Friday, March 30, 2012

I have to ask

A common thread in my life thus far is living in places meant for people with far more $$$ than I've got. Living in Battery Park City's cheapest studio apt. meant grocery-shopping amongst the Tribecans. My free dorm room in the center of Paris was... in the center of Paris. The area of Heidelberg my husband's work brings us to is evidently quite posh. And for reasons I'll never entirely understand, I grew up UMC in a neighborhood that's definitively UC.

And yet none of this has prepared me for life in Euphemistic NJ. It's all so very if you have to ask. Recently, my husband and I walked out of a restaurant upon learning that to eat there after a certain hour, you had to pay a $5 cover charge. Not a minimum, not a fee for a performance or something, just $5 added to your bill. At restaurants without a cover charge, if you order carefully, you can leave spending 'only' $50 for two, and even tipping properly, angering your server, who may have expected as much when seeing your bike helmets, but who was nevertheless accustomed to dinner for two costing at least twice that amount. At the local coffee shop, I do my usual thing of if I order a fancy/foamy drink, I tip the change... above and beyond the expected tip in non-restaurant settings, but evidently stingy by local standards, as a bill is not involved. Despite the fact that my favorite food is cheese, I still haven't made one purchase at the cheese shoppe in town, which we can call either a protest against their policy of not putting prices on anything, or a rational response to having gone in with a friend who did ask and thus learning what their cheeses cost.

And today was my first-ever attempt at getting stuff dry-cleaned since the move. Two shirts, one dress. I went to the place nearest to where the shuttle stops in town, and it was like the waiting room of a spa. Once it was my turn, I had to play along in a discussion of how I would want things done regularly, as though I would be coming in once a week with a big stack of a financier husband's dress shirts, and not (as was the case) dropping off stuff we'd worn to an annual formal event. I did not have any idea about my husband's "starch" preferences, and asked for whatever was cheapest. I suspect this is not done. I then got the stub, and it didn't have prices on it. I asked how much this was going to cost, and was directed to a list of not-unreasonable prices, each preceded by "from." What, I asked, might they be "to"? Much discussion ensued, and if you want a "Seinfeld" reference, think of the episode where George is interacting with a tall, blond, unspecified-European saleswoman who's telling him about an "unadvertised sale." In which I was, of course, George. Long story short, I will learn on Tuesday evening what this will amount to.

What these various issues - things being expensive, high tips being assumed, prices being unmarked - have in common is that there's a general assumption that you're someone for whom money is no object. It's not hard to figure out why this locale is worse in that regard. There are non-rich residents, but they're either college students, who have minimal interaction with life off-campus, or life-of-the-mind, A-list intellectuals, who are not losing sleep over the prices these days at J.Crew.

Sanford and Toulouse

I'd been thinking of the Trayvon Martin and Toulouse cases, how they relate, or don't, in terms of parochialism in emotional response to crime (the "update" here), in terms of anti-Semitism as force of nature rather than variant of bigotry, and in terms of Jews and other groups as intermediaries. When Obama spoke out about how if he had a son, he'd look like Martin, I thought about how if I had a sister, she'd look like one of the girls they kept showing sobbing in Toulouse. I thought, more specifically, about how it's the kind of thing I'd be reluctant to remark on, because it seems so parochial, so exactly what Jews always stand accused of doing. And I'm not even in some kind of position of influence. I also thought that perhaps I'd been wrong, before, when saying that parochial-emotional responses shouldn't ever dictate policy. In a case like the Martin one, you get to see precisely why it can matter (although we must await the whole fallout) to have a black president.

To preempt comments along the lines of, 'but the cases are not analogous,' and just generally to provide an overview, consider the following:

Similarities: Both were, it appears, racially-motivated murders. In both cases, the 'justification' was a broader grievance against Group X, one that it should be obvious in no way excuses the act (the relative rate of violent street crime among young African-American boys and men, and the more questionable aspects of Israel's relationship with the Arab world, respectively), but one that impacts how these unthinkable crimes are reported. Both killers acted in ways that suggest disgruntled-white-dude but are/were themselves members of marginalized groups-of-origin (Latino, Algerian), albeit not the one that was the historic Other of the place where the crime occurred (blacks, Jews, what with slavery and Jim Crow, Dreyfus and the Holocaust).

Differences: Zimmerman lives on, claims - however implausibly - self-defense. Merah, dead, was fairly undeniably a terrorist, and there's no suggestion that he was acting in self-defense, except in that abstract sense of 'defending the Palestinians,' somehow, as a non-Palestinian, in France, some of whose young child victims happened to have dual citizenship with Israel. Zimmerman, though not a police officer, claimed to act in the interests of the state, kind of, and thus has come to represent police brutality. Merah represented, it appears, al Qaeda. Zimmerman's only victim was Martin, making this a story about black teens and young men. Merah's rampage was at its most gruesome once he got to Jews (again, young children), but because he killed adults of other backgrounds first, it becomes easier to describe the final crime as something other than anti-Semitic.

And it's that last bit I kept coming back to: why are sensible people able to understand that from what we know about it, Trayvon Martin's killing was a straightforward example of anti-black racism, but not that a guy going into a Jewish school and killing young children, whatever else was on his agenda, was kind of bigoted against Jews? Why do we keep hearing - even in the Forward - about what the crime means for France's Muslims? Not that anti-Muslim bigotry shouldn't be combatted (much like anti-Latino bigotry at home), but a bunch of Jewish kids were just murdered. Might that merit a moment considering how French Jews are responding?

Before I'd had a chance to think all of this through, Michael C. Moynihan did, for Tablet. Moynihan... says just about what I was going to say, but concludes that what we must do is fight anti-Jewish ideology among Islamist extremists. While this isn't too controversial, it would seem that the issue extends far, far beyond anyone who gives a hoot either way about the Palestinians or Islam.

What it is, more generally, is an issue of Jews being understood as a group people talk about when they really want to be talking about something else, something real. No one sensible disputes that in the U.S., anti-black racism is a key part of our history and present. That is the story, and the Martin affair is hardly a distraction from it. Meanwhile, in France these days, much as in French-colonial Algeria, the story is culturally-Catholic, militantly-secular France versus culturally-North-African, Muslim 'foreigners,' plenty of whom are multigeneration French, but who's counting. With anti-Semitism, we are always asked to look beyond the narrow question of Jews being under attack, and to focus on the real issues - economic, post-colonial, etc. Jews, we're meant to understand implicitly, are pawns. It is always fundamentally misunderstanding a case of Jews being under attack as about Jews. If you want to sound intelligent, bring up some historical or recent event generally thought to be about Jews, and explain how the real stakes had zilch to do with Jews.

All of this leaves the bigger question, namely why, but my dissertation and related tasks await.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Appropriate behavior

I've been somewhat following the story of how some employers are now demanding Facebook passwords, or Facebook "friendship," of employees as well as applicants. This poses some obvious (the AHEM issue) and not-obvious problems, such as what if you aren't posting anything odd, but others are passing along stuff in your direction, imagining it's going to be kept private - as in, not a viewed-by-all wall post - and all of a sudden whichever random company now knows their business. Quite a few people I know, none of whom grew up with Facebook, now use it as an email account. Do they want their emails to me read if I decide I want to apply for a position at Intrusiveness Inc.?

There's also the question of what, precisely, constitutes inappropriate behavior documented on Facebook. Reasonable observers will suspect that this would extend beyond an album of photos of yourself, in blackface, shooting up heroin, interspersed with whiny wall posts about how much you hate your boss. But which non-abhorrent evidence might count? A young-looking 22-year-old photographed holding a glass of wine? A 50-year-old doing the same? Bathing-suit photos? Any evidence whatsoever that you exist, as a human being, during non-work hours? It hints at the school-age-kid phenomenon of OMG my teacher is a real person who has a life outside the classroom, in which "has a life" refers not to nights of club-hopping, but to things like being spotted at Starbucks.

One angle remarkably absent from the discussion, and that's the fact that many people, without an eye to any particular job opening, construct their entire online personas - including but not limited to Facebook - so as to impress potential employers. I don't mean removing or changing privacy settings on racier items, nor do I mean the really obvious self-promotional posts. I certainly don't mean postings that outright promote an organization. I mean having a completely different concept of what Facebook is for, such that there isn't any pretext of a 'real me' available only to (some) Facebook friends.

The 'real me,' for the set I'm thinking of, is available in abundance, and it does things like join a CSA or share an informative article about Sri Lanka. It's basically the same idea as when people list as "guilty pleasures" things like 'reading Kant' or 'being generally athletic and philanthropic' - where the 'confession,' such as it is, is that occasionally the individual participates in activities not connected with the day job, but let it be known, these things are wholesome, admirable, and if anything enhance the day-job performance. (If you're a man, evidence of having a family counts. If you're a woman, not so much.) Rather than hiding the shameful, it's about an inundation of the honorable.

Now, of course, it could be that the people I'm thinking of, none of whom are close friends, in fact have bong album after bong album, but their privacy settings hide those from distant acquaintances. I doubt it, but it's possible. Regardless, it's hard to say where cynical self-presentation manipulation ends and genuine 24/7 geekiness begins. People who claim to be interested in hiking and classical music... might be some kind of social-networking version of the proverbial online dater who likes long walks on the beach, but might also genuinely prefer hiking and classical music to Uniqlo and "The Millionaire Matchmaker." Is it that there's a certain kind of person who doesn't have an on/off switch for work vs. personal life, or are some just especially thorough when it comes to self-promotion?

The danger, I suppose, is a new norm, in which anyone who doesn't a) have a Facebook page, and b) use it to show how 24/7 flawless they are will be penalized. But given that thus far, it seems employers are interested in things like whether the people they're hiring are in a gang, I'm not sure we need to panic just yet.

Quote of the day

I’m inferring that you and your wife would prefer, and understand better, an arugula-eating son toiling on a doctorate in comparative literature. However, it could be that at the end of that son’s labors, you’d wish he’d spent less time analyzing Love's Labour’s Lost and more time getting some skills that resulted in a paycheck.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A view from the provinces

-Bisou-walk podcast of the morning: Leonard Lopate on the NYU expansion plan. Not entirely the show's fault that there was no pro-plan guest, given that they evidently did contact NYU and not get anyone (too bad they didn't seek out the university's most contrarian grad student), but they did manage to get three guests opposed, presumably going through more than one channel. There are valid criticisms in the mix (what will the expansion be used for?), as well as heaps of nonsense. One of the guests - I think this was the professor - was criticizing NYU for using non-grad-student adjuncts. Fair enough. He then referred to said instructors as - I quote - "unqualified," asking why anyone would go to NYU to be taught by adjuncts. I beg your pardon? This was also the only point in the show that Lopate actually questioned the view of one of his guests, as opposed to offering tepid devil's-advocate statements. Lopate pointed out that some of these adjuncts are amazing teachers, leading this guest to reply, again, a quote, "Some of my best friends are adjuncts."

Missing from the conversation was a sense of what the Village these days is, which is, increasingly, a playground for the rich. And by "rich" I don't mean middle-/upper-middle-class NYU undergrads. I really doubt if that's who's sustaining that stretch of Bleecker Street that's all Marc Jacobs and French-import boutiques. I mean bankers, European socialites, and so forth. And what is the "character" of the neighborhood? Is it the low-rise buildings, composed of $3,000/month (or more these days?) studio apartments? Or is it the historical role of the area as a place where, for example, gay and/or quirky kids flee to from small towns? If it's the latter, it's hard to see how, these days, the Village without NYU would be of much use. If it's the former, then fine, it's so very tragic that college kids and their profs live in unsightly towers.

I mean, it wasn't completely missing. Lopate did bring up the NIMBY question (again, as quasi-counterargument), and mentioned that some of the plan's critics' critics accuse them of elitism. But the counterargument - that some of the area residents live in rent-subsidized apartments - gives just about no picture of what's really going on. Unfortunately, perhaps due in part to the university's own PR fumbling, the narrative that's sticking is that there are on the one hand these old-timey, of-the-people Village-as-village residents, and on the other, a corporate behemoth.

-Commentary does not know the difference between Greater Park Slope and Greater Williamsburg.

The New York Times notes, “The boycott would be largely symbolic, because the co-op carries only a half-dozen or so products imported from Israel, including paprika, olive pesto and vegan marshmallows.” It’s possible if you have not recently been to Brooklyn, that sentence may strike you as absurd.
Unclear what about these ingredients would strike non-Brooklynites as "absurd" - we do have items beyond Wonder Bread out in the provinces - but anyone who thinks the hippie-inflected, practical-shoe-wearing crowd on Union Street is "trendy" is, I suspect, unfamiliar with either the area or the concept.

-I had one of those indefinite amounts of time to kill in the city that demand a visit to Sephora. There, I tried to figure out what "highlighter" makeup is. I'm still unclear. It sounds as if it would be a magic product that makes you look amazing even on days when you're feeling sort of eh, but ended up with a sparkly left hand and a sense that $20-and-up packages of goo with names like "Orgasm" are probably as snake-oil-ish as they seem.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Utterly frivolous things I might buy if they cost half what they do

-Yves Klein Blue nail polish. But at $20 plus $7.50 for shipping...

-$70 galaxy-print scarf.

-Neon yellow-green J. Crew chino shorts. Same as the neon pink ones I wore all of last summer, but not (yet) on sale. Full price, thanks to the new order in which J.Crew is quasi-"designer," is $45.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Kimmelman Center

It's not every day NYU grad students get sneered at in the paper of record, but Michael Kimmelman has a go at it, complaining about, of all things, "iPod-engrossed graduate students" taking up precious space in Greenwich Village. Poor Michael Kimmelman! I never realized that listening to music or a podcast while shuffling between the library, department, and classroom buildings  (and don't forget the taco place!) while in the process of getting a PhD was so aesthetically off-putting to those with delicate sensibilities. I ought to be more careful. What would be much better than a doctoral candidate is a park, in which Michael Kimmelman and his folksy Village roots can celebrate their true ownership of the 'hood. I mean, why stop there? Why not a right of return for anyone whose ancestors hung around with Edith Wharton back in the day?

Kimmelman, who evidently went to graduate school in euphemistic Boston, and in the pre-iPod age, is simply better than us peons. When he was a grad student, his mere presence inspired epic poetry.

But this type of argument isn't new, just the anti-grad-student insult. The Village person's anti-NYU argument (to be distinguished from the various grad-student-quasi-union and other internal clashes with the administration) seems to be essentially that Village residents - a few lucky beneficiaries of rent control, plus those in finance who are the few who can afford the area at market rates - are these quaint, quirky individuals, whose charming, "Friends"-esque existence suffers when kids whose crimes are being young and more creative-seeming than Ivy-serious, at least to outside observers, do such things as walk down the street in their presence.

And it's all a bit nuts. If the popular image of NYU is a wealthy, spoiled undergrad, the reality is plenty of undergrads on scholarship or from wealthy families but not the least bit entitled, along with a whole bunch of grad students, staff, and professors, who are simply... working, middle-class-give-or-take adults, doing our small part to keep something of a middle class in New York. Whatever you think of NYU-the-institution, it seems a mistake to pick on those affiliated with it. NYU is too many things to really sum it up. Almost everyone I know in New York, friends from childhood up through college, ended up with some or another connection to the university. It's a million things to seemingly a million different people. The only reason to dislike the NYU 'community'-such-as-it-is is that we're not buying $30 million townhouses, or, for the most part, of the class that spends its time protesting travesties involving pretty neighborhoods getting muddied up by the presence of non-financiers.

Friday, March 23, 2012

New life goal

Get a picture of myself, furious and finger raised, arguing in defense of Israel in front of an iconic New York supermarket.


Well gee thanks, Paul Rudnick and the New Yorker, for running off with my fabulous idea.

Cellulite as natural disaster

A man writes to Prudie to complain that his wife has cellulite. This is, apologies to Kate Harding, a bit like writing in to complain that your husband has a penis. Sure, there are honest-to-goodness men without penises - in the transgender community, for example - but for the vast majority of those whose sexual orientation points to the dudes, it comes with the territory.

And it really is about the same with women and cellulite. Not exactly the same - we're not about to reach the point that an absence of cellulite is going to be a deal-breaker for many lovers-of-women - but much the same insofar as being attracted to women is virtually a guarantee that cellulite will make an appearance. A little, a lot, but probably not none at all. If you think you're seeing none at all, consider possibilities such as: the room is kind of dark, your vision poor.

Conversely, the only way to be sure you won't see cellulite in the bedroom is to partner off with men or very young women. So young, in fact, that they couldn't really be called "women," and probably shouldn't be in your bedroom in the first place. Thus the use of "women's" fashion models who are either prepubescent girls or, the latest innovation, delicate-featured men. There basically aren't 18-and-ups who come looking pre-airbrushed in this way.

And it kind of makes sense how cellulite would come to be an obsession - there tends to be more of it the older and heavier a woman is, and that which indicates youth and slimness tends to be sought-after. Except, well, with breasts - there, more also indicates older, heavier, and yet outside the realm of high fashion, is generally considered a desirable trait. So who knows.

Anyway, it's news to me that Americans care that much about cellulite. Bad news, because as with the War on Contraception, the War on Cellulite is about pretending that something so common among adult women as to be almost definitive of being an adult woman is in fact this horribly shameful secret... giving men the false impression that they ought to seek out a woman whose medicine cabinet contains only Tylenol, and whose thighs are from every angle bump-free.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Ned Resnikoff has set out some WWPD bait. I'm reminded, of course, of how I, a genuine self-identified Zionist, managed to get on the only Birthright trip that wasn't Zionist indoctrination. Yep, still bitter.

But back to Ned's post. He recounts "an afternoon spent at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where our tour guide explained to us how Theodore Herzl become the first modern Zionist."

Herzl had originally been a journalist, and it was in that capacity that he covered the century-old French Jew-burning we know as the Dreyfus Affair. Watching Dreyfus be wrongfully convicted simply for being a Jew, our tour guide explained, was what taught Herzl that “the experiment in being both French and Jewish was over.”
That’s a pretty remarkable statement if taken to its logical conclusion. If the experiment of being French and Jewish is over, what does that say for the experiment of being American and Jewish? English and Jewish? Brazilian and Jewish? Are these all doomed to failure, or are they already pretty much over as well?

When Herzl was talking about the incompatibility of being Jewish and French, this was at a specific moment in history when what everyone had long taken for granted - that the best place to be Jewish was France - appeared to have fallen apart. It wasn't just poor Dreyfus, but a massive ideological split in France, with one half of the divide turning hatred of Jews into a political force. There were - a link, for those with JStor access - anti-Semitic riots. It was a pretty big deal.

It's of course legit to take issue with political interpretations of Herzl's observation - ones that conflated Dreyfus-era France with Holocaust-era France, present-day France, etc. But when Herzl was making these observations, it was at at the tail end of a time when virtually no one in Western Europe was thinking to question... not only that one could be French and Jewish, but that Paris was the new Jerusalem, the best possible place to be a Jew since antiquity of not ever. In my own research, I haven't found much of a rejection of that notion - much of a proto/quasi-Jewish nationalism - prior to the 1880s, which was also, coincidentally, when modern anti-Semitism emerged in France. That the Affair culminated in Dreyfus's exoneration, reinstatement, and ultimately serving in WWI (no dual loyalties there!) makes the Affair kind of (although I don't entirely agree with the current school on this) a warm-and-fuzzy moment in French-Jewish history. But Herzl, at the time, knew neither that the Affair would work out OK, nor that the anti-Dreyfusard contingent would morph into something called the Vichy regime.

So, Herzl's in the clear, on this at least. What about Ned's tour guide? And is there are pervasive sense in the American-Jewish community that you must see Israel as your "home"? Now that I think of it, there was "home" rhetoric on my Birthright trip as well, but I suppose it's a matter of interpretation. I saw it as how Ireland would be "home" on a trip there for Irish-American youth. Certainly not as a call to 'return.' If you're an Ashkenazi Jew, and your civilization was basically wiped out, or a Mizrachi Jew, and your civilization was relocated to Israel, it's not so outrageous for you to think that the land where your 'kind' has gathered is more your "home" than the geographical home of your ancestors.

And that's really the question - not whether my "home" or Ned's "home" is Israel or the U.S., but whether it's Israel or whichever Diaspora country/countries preceded the U.S. And what connection am I, for one, supposed to feel to present-day Russia or Poland? Do I have family there? If I were to visit there, would I be surrounded by people who look startlingly like me?

I know some who share my ancestry opt for that version of back-to-the-roots, as a way of distancing themselves from Zionism. But I'm talking culture, emotion, not politics. Even if you think plopping a Jewish state onto Palestine was a terrible idea, you're left with the fact that that's where Jews-as-such have gathered. Which I guess puts me - an anti-settlements, open-to-making-Jerusalem-an-international-city sort of Zionist - in the same category as the oh-so-chauvinist Israelis who told Ned that "Israel was my home, whether I knew it or not, and that I basically had no choice in the matter." OK, I'd say that Ned has choice in the matter, in that I wouldn't ask that we compel him to feel one way or another. But I'm also not sure that it's "right-wing Zionism" - let alone treason! - to view Israel as "home."

Anti-Semitism as natural disaster

Like some of the paper's other readers, I was struck by the choice of the NYT to conduct man-on-the-street interviews reacting to the Toulouse shootings with Muslims, but not Jews. To report on Islamophobic retaliation that might happen, rather than the response to a murderous anti-Jewish attack that, well, did happen. (One that was itself only 'retaliatory' if you consider French-Jewish children with joint Israeli citizenship representatives of Netanyahu's government.) This choice was not enough to prevent one commenter from asking, "[H]ad this murder been at a Muslim school would it be making front page on the NYTimes and other media?" When it's like, these were multiple murders at a Jewish school, and it's being reported as an anti-Muslim attack.

I know there is a temptation to look at this in terms of the 'new anti-Semitism' that comes out of radical Islam and its supporters/overly tepid critics on the Western left. But as I see it, this is less about a popular belief that Jews fundamentally represent the Israeli government's worst actions and thus deserve to be victims of violent attacks, and more about a much more longstanding sense that anti-Semitism is... natural. Not "natural" as in it's only natural that Jews would elicit hatred, but as in part of the natural world. This is especially true, I think, when it comes to discussions of certain Jews surviving the Holocaust, either as individuals or communities. We so often discuss the Jews who lived through those years hidden away, in an attic or forest, as having almost been hiding out from a storm. A storm, that is, and not a political movement that hardly killed at random.

And this outlook continues to be the way anti-Semitic acts are treated. If it's generally thought that Jews overreact to anti-Semitism (and I ask you to locate the marginalized group that doesn't complain vocally when attacked), it's not so much because we don't think Jews are still hated. (This, longtime readers, is what I used to think it was.) It's more that we see Jew-hatred as just a part of life, and find it baffling and irritating that Jews make a fuss about what is, after all, beyond human control.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Annals of the useless

Asking a 15-year-old actress how she gets such shiny hair, which lip balm she prefers, and what she does for exercise. Really, NYT? Some teeny-tiny percentage of humanity looks best at 12-16 (and, thanks to a middle school friend's recent Facebook photo-scanning extravaganza, we can rest assured that yours truly wasn't one of them) and the best-looking of 12-16-year-old females are held up as society's great beauty ideal, because for whatever reason they never came by to ask those of us who think beauty's more often found in men. Somehow I don't think going out and buying whatever shampoo this girl uses would make all the difference.

This, despite the recent purchase of tempeh

I'm not sure whether this was classic dissertation-writer's procrastination, or a well of contrarianism born of a unprecedentedly unpleasant trip to Wegman's, during which I ended up on the line with the cashier who, for each item, entered a long numerical code in slow motion, even though the scanner seemed to work just fine, and I'd pre-weighed all the necessary items, realizing well into the wait that the shuttle had probably arrived... but I have entered this contest, where the NYT asks you to give an ethical argument for eating meat. I think this means I have descended to a level below "online newspaper commenter," but I'd of course be gobsmackingly thrilled if they print my ramblings. But they won't, so once they announce the winners, expect a version here instead.

Monday, March 19, 2012

For a change, trains, France, food, and Jews

-File under obvious, but I wouldn't recommend NJ Transit on St. Patrick's Day. We got seats, because (as per usual) there were empty spots in an otherwise packed car, next to a guy who happened to be black - must have been a coincidence, and not evidence that Americans/those who take this train line are all kinds of racist. I suggest a trip on the NE Corridor line for anyone in need of evidence against this being a "post-racial" nation.

Anyway, a 9:30 AM train did not mean the party hadn't started. After several months of near-seclusion among a handful of scientists, there was something kind of fun about being in a spray-tanned, hot-pants-wearing horde. I'm used to feeling mildly self-conscious about, say, wearing lilac nail polish, so I welcomed the sea of acrylic. OK, it wasn't so great when I overheard remarks about how someone has "never" had to pee this badly, and you can kind of guess what's coming. But otherwise, it had its moments.

-The market for books about France, food, and Americans' sense of inferiority is officially infinite. I fully intend to get started on mine, which will be called: "The Move To France And Have Your Jaw Wired Shut Miracle Diet." Its sequel, "Life in the Sixteenth Arrondissement With A Persistent Gastrointestinal Ailment: Fahbulous, Dahling!," is also in the works.

-Because I am incredibly suggestible, I followed Mark Bittman's advice and bought miso, without knowing quite what to make with it. I guess my favorite flavor is umami, both because I remember vividly spending a long time at a very snazzy bar mitzvah (at the Pierre hotel!) chock full of cute boys from the grade above me, affixed to a wheel of Parmesan they just had, like, out, and you could take as much as you wanted, and because now, I'm wondering if the best use for it might be eating it out of the container with a spoon.

-On the scandal that wasn't: at the tail end of the Fluke-Limbaugh debacle, a blogger evidently had a field day over the fact that Fluke's boyfriend (wait, she has a boyfriend? wouldn't that ruin the fantasy of her as the most promiscuous woman in America? or is that too rational?) is a Jew. Said blogger, whose influence it's fair to say falls short of, say, Limbaugh's, sees a connection between this fact and Jewish socialism, or Jewish money-and-power, or something. A very smart woman I met at a conference a while back has a post worth reading about this, and David Schraub, also very smart, makes a good point in his response as well.

And I feel as though I ought to weigh in on this, what with that pesky dissertation on intermarriage. My interpretation of this latest installment of the Fluke story would be that this is less about a gender-specific anti-Semitic trope, of Jewish men somehow corrupting non-Jewish women (assuming Fluke isn't Jewish), and more the broader anti-Semitic trope of Jews as anti-Christian, anti-family-values. And historically, this has hit Jewish women and men alike - the Jewish-prostitute motif, as well as the (male, generally) Jew as radical. (Léon Blum's support for premarital experimentation, Alfred Naquet's for divorce...).

I mean, it is about gender, but almost more than it's about Jewishness. To even pose the question of who Fluke's boyfriend is, to suggest that there lies the true origins of her political opinions... sure, the answer they find plays into stereotypes about Jewish intelligence/conniving, but is more obviously (and I see Sarah Seltzer made this point as well) the usual 'silly young woman inherently incapable of thinking for herself' cliché, as if she's the Gloria to his Mike "Meathead" Stivic.

Toulouse school shooting UPDATED

Yes, following this. And, other than that it's incredibly upsetting, I don't have much to say at this point. Whether the killer was Muslim and using French-Jewish school-children as a stand-in for Israel; a white-supremacist; or a nut aware that anything to do with Jews and violence gets attention, it's obviously too soon to say. I'd advise against coming to conclusions along the lines of, this is what Jews get for living somewhere as anti-Semitic as France (when, if your goal is not having your children shot to death at school, it's really the U.S. you'd want to avoid), as well as, this is really just about Israel, and if Israel only behaved itself, this sort of thing wouldn't happen (wrong because this didn't even happen in Israel, and because this sort of thing most certainly did happen in France before 1967 and 1948). In other words, I'd avoid explanations... at all, at this point, but especially ones that pretend that "the Jews" somehow bring such things upon themselves.

I'll weigh in again once more info. emerges, but that's about it thus far, from the French news as well.


So, a couple things about the response thus far. Much has been made of the fact that someone who may have been the same shooter also killed French black and Arab paratroopers, and that this did not get the same attention, thus proving a) Judeo-centrism in the Jewy Jewy media, and/or b) a racist indifference to crimes where the victims are non-white.

When it might be relevant a) that murders of young schoolchildren, and that would be three of the four Jewish victims, get more attention, all things equal, than murders of adults ("The suspect pursued his last victim, an 8-year-old girl, into the concrete courtyard, seizing and stopping her by her hair, said Ms. Yardeni, who viewed surveillance footage of the killing."), and b) that French Jews - as a photo accompanying the NYT piece suggests, although this is of course more complicated than complexion - are not all that white. Race is a construct, and indeed as constructed in France, the equivalent of the U.S.'s "whiteness" is looking ethnically French: pale skin, light brown or dark blond hair, certain facial features. French Jews, many of whom are of North African origin, with of course some exceptions, do not.

Now, one might counter that in the U.S., where Jews tend to be Ashkenazi, and where "white" basically means not in one of the categories officially considered of-color, most Jews are white, ergo, American media respond in horror when victims are or seem "white" by American standards. To which I'd counter a) that if Jews are "white" in the U.S., so too, often enough, are Arabs (which isn't to say there isn't anti-Arab bigotry, again, these things are complicated), and b) that however Jews are viewed in the U.S., if we are to believe that a neo-Nazi, white-supremacist sort chose Arab, black, and Jewish victims, by the standards of the place where the crimes occurred, all of the victims come from groups that would fall into the category of visible minorities.

But back to the marginally less awkward question of parochialism in response to tragedy. It would seem a natural enough human impulse - not necessarily a calculated, political move - to be more upset when a small-scale tragedy strikes closer to you than when a greater one does further away. This sort of thinking shouldn't, of course, determine policy, but as a reaction to share privately, or an emotional outburst on a newspaper comments page, what can you do? But the important thing to remember, in this case, is that the tendency to respond more to tragedies that hit close to home is not a uniquely Jewish trait. We should not confuse the fact that non-Jews are and for ever so long have been disproportionately obsessed with Jews, with the altogether normal fact that Jews pay attention to Jews. Everyone pays attention to their own kind.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Remind me why people agree to be quoted by NYT lifestyle reporters.

Sometimes, tragedy strikes:

Their price range included “places we thought we could talk down to $1.2 million,” said Ms. Rondeau, 37. She is a former shoe designer, while Mr. Beach, 40, works as an information technology manager for a real estate finance company.
Their taste for the historic was obvious. “Every time they saw something with lots of original detail,” Ms. Levine recalled, “they lit up, even if the property wasn’t viable for other reasons.” 
They were disturbed when they found renovations that destroyed the integrity of the original construction. Often a place “looked like a brownstone on the outside and a new condo on the inside,” Ms. Rondeau said, “and it kept making us really sad.”

Resistance (to) training

In the midst of the contraception-coverage debacle, a very har har article came out, listing other amenities the government might mandate that employers provide. I had a bit of a har har of my own, when I realized that my husband's employer provides all of this, and for spouses/partners as well. (OK, no massages, as far as I know. But there are tennis lessons. And this isn't even including the amenities offered by my own university, which I theoretically have access to, but living this far, I'm not getting much out of this year.) But then it occurred to me that I'm not really making the most of this. Of the library access, yes, and the cookies, but not the gym. And it's not merely a gym, but gym with its own personal trainer.

So I went, but it's a bit what I imagine psychoanalysis would be like. There's this great mystique around it, and you know it from movies, but then you get there and you find yourself unsure where perhaps ve to begin. It almost seemed as though the best approach would be to show up, Biggest Loser style, in a revealing, ideally unflattering, sports-bra and bike-shorts combo, and ask the trainer what she thought was most pressing.

Instead, I arrived decent, and at a loss for what I was there for. The trainer asked me when the last time was that I'd worked out, and, having just come from a run, I had to say, five minutes ago? I explained that while I go running a few times a week (didn't mention the poodle component, which might count as cross-training), jogging is absolutely it for my exercise, which evidently means that I'm missing strength and flexibility. This led to an ab exercise reminiscent of Edina's sit-up attempt with Patsy's trainer boy-toy on AbFab, and a leg-stretch not unlike when Sheldon tries to touch his toes on the Big Bang Theory. Now, if you're thinking, that's a lot of TV references, this might be a hint at why, despite being not not in shape, the gym is a not-terrible life modification.

There is now the inevitable question of sticking to it. To be continued. Or not. We shall see.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Such a chore

There was evidently some study, coming out of UCLA, that shows that American middle-class kids are brats, while their Samoan equivalents are not as bratty. Without knowing a thing about Samoa, we might assume that this is correct. French and Chinese kids are better-behaved. Why would any other non-U.S. locale whose child-rearing practices are profiled in the WSJ be different? Slate and the NYT parenting blog are also on the case. At the latter, KJ Dell'Antonia asks if kids need more chores. What do you think the commenters will respond?

We of course hear from those who were expected to do all the chores growing up, and who are, we can assume, amazing people, or who expected this of their kids, all of whom are currently happily married and immensely professionally successful.

My own gratuitously contrarian thoughts on the matter, which I see overlap with some of the comments:

-It would seem that a child raised without having to do chores would grow up to think chores are something parents do, not that he, the child-as-adult, will always have people waiting on him. I do plenty of chores now that I was never asked to do, never thought to do, as a kid, and never expect that someone will, say, swoop in and buy me my groceries. (But if so, I'll email you the weekly list.)

-The difference is when you bring gender into the mix - if mom does all the chores, and dad none, even if none of the kids do chores, the boys will grow up thinking chores are for the wife, etc.

-On the other hand, if one parent stays at home, whichever parent that is, it becomes more difficult to justify chores as something that everyone has to pitch in with after school or work. If one parent gets home at seven, wiped out, and doesn't have to do anything, why should Junior, who already had school and soccer practice and three hours of homework, have to do the vacuuming?

-Probably also awkward: what if there's a housekeeper? While my only personal experience of this was time spent at a German scientist guest-house last summer, I'm aware of a phenomenon of adults hiring others to clean their toilets for them. Artificial, I'd imagine, in such a situation, to tell your kid to start scrubbing.

-While bathrooms do need regular cleaning, as do kitchens, lots of "chores" are make-work, whether for a June Cleaver or a put-upon 5th-grader. Bed-making, for example. Dusting. Even essential chores can be more or less of a fuss - laundry will happen more often if you insist on washing jeans after every wear, food prep at dinner need not reach back-of-Michelin-starred-restaurant proportions, etc. Unless you're doing serious entertaining, and often, there's something to be said for learning to live with a little mess.

-Whereas there are life skills, like how to deal with money, or how to cook, that parents too frequently ignore. That whole "but what if Junior never learns how to do his laundry?" argument is overrated. Junior will dye precisely one load of white wash pink, his first month of college, will ruin a few crappy t-shirts from high school, and the world will not end.

-The "builds character" argument is predicated on the idea that kids need to learn to do things they wouldn't have wanted to do. Yet for most kids, on most days, such activities as "soccer practice" and "school" fall into that category. A kid who goes to school - and homeschooling might not accomplish this, at least without all kinds of outside effort - learns that it's a wide world that does not* revolve around him. That is the life lesson. Why teach kids that they need to keep their rooms tidy, only to watch them grow up and spend ages 18-25 living in intentional squalor, after they realize that tidiness is not in fact necessary?

-Requisite class angle: maybe it's better to schedule ballet and Mandarin lessons for Junior than to make him fold laundry. But if parents are, or a single parent is, exhausted from three jobs, or not academically-inclined, not wealthy or plugged-in enough to get these activities for their kids, or otherwise not a refugee of the Upper West Side now living in Park Slope, and it's a choice between uninterrupted vegging out and an interruption that involves folding laundry? Could be.

-When I think back to kids I knew who were truly self-sufficient, it was generally for fairly tragic reasons involving absentee parents. As with our society's bizarre insistence on having college freshmen share bedrooms, there's a point at which character-building switches over into something less innocuous.

-If poodles could do chores. That's all.

*Typo fixed.


Now that my shopping is limited to whichever supermarkets the shuttle goes to, I go back and forth between preferring Wegman's and Whole Foods. Contrary to popular opinion, or at least given the things I buy, price doesn't end up being the main difference. And the quality is probably better at Whole Foods. But the sanctimony - the atmosphere devoted to promoting smugness among the customers, to pretending that with each choice you make as a consumer, beginning but for sure not ending with the choice to enter their store, you can save the world, save your loved ones from your own untimely death-by-Cheetos, etc. I don't want to make a lifestyle statement, I just want bulk legumes and a week's worth of produce and cheese, to liven up the dry pasta from the regular supermarket.

The latest thing there (make that here - the shuttle drops us off for two hours) is a version of where they ask you, at checkout, if you want to make a donation to whichever charity you of course have never heard of but you're probably a bad person for being so skeptical. In this version, however, what makes it different is, they ask you not merely if you want to donate, but if you want to donate your bag refund - the five cents per bag you get if you bring your own bags. It would seem - am I missing something? - that the point of this program is to get people to bring their own bags. It's a bit like - to return to an earlier discussion - if there were a campaign urging people to trade driving for biking, citing the relative cost, that also urged bikers to donate what they would have spent on gas. 

But it kind of makes sense - why not target the contingent already convinced that little things add up? It also would seem to defeat the purpose of the bag refund. If you opt to bring your own bags because of the refund, only to find you've been shamed for being so petty as to care about twenty cents or whatever it amounts to, what's the point? The refund is there because people do care about saving these tiny amounts, bringing them back into the personal or household pot, and then deciding what to do with them - save, spend, get out of debt, or, say, donate to a charity that you actually know something about.


Soon after reading that article about blacks at Stuyvesant, the dog-walking podcast of the day was an interview with the author of Our Black Year, a new book about "buying black," Maggie Anderson. Because this was public radio, there was of course no 'OMG reverse racism' commentary. But what did emerge was that to "buy black," practically speaking, meant boycotting not Muffy Muffington's cupcake shoppe, but stores located in predominately-black communities, but owned by Arabs and other not-quite-white minorities. Groups that inadvertently benefit from America's anti-black racism, but that are not precisely the beneficiaries of white privilege. It was, in a sense, the Stuyvesant story all over again. It's a great shame that there are so few blacks at the high school. But offering them a bigger piece of that particular pie means taking away not from wealthy or upper-middle-class whites, but rather from middle and lower-middle-class Asians and Asian-Americans.

If I pick up on this issue more than most, it's without a doubt because a) I'm Jewish, and b) I study Jewish history. This is a boat Jews have been in quite often, although, as the examples above indicate, it's hardly particular to Jews. Nor, for that matter, is it particular to the black-white divide in America. When France ruled over Algeria, French Catholic colonizers manipulated Jews' "natural" place as intermediaries between the indigenous and colonizer populations... even though many of the Jews there were also indigenous. While not everything had been peachy prior to the French invasion, much of the "natural" Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment was basically anti-French sentiment, because the divide-and-conquer French colonizers had opted to raise Jews a notch in the colonial hierarchy.

But this is just a thing - in places where there's one group with power, and one most-scorned Other, groups that are neither serve all kinds of convenient functions. In the eyes of the most-marginalizeds, they're a proxy for those in power. When the moment comes to revolt against the Oppressor, an intermediary is a far easier target. And those in power - well, at least until the revolution comes - can rest assured that the intermediaries don't pose any real threat of usurping their own place.

As I was trying to formulate these thoughts, commenter Micha pointed me to this Ta-Nehisi Coates post, about how African-Americans view Jews. Coates's assessment, that blacks see Jews as just another subset of whites, makes sense intuitively. But it fails to get at something a bit deeper, which is that Jews, for many blacks, and, quite frankly, for many non-blacks, the subset that defines whiteness. According to stereotype, Jews are nerdy, rich, whiny-despite-abundant-privilege. And which subset of the population gets to see itself represented in sitcoms, rom-coms? Whites? Or maybe New York Jews?

And, once again, this both is and is not a Jewish thing. It's also an intermediary thing. Intermediaries are viewed as more white than whites (using "white" as a stand-in for the group in power), but that doesn't mean they fundamentally are.

There's something kind of bad-taste-leaving about the post, though, in that Coates describes Jews as somehow imagining up a marginalized status, where no such status exists. Even though Coates concludes that we ought to respect even imagined marginalization. I mean, Jews were, in recent-ish memory, in the West, victims of racially-motivated genocide. It's all kinds of preposterous to conflate fears of anti-Semitism (from blacks or anyone else) with cries of "reverse racism" against American whites. It comes from such a different place. Anyone who thinks American Jews have had it as bad as American blacks is of course a fool, but does anyone think this?

As for how to deal with the "intermediary question," that's a bit beyond what I could accomplish with a single blog post. But I think it's important to find a way to address it that a) isn't equating the experience of intermediaries and most-marginalizeds, yet b) identifies and rejects the popular belief that intermediaries are in fact the oppressor.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Le bike, c'est chic

The NYT Style magazine is evidently gearing up (sorry) for a bicycle-themed issue, given how many of its recent posts are biking-themed. As is generally the case with style (see also), whatever it is is stylish if those who could afford otherwise opt for it. Head-to-toe denim (think "boyfriend" jeans and a tucked-in chambray button-down) are the height of chic, but not if god forbid worn on an actual worker. (Unless it's an artisan-food-craftsperson in Bushwick.) And riding a bike is so-very-now, but only if you've nobly opted not to be escorted by your car-and-driver, only if you've stylishly rejected the possibility of getting from your apartment in SoHo to your office in Tribeca by cab. If you're a Milanese fashion designer, chic. If this is actually how you get around, because, for example, a car seems like a huge investment, especially when you're not sure where you'll be living in a few years, and when there's alternative transportation to the further-away supermarkets, it's not chic in the least. If you have to wear a helmet because you ride in heavy traffic, on roads where furious New Jersey SUV drivers honk at you simply for having taken a slower-moving vehicle into their road, forget it.

But fantasy Bikeland is another matter entirely. Even if the place is ostensibly Chicago, it's all white-walled minimalism, London or Scandinavia, off-the-beaten-path cafés where you might get a "flat white," men with those quasi-fascistic haircuts where the sides and back are shaved off but the top is kept long. And the bikes themselves had better look straight out of the Netherlands. (A bike like this, $1,255.) Bikeland is a vacation to Northern Europe where exchange rates are no matter, where the fact that a beer in Sweden (or is it Norway?) costs $10, where you are hob-nobbing with creative types, joining them at art openings that begin at 11, when it's still light out, of course, so you don't even need to ruin the clean lines of your bike with unsightly lights. You have family money, so your job is designing the packaging for an eco-friendly brand of nail polish. You are biking from aperitivo hour with beautiful Milanese of your preferred gender, to repurposed industrial spaces in Greenpoint where unknown goth-chic designers are hosting all-night runway shows. Bikeland, in other words, sounds fabulous, but has little in common with bike riding as actually experienced, which is to say, mud-splattered and with a backpack filled to capacity.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Two-buck Chuck

Charles Murray, over truffles, a gin-brand-specified martini, and a $100-plus bottle o' wine, complains, “'[I]n academia their [elite 'mericans'] sense of kinship with their European counterparts as opposed to fellow Americans is incomparable.'” Yes, strange, isn't it, that people would connect most with those they actually interact with in their academic and professional lives, even if those individuals come from other countries. Never mind that academia's one of the few channels through which, for example, provincial New Yorkers meet people who grew up in small towns out in Real America. Never mind that everyone involved is probably the child of an academic, likely in the same field. I mean, there's totally a CCOA to be had, but Murray is, as the kids say, doing it wrong.

Meanwhile, if I had a martini and half a bottle of wine, it's anyone's guess what critiques of academia I might come up with. (In all likelihood, none, because critiquing academia from a coma is, I'd imagine, kind of difficult.)

Friday, March 09, 2012

WWPD's weekend "Lifestyle" section

-The food movement is full of paradoxes and contradictions. On the one hand, we are asked to avoid processed foods, added sweeteners, and so on. On the other, we are to shun all produce that is not both seasonal and local (gar!), when for most of us, and that includes yours truly, even if you've got access to supermarkets including Whole Foods, itself a big "if," produce comes from all over the place, but rarely, in many regions, from nearby. (Or: I could buy a car and drive around to the farms in our area. And there are plenty of farms. But how "green" would that be?) On the one hand, we're to eat real foods. On the other, Mark Bittman wants us to eat fake meat. What gives?

-Stop the presses: an H&M model is looking worryingly thin. "Some observers have criticised the choice of styling and make up for the model, saying that her pale complexion, hollowed cheeks, dark eyes and unkempt hair make her look yet more unhealthy." Thanks! Some of us have pale skin, dark eyes, and unruly hair because that's the way it is. Of course, if that look is in this season, I'm not complaining. 

-How's this for an aesthetic vision for a high-fashion runway show? "I wanted to depersonalize the girls, completely." How was this accomplished? By putting all the models in identical, platinum-blond, pin-straight wigs, and "it’s all about alabaster skin [.]" Of course it is. 

My aspirational pants

Thanks Whitney! Mom jeans are back, after all. In the words of His Sartorialousness:

Trust me, French young ladies are still the ones to look to for the most aspirational new trends. The newest thing I’ve seen in the streets here in Paris are straight, wide leg jeans. Not flared or oversized jeans, but jeans with a wide leg hemmed right at the ankle and reasonably fitted at the waist. It seems simple, but in order to work the look just right the eye will have to adjust to this new proportion.
Trust me, folks. WWPD is your source for what the cool kids in Paris and Milan will be wearing. For reasons I myself can't figure out, it all starts here, in semi-rural Central NJ. "Sart" only posted this on March 6th, whereas my own "aspirational" pants arrived on February 24th. He totally saw me walking Bisou through the scientist housing complex and was like, yes, this is the new look for spring, but let me quickly Photoshop it onto some Parisiennes.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Johan the Plumber

When the rest of socially-liberal American womankind was still worried that we were looking at a Santorum presidency (or are we still?), I wasn’t too personally concerned - concerned, yes, but not for myself - because I had the good sense to marry a bona fide EU citizen. If the Santorum were to hit the fan, I’d have an out. Yes, liberals hated Bush and threated to leave the country on account of him. But this time it’s gender-specific. Liberals don’t fear Santorum. Liberal women (and gays, obviously) do.

Which explains, I think, the new set of Gevalia coffee ads, being aired on Hulu if not elsewhere. The concept is that a “Swedish” man named "Johan," representing European “caffe” (or “kafe,” or whatever “coffee” is in that pan-European coffee-commercial language immortalized in Dunkin' [typo fixed, thanks Jo!] Donuts ads as “Fretalian”), compares himself favorably with “Joe” – American coffee – who we are to understand is a regular American dude off-screen. In the ads, Johan goes around seducing, flustering, regular American women. He is Johan, and he wants to rub your feet and give you cinnamon buns, or something. 

There’s of course nothing new about the idea that American women would prefer a foreign guy, one who perhaps doesn’t choose his clothes based on what will make him look unequivocally heterosexual. (Even out gay American men do this. It’s just the guiding principle behind how American men dress.) What is new is, dude’s usually either British or maybe French or Italian (“perhaps Fretalian”). If not Hugh Grant or Prince William, the European is a Latin lovah. 

Here, however, Johan is Swedish, a representative of reassuringly socialist Northern Europe, not Berlusconisville. If you go off with Johan, think of the subsidized childcare! Or, if you don't want a kid just yet, think of how no-big-deal it will be to get birth control! You and Johan don't even have to get married, because that's how they roll. (OK, this last bit isn't going to fly with American women, both because it's been drilled into our brains to value marriage, and because we want legal residency status at the very least, which cohabitation probably wouldn't accomplish.) 

How very wise of me, I thought, as the national conversation disintegrated into a discussion of whether a woman must take a special contraceptive pill every time, and whether 95% or is it 98% of American women are in fact prostitutes, to marry a Jo and not a Joe.

Dan Savage's blind spot, continued

Dan Savage just received, reprinted, and responded to an excellent letter from a reader. The reader notes, correctly, that Savage gets a lot of questions from straight women who want to be "GGG" ("good, giving, and game" - Savage's acronym for being an agreeable romantic partner by going along with things your partner wants, within reason, and by not being judgmental, again, within reason), but not a whole lot from straight men in the same predicament. The reader picks up on the fact that however progressive and noble Savage's concept of GGG might be, in practice, it ends up reinforcing some old-timey gender roles: the woman must play at being naive and free of her own desires, yet prepared to do this or that for the man she loves. It's not that women couldn't come up with out-of-the-ordinary requests. They're just not asking.

Savage admits that part of what's going on is that he's getting more letters from women, skewing the results. But then adds, bafflingly, "Men are likelier—far likelier—to be kinky. So kinky requests tend to be made by men. And most men have female partners."

I mean, maybe? Savage would know better than I would. But it would seem that if gender dynamics were taken into account, one would have to admit the possibility that men and women desire the unusual at comparable rates, but do not demand it of their partners at equal rates, because it's expected for men, but not women, to be "pigs." A woman who admits to desiring sex with a man in its least exotic variety is already pushing it. (Do we not remember the Limbaugh episode?)

It's the same as with the classic-for-Savage, mildly-risqué-for-family-audiences question of straight couples bringing in another partner. The default assumption - in popular culture,* and going by Savage, in the real lives of the couples who do this - is that the "third" will be a woman. Do we assume, as Savage does, that this is because women are more likely to be bisexual? Or might this have something to do with a) women being socialized to be agreeable, esp. when necessary to "keep a man," and b) it being socially unacceptable for women to request another dude, whereas it's presumed that straight men fantasize about being with two women, and are prepared to go ahead with that scenario at the drop of a hat?

Anyway. The reason Savage's blind spot when it comes to the straight female experience strikes me as such a big deal is that he's the best we-as-a-society have got in terms of defining a proper morality around sex that isn't based on shame or ignorance. We need something like this, and his heart is in the right place. It's like he almost gets it, and then... not.

*This is so thoroughly a part of our popular culture that if I were to add an "NSFW" disclaimer to this post, one would have to do the same with even the most staid and tired of sitcoms.

On the Charles Murray op-ed



Kind of.

Kind of.

Slightly longer version: Murray suggests four ways to bridge the gap "between the professional and working classes in white America." 

His first suggestion is one I can get behind: "get rid of unpaid internships." I'm not sure he's thought through the fallout from this - even if we fixed the unpaid-internship-accessibility-issues end of things, there's also the fact that employers at "real jobs" would rather hire potential permanent employees than rich kids on "summer vacation." As I remember it, coming from an UMC family and trying to get that kind of work, one either had to lie about significant details (such as: off to college in August - how a friend of a friend was hired at a clothing chain) or to take jobs designed for college students (such as the one I ultimately ended up with: shelving books at the university library). It's not that it's impossible for kids on vacation to do stints in more working-class lines of work, and it certainly varies by locale. (Live in Manhattan? Forget it.) But with the exception of a few specifically seasonal jobs (lifeguard, camp counselor, ice-cream scooper), no one will take the kid seeking beer money over the single parent needing to make rent. But in terms of Murray's specific gap-bridging goal, the fact that some people now grow up thinking work-work isn't for people like them is, I'd think, a problem.

His second one, scrap the SAT, is problematic for reasons I also get into here, but let's first look at Murray's own language. "The test has become a symbol of new-upper-class privilege, as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs." If the SAT isn't something one simply purchases a high score on, and the public is mistaken in thinking it is, wouldn't the better approach be to raise awareness of this, thus helping to demolish the test-prep industry, whose very existence perpetuates the belief that scores can be bought? The whole point of the SAT is to compare students from different high schools, something grades alone wouldn't accomplish. The alternative Murray proposes - "achievement tests in specific subjects for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books" - already exists in the form of SAT II and AP exams, and would end up being, I'd think, a measure of how good a high school is, or how well it tailored its curriculum to the tests, which would dilute its capacity to measure student achievement.

His third, "replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action," is not a "no-brainer," but is in fact something about which reasonable, intelligent, well-meaning people have been disagreeing since forever. Racial and socioeconomic disadvantage are not mutually exclusive. And there's the issue of representation - once whichever influential institution ceases to be an all-white (or zero-black) entity, it will de facto become an institution that's open to blacks. And, more to the point, if what Murray wants to do is to bring about solidarity between whites of different classes (and we'll assume he means this in a non-exclusionary sense...), it's hard to imagine that if the children of plumbers were labeled a disadvantaged category, and known to get into college with lower grades and scores, this despite any history of systematic discrimination against plumbers and their families, that this would, I suppose, go over well. And if the issue is more (as becomes apparent with the fourth point) that it should be possible to make a living with a blue-collar (which is to say, college wasn't a prerequisite) job, then why should we care if children of blue-collar families are proportionately represented at elite colleges? Why shouldn't it be enough to make sure that elite colleges are accessible to them? Why would affirmative action be needed?

Murray's final point - that the BA shouldn't be required of job applicants if the position doesn't specifically require it - sounds appealing at first, but is impractical. Most obviously, a liberal-arts education doesn't prepare you for any particular job. So if it's ridiculous to ask a plumber to have a BA, it's nearly as absurd to ask this of a journalist. Also, I'd think, obvious: entry-level jobs virtually never require the skills acquired in Philosophy 101. The BA is required because if one is to ascend whichever ladder and be in more of a decision-making position, whichever "critical thinking" skills might come into play. (As for his bit about how the BA "has become educationally meaningless," this kind of unsubstantiated nostalgia for a Golden Age of when everyone left college a distinguished Aristotle scholar, I will simply ignore.) Point being, if no job could draw a direct connection between skills needed for the position (again, not the career, the position) in question and a BA, this would mean eliminating college for all, not just opening up fields where demanding a BA feels preposterous.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Feminist issues vs. women's issues

I mentioned Emily Bazelon's response to the Limbaugh debacle in an update to the earlier post, but since that one's getting unwieldy as it is, I'll move this on over to a new post. Anyway, Katha Pollitt, who has produced the most succinct and on-point take on this that I've found thus far, sees a connection, as Bazelon does, to the SlutWalks, concluding:

When the topic is anything remotely connected to female sexuality, every woman is a ho, a prostitute, a slutty-slut-slut, from a teenage virgin who needs to control her acne to a tired and put-upon 40-year-old mother of five. Even the feminazis! Those slutwalkers were really on to something.
As a feminist, I'm convinced. The surprisingly common view that woman=prostitute probably should bring about solidarity between the chaste, the promiscuous, and the vast middle. It probably ought to serve as a reminder that virtually all women have crossed the line over to "slut" in someone's definition. (Do you go out with your face visible? Bingo.) People in glass houses and all that. And in terms of my own values, I think it's incredibly important not to judge female and male promiscuity in different terms, and somewhat important not to stigmatize any respectful, consenting-adults goings-on, assuming no one involved has kids or is cheating on a partner.

But as a woman horrified by the thought that some mix of ignorance and malice could bring the U.S. back into the Dark Ages on this issue, I'm not sure the route to take is to insist that to support access to contraception means being equally supportive of all choices contraception facilitates. A no-judgements empowerment message has its place, but I'm not sure this is where to place it.

Just as all women are "sluts" in someone's eyes, all of us - men and women alike - make such judgements, or, put more accurately, draw lines, both in terms of their own behavior and in terms of what they think falls where more broadly. This certainly doesn't necessitate use of terms like "slut," or asking that one's own line be the basis for legislation. But it can't but mean the implicit shaming of certain behaviors. Even Dan Savage, a writer who supports all kinds of polyamorous living arrangements, who questions the wisdom of monogamy, draws a line, and not only in the libertarian do-no-harm sense of disapproving of rape, coercion, and cheating (as to be distinguished from negotiated non-monogamy). He often advises against super-casual, or anonymous, sex, as well as bringing in certain acts too early. And this is Dan Savage, sex-positive advice columnist and activist extraordinaire. What about the rest of us?

The problem we're now facing isn't that sex-positive feminists aren't supporting access to contraception. It is, in a certain sense, that supporting access to contraception is viewed as something sex-positive feminists do, and the percentage of beneficiaries of contraception who fall into this category is, well, slight. So, while I get the appeal of arguments along the lines of, 'if you support access to birth control, you are a sex-positive feminist, whether you thought you were or not,' I don't think that's exactly accurate, and it ends up alienating a lot of potential allies on this issue.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Real issues vs. women's issues

As a rule, I don't think that only members of Group X should be allowed to weigh in on issues concerning Group X. But maybe it's not a coincidence that of the three journalists making the case that the battles over contraception have "nothing to do with sex, women, or birth control" but are in fact about the broader health-care debate are dudes. Meanwhile, why not make the case that this is in part about broader issues to do with health care? It's the "nothing" that grates. Grates, that is, because it's typical that when some issue relates to women, we're asked to look at the real issues beneath, as if the question of whether or not women seriously risk pregnancy every time they have sex is somehow fluff.

Bread and noses

-Kei has inspired me to try again with bread- and croissant-making, and possibly to buy the book she's using. (I had this romantic notion that getting cookbooks in Paris would allow me to turn a NJ kitchen into a boulangerie-pâtisserie, but instead I end up bogged down in measurement conversions, and in the inability to track down things like "farine 55.")

-Connoisseurs of contemporary litchrachure might be aware of the "ingredient" genre - books with titles like "Bell Peppers" or "Cinnamon" that tell some sweeping historical tale through the lens of some food item. It seems there's now one on sliced white bread (via). Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a politics professor, is here to tell us that contrary to what Michael Pollan claims, our grandmothers had to contend with processed food. As a great fan of the debunking genre (still waiting for, "Yes, French Women Do Get Fat, And Can't Properly Tie A Scarf"), I may have to check this out.

-As a member of a minority group known for visiting the rhinoplastoligist, but still in possession of the schnozz Moses himself gave me, I'm always up for a good nose-job-shaming story. First, there was the Norwegian mass-murderer, oh so blond and "Aryan," who, it was later revealed, had had his schozz rechiseled in 'merica of all places. The latest incident involves a fellow Semite - an "Islamist" Egyptian politician "expelled from his ultraconservative party for fabricating a story that he was viciously beaten by masked gunmen," when his bandages were actually from cosmetic surgery on his nose. The real tragedy, of course, is the lack of before-and-after shots.

A private matter UPDATED

All of the discussions lately about contraception - so much catchier than the Big Political Issues, and yet more hard-news than whatever else you might get from WWPD, so allow me to proceed - center on the question of "access to." What does it mean for women to have "access to" contraception?

The problem with this topic is that it's, well, personal. Female friends might discuss this, but typically, in my experience, certainly past college, they - we - do not. I assume that the heterosexual women I know who don't have 15 children are doing something, but couldn't say in most cases whether it's actually that they're abstinent; discreetly lesbian; or infertile; or with infertile men; etc., etc., etc. It's not my business. This is, after all, an issue whose legal grounding comes from a "right to privacy."

And yet I wish that as a rule, there were more openness about contraception. I wish that frank discussions of birth control weren't somehow equated with confessions of what, precisely, goes on in the bedroom, how often and with whom. But that's how it goes. If a woman announces she's on the Pill, it's kind of... inappropriate, as if she's set up a webcam in her bedroom - no! - in the public parks where she and her myriad lovers fornicate the night away. Admitting to being on the Pill is like confessing to a sordid private life. Shouldn't be, but is. It's TMI! Overshare! What if the young woman's parents or potential employers read this thing? What if They - that amorphous They, including, of course, the potential elementary-school-age students of women who aren't even teachers - were to know? What then?

Never mind that the reality of this is, it's about the same as if all of a sudden, men had to partially subsidize tampon purchases. It's an expense that impacts virtually all women for some period (sorry) of their lives. It benefits all of society that random benches and office chairs and seats at the movies aren't destroyed, yet the people whose clothing/reputations would also be impacted tend to be the ones purchasing the Tampax. Men would probably resent having to pay for something they don't, personally, use. Given the extent to which contraception is employed, this is, more or less, what we're looking at. It absolutely means something about society that there is now contraception, but on an individual level, it tells you approximately as much about a female pharmacy-goer that she's purchasing a month's supply of birth control pills as that she's stopped by the Always aisle.

Precisely because contraception is oh-so-private, misconceptions arise - especially, needless to say, among men - about what this "birth control" thing is all about. They easily forget that the very need for contraception comes from women having sex with men. Sparing these men - I might add - 18 years of child-support payments, not to mention the serious possibility of 18 years of continued communications with every woman they've ever slept with. It becomes a discussion about women choosing to have sex, when the sex in question by definition involves men. Not such an issue for women who have sex with women. Not to bring my dissertation into everything, but this is kind of like when Napoleon and others in 19th C France wanted "the Jews" to intermarry, without ever considering that for this to happen, non-Jews would need to be involved.

They also - further evidence, if any were needed, that "Seinfeld" has covered everything - don't have an immediate sense of how it is that they haven't impregnated the women they've been with. They don't, in other words, have a terribly good sense of what birth control is. It's going on behind the scenes, so they can pretend it doesn't happen, like the proverbial high school boy who imagines girls lack digestive tracts. There was, of course, Rush Limbaugh, making the leap that a woman who defends the Pill a) uses it herself, b) uses it as contraception, and c) needs lots of pills in order to have lots of sex. Then, in this nutty-but-popular article that's being linked to left and right, a genius named Craig Bannister hears that it would cost a woman $3,000 for three years' worth of birth control, and concludes that women with this complaint "are having sex nearly three times a day for three years straight, apparently." How so? "At a dollar a condom if she shops at CVS pharmacy’s website, that $3,000 would buy her 3,000 condoms – or, 1,000 a year. [....] Assuming it’s not a leap year, that’s 1,000 divided by 365 – or having sex 2.74 times a day, every day, for three straight years."

It did not occur to these men that there are forms of birth control other than the condom, let alone that these might not all be equally effective. And it appears that many found Limbaugh and Bannister's argument convincing. One adds a new level to the brilliance by catching on that this $3,000 figure is in reference to a prescription method, but assuming that a young woman is on the Pill to avoid the need to use condoms. The word "steamy" is used. If this episode tells us anything surprising, it's that not all sex-obsessed social conservatives are closeted homosexuals. Some are merely repressed straight men with active imaginations.

In one sense, the "$3,000 worth of sex" contingent is just being misogynistic, just making the most of a politically-sanctioned opportunity to call women sluts. Maybe some know what the Pill is, but get a kick out of hurling epithets. It points to anxieties about what it means that a woman can go out and have sex with tons and tons of guys and not bear any physical consequences whatsoever.

But I suspect all this discussion points to a genuine misunderstanding about the technology underlying our experience. There are some concrete reasons why, despite lower infant and childbirth death rates, the average woman doesn't have a dozen kids, why women are able to participate in the workforce, why young women and men - for that matter - are not forced into marrying the first person they've slept with. It saves everyone from having to promise a lifetime of fidelity to someone it may turn out they don't even enjoy sleeping with once. On some level, the anti-contraception side - and I mean by this not only whichever tiny minority would have contraception banned, but also the great many social conservatives who see contraception as kinda-sorta a bad thing, kinda squicky, part and parcel of These Corrupt Times - imagines that those who eschew the extremes of the "hook-up culture" - a couple of serious, monogamous relationships in high school and college, say, followed by marriage around age 25 - somehow don't need to use contraception. "Nice" girls/women do not have post-its on their foreheads bearing the name of whichever prescription they're on, so it can be assumed that "nice" means eschewing contraception.

The debate ends up putting defenders of contraception in a bind. On the one hand, there is the desire to point out that the Pill has medical uses, and that contraception is used not only by the young and promiscuous, but also by the married-yet-premenopausal. To beat it over the heads of the reason-impaired that non-barrier methods of contraception are not used more often by those having more sex, but are a binary, on-it-or-off-it sort of thing. It's entirely possible to use birth control daily and have sex yearly, or never. It's also entirely possible to support access to contraception and not, personally, use contraception. There's a perfectly understandable desire to emphasize, in other words, that contraception =/= sluttiness.

On the other hand, while beneficiaries of contraception tend to fall all over the spectrum on these issues, as they include virtually everyone in heterosexual relationships (with the possible exception of closeted politicians, whose family fertility may bear some resemblance to that of the Protestant couple at the beginning of The Meaning of Life: "We have two children, and we've had sexual intercourse twice."), supporters of contraception tend to also oppose making value judgements about the difference between consenting-adults sex with one partner, and with 1,000. I mean, not entirely - even Dan Savage rails against bathhouses and the like - but "slut-shaming" is, as a rule, considered unacceptable discourse. Thus SlutWalks. No, being for/on contraception doesn't make a woman promiscuous, but if she is promiscuous, don't judge. While the not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it approach has its merits - ideally women wouldn't be any more judged than men, and it's important to remember that "promiscuous" is subjective, as is "sex positive" (Dan Savage, after all, is anti-bathhouse), and that even those who take a pro-marriage, pro-monogamy stance might support premarital experimentation - it has the unfortunate impact of alienating those who acknowledge they benefit from contraception and would openly support it, if they didn't think doing so was signing onto some kind of broader pro-libertinism agenda.

The problem with either approach is that it's inevitably about the question of women having sex, even though the sex in question is, of course, with men. A woman who takes a pill each day to prevent pregnancy is, each day, acknowledging that she is, or is open to being, sexually active. Men... might carry condoms if intending to have sex relatively soon, or in a relatively casual capacity, but a man who has sex whenever luck strikes, or with a woman/women with whom (responsibly or otherwise) no condoms are used, is not continuously on birth control. So, apart from the (significant!) social double-standard regarding male and female sexual activity, there's this way that men can kind of play at being chaste-but-for-procreation. It's plausible that an individual man only ever had sex to produce whichever children he and his wife ultimately bring into the world, because she and whichever women he'd been with before were the ones making those monthly trips to the pharmacy.

This was long and rambling, the result of more drafts than a WWPD post usually receives (which is to say, there were drafts, and when this post was, as it were, conceived, the Limbaugh kerfuffle had yet to even happen). Shorter version: the invisibility of contraception does much to explain why the conversation surrounding it is so screwed up.


Just noticed Emily Bazelon's take. And... I'm not sure where Bazelon gets her definition of "sex-positivity." Sandra Fluke's Affaire produced outrage precisely because Fluke reads as mature and super-serious. Fluke did not ask for any "slut" solidarity, or even, from what I understand, mention if she herself uses contraception. She certainly didn't just proclaim the right of women to sleep with hundreds, thousands of partners, so long as everything's between consenting adults. The controversy came from the fact that the woman slut-shamed does not come across as a "slut." If she had been even a touch "alternative," this all would have played out differently.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A barista named Kale

I finally got my hands on Charles Murray's Coming Apart, which is to say, now that the book and all the commentary about it by those who had and hadn't read it is so two weeks ago. I read much of it, not all, at the bookstore in town this afternoon. I got a look at the full version of the infamous quiz, and learned that if your preferred method of unwinding is crap sitcoms, and not a fine Merlot, you - to borrow a phrase - might be a redneck. If I were classier, I'd only watch "The Wire" and independent films, and would pretty much be Stephen Metcalf from the Slate Culture Gabfest. But because I can immediately summon the name of the half-a-man on "Two and a Half Men," I couldn't read Murray with that smug sense of you talkin' to me that I'd expected.

What it is about - and I'm not quite done with it, but began with the intro and sections on marriage - is how there are these kids, see, and they're on Charles Murray's lawn. Well, that's the tone, but it's basically about how high-IQ elites meet at Hahvahd (and Murray holds forth somewhat self-indulgently about how the diners back when he was young and in euphemistic Boston were Americana, because this was pre-latte, or something) and reproduce, creating a high-IQ caste, and leaving the rest of 'merica drowning in a pool of its own drool.

Murray's certainly pro-marriage, but seems more interested in making sure that children are born into marriage than in whether single 20-somethings are celibate or using contraception. The only references I noticed to premarital sex were in the intro, when he's nostalgic for a time when goils were goils and didn't believe in too much heavy petting. Nor did I manage to locate the part where he urges the Fancies to patronizingly tell the Poors how to live - if anything, it seemed to be about shaming the Fancies for not eating at nationwide mid-range chain restaurants.

One of Murray's points about the elites is that they evidently eat a lot of green vegetables and whole grains. Whether they actually do this, or merely believe in it and leave farmers' markets with something green and abundant-looking poking out of their canvas totes, is another matter. But anyway, after the Murray bookstore-mooching (and for the record I buy plenty at this bookstore, but there are certain books whose sales figures I don't want to improve), it was time for a coffee. Not a latte. An Americano. Possibly more offensive.

At the coffee place, there was a sign up for something called "Eat More Kale Princeton." Not "Eat More Kale, Princeton." It's the Princeton branch of "Eat More Kale," which appears to be a t-shirt company with anti-corporate cred, from a guy who's "about eating locally, supporting local farmers, bakers, famers [sic] markets, farm stands, CSA's, community gardens and restaurants, sustainable lifestyles, social commentary and community." And why not?

Kale - a big topic and quasi-acquired taste (great in the form of shredded salad, with shallots, lemon juice, olive oil, and heaps of ricotta salata, but otherwise...) here at WWPD - is the new arugula. It's so much better a fixation than arugula, because it doesn't taste very good, because it can be grown in winter (so you can feel virtuous buying it, even if it was shipped in, as it inevitably is, from California), and because OMG the vitamins. Arugula, next to kale, is basically a Twinkie. I'm not sure which came first, but at Whole Foods in Princeton (and not, to my knowledge, in New York, Chicago...) there are what look like college-logo t-shirts - more specifically, like Yale t-shirts - but instead they say "Kale." Presumably meant to lure Princetonians into a double-take. At any rate, kale has swept through town, to the point that there is not only a "kale tasting" this Tuesday, but a barista at the local coffee shop is named Kale.

Charles Murray, this is material for your next opus. I'm thinking that back when America was great-in-your-estimation, there was nary a leafy green to be found.