Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In offensiveness today

-From Slate France, the unsurprising connections between far-right politics (in France and Germany) and the local-sustainable food movement. A point that has to be made with the huge disclaimer that no, you're not a Fascist for liking farmers' markets. (Today I bought a kilo of German-grown plum tomatoes, and I suspect I'm not a neo-Nazi.) The issue is more that we have this false assumption that the food movement is all hippie-dippie left, when in fact xenophobia can absolutely enter into a movement based in part on the principle that food from elsewhere is dangerous. If you think elsewhere is a horrible place, why wouldn't its food be anathema as well? And it's not precisely a case of far-left and far-right being indistinguishable. The overlap is more between left-leaning yuppies and extreme-nationalists. My sense is that the far-left would be more bulk-lentils than artisanally-plucked mesclun.

-From Tablet - and not Vice, as might have been more appropriate - an "edgy" piece about how Holocaust survivors are sneaky and suspect for their entitled desire to go on living, by a writer who appears to have something of a Holocaust-awareness-raising allergy. I think the entirety of the Internet is on the case, but... yeah. Nothing like bad taste posing as bravery or originality.

-A Styles take on a somewhat different demographic from the usual haute-Park-Slope or Park Ave. norm: young women who require (shockingly expensive, obvs) prep classes to join a sorority. This article is of course designed to make you, whoever you are, feel like an amazing person for have not required quite so much intervention to make friends in college. But buried in this is a sadder story, as well as a more practical one. Sad, because these young women have social concerns more appropriate for middle-schoolers (an "image consultant" to make girlfriends?), and practical, because all this nonsense about looking just so will evidently come in handy for those who wish to, for example, become lawyers. I came away from reading (OK, skimming) the story feeling bad for the girls who want this, or whose parents imagine they do.


Moebius Stripper said...

Another aspect in which the far left and far right are indistinguishable vis-a-vis the local food movement is in their shared belief that we should be returning to some idyllic past, though they differ on the particulars of said past. But things sure were simpler then! And better!

I've placed a hold at my (local!) library for The Locavore's Dilemma: In Defense of the 10,000 Mile Diet, which makes the argument that non-local food is superior to local even according to most of the metrics employed by locavores. In support of your point about the merging of the left and the right on this issue, the book's author mentions that his biggest detractors have been the Quebec nationalists in his family. (Quebec nationalists aren't easily shoehorned into the traditional left-right spectrum - some are hardcore socialists, others are free-market devotees - but their supporters are generally sufficiently united in their xenophobia that they're almost always able to overlook such differences.)

Britta said...

I think the problem is is that there's a conflation of outcomes with causes. Believing that everything Foreign is corrupting the Purity of the local can lead to a localism/certain sort of environmentalist attitude. Believing that we're over taxing the earth with unsustainable living practices can also lead to a localism/certain sort of environmentalist attitude. But just because both A and Z can lead you to thinking P doesn't mean that A and Z are the same.

Phoebe said...

Moebius Stripper,

I just heard the author of The Locavore's Dilemma interviewed on WNYC, and it did sound great. My sense from the interview was that no matter the environmental arguments for a global division of labor, i.e. not-so-local food consumption, those who've decided that local is better won't be moved. I don't think it's terribly controversial that local/seasonal will often taste better, which is important because people will eat better if fruits and vegetables aren't tasteless gray mush. And if the anti-local argument is that lemons are more energy-intensive to produce in New England than California or wherever it is they come from, the counterargument could be that people in New England shouldn't eat lemons. (Which I don't think works, for reasons I won't go into here.) Basically, I need to read the book, too!


A and Z are certainly not the same. But in any such case, alliances can form, so it's important to know who shares your views, but for the wrong reasons, to avoid making such alliances. Also, in light of Moebius's comment, while I absolutely don't confuse even uninformed environmentalism with anything more sinister, it is important for those with sustainability concerns to hear the full story on this issue. It doesn't seem clear at all that local is better, although I'm not fully convinced that it's not. Alliances probably are more likely to form among those with an unquestioned, aesthetic preference for the local. There is this ambiguous middle-ground between A and Z, of people who prefer things "natural" but don't articulate exactly what that means.

Britta said...

Oh, I read the Anne Frank/holocaust survivor articles. I wonder when people will realize that getting published/page views doesn't outweigh tarnishing your name and value as a decent human being (not to mention chances for a legit writing career). I know that supposedly "all publicity is good publicity," but these examples really reveal the limits of that statement.

Phoebe said...


I Googled, and the author appears to have a pretty extensive list of clips (NYT, Glamour, more intellectual online publications etc.), esp. for someone who graduated from college in 2009. I don't know if something like this ruins a career. It might redirect it a bit, but there are places (again, Vice) that celebrate this kind of thing.

Plus, in terms of the specific issue at hand, any time someone Jewish takes the unexpected stance - criticizes Israel (not that this is unusual, but it's perceived of as such), fails to properly honor the Holocaust (which has already faced historically-nuanced and successful comedy approaches) - on some key Jewish-identity issue, this person will be praised for his or her courage. That's always how it goes, and this time is no exception. Meanwhile, the root of what the author was saying - that Jews who survived the Holocaust often had to do things that under other circumstances wouldn't have been thought so savory - is hardly earth-shattering, and has in fact gone through a great many interpretations in the Jewish (or just historiographic?) conversation about this, the current one being that it's not accurate to speak of "collaboration" of Jews, when simply being Jewish meant being under constant threat of a horrible death. But others before the author had certainly had an interpretation of the Holocaust that held that the victims were martyrs, the survivors... not. That we - Jews, or Jews informed on this topic - already been through why that view is wrong makes it frustrating when someone announces it as if it's some kind of original, courageous argument.

But there's this trend in "hip" Jewish writing, which involves a young or youngish writer pretending to be the absolute first American Jew ever to, for example, consider the humanity of the Palestinians. All of which is my longwinded way of saying I don't think this spells the end of her career.

Britta said...

Yeah, I would say the idea that survivors did stuff that is/was morally questionable and how that psychologically impacted them is actually something that's been well explored not only in very mainstream stuff written about the holocaust, but also in discussions of evil and human nature more generally. The notion that a noxious effect of evil is to make non-evil people/its victims have to behave in terrible ways they never otherwise would have is a major part of the discussion of evil. I would even say that this is an issue (perhaps even more so?) for non-Jewish survivors who might have had even more opportunities to collaborate or save themselves at the expense of others. This issue was the main theme of "Sophie's Choice" (the choice of which child to send to die was only one of many and not even the most morally questionable things Sophie did to survive), a bestseller which was turned into a very popular movie. To say the author is treading well-tread ground is a huge understatement.

What is new (maybe?? or at least, not already part of the mainstream discussion on the holocaust??) is the idea that the holocaust served as some giant eugenics project to produce Jews which conformed to the most despicable Nazi stereotypes. Also, generally these conversations aren't: "Holocaust survivors are evil and everything the Nazis (rightly) despised about Jews," but more on how the system of the holocaust constructed by the Nazis made people have to make terrible decisions, and how do you cope with having done this or maybe, how far do you go in that situation?

I only read the comments on the site, which seemed appropriately horrified. It would be depressing but I guess not super surprising that she's getting compliments about this somewhere? Anyways, I still think that stuff like this will come back to bite her at some point, if not in the very immediate future than in the not so distant LT future.

PG said...


Given that some of her fellow Tablet contributors are defending her "self-investigation" (in the guise of a TV review?!) if not her conclusions, I don't think this will do her much long term damage.

It occurred to me early in reading the article that the author must be fairly young, since she refers to discussing Terri Schiavo when she's 12. But if she graduated from college in 2009, maybe she just heard about Schiavo before the case became nationally known in 2003.

The Tablet article was intensely bizarre. I thought it could have gone somewhere if it hadn't been used the Holocaust as its hook. This line caught my eye: their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”

Americans, at least, are somewhat prone to overuse the word "hero" and so everyone who died on 9/11 seems to be labeled as such, regardless of whether they were first responders running toward a burning building, the United 93 passengers who intentionally caused their own plane to crash so it wouldn't be used to hit a building, or just somebody who took a sleeping pill at the beginning of a flight and never woke up. Everyone who died was a victim, but only a few people who put themselves at risk in order to help others are reasonably called heroes.

What's gross about denying any possible heroism to Holocaust survivors is that survival in a concentration camp, when you have no way of knowing that the Third Reich isn't going to last 1000 years, actually does require unusual levels of hope and optimism. It is a triumph of the human spirit. People put their dogs down once the animals are in too much pain because they can't stand looking them in the eye and seeing all that suffering. To believe that you can stop suffering is slightly mad but should be inspiring.

I wonder if Breslaw simply didn't like her grandparents much on a personal level, and so she rejects the idea that people she doesn't like could have done something exceptional and admirable before she was ever born.

PG said...

Just read the sorority rush article. Unless things have changed in the last decade or so, UVa has an introduction to rush before it begins. They don't just throw first-years in and let them sink or swim. I think the people getting prepped for a sorority have been getting consulting services for their whole lives. I'd be surprised if anyone getting this service hadn't also had a professional review their college applications. There's nothing sadder about this than about any other assistance people get to look good for a holistic process. (I don't see academic tutoring or test prep the same way; the SAT scantron machine doesn't care about You, The Whole Person, only about whether you could calculate the tangent.)

Also I was reminded very much of sorority rush when I did first-round law firm interviewing. There may have been the same "are pants really OK or should I wear a skirt to be safe?" discussion. And where are Uggs appropriate for rush even in winter?

The main difference was that I really needed to get a job, whereas I did rush just so I'd be able to mock Greeks knowledgeably later. (Same reason I read "Twilight.") None of my friends rushed. I don't think I even mentioned to my parents that I was doing it, because they either would have glommed onto the idea it was important for networking and made me stress about it, or would have thought it was about drinking and boys and discouraged it. The most sought-after sororities and fraternities usually had dirty-rushed (recruited during the fall semester) the first years they really wanted.

It's a pity that the Styles article complete ignored black Greek life. At UVa, at least, they don't seem to be part of general rush, but I know there's a couple of black sororities (Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha) that are very prestigious and that multiple generations in a family will belong to. I'd love to know if there's anything different people do to prepare for rushing a competitive black sorority; is it important to emphasize public service to African-American-oriented organizations?

There's also been a recent proliferation of other ethnic Greek organizations. UVa was starting an Asian (pretty clearly East Asian) sorority about 12 years ago, and the South Asian population at U Texas is so large, they started a frat around that same time. I don't know if it's competitive to get into those, though.

Phoebe said...


I definitely didn't mean to imply that the discussion about what was done during the war years only applies to Jews. France has certainly had its ups and downs re: what constituted collaboration/resistance. Just that the author's own beef is, as we've both said, not new.

But you may be right that she's at least phrased something in a new way when she claims that Jews who survived the Holocaust did so because they had qualities the Nazis saw as making Jews evil. Similar claims have been made before, as in, 'every country/regime has the Jews that it deserves,' but this particular gruesome approach might be the author's own. She should be... proud?


Re: sororities:

So did you end up joining one?

I agree that the young women getting prepped for rushing sororities were prepped in everything along the way, and I think the article may have pointed this out as well. The reason this type of prep is sadder than SAT prep is that sororities are where you're supposed to meet friends, and your admission to one actually kind of is holistic, as opposed to the semi-flexible rubric that pretends to be "holistic" when it comes to college admissions. You're being prepped in getting people to like you, which, in principle, is a quality you either have or don't.

Of course, as I said in the post and you confirmed, it's a kind of getting-people-to-like-you that comes up in, for example, a career as a lawyer. Friendship, even among the clothes-conscious, generally isn't based on whether someone is dressed just so for a particular event, whereas these details could matter to get a job. I could see that if you looked at joining a sorority as a kind of pre-professional investment, and coldly approached rush as a series of networking events, rush prep would be the same as SAT prep.

But my sense - having gone to a college without much Greek life, but some, so correct me if I have this wrong - is that people consider their sorority sisters friends. This is something I could never figure out. I remember that there was much discussion at UChicago about how going Greek meant buying friends, but I could see that at a school where Greekness was simply how social life during - and life as an alum after - was organized, it would just be yet another part of college.

Somewhere online the question of black sororities came up in reference to this article, and the takeaway was that the ones at non-HBCUs aren't as exclusive as the white sororities, b/c there simply aren't enough people to go about excluding, and b/c they have a different mission. So the "pity" could be that the author didn't throw in a line about how this only applies to the blonde-and-size-two-or-else sororities. I'm not sure whether that's a pity, though, because as irritating as aloof Styles-style can be, there's also something irritating about the approach that throws in a token line about how the topic at hand only applies to rich white people... only to go on and just talk about rich white people.

PG said...

Ha, no. Actually I screwed up rush in several ways that the orientation session specifically warned against:
I forgot to bring name cards to leave at each house on the first round that's done with a big group visiting every house, so unless someone remembered my name very clearly (understandably tricky), I couldn't be invited back for the next round;
I showed up late for second round because I had to find my own way and got lost;
My feet hurt from wearing heeled boots during the first round, so I subsequently went around in ugly comfortable loafers;
and I think I got blackballed at one house when I said that I'd gotten into Antitrust Economics as a first year student. (I was in a program that gave priority class registration.) The fourth-year economics major I was talking to, who hadn't gotten into the class, gave me the evil eye.

But the holistic admissions process does include things like a personal essay and interviews that are about getting people to like you. At least as I advise people to write such essays, they are different from interviewing because the way you're getting the admissions committee to like you is to make yourself somewhat vulnerable in some way, but it is fundamentally the point. There's not much other way to account for the variability in which schools accept you and which don't other than someone on Georgetown's committee liking you and someone on Fordham's committee not. They're not supposed to be your friends like your sorority sisters, but you're supposed to give them a sense that they "know" you.

I'm not sure whether that's a pity, though, because as irritating as aloof Styles-style can be, there's also something irritating about the approach that throws in a token line about how the topic at hand only applies to rich white people... only to go on and just talk about rich white people.

I guess I prefer to have the token line in articles like this that seem to be somewhat pitched at readers who don't know much about Greek life (eg if they attended a college without sororities, or only the non-ethnic kind), and thus may be unaware that specifically black, Asian etc. sororities even exist. I'm not even saying that rush anxiety is only for rich white girls; middle class and non-white girls rush those traditional sororities as well. I don't think there were more than a couple of sororities and fraternities at UVa that were actually all-white. (At least, visually speaking; they may have had members who identified as black but had gone beyond the paper-bag test.)

And I didn't experience any of the horror stories you hear about, like the Texas Tri-Delts making all the freshwomen take off their shoes at the entrance before going into the common rooms, and having a sorority member go around checking the labels in the shoes. The comparison in the article to meeting your boyfriend's parents seemed a good one: you're not supposed to be dressed expensively, just appropriately. (I would say this is true for job interviewing as well.)

Phoebe said...

Ah. It's a relief - and good for the good name of sororities - that the reason wasn't racist, anti-blonde-ist, something like that. Too bad you didn't get the full experience, though! The closest I ever came was when a classmate told me she wanted to start a Jewish sorority (which I don't believe she ever did) and wondered if I'd be interested. Which, alas, I was not.

"They're not supposed to be your friends like your sorority sisters, but you're supposed to give them a sense that they 'know' you."

Indeed - which is what I don't like about "holistic." But I think high school seniors do kind of understand that in college applications, your likability will be at most something used to decide between you and someone with your exact test scores, grades, etc. If it even does come down to that - it could be that Georgetown wanted more music majors from Kentucky and Fordham did not. And likability in this context is at any rate more about "character" than, say, coolness. While I'm sure attractiveness, thinness, well-dressed-ness, etc. do on some level impact who gets which letters of recommendation, who has which level of optimism upon leaving high school, these are not factors in college admissions as they might be with a sorority.

"I'm not even saying that rush anxiety is only for rich white girls; middle class and non-white girls rush those traditional sororities as well."

But the implication was that this specific thing - expensive prep courses for rush - applied to wealthy young women looking to enter white-majority sororities. I didn't get the sense that this is something a wealthy black college freshman looking to rush majority sororities necessarily wouldn't do. The sample wasn't of terribly many people. The story wasn't Greek Life 101, but Rich Parent Anxieties 301. Pointing out that not everyone is rich, or into Lilly Pulitzer...

I guess this is about how I felt when the "Girls" and race discussion hit. The answer would be more shows not about rich white people, not token acknowledgements that the world exists beyond rich white people and now, quick as possible, back to the real story, which is rich white people.

"The comparison in the article to meeting your boyfriend's parents seemed a good one: you're not supposed to be dressed expensively, just appropriately. (I would say this is true for job interviewing as well.)"

I suppose this would be good training for those looking to enter certain fields, although it's quite possible to go to Banana Republic or Ann Taylor or whatever even without having ever worn anything but jeans throughout all your schooling.

What I think is going on is, there's a certain personality that enjoys the challenge of dressing business-appropriately, for the sake of it, even without any particular reward. Whereas there's another personality that will do so only if necessary (i.e. to get/keep a job).