from someone who very much enjoyed 'Don't Mess with the Zohan', the various Apatow productions, and other entertainment aimed at the male and immature.) Can a movie be pro-man without being anti-woman? Sure, but this one doesn't manage it. The main female role, the protagonist's fiancée, is meant to have a smaller place in the plot than her man's new best friend, but is it necessary that she have no personality whatsoever? When the protagonist asks himself why her, the audience is stuck incapable of answering the same question. Her two best friends (who of course have a Ladies' Night that they refer to as such) fit neatly into the clichés of hot-thin-wife-to-fat-repulsive-man and sad-sack, terminally-single-and-desperate, pleasant-looking but a little too chubby, a little too open about her sexual willingness to ever get a boyfriend. Snagging a man, a 'tasteful' rock, a baby, a sushi dinner, these are the ambitions of Woman, a humorless creature who is, alas, the sole possessor of the anatomy the straight man prefers.

Then again, the fault might go less to the movie than to the audience. No, a man kissing the Paul Rudd character is not cause for yelps of disgust. In the scene it's supposed to be funny, not horrifying, that a gay man thinks he's on date-date, not a hetero 'man-date'. Though the movie itself takes great pains to show its acceptance of gays, the audience (and this was on 19th and Broadway - practically Chelsea! what does this mean showings are like elsewhere? OK, so maybe it was the movie...) did not seem to have gotten that message, howling at all hints of male-male sex. (And no, to whom it may concern, the movie offers up no naked Paul Rudd whatsoever.)


The dinner preceding the cinematic experience was at nearby La Luncheonette, on 18th Street and 10th Ave. Highly recommended, although as predicted, I might still kind of prefer the nearby Thai food. (We went today, in fact, and spotted Lutz from '30 Rock'! See, it pays to take multiple weekend-service subways for Thai food.) But the Pad Gra Prow at Chelsea Thai contains, I think, some kind of addictive delicious ingredient, so it's not a fair comparison.

But, back to the dinner.

La Luncheonette is a classic French restaurant in, I'm guessing, a space that used to be a luncheonette. The food itself is not diner-y in the slightest.

The braised leek and lentil salad was delicious in just that way that restaurant food should be - lentils I understand, but I could not turn a leek from the store to what appeared on the plate without some serious effort and perhaps a different kind of pan. But I'm still planning to give it a shot.

Oh, and we had wine! Apparently something called Chateau de Haute-Serre, Cahors, is far, far better than any wine I can remember tasting, ever, and at $18 a half-bottle at the restaurant (and, says Google, the same amount for a whole bottle at a wine shop), it is not a beverage graduate students should be developing a taste for. Boo.

When we first looked at the menu, I told Jo I might just get the lentil-leek dish and another appetizer. He called me out for the fool I was, wasting our only fancy meal for months on some salad, even if it did come from Nice, so we split the lentil salad and I went for the rack of lamb, $30 (rather than the $7-$12 appetizers) and well worth it. It came with green beans that tasted nice and lamb-y, thanks to their proximity to the lamb, along with a scoop of potato gratin, which never hurts. Jo's steak with peppercorn sauce sadly did not look super amazing, and he admitted it was not that great. From the enthusiasm with which he 'tasted' my dish, I'm assuming it was quite the disappointment. (Fear not, he left me with more lamb than I knew what to do with.)

Dessert, a tarte tatin, came with something I did not want to try, that Jo thought tasted like sour cream or mascarpone, and that at any rate that is probably something delicious and French that I should be sophisticated enough to appreciate, but, err, no. Cheese I like, but anything sour and creamy is just gross. The tart itself (which has lost its 'e' now that we're speaking English) was, much like the leek appetizer, delicious in its I-could-not-make-this-at-home-without-dirtying-all-the-dishes impossibility. Which is precisely why we did not order the flourless chocolate cake.

So I was slightly nervous about eating in a grown-up restaurant while 20-something, but the service was lovely. Granted we were ultimately charged for two desserts after only ordering one, but once we pointed this out, the staff apologized and removed that charge. (I've found that in NYC restaurants you have a 50-50 chance of getting a bill quite far from the amount it should be, with a 50-50 chance each for too high and too low. Restaurants are busy. Unless the staff tells you that, surprise, your dish was actually the higher amount, despite what the menu said, which also happens and is annoying, I don't hold it against a place for what I tend to think is unintentional overcharging. It's just a good idea before paying to, you know, check.) It was still the most expensive meal we'd ever gone out to together. While I did not feel ripped off in the least, just disappointed Jo's steak hadn't been better, it was still kind of like, that didn't just happen, when we got the check. Back to pasta (and Thai food), indeed.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I'm now in the process of trying to come up with a list of all the books on French (and, when appropriate, non-French) Jewish history that I've read, read chapters from, or am-about-to-read-any-minute-now, labeling them accordingly. Using a list from a reading course, one of what I currently have out of Bobst, and the works-cited pages of term papers, I'm putting something together, but is it right? This is challenging for several reasons:

1) If a book is about German Jewry but very close to my topic, does it 'count'?
2) If I read a book and even wrote a paper about it two (four) years ago, when I was reading for a different idea and inadvertently not paying attention to information relevant to what I'm now interested in, does that book count as 'read'?
3) Academic articles are not books. But should they still be listed?
4) Do novels I read primarily for the 'history' aspect go on the 'history' list, even though they're novels?
5) Is what I've come up with so far really all I've read on this topic? How embarrassing!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring break on campus

While others attend to more noble endeavors, I look for shoes online. Turns out my dream pairs are in children's sizing, which I noticed just before rewarding myself for my bags-of-pasta spend-next-to-nothing diet with a pair. (I know, Happiness lady, treats are bad. But what can I say? Shiny ballet flats are no vice, in moderation. Now off to make chocolate cake.)

Where, I mean where, do people find shoes? My office lies at the intersection of lower Manhattan's two shoe streets and... nothing. OK, not nothing. A lovely and very shiny pair of $28 ballet flats... a half-size too small. None in my size.

Once you get into the DIY mode, cakes from scratch, haircuts self-inflicted but not visibly so (or so the polite have told me), it's hard to accept the price, yes, but also the imperfection of that which must be purchased on the outside. I mean, I'm not about to buy the materials to make ballet flats. But I know just the ones I want, ones that don't exist anywhere other than my brain.

Speaking of that alleged organ, Zola's L'Argent is turning out to be less about The Jews than I'd imagined. Unless things get especially Jewy in the final 200 pages, there seems to be a whole lot more about Catholicism, modernity, and nudity than Jews and their omnipresent kesef. In that I will be writing a term paper on the novel and its Jews, I'm hoping these last 200 pages, unlike the first 300-ish, are filled with usurious cabals of all kinds.

In which Zionism is not racism

As an 'out' Zionist, I feel I must disassociate myself from the view, expressed by Withwindle, that the Palestinians are "gleeful butchers." There's enough confusion out there about what it means to be pro-Israel, to be a Zionist, to think Israel should remain a Jewish state, that I think it's important to point out that this is not the view of all (or, I would guess, most) who are on the 'side' I'm on in all this. No, we do not all hate the Palestinians.

But first, a word of (admittedly not-so-nuanced) background:

The following will seem beyond-obvious to some reading this, but perhaps not all, so here goes: Western anti-Semitism was not a blip in 1930s Germany, arising out of nowhere, only to vanish in 1945, Lesson Learned. For one thing, it didn't disappear, but that's irrelevant to this post. What's important here is that for centuries preceding WWII, preceding the coining of the term 'anti-Semitism', Jews were, often, a hated group.

The constant in anti-Jewish writings, more than usury, more than 'you-killed-Jesus', was that the Jews once had their own land but had not for centuries, making them 'guests' at best or 'parasites' at worst on the lands of others. Even anti-Jewish writers who did not literally use the phrase, 'Go back to Palestine!' had as a starting point that the Jews a) were not at home in any of the European countries, and b) that the home they once had was located in Palestine. This, above all, was the complaint against the Jews.

But let's take a turn-of-the-century anti-Jewish European urging his Jewish neighbors to 'go back to Palestine.' Do we hold him guilty primarily a) of bigotry against his Jewish countrymen, or b) of failing to consider the preferences of whoever might be living in Palestine, who would surely be displaced should the anti-Semite's wish come true?

Clearly it's (a). He believes himself to be telling Jews that classic line, 'Go back where you came from.' It doesn't bother him that he's yelling not at immigrants from Palestine, but at people whose families may well have been in, say, France longer than his own. If he stopped to acknowledge this, he might realize that perhaps by now someone else was living in the land he believes his multi-generation-French-Jewish neighbors recently emigrated from.

So, from the perspective of certain European Jews, the message to 'go back to Palestine' seemed the only answer to the 'Jewish question.' Does that mean Zionism was only a reaction to anti-Semitism? No, because the return to Palestine has religious significance for Jews. But, were it not for a new understanding of anti-Semitism's fundamental idea, it's possible Zionism would have never caught on. If the 'return to Zion' were primarily about fulfilling a religious dream, the moral case for Israel would be quite different. Many European Jews came to realize that refusing to work in finance, even converting, these were not enough to prevent Jews from being told to 'go back home.' It seemed, and ultimately proved, the only option.

Oh, and the point of all this rambling? The preexisting non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine (because there were of course also preexisting Jewish residents) were, in effect, not consulted. Did the Palestinians deserve to be punished for European hatred of Jews? No. But that's what happened. Should the Palestinians be angry at European Christians, not Israel? In theory, yes, but it's hard to see how that would play out.

And rambling... done.


As for the Palestinians today, they are at once some of the luckiest and the least lucky people on the planet.

Why lucky? Their enemy - for simple, geographical reasons - happens to be the most-hated people in the West if not beyond. If your enemy is The Jews, you have an immense fan base: among anti-Semites, among those who are indifferent to Jews but sick of being made to feel guilty about the Holocaust, even among xenophobes who'd otherwise hate you for being an Arab. On Canal Street in Chinatown, one store after the next sells, along with fake designer sunglasses, handbags, and the like, a wide array of keffiyehs. Do the Chinese vendors on Canal Street have a particular interest in the Palestinian cause? Anything's possible, but the more likely reason for the scarves is that they are, much like the latest retro-revival sunglasses, a trend. Aside from the odd Che shirts, how many trends with such political significance can be found in the knock-off shops of New York? Along the same lines, how many oppressed groups these days find their conflict among the list of issues taken up by earnest student protesters? There are other, more pressing issues in the world that no one gives a crap about, because The Jews don't enter into it.

Why unlucky (aside from hello, Gaza)? Basically for the same reason that they're lucky. Knowing how useful as a symbol any group 'oppressed by the Jews' would be for gaining international sympathy, the 'Palestinian cause' (to be distinguished from the cause of actual Palestinians, as individuals or a collectivity) has been embraced by Arab states and Western leftists - not to mention politically-ignorant Western hipsters (not that all hipsters are ignorant of politics, but anyway...) - for all the wrong reasons. They have a legitimate grievance, but it can't get properly addressed as long as the symbolism of their cause holds more power than the cause itself.

So here's what I'd say to Withywindle: someone pro-Israel has far more reason to be angry at those who've embraced the Palestinians as a symbol to serve their own ends/trends than to have it in for the Palestinians themselves.

Teenyboppers and Art

There's a mystifying article in the NYT Styles section about teen girls sticking up for Chris Brown, pop idol and, it seems, domestic abuser, and blaming his also-glam girlfriend Rihanna for having been out of line. The Times piece offers four main reasons why young girls are defending Brown, seemingly against their own interests, which Gawker lists here.

Contrary to the consensus, the explanation for the girls' behavior has nothing to do with the fact that the singers and their fans are young and of color, or that the genre in question is pop music, and has perhaps been overlooked because of these facts. The obvious answer is the following, pretty much universal, trope: an Artist - a male one, at any rate - lives by a different set of rules. Thinking for a moment about high rather than pop culture, it takes seconds to come up with Geniuses whose crappy behavior (wife-beating; collaboration with Nazis; general irritability) is excused or even denied. The thinking goes:

a) The Art is more important than the lowly artist.

b) A man with great gifts should not be expected to burden himself with everyday niceties, such as not being an ass to his muse. No matter if the muse has great gifts herself. (Any existential philosophers come to mind?)

c) The Artist is tempestuous, needing outlets for his superhuman stores of energy.

d) An Artist is too wrapped up in Art to fully understand, say, that Nazis are bad news, and will get excited about the aesthetics of fascism without bothering himself with the facts on the ground.

And so on.

This is, in short, nothing new, nor is it a Great Sociological Statement about Young People Today and their attitudes regarding domestic violence. (Will journalists be able to find quotes from teens who claim the situation does in fact mirror their own lives? Of course, but that's part of the defend-the-artist endeavor. Might there be greater problems with dating violence in inner-city communities? Perhaps, but the Brown-Rihanna Affair sheds just about no light on the matter.) Even those who would otherwise condemn Crap Behavior X might defend or ignore it when its perpetrator created something they consider beautiful.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The unhappiness blog

Belle linked to a "Happiness" blog and questioned what the point of it might be. I looked at the thing, and... wow. For something meant to be about positivity, it's quite negative, both in the feelings it elicits and, more surprisingly, in the tone of the writer. It's to be expected that advice to 'be happy!' will receive a certain amount of snark. But the author herself, in the moments between transparent self-promotion, projects such misery, it's hard to imagine even a sincere and snark-free reader coming away from the blog more upbeat than before.

The theme of the blog seems to be happiness through self-control, a reasonable enough idea, but only to a point, particularly when it comes to food, and particularly when the implied audience is women. The whole 'ice cream is evil, go to the gym!' motif veers between common sense and the encouragement of a horrible, absolutist way of looking at the world. A woman who is by her own admission not overweight provides a ready-made eating disorder for those like herself, also not overweight, with food-and-control issues. (When your weight-loss diet includes giving up Tasti-d-Lite, the preferred food of Upper East Side private school girls, you know you've gone too far.) She even includes a requisite, "Also, although I REFUSE to go on a proper diet, I’d love to lose a few pounds," along with other non-diet diet tips. Why 'requisite'? Calling instructions on what to eat in order to lose weight 'not a diet' is, it seems, quite popular. What, dare I ask, is a diet?

Basically, any force in the world encouraging women, particularly those who don't in fact need to lose weight, to develop neurotic attitudes about food should be condemned, not celebrated as happiness-promotion.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On choosing words carefully

Since it's clear that certain discourse strikes some but not all as anti-Semitic, what makes those who think it is so sure? Is it that certain American Jews want to see a certain policy in the Middle East, and find it especially effective to hurl unwarranted accusations of anti-Semitism at those who want to see different policies? Let's go with 'no,' given that accusations of anti-Semitism come from those who do and those who don't support, say, the settlements. In nearly all cases, it's about something else altogether: Certain key words alert members of a minority group that, in brief, something might be up. Where oversensitivity ends and a realistic assessment of out-group animosity begins varies, of course, but to lump all cases into the 'oversensitivity' category would be, I think, to miss the point.

Think about it like this: every time a black person is called 'articulate,' or a variant of the same, by someone who isn't black, he is caught between the possibility that the term was meant as a compliment one might give anyone well-spoken, and that it was meant with an implied '... for a black person.' It happens often enough that an ignorant non-black person means the latter that black and non-black people are aware of the danger of using the word 'articulate' in reference to someone black. This is true, even though looked at outside of any historical context, there's no reason it should be problematic to call anyone well-spoken, and indeed sometimes that's the best way to describe someone, of any race. (Say, a president whose whiter-than-white predecessor couldn't form a sentence.) But there's always a historical context - plus it's not as though the bigotry that made 'articulate' offensive in the past has disappeared altogether - so 'articulate' must be used with caution.

It's much the same with criticism of Israel. Jews, even Zionists like this one, agree that Israel has flaws, but also realize that 'I'm anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish', is sometimes, not always, code for something more.* Coded language expressing bigotry is always ambiguous, leading some to cry 'racism' where there was none, not so as to cry wolf but out of genuine confusion. Why is this so difficult to understand?

But the better analogy isn't so much 'criticism of Israel' in general terms - after all, the stakes are high; a volatile region of the world will not suffer if one well-spoken black person is not praised as 'articulate', whereas it might if political correctness were preventing constructive criticism of Israel - as the appearance of certain rather concrete tropes, known to those familiar with the history of anti-Semitism (often but not always Jews) and less so to others. These include but are not limited to: a cabal of world domination; thirst for the blood of Gentile children; general warmongering tendencies; disloyalty to country; immense wealth; and finally, shady dealings with money. The key words - blood, money, power - are like 'articulate' in that they place members of a minority group on alert.

All that I ask is that the well-meaning hordes always ready with a knee-jerk, 'Why can't you criticize Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite?' actually engage with that question. They should accept that certain words are loaded when used in reference to Jews, just as 'articulate' is loaded in reference to blacks, for reasons people have to be educated** to understand. Someone who'd never had someone tell them, "Shh, you're not supposed to call blacks 'articulate'" might do so without meaning to be racist, but might nevertheless be racist in doing so. In the same way, someone referring to "Jewish money" might think they're innocently providing shorthand for 'wealth obtained by Jewish philanthropic organizations' but will seem, and might be, anti-Semitic in that instance. For it is not merely some historical sense of insult making blacks 'paranoid' about the word articulate, or Jews 'paranoid' about a phrase like 'Jewish money.' These expressions often but not always reflect something sinister in their present-day usage as well.

* Endlessly irritating is the tendency of the very same people who complain of anti-Israelism being conflating with anti-Semitism holding forth, often in the very same remarks, about how dreadful they find Jews. Not Israelis, Jews. Case in point, from a NYT commenter who helpfully notes, "I have a number of Jewish friends [...]" Of course you do.

"Given the amount of Jewish money behind many of the non-profit arts organizations in New York City I doubt this piece will ever see the light of day this side of the Atlantic….and it’s not fair to label anyone who is sympathetic to the Muslim community as an anti-semite!"

So totally unfair! Why stop at being "sympathetic to the Muslim community," something no reasonable person would oppose? You should be able also to call money "Jewish" and to hint at a conspiracy without being labeled an anti-Semite.

** Why education? The ignorant comment of the, gosh, the history of I-P commenting? goes to this fellow, same thread: "Why is Israel always referred to as The State of Israel? Is it a separate nation, or is it a state of the US?"

Err, no, it's because "Israel" referred, long before the creation of the modern state, to either the ancient people of Israel, or to the Jews, generally and worldwide, past and present, and one is trying to point out that one is referring to the modern-day nation-state, and not to one of the other entities. The prayer, "Hear oh Israel"? Might have slightly predated 1948. But only slightly. But that shouldn't stop you from making oh-so-clever 'Israel's the 51st state' remarks on the Internet.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

'Diary, a blog'*

So taxes... still looming. But the day was productive otherwise. After waking up late, after an impressive two-party Saturday (impressive for third-year grad students, that is, not for 20-something New Yorkers generally), I managed to do the following:

1) Grade exams in a locale that turned out to be on the route of the Brooklyn St. Patrick's Day Parade. I'd have switched locales if this had not been my apartment. Bagpipes and marching bands are not conducive to figuring out whether a given error merits a full point or just a half-point off. (Fear not, students who, in that anything's possible, might have nothing better to do on spring break than read their TA's blog. I double-check plenty. And, thanks to the bagpipes, will probably have to triple-check as well. Now go back to enjoying vacation, and studying for the quiz I'm giving you the first day back...)

2) Give myself (with some help, or else I'd have a mullet/tail) a 1920s-style haircut. No bangs, because one day, after I've been bailed out, I plan on having a professional hairdresser make sure they at least start in the right place, however uneven subsequent trimming may be. Which means I'm waiting till my hair is this long to get bangs. (That hairstyle, btw? Want!) When my hair reaches that length, that is when they will bail out the grad students. Mark my words.

3) Make this molten chocolate cake a second time, this time a) taking the cocoa-powder-rather-than-flour suggestion re: the ramekins; b) baking them nine rather than seven minutes; and c) succumbing to peer pressure (hi, Jo!) and pairing the cake with vanilla ice cream. Given how quick, simple, inexpensive, and (most importantly) low on dishes the thing is to make, a more appropriate pairing might be the gym.

*To whom it may concern: Credit's yours if you want it...

'Please hate these people'

My checklist for spring break includes filing taxes and reaching the end Zola's L'Argent, translated as Money, a novel about scheming bankers circa 1867. So even if I wanted to hole up in my apartment, live off accumulated bags of dry pasta, and pretend there was not such a thing as currency...

Not helping: the never-ending flow of articles about New York's oblivious rich, articles that drop the word "recession" to rile up an angry mob, but that have nothing to do with job loss and ensuing tough times. The market for $118 tank tops and thousand-dollar brunch has not dried up. The only difference is that now, the fury such profligacy inspires is something the journalist puts out there, and is no longer the between-the-lines can-you-believe-these-people? condemnation it once was. Now it's basically an upfront declaration: 'Please hate these people'. Whereas it was kind of understandable how, in a different economic climate, the trendies being interviewed did not get that they were being mocked, and indeed readers were also sometimes unsure, now there's really no excuse for announcing your decadence (or your halfhearted attempts at hiding your decadence) to the NYT.

Sample passage from the soon-to-be-torn-apart-everywhere-if-it-hasn't-been-already piece on brunch-time debauchery:

Remi Laba, a 32-year-old Frenchman who is a co-owner of Bagatelle, suggests that such celebrating is possible because his guests are not what he calls “recession-prone.”

“There’s a very specific Saturday brunch clientele,” Mr. Laba said, seated at a corner table near the window as brunch was getting started. “Most of them are old money, people who don’t mind coming here and spending $5,000, up to $18,000 or $20,000 on a table.”

In addition, Mr. Laba said, the typical Bagatelle customer has a cultural affinity with this sort of rosé-soaked afternoon reveling. For the most part, the customers are what he described as “European friendly,” meaning they either are European or aspire to be.

There, in those few sentences, is the best argument I've read for leaving New York and raising dachshunds somewhere in the wilderness. (Best argument for staying put, also from today's Times: Paul Rudd lives in the West Village.)

The article ends brilliantly, with what reads as a cry, 'To the guillotine!':

A 29-year-old man who works for a large investment management firm and was at Bagatelle’s brunch one recent Saturday and at Merkato 55’s the next, put it another way: “If you’d asked me in October, I’d say it’d be a different situation, and I don’t think I’d be here. Then the government gave us $10 billion.”

Hehe, awesome, dude, well done!

Of course, a non-sarcastic 'awesome' goes to the journalist, Katherine Bindley, for ending the piece in an ambiguous way, such that it sounds as though the "us" the government bailed out was not failing banks but was a set of especially spendthrift brunch-goers. Libertarians and socialists alike will occupy Kimmel in protest. Imagine how tragic, if bankers had to overpay only $9 for their daytime weekend socializing?**

*Witness here a continuation of a WWPD theme: love-hate re: (Western) Europe. What's frustrating about the wave of Europeans (tourists and expats) so visible these days, even in out-of-the-way corners of New York is that this new set arrives as instant insiders, better-dressed and more "old money" than the natives, who, in turn, suddenly appear to be nouveau-riche arrivistes, whose crassness can't even be described in words originating in English. Yes, there is such a term as 'Eurotrash', but on the strange NYC hierarchy, that still outclasses 'bridge-and-tunnel', making at least some people feel that if a trashy party in the Meatpacking District is 'like St. Tropez', it is somehow no longer a trashy party in the Meatpacking District. Plus, most of the NYC Europeans do not dress in, say, skintight Armani Exchange, and as far as I know, do not attend these mega-brunches, but are instead just a more tasteful version of hipster than their American counterparts. Quit making us look bad, Europeans! And be sure to leave some tights in Century 21, for next time I need a pair.

**Meeting friends for weekend lunch is a good thing. But eggs, even the most spotlessly organic ones, laid by the most joyous of chickens, are a cheap, cheap food. Which makes me ambivalent about 'brunch.' Not that the 'brunches' profiled in this article necessarily involve anyone eating eggs, except perhaps those of a fish.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Worst and the Dimmest

Judith Warner takes issue with society's labeling of bankers as our "best and brightest." She concludes with her hopes for "a much-needed rehabilitation of the very notion of the 'best and the brightest,'" suggesting nobly that for all we know, "some of the best and the brightest are already teaching third grade and providing low-paying, low-glory health care services."

But it's only at the very end that she gets down to what seems to be her true concern: "And maybe — if things work out for this book-writing president and his coterie of brilliant advisers — people might even start to see intellectuals as good, and bright, without irony."

Indeed, the piece is a classic case of a reading/writing type finding it inconceivable that those who make gobs of money are in that position due to superior brains, a greater work ethic, or (and I think this one's key) a willingness to put up with not-so-interesting work in order to guarantee a comfortable existence for one's self and one's family. (Hmm. I'm Ms. Humanities Anti-Defamation League here, and I don't find it at all hard to believe those who can afford dishwashers might, on the whole, have some positive quality I lack, be it intelligence, tolerance of Excel, or some combination.)

Warner is not ready to abandon the notion that some of us are, objectively, better and brighter than others, nor is she altogether content with "intellectuals" replacing "bankers" as "Best and Brightest," recognized by all. As she presents it, there must be some elusive, impossible-to-pin-down quality that makes some people better than others, since one would have to be crass to suggest that money, brains, or name-brand educations (and without those to go by, how are we assessing intelligence?) are the dividing lines. Yet to just say, anyone who works when they can and treats others with respect is Good and Bright enough, this would remove the select-few angle so key to the endeavor.

Warner is obviously looking for a narrow definition, but what? She sensibly agrees that the system that preceded money mattering - nobility, formal or informal, determining superiority - was also crap. And she doesn't seem totally convinced that those who, say, have high IQs or win science awards are those deserving of the phrase. But who, then, is?

Her suggestion, unfortunately, is something of a nebulous platitude: "Maybe the definition of the term will come to depend less on money and power, and more on service, ideals, even character." And maybe we will all stand in a circle and hold hands, brainstorming better ways to grow kale, but I'm still not sure swapping excellence for "character" is either doable (how but through money or the institution of titles of nobility would we encourage the 'best and brightest' to take low-level jobs in health professions?) or advisable (see also...).

This reminds me of what goes on at sites like Jezebel (sorry Belle), where it's a sin against humanity to say that all things equal, obesity is a problem, health-wise but also looks-wise, but where it's at the same time accepted that there is such a thing as 'beauty', possessed by some women but not all, certainly not all in equal measure. But if weight, along of course with natural-blond-Nordicness, is eliminated as a factor by which beauty might be judged, where does that leave women deemed not beautiful? If it isn't that you just happen to be under 5'10", overweight, and with ethnic features not typical of North or Eastern Europe, if beauty is open to all, and you're still unattractive, where are you left? I mean, I'm kind of OK with there being a number of objective reasons I, say, couldn't be a model (I'm their weight, give or take, at 5'2"; not an all-but-noseless blonde; and at 25 basically ancient), making it unnecessary for me to consider the possibility that theoretical a size- race- and age-neutral Judge of Beauty might well also go with 'no'.

It's also a bit like college admissions and the great 'holistic judgment' we all believe must be made about each applicant. As though it is somehow crueler to tell someone they're not in on account of their grades and test scores, than to explain to them, in gentle terms, that every facet of their character and intellect has been pored over by experts, and, um, we hear there's a wonderful air-conditioner-repair certificate program not far from you.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The spectrum of mystery

The official strangest way anyone has ever reached this blog: 'how jewish women get rid of their facial hair maria antoinette', no quotes. I'm the first hit for this search! But what is this person looking for? If you are this person, do tell.

On the other end of the spectrum of mystery, what Basil Fawlty deemed 'the bleeding obvious', the new, full-priced spring collections are not selling.

"Vat vill dem goyim say?"*

As an experiment, I decided to look at the (online) front page of today's NYT as a non-Jew without much feeling about or knowledge of things Jewish might see it. First, there's the news about Madoff, a story of greed and Jewish insularity if there ever was one, complete with profile shot of a stereotype-fulfilling nose. Reading this as a Jew, or as a non-Jew who knows many Jews, you're aware that a) not all Jews want to scheme people out of billions of dollars, b) not all Jews would have the math skills needed to control even their own checking accounts, c) not all Jews have big noses, and finally, d) nose size and ponzi scheming are unrelated qualities. But as a non-Jew without much exposure to Jews? Hmm.

In case Madoff didn't seal the deal: "Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee for Intelligence Post," ambivalent h/t to Nick. A Washington Post piece (what is my password on that site? if I remembered it, there'd be a link) on the same issue presents things otherwise (headline: "Freeman Blames 'Israel Lobby' for Withdrawal") but no matter. Anything hinting of a Jewish conspiracy delights the many Americans who always knew who was behind the scenes. If I were inclined to thinking this way, I'd have all kinds of new material. If I didn't know what to think, this would not be the moment I decided Jews were all kinds of sympathetic.

The Times piece on Freeman the Just certainly pushes things in a certain direction, but who knows, maybe a few pro-Israel groups and individuals did unfairly block an appointment. This seems possible to me, Jewy the Jewish Zionist, and should also seem like a possibility to those with no Semitic ties whatsoever. Yes, even a Jew can admit that someone Jewish might have done something... unpleasant. See Item 1 of this post. Do I feel confident in saying what happened in this particular case? Not at all.

But it's in the comments that things get interesting.**

That basic, PC, elementary-school tenet of tolerance, that we're supposed to blame 'some members of group X' for their bad behavior, not all who happen to share that group's religion, blood, or both, for their actions, as in 'some Asians' are studious, not 'Asians', seems lost on many. Commenters use 'Israel lobby' and 'Jewish lobby' interchangeably. If you weren't exactly clear on who were Jews and who were Israelis (and why would a non-Jew necessarily know or care? until relatively recently I wasn't quite clear who were Flemings and who were Walloons - a certain amount of ignorance of those not in your life is to be expected), you could easily not notice this confusion.

But what will our reader, just trying to get informed on the wider world, make of comments like these?:

"It is time for American Jews to decide whether they are citizens of the US or of Israel."

"There will be NO peace in the Middle-East until America frees itself from the Jewish Yoke and takes a neutral position rather than the one-sided approach which the Jews enforce upon us."

I mean, if you are Jewish, you're going to be all, WTF? No, there are not secret meetings all Jews get to attend, where Great Decisions are made, with the goal of hoarding shekels and strengthening our grip on world affairs. Most of us live lives of quiet mediocrity. But if you're not a Jew, and you're going only by Madoff and a potentially shady episode involving AIPAC? Your only reason not to suspect 'the Jews' of all manner of power and malice is, once again, the elementary-school one: just because some members of a group act in ways that confirm or seem to confirm unpleasant stereotypes, and just because stereotypes have to come from somewhere, does not mean that every last Jew is in on some plot, or even that those Jews not involved in nefarious schemes are somehow the exception. It most certainly does not mean action must be taken against 'the Jews' as an entity if the behavior of 'some Jews' is problematic. To all the commenters holding forth so nobly about how one must not conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, I suggest reading your fellow commenters, who are incapable of criticizing Israeli policy or US policy regarding Israel without making blanket condemnations of Jews.

*From I forget which Woody Allen movie. Either "Sleeper" or "Bananas."

** Online newspaper comments may be one of the more mocked forms of contemporary human communication, but it's pointless to overlook them altogether. Well, it is for me at least, because if you spend time wondering how the reading public reacted to articles in 1842, it's hard not to find it fabulous that you have this information at your fingertips for articles appearing today. (Does every reader comment? Hardly. Are those who do perfectly representative? No. But it's a whole lot more than we once had.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In honor of the weather, a post on frizzy hair

In a guest post at Racialicious, Tami writes: "Many black women have fraught relationships with their hair because we are the only race of women who are expected to change the natural properties of our natural hair to be deemed acceptable–professionally and personally." Given the number of hits this blog gets from people Googling for how to straighten the hair of name-that-ethnicity, I'm not sure whether I agree. But then I thought about it for a moment, and I agree after all. See below:

On the one hand, it's true that the politics of 'black hair' affecting a black woman do not exist for, say, a woman of English or German descent (leaving the question of frizzy-haired 'ethnic' women aside for the moment) whose hair tends to frizz. Both women may style their hair straight, but one is told she is doing this to 'look white', whereas the other is told she's doing this to look good - she'll 'look white' no matter how she wears her hair. If a black woman does not straighten, she's understood to be making a political statement about race, whereas if a white woman does not, she's just 'let herself go' that day. Now, what about a Jewish woman who fell asleep with wet hair and walked through a bunch of misty rain the next day? (Not talking about anyone in particular.) I'd very much like my hair to look other than the way it does right now. I'm quite sure, given my facial features and especially my extreme pallor, that no matter how my hair looks, no one thinks I'm black, so it's doubtful that my wish stems from a fear of facing the discrimination blacks have faced and still do face in this country. (OK, there was this one girl in high school who thought I was black, but that remains a mystery.) But maybe frizzy equals Jewish? Is my wish a manifestation of self-hatred? What if I were Greek or Italian? Polish or Irish? Would that change matters?

This much I know: women of all ethnicities are straightening their hair. WASPS, Latinas, Jews, even Japanese women all de-pouf like crazy, with great variation in the time and amount of chemicals it takes to get hair from Point A to Point B. What does it all mean? Does a red-headed, frizzy-haired Irishwoman undergoing Japanese hair straightening want to look 'white'? Yes and no.

At the crux of hair-and-race is the fact that when a white or Asian woman has straight hair, it's generally assumed that her hair is like this naturally, because after all, some white woman and many Asian woman have naturally straight hair. We've all had the experience of a classmate or colleague we'd assumed to be straight-haired showing up one day in curls, getting compliments on her 'perm', or strange looks on account of her frizz, and having to explain that she didn't have time to blow-dry that morning. Whereas with, say, Michelle Obama, the example in the Racialicious post, no one thinks she's sporting a 'natural' look, even though we've all presumably only seen her hair straight. What this means is that what we understand as a society to be 'white hair' - and what men ignorant of female grooming habits imagine is white or Asian women's wash-and-go hair - is far from the natural hair texture of many white and some Asian women.

But in the end, Tami is right. What matters for hair-hand-race, at least in the American context, is really that very, very few women society would consider black have 'socially acceptable' hair, making hair a political issue - historically and currently - for black women that it is not for white women of similar hair texture.

Part, but not most, of why non-black women straighten their hair is to avoid looking 'ethnic', with of course variation according to whether or not a given non-black woman is 'ethnic'. But the main reason lies elsewhere: curly, frizzy, wavy, or simply 'big' hair is, on white but not black women, a stand-in for low class. Rich white women in Manhattan do not perm their hair. Working-class white women on Long Island? Perhaps. The not-so-ethnic Anne Hathaway can't become proper European royalty in The Princess Diaries until her poufy hair gets flattened out. Big hair's connotations are a bit like those of big breasts (credit on this matter goes to Withywindle, who commented about this somewhere). As with big breasts, what some women pay for, others find the default situation. But hair texture, unlike breast size, can be altered with relatively little fuss and discomfort. (Relative to breast-reduction surgery or going on a massive and otherwise unnecessary diet, say.)

While frizzy hair may be more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than among, say, Swedes, the fear I have today is less that people will - gasp - find out that I am a Jew than that they will confuse me with a "Nanny"-era Fran Drescher.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another TV post (ducks head)

Latoya Peterson is correct that "The Big Bang Theory" is both hilarious and, well, racist. For one thing, the three characters that matter (Penny, Sheldon, and Leonard) are the white ones, while the two sidekicks providing comic relief are Indian (arranged marriages!) and Jewish (Portnoy-like sexual perversion, a repulsive appearance, and an overbearing mother with a New York accent!) respectively. Whereas the white characters go by their first names, humanizing them, the others go by their last, highlighting their ethnicity.

The notion that a TV show or movie somehow 'embraces diversity' because the drama between the white folks takes place against a mostly-silent background of non-whites is, of course, BS. Yet the show is kind of hilarious. While I'm supposed to be offended twice over - as a woman, by Penny the dumb blonde, and as a Jew, by Wolowitz the cliché - I'm... not? I don't know, it could just be that even if we see more of the white characters, they're not exactly portrayed in a flattering light. Leonard is in many ways a Jewish stereotype, both physically and as a character, yet he's meant to be an all-American nerd, whereas the tall, Germanic-looking Sheldon is both asexual (as in, never expressing romantic interest in anyone) and perhaps clinically socially awkward.

One gets the sense, both from the show and in real life, that (allow me to generalize) while not all Asian- or Jewish-Americas are nerds, of those who are, many grew up in cities or suburbs where they could find like-minded friends. Whereas many unhyphenated-American nerds grew up in small towns where they were, ala Sheldon, beat up or otherwise made to feel out-of-place for not, say, watching football. Furthermore, city or small town, the stereotype is for a Jewish or Asian kid (well, boy) in America to be nerdy, so there'd be less expectation for a naturally math-and-science-loving guy from either group to act otherwise than there would be for a non-'ethnic', native-born American boy, black or white. In a sense, I can imagine Leonard or Sheldon having had a harder time of it growing up than Koothrappali or Wolowitz. Does that matter for the show? Kind of, because it gives an alternate explanation for why we're supposed to care more about the white physicists, other than the fact that someone behind the scenes decided this would be a 'white show' and as such had to feature whites.

While I mostly agree with her analysis of the show, I do have to take issue with Peterson's question: "So, we only get one nerd of color?" It seems clear to me that we get, at the very least, one and a half. As Peterson notes later in the post, "the character of Wolowitz is coded as heavily Jewish as Raj is coded as a the perpetual foreigner, but with a bit more malice. Wolfowitz [sic - Freudian slip?] lives up to a great many Jewish stereotypes, including having a mother who appears only as a shrieking, disembodied voice determined to ruin any chance Wolowitz has at a normal life." While the actor who plays Wolowitz looks remarkably like Jason Schwartzman, who is most certainly white in "The Darjeeling Limited," Wolowitz is not white in the context of the "The Big Bang Theory." It's not at all hard to imagine that this same actor, in another role and context, would be seen as white, thus the Jews-and-race conundrum.

P.S. Thanks to Matt for the link, and thus for leading me to this post!

If comments were calories...

So in my overlong post below, I mentioned the 655 comments (717 at current count) garnered by a Jezebel post about the "crisis" in availability of chic plus-sized clothing.

Well, the response to Michael Pollan's bloggy musings on how we should probably not eat so much weighs in at a whopping 1,593 comments, including such brilliant insights as: "If man didn’t eat it 10,000 years ago you shouldn’t eat it now." I wanted to call this an extreme and ridiculous position (surely dinosaurs ate local and seasonal, too), but since cheese may have been an option back then, maybe not?

So, the moral of the story is, size and food - not shoes and French Jews - are where the readership lies, with weight loss twice as comment-inspiring as body acceptance. Indeed. (A belated thanks to Rita for the link.) I suppose this means that if I want any readers I should be blogging about how much Thai food I had for lunch (lots!) and how impossible it is to find jeans that fit (done!). If there's a common denominator lower than this, I'm not finding it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

First World as problem

It turns out that the brilliant idea I had to study nineteenth century French Jews is both futile and immoral. This fits well with this week's theme on WWPD: guilt, or the Humorless Age. (An unappetizing-looking recipe for kale soup is now #8 on the NYT most-emailed list, down from spot #1.)

So. Peter Singer - who, disclaimer, has obviously written more and about more than will be covered in this blog post - argues that "we should give a lower priority to areas of study that have no obvious connection with world poverty or with, say, climate change or avoiding war or, indeed, with any similarly large and pressing problem." This means, he writes, that subjects like "Italian Renaissance art" - presumably this goes for representations of Jews in French novels - need to be shelved as subjects in academia, since "we live in a world in which 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes," and these endeavors do not solve the problem.

On the one hand, I already feel guilty about bad-mouthing seasonal, leafy vegetables, so why not add on a bit more guilt? On the other, I'm not quite ready to agree that the humanities are the root of all evil. So, possible counterarguments:

-Is a lack of Western funds the main obstacle to solving the world's problems? Some would disagree. I don't know enough about the topic to weigh in, but it seems worth looking into.

-Of the offending fields, Singer specifically singles out "art, languages, history, mathematics, or philosophy." Are humanities students (along with mathematicians) the ones who need to be redirected, more than those studying business, PR, or sports management, not to mention all the sciences not directly or even indirectly intended to save the children? What skills does he imagine the expert in Renaissance art has that would be especially useful in solving world poverty, such that he must switch majors? (Or, dare I ask, is Singer's plan that humanities students, whose skills are perhaps not transferable, simply lose funding or not go to college in the first place, and instead get envelope-stuffing-level jobs in do-gooder fields?)

-People come about solving problems through all kinds of ways. Had Singer never studied philosophy and read the Great Books, he might not have become an advocate for solving the world's Great Problems. Restricting learning to a few disciplines, and redirecting those fields entirely towards humanitarian crises, will alienate all but the most naturally do-gooder students, anyone whose curiosity lies elsewhere when they are 18 and deciding what subjects might interest them. All kinds of students who would not have thought about Great Problems might come to think about them from studying all kinds of subjects. (Studying French literature turned me into a Zionist, so who knows what education will do!)

-For Singer, luxury refers not just to $1,000 handbags and $200,000 cars, but also to buying a bottle of water (Key Food seltzer, say) when tap water would have done just fine. Yet - and on this point, all credit goes to Jo - if we all dropped everything and gave all the money we spend on "luxuries" to charity, the US economy would collapse more than is already the case. This would make it awfully difficult for the manager of the local Key Food to save starving children in Africa, what with his having lost his own job, what with no one buying more food than necessary for subsistence.

Singer almost addresses this argument when he writes, "Living luxuriously, it is said, provides employment, and so wealth trickles down, helping the poor more effectively than aid does. But the rich in industrialized nations buy virtually nothing that is made by the very poor." Again, if he defines as a luxury every purchase beyond gruel and sack-cloth, it's hard to imagine how Singer thinks first-world economies would still have enough money to give after about five minutes under his plan. It's not that buying a cappuccino benefits the very poor through trickle-down economics because the world's poorest necessarily work in coffee production. It's that if no one in the States bought anything, ever, how would we have anything to give? Is 'first world' some essential quality, one that would persist even if all incentives to earn money disappeared? Perhaps not.

-Finally, Singer's fundamental argument - that charity must come first, because who, if faced with a starving child, would hand over their extra cash to fund a wing of a museum - tugs at the heartstrings, but ignores a good part of why the rich want to see improved conditions for the poor. If by 'life' what was meant was simply basic nourishment and an end to preventable death, it's fair to say that excitement about life all around - and not just in the first world - would deteriorate. Is it more important for Person A to have a shot at life than for Person B to enjoy an opera or an Apatow? Put like that, it seems simple, but much of what motivates charity work is the sense that one is lucky to live as one does (thus 'First World Problems') - once even the littlest luxuries are banished, that sense is likely to be greatly diminished.

But it isn't even just about luxuries in the sense of lattes, movies, and such. If I understand the argument correctly, devoting one's life or donations to any cause outside of Singer's list of core issues means acting immorally. So if you spend your days trying to end racism, fighting to legalize same-sex marriage, or anything else one might call a 'do-gooder' job, but that does not feed the children, it's as good as pedicures and flat-screens. The well-meaning ladies who provided 655 comments to a Jezebel post entitled "How Do We Solve The Plus-Sized Clothing Crisis?" - sample sentence from post: "While Gap often stocks up to size 20, is the brand still relevant (is there anything you'd want to buy)?" - might, according to the Singer line of thought, want to rethink their understanding of the word "crisis." P.S.: what's wrong with the Gap? Is that not where the young people shop? I plead ignorance.

So, long story short, let the self-flagellation begin.

"Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?"

Roger Cohen has stepped up his efforts to win Acceptable Jew of the Year, showing more of his now-trademark "courage." Readers, remember, you either agree with his columns and are for Truth, or you disagree and are a partisan bigot. Here, the passage he wants angry Zionists to cite:

Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Israel, from the time of Ben Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through semantics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?

Rather than arguing with Cohen, telling him that Israel is always right (it's not, but by agreeing to this, I fail to live up to his straw-man standards for his opponents), or invoking Nazi Germany to tell him why he's wrong (as he expects his Jewish critics to do), I'd rather just look at how he sets up his argument.

The question he ends the key passage with - "Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?" - is an attempt to shift the entire Israeli-Palestinian debate in all sorts of useless ways. First, by suggesting that the conflict is not between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, or even between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather between "Arabs" and "Jews," he drags in millions of people not directly involved in the conflict. Doing so, he implies that anyone who sees Hamas as "absolutist" means to label Arabs generally as such. By setting the argument up like this, you cannot call Hamas absolutist without being an anti-Arab bigot. But by the same formula you also can't call the Israeli government absolutist without being an anti-Jewish bigot. But not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, goes the chorus, and the chorus is correct. What is Cohen trying to accomplish?

What he wants to elicit from readers is a knee-jerk, PC, guilt-filled response to the question, "Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?" He expects readers not to look too deeply at the question, and to just say, 'You're right! To say that would be racist! I don't think I'm a racist. But to be sure, I'd better agree that Hamas is no more of an impediment to Mideast peace than is Israel.' As though to think, in a given political conflict, one side is more the problem than the other, you'd have to be a racist, because as we all know, in every contentious debate, both sides are equally at fault. (Sarcasm, if this wasn't clear.) In all seriousness: it is entirely possible not to find Jews more essentially pragmatic than Arabs, yet to think that, for political and historical reasons, the Israeli leadership is more likely than the Palestinian leadership to accept compromise at this time.

If I find baseless accusations of racism especially off-putting, it could be because this morning, a man yelled at me for not agreeing to his request that I give him money for a cup of coffee, as requested, explaining that the reason for this was because "You're afraid of black people." Yes, that must have been the reason! (Again, sarcasm.) Far more likely than that I don't wish to give money to each of the dozen people (of all races) on each block of Park Slope and the Village who ask, or than that I found "a cup of coffee" not the most compelling of demands. Or maybe I'm a grad student who doesn't make much money, a stingy Jew, a haughty bitch. There are all kinds of possibilities -including unpleasant ones - far more likely than racial phobia.

But this man was, by all accounts, either very poor, insane, or some combination. His baseless accusation of racism could come from all kinds of places, from having dealt with racism in the past, from having noticed that being called 'racist' makes pale-skinned Park Slopers feel guilty and thus give money, or... who knows. Roger Cohen, on the other hand, has no good reason to presume that those who consider Hamas extremist think this not because of Hamas's charter or actions, but because of essentialist, Orientalist, phobic views of 'The Arab.' Again, if this is what he wants to argue, he's going to have to accept that this means defining all criticism of Israel as Judeophobia, which would, of course, get us nowhere.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Crackpot schemes involving the 19th century

-This afternoon Jo and I went to the Neue Galerie, a museum that is 10% about the art; another 10% about a tempting bookstore; 20% about the cake (oh, and the $85 cake server in the gift shop? wanty!); and 60% about the building itself, an Upper East Side mansion, filled with early twentieth century German and Austrian objects, along with two stunning, out-of-Belle-Epoque-Vienna cafés.

It occurred to me that the Neue Galerie should take the period-piece aspect of the place further, offering visitors to the museum or café some period-dress jackets or accessories. Jo remarked that this sounds like something that already exists, which is true. But, I want to know, if there are Renaissance fairs, why not turn-of-the-century Vienna (I'd also accept Paris) fairs, where you can eat strudel in the nude, or smoke a pipe, or whatever it was people did back in the day, should Expressionist paintings be believed? Why are there no historical reenactments, other than military reenactments, of the 19th or early 20th century? Or are there? If so, do tell.

-The most absurd reality show of all time, "The City", has plot-lines that could not be simpler (model might have eating disorder, rock star boyfriend might be sleeping around, etc.), but that are nevertheless driven home to the point that it is in fact impossible not to follow along. But what makes the series truly great is, as I've noted here before, that every time a character appears on the screen, his name pops up, as does his relationship to one of the main characters, assuming he's not among Whitney's inner circle.

My question is: Why can't this feature be added to long, nineteenth century (Russian and other) novels? Such that every time a character reappears, a little summary would pop up (if, as Clementine suggests, this were to go on a Kindle) or simply appear in parentheses, giving you the relationship of this character to the protagonist. There has to be a way to cross "The City" and Anna Karenina, "The City" and L'Education sentimentale. A show with three characters does not need to constantly remind us who's who, whereas a novel with 300, each referred to in five different ways, just might.