Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Clash of the micro-generations

There is a phenomenon I've noticed over the years, among a small but significant minority of my slightly older acquaintances (but thankfully none of my friends, and thankfully not recently, perhaps because I'm now old), that goes as follows:

Forgetting that they too, at 18 or 23 or whatever were single, unmarried, or childless, they act as though people they meet who are a few years younger are somehow behind in things, or making some kind of counterculture statement, by not having already settled down, "settled down" as defined by whichever criteria they happen to have met themselves. (As in, if they're cohabiting, you're odd for being single. If they're married, you're odd for just monogamously dating. And so on.) As though you, the younger person, don't have it together enough to have three kids and a house in the suburbs, when the relevant fact is that you're, for example, a junior in high school.

Why this happens, I think, is that when interacting socially, people 16 to 30 (give or take) can feel, in many ways, like about the same age. You connect over whatever you have in common, which makes you assume you're basically coming from the same place, which makes whatever differences you do discover seem like they stem from personal quirks, rather than from life stage. Life stage can be especially tough to assess in the recent-college-grad years, when technically one can be married with kids without this being scandalous, but not too many are. Another possibility is that 18 looks awfully appealing (to some) at 30, so pretending as though an acquaintance's failure to be settled down at 18 is a character flaw and not evidence of youthful freedom is some kind of compensation. Really, who knows why it happens, but it does.

I was reminded of this phenomenon by Daniel Engberger's Slate piece saying one must allow plus-ones at weddings, whether or not those plus-ones are known long-term partners. I agree with him, but for a slightly different reason. Reason being, to a couple about to wed, the relationships that slightly younger friends (or, and I should have made this clear above, friends the same age but for educational or personal reasons at a slightly different life stage) are in seem, by definition, casual. The more serious a person is with a partner, the more fleeting and hook-up-like others' non-marital relationships appear. And it seems trashy and wasteful to invite a fling to a wedding. Meanwhile, "fling" is in the eyes of the beholder. If brides-and-grooms-to-be remembered that their own situations did not, except among the very traditional, begin as "serious relationships," they might realize that the youngsters who they can't believe want to bring a date are nothing more rebellious than younger versions of themselves.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Faire du shopping

Since Cheapness Studies is looking kaput, here goes:

During my first week in Paris, I've managed to acquire two new striped shirts; one pair of canvas slip-on sneakers; and just one book.* This is not counting cheese purchases the number of which I've long since lost track of; flans (same, including a 3€70 flan from Dalloyau, which I ate on the street as the haute bourgeoisie looked on in horror); one delicious and under-three-euro bottle of Cahors that will probably, at this rate, last me long enough to merit the "I am not French" tag to this post. (Or the visit to the nearby A.P.C. outlet store, where I tried on an outfit that made me look, if not Hasidic, then something more hardcore than Modern Orthodox, and probably enough so that I could wear it to assess the current state of anti-Semitism in various Paris neighborhoods. I left empty-handed.) In other words, I've done a bit of shopping. Nothing earth-shattering, but more than a typical week in NY.

I'd known on some level that The Sales had not yet arrived. But I recently met up with a fellow NYU grad student here who informed me that they're about to start and that Petit Bateau, where the striped shirts are from, is among the participants. My first thought was, what I fool I am. That pull marinière was pricey!

My second was to once again remember that one of the libraries I use is near two of the Grands Magasins, and that it's a good thing I haven't yet swung by Bon Marché, either. Depending how serious these "sales" turn out to be, I may come back a much chicer grad student. That is, at any rate, the plan.

*Lest this destroy my already slight intellectual credibility, I should point out that my first thought after a long stretch at a library (and I was at a library every day since I've been here except both Sundays and Friday) isn't that I've run out of reading material.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

BNF day one

Why did I bother with Starbucks? The French national library not only has a café (several), but one with something called "flan gourmand." And the clear bag they lend you to carry around your belongings is like some kind of plastic Birkin, chic enough that I opted to use this (which is, apparently, an option) when I went out for lunch, rather than The Backpack.

That said, I spent more time figuring out how to enter and exit the building; connect to the (very much non-wireless) internet; find the books I need; and (surprisingly complicated) locate the restroom than I actually reading anything. I'm trying to think of a way to describe the layout other than the overused "kafkaesque," but until another word is coined for a bunch of confusingly interconnected rooms governed by a bureaucracy, there you have it. But a kind and helpful bureaucracy. I'm the sort of person who, if given a choice of more than one route to take, will inevitably choose the wrong door, take the wrong turn, and so forth, so I appreciated the willingness of everyone I encountered to point me in the right direction, tell me where to swipe my card and when. That said, I made sure to point out, whenever I asked what promised to be an especially dumb question, to mention that this was my first time using that library. I suspect, however, that I'll make equally embarrassing mistakes my second, third, fourth...

The most exciting, however, was a trip to the rare books room. While I'd already checked everything but my wallet and computer, in this room (which is Salle U but you have to go through Salle T and up a little elevator), you have to check everything except the laptop, and you get a little locker for the clear Birkin. Then, as is often the case in such rooms, you get a little velvet bed for the book. However, as compared with equivalents in the U.S., there's very little fussiness or lecturing about how to handle the materials. Given that they've made sure you're not coming in with, say, a flan gourmand, I suppose they figure anyone who's bothered to look up something obscure enough to make it there isn't about to destroy what they've made it all the way there to look at. Even though, in the end, the "rare" book turned out to contain much less interesting information that a merely "research" one I'd been reading earlier, it was fun going on a whole mini-version of the process I'd gone through just to enter the library in the first place.

The obvious point of comparison for me is the New York Public Library. Both can seem to have everything, yet each presents its own set of challenges. The good and the bad of the NYPL is that it's centrally located and very much open to all. You can go there to find some document that they and they alone possess, and you'll be surrounded by people with entirely different concerns. Meanwhile, the BNF research library is out-of-the-way geographically, requires a card you have to both interview and pay for to use, and encourages you to reserve a spot ahead of time online. And, in the French Paradox department, getting around the library, unless you use a wheelchair, requires an immense amount of walking. All of these factors discourage non-research-related visits, and make it so that once you make it to one of the café areas, the clientele looks like everyone's fantasy of French intellectuals, minus the black turtlenecks. Which is mostly a good thing once you're in, but is time-consuming to enforce, and keeps out not only tourists and raving lunatics, but also anyone without the social capital it takes to figure out how to make it inside from using that library.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Parisian vacation

At the library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, it occurred to me that the best way to keep track of what I did when research-wise was to keep some kind of brief log of what I do when. Et voilà.

My dissertation, for the hordes of massively curious, is, and has been for some time, on Jews and intermarriage in 19th and early 20th century France. I'm interested less in the sentimental aspects of the question than in the role the question and at times reality of such unions played in how Jews and non-Jews alike understood Jews' place in France. I'm also less set on getting exact figures (both because I'm not a sociologist and more to the point because France doesn't seem to have kept the sort of records that would provide the complete info.) than on figuring out what intermarriage represented and how it was experienced when it actually occurred. Finally, whereas the bulk of scholarly literature on Jews and intermarriage that I've found (none centered on the French case during these years) takes a clear stance for or against, using the past to make a specific argument about the present, I'm not going that route. I'm neither celebrating the few who married out as the only true open-minded Jews of their era, nor condemning them as the foreshadowing of large-scale assimilation to come.

So that's the general idea. The log of what I'm doing probably won't go into the nuances of whatever arguments I end up coming up with, but this gives something of a background.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

6'7" blond Hasids take Amsterdam

Or something. (Via.) Why does this story make me think of this movie?


The last time I was in Paris for more than a few days was in 2003. I don't notice any major changes to the city, other than the proliferation of "bio" or organic labels. However, by some miracle, people no longer return my French with English. Either attitudes have changed, or, more likely, four years of a French PhD program, three of which I spent talking to students in French, made me a bit more convincing in my attempts to communicate in the language. I doubt if I know much more French than I did junior year of college, but I probably seem less overwhelmed by the need to actually summon this ability in real life.

Another difference in my day-to-day interactions comes from the fact that 2003 was seven years ago. Then, I was a girl. Now, I am very much Madame. Not yet 27, I am the matriarch of some implicit Parisian clan. It's not just the term of address, it's the tone used in interactions, as though I am some kind of grown lady buying cheese and pastries or whatever.

The obvious reason for this is that I look my age. Some other possibilities:

-My sense of Europe versus the US (disclaimer: major generalization) is that in Europe, there's much more of a divide between youth culture and the world of adults, and that this manifests itself largely by dress. On the Upper East Side, for example, girls of 15 dress like matrons, while women are in the hot new jeans each season. It's insulting to a teenager to imply she's not a grown woman, and to a Samantha-aged woman, to imply she's not a teen. Perhaps as a function of where I grew up, I dress much more like a bourgeoise (minus the silk scarf) than a jeune, even if technically speaking the way I dress has no particular place in this system, and is much more classifiable where I'm from. Anyhow, I discussed this with my mother, who thinks this is part of it, but who reminded me of how Patsy in "Absolutely Fabulous" added a "-oiselle" whenever someone tried to call her "Madame." Yikes.

-Size. I'm presumably the same height and weight here as I was on Saturday in New York. However, in the States, I'm small. Small gets confused with young. While I'm sometimes "ma'am" or "that woman" at home, it's not so constant. Here, however, I'm proper-woman-sized.

-Frankness among the Gauls: The likeliest possibility is that I've been looking like a Madame since late high school, but American politeness prevents shopkeepers and such from telling it like it is. This I do remember from study abroad - while French cafés, stores, etc., like American ones, offer goods in exchange for money, Parisians who sell things tend to act as though they're doing you a favor, rather than as though they're so excited to get paid that they'll fake an interest for the duration of the interaction. I see advantages to both approaches, but at any rate, this explains why my past-it-ness is more openly referred to here than at home.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Worldliness and cultivation

Isabel Archer summoned my response to the latest incarnation of the paper-versus-plastic-versus-tote debate. However, I'm far more intrigued by her two most recent posts than with the question of how one takes home groceries and takes out trash, so after quickly mentioning that in Paris, the grocery store encourages toting, the market (or at least this one market street) is all about the plastic bags, except that they're more like produce bags with handles, and are meant to be placed not in a tote, nor even in a straw basket, but rather in a fabric cart-on-wheels, onto the others. I'm meeting her contrarianism with contrarianism, although I do on some level agree with most of what she says.

First, meritocracy. I too come from a family that values education, and it seems to have stuck. (Today I finally got to see actual books in an actual library in Paris! Woohoo!) So I think I get where Archer (Isabel? How does this work with pseudonyms?) is coming from. But while I agree that the education system places far too much emphasis on well-roundedness, and that making more Archerist families has potential, I think we need to be attentive to what is, I suppose, the opposite problem: the assumption that attention to appearance, interest in getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, having social skills... that these qualities are detrimental to or incompatible with academic achievement. This is a problem for several reasons. One, it's simply false - some people win in the looks, brains, and charm departments, and we can read all about some of them in the NYT Vows. Such is life. Next, the idea that smarts and social ease are mutually exclusive is what's led to the phenomenon of the dorky kid being assumed brilliant, even when presented with heaps of evidence to the contrary. (I know Miss Self-Important has written about this, but am not quite awake enough to find where...) And finally, there's the gender-studies angle. It's far more detrimental to women and girls to demand a choice between being a primp-for-prom person and a go-to-class one. (Although for the record, agreed that it's all kinds of ridiculous to cancel class so that students can get their hair done.) Girls are correct in perceiving that life is easier with better looks, and while this can be taken too far, if all that's necessary is trading a worn-out shirt from an aquarium exhibit for something better-fitting and less dolphiny from the GAP, I don't see the tragedy. If I can conclude in a way that makes any of this make sense, what I'm driving at is, schools shouldn't demand well-roundedness, but they shouldn't penalize it, either. There are enough hours in the day to primp, study, lust, play (ugh) team sports, and so on.

Next, travel. I suspect that part of what Isabel Archer experienced as a Dartmouth student in Paris had less to do with the fact of being abroad, or of being in France in particular, than with the altogether odd experience of being an American college student on study abroad. I suspect this because my own time in Paris in college, though productive academically (as in, some of the best courses I had in college, from UChicago profs but in French), was not necessarily the best way to go about experiencing that city. We all had the option to stay for the rest of the year, attending a Parisian university (but with American tuition), but I didn't think twice about returning. To Chicago. Hyde Park.

What I've felt the first few days living on my own in Paris is a bit like what I did when, months after Birthright Israel, I returned, this time with Jo - rather than a busful of potential Jewish husbands and an armed guard - to Tel Aviv for a few days. For me, at least, travel is only any good if you have the freedom to go around on your own. Whether you're on an educational tour of cathedrals or on a bus with prospective ethnoreligiously appropriate fiancés, or even just traveling without a group, but with a very set checklist of tourist sites, if you have that sense of being shepherded (or shepherding yourself), you feel as though you're briefly seeing places or even people that look interesting, yet are being so thoroughly shielded from any exposure to the place itself, because that would be dangerous and unproductive. Going to the HEMA in Belgium, or Monoprix in France, is indeed just looking at foreign shampoo and Target-like accessories, kitchenware, and so on, but for me, stuff like that is half the fun of travel.

Which brings me to the cultural differences question. Yes, it's banal that cultures are different, and anyone who's spent any time in a not 100% homogeneous place knows this from experience without leaving home. However, there's a big difference between meeting individuals of different cultures and being altogether immersed in one. Perhaps I'm biased, because my (limited, although I realized this even at the time) impression from a few months in Paris of what it meant to be Jewish in France as opposed to the US motivated my choice of career. Yes, embarrassing as this is, My Study Abroad Experience Changed Me.

Finally, agreed 100% that traveling is not relaxing in the least.

Les flâneurs sans flan

I just took advantage of the BNF's website letting me know I wouldn't get a spot Tuesday morning to do a little grocery shopping in the Parisian manner, at least in the American fantasy thereof. What this meant was that I leisurely strolled to a market street in the same district but (I now know) not remotely nearby, stopping along the way for a pain au chocolat and the other striped shirt (the one with the red stripes) I'd been coveting. And I now have the makings of a heck of a salad. All that was missing was a straw basket.

Yes, life is tough. I do, however, have one Parisian food-related grievance. When one thinks of Paris, one thinks ("one" = this blogger) of sitting in a café in the morning with a pastry and a coffee. And indeed, coffee and pastries are everywhere, and the latter are virtually always amazing. The issue is that it's very unusual to be able to purchase and consume both in the same establishment. (It's also very unusual to see people go the WWPD route, eating pastries on the street, on their way to or from a coffee at the bar.) What's going on? Is the coffee-and-pastry pairing a specifically American phenomenon?

I think I've narrowed it down to the following possibilities:

-The pastries are just for tourists. Actual French people either just have the coffee out or eat breakfast at home. Evidence supporting this is that while I'm living in a neighborhood that's not remotely touristy, the only places I've heard English around here have been bakeries.

-Locals run out to buy the daily croissants, then return home for their coffee, then leave for the workday. This could be, but given that buildings here tend to be walk-ups, it sounds exhausting. It could, however, explain the French Paradox.

-Pastries are served in cafés, but only during early-morning hours my jet-lag has yet to permit me to experience so far. This is the best reason I've come up with to kick the jet-lag prior to my first 9am BNF reservation.

-There is, during at least some parts of the day, an implicit BYOCroissant policy in cafés. I doubt this one's it, but it's far more likely than a BYOCoffee in the bakeries, considering that coffee's never to-go and bakeries either don't have seats or, on the rare occasions they do, also serve coffee themselves.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Paris accomplishments thus far

-Got BNF card (had the interview, paid the fee, NYPL nostalgia ensued).
-Purchased appropriate Metro tickets. (Why must the monthly begin on the first of the month? Metrocard nostalgia, of all things, ensued.)
-Attended a French-Jewish student (and grown-up) rally-slash-movie-premiere. I'd arrived the morning of, and so was only truly awake for the rally part. More on that later.
-Ate one and a half baguettes (in installments!). No, it's not so bad here, really it isn't.
-Ate flan #1 of I don't want to think about it. The woman who sold it to me referred to it as "petit," which was nice but inaccurate.
-Inadvertently happened upon the conveyor sushi place I was obsessed with in 2003. As quick, 5-euro lunches go, not bad! Is it a wise idea to eat raw fish that's been rotating probably since noon at 3pm? So far so good.
-With the help of a mall's wireless and (more helpful still) running into my former office-mate in that mall, I tracked down NYU in Paris, which is hidden away like one of those fake speakeasies. Note the following parallel: NYU's Paris location is on a street lined with a mix of mass-market and charming boutiques, many of which sell beautiful shoes, while UChicago's Paris site is... next to the giant library and nothing else. (This mall, however, was good for wireless and wireless alone. A GAP, an H&M, a Starbucks...)
-Convinced my bank that I am indeed myself, and so will not need to survive three months on the ~25 euros currently in my wallet.
-Speaking of which, there was a Petit Bateau in Passy that bien sûr took AmEx. This is mine. This is up next.
-Spoke a decent amount of French.
-Was thought to be a local by a woman in Petit Bateau, who was flabbergasted that I wasn't her vendeuse, and by a lost American family in the Chatelet metro station, whose son used his best French on me to ask directions, only to hear back, in New Yorkease, that I had no idea where it was, whatever it was they were looking for.

Still to do:

-Research! I decided to allow myself one day for bureaucracy, although I suspect parts of other days will go that route as well. The process of getting to look at a book - a book, not an archival document - at the library is, I hope, significantly less involved than it now seems. I've "reserved" 12 hours of Saturday, the first available day, for this, but walk-ins are apparently OK in the afternoons?
-Socialize with (as opposed to buy flan from) Parisians.
-Buy, or (more likely) ogle, clothes and shoes extensively. I'd forgotten this about Paris, but apparel here is like food is in Belgium - even the unexciting places are amazing. I walked down the equivalent (for New Yorkers) of Second Avenue in the 80s, or (for Chicagoans) whatever the non-main shopping street is in Lincoln Park, and one store after the next had me drooling. Part of me thinks this is a bit circular - nice clothes are defined as that-which-is-worn-in-Paris, and so Parisians seem well-dressed. But they don't, as a rule - I think many, particularly the younger ones, find the shiny ballet flats and such too bourgeois, and so prefer a pilling-oversize-black-sweatshirt-and-inevitable-scarf (keffiyah preferred) look. Meanwhile, those who want to look bourgeois dress very conservatively (think preppy minus the pastels), and don't really experiment with all the possibilities shiny ballet flats have to offer. It's more that, as raw material, the clothing in the window of Parisian stores cannot be beat.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Goals for Paris

-Minimize bureaucratic confusion-to-research ratio.

-Find something useful in all (most? some?) of the sources I know of but have yet to read.

-Meet the French Jews. Not all 600,000 of them. Some will do. Here, Facebook is, not surprisingly, useful.

-Speak tons and tons and tons of French. Meet French people, of any persuasion, who don't know a word of English. (Nothing against French people with perfect English! I'll hang out with you too!)

-Keep daily flan consumption to a one-per-day maximum.

-Limit clothes-shopping to Petit Bateau, a slightly pricey t-shirt store where I've given myself free reign (no, rein, thank you dave s.) to buy everything I see that I like, which should not, combined, exceed the 100-euro range.

-No new shoes! Not necessary! Repetto ballet flats are much cheaper in NY, and Bloch > Repetto as far as ballet flats are concerned. If I keep repeating these facts to myself, the mystique of Paris shoe-shopping won't return.

-No new books! Just kidding. Lots of new books, including but not limited to used books. But not so many I can't get them back.

-Do not become one of those Americans who had a transformative experience in Frahnce and doesn't shut up about it. If I end up returning simultaneously - paradoxically - slimmer and a better cook, that's something I can live with, but I'm not counting on it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

West Soho not what it used to be

The café best known for its brownies and second-best known for its Keanu Reeves, the one that so perfectly epitomizes The Coffee Shop, has closed. This annoys me not in a there-goes-the-homey-neighborhood way (we are, after all, talking about Soho), but in a where-else-can-you-get-best-in-the-city-brownies-in-the-company-of-heartthrob-actors one.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On knowing where your food comes from

If you're going to be a contender for most pretentious Manhattan coffee shop, and charge a dollar more for each basic beverage (drip coffee, iced coffee) than the other upscale "single origin"-type places, and you're going to not use a/c or even some more eco-friendly-yet-effective ventilation technique beyond a barely-rotating fan even on sweltering days because you're aware that there's nothing else in the area other than the bleak Whole Foods café and its clone the Barnes and Noble café (yes, I live in the suburbs), and you're going to note with pride which local dairy the ice cream in your affogato (oddly enough, or not so oddly, as we'll soon see, the most reasonably-priced item on the menu) comes from, you might want to make sure the stuff isn't very visibly being scooped out of a Whole Foods store-brand container. Does Ronnybrook taste different from 365 once espresso's been poured over it? Not really. It's the principle of the thing.

Keeping the bloodline pure

I have long suspected that members of ethnic or religious minorities are in luck when it comes to ending romantic relationships or rejecting potential partners, because they can always play the 'it's not you, it's your background' card. It's far more plausible than announcing a sudden change in sexual orientation, or than 'I'm not ready for a relationship right now', while accomplishing the same two things: convincing the rejected party that a) it's nothing personal, and b) it's never gonna happen. And an extra added buffer: the dumpee/rejectee is put in a position of feeling culturally insensitive for even suggesting they work things out. (The oops comes later, when the minority's engagement to a different out-group partner is announced.) Prudie's commenters, but not Prudie herself, see it for what it is.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hebrew with French subtitles

Huh. A 5 heures de Paris had better be playing in Paris soon, or this Francophilic Zionist will have a fit!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

They like my early stuff better

Once again, a big-blog has linked here... to a post I wrote years ago.

But seriously. They can't ban crush lists! They are if anything the opposite of the kind of youth sexuality adults should find disturbing. Rather than a bunch of 13-year-olds actually having sex, this is a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds meekly admitting they found people attractive - but failed to act on it - months or years prior.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

All kinds of wrong

Within just one article (and some wild accompanying video), we have:

-The creepy solicitation of schoolgirls as young as 13 for what it's not entirely clear isn't at least partly about something even worse than dead-end attempts at becoming a supermodel.

-The exploitation of poor families.

-A racism so open that it demands specific amounts of specific ethnic blood, using genealogy as a guide. German blood, at that, with a teaspoon of Italian as some kind of eugenic self-tanner.

-All that fun body-image stuff. (Note the "don't feed the models" sign in the model holding pen in the video.)

-The journalistic technique of baiting readers with tragic yet titillating stories the face of which is a pretty young blonde. (See also: missing persons.)


Tangentially related, the Helen Thomas Palestine remark. What struck me about it - aside from the obvious - was the same thing that strikes me when reading works about The Jews by non-Jews in France, from the 18th and 19th centuries (and I suspect the same goes for earlier, but need to have a look myself to verify, something I intend to do once finishing up an unrelated academic project, aka my dissertation). Which is (and this is long-winded, but bear with me), for all the talk today about Jews' connection to the land of Israel as something Jews a) always cared about, or b) decided, with the advent of modern Zionism, to care about, or c) began caring about after the Holocaust, what's lost is the popular conviction among non-Jews that a) the land that's currently Israel was quite literally where Jews came from (and I'm not talking proto-Palins who may have believed in something apocalyptic, although of course this is an understanding of history influenced by the Bible), b) the "Jewish Question" was the question of what to do with a foreign group that was foreign on account of coming from somewhere else, and that somewhere else was Palestine, and c) the Jews' finest, most noble hour was when they had a land of their own. Which is to say, the notions that a) Jews are best as a nation in the geographic and political senses, and b) this nation is located in and around Jerusalem, were, historically, not specific to Jews. The classic example of this phenomenon, the anti-Semitic cry we don't hear so much these days of "Go back to Palestine," is telling, but it fails to capture that even kinder, gentler Gentiles (Montesquieu and Grégoire come to mind - I know I've seen this elsewhere but am not going through my notes for this post) understood Jews to be a people dispersed from the land of Israel. Of immigrant origin, as it were.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that now that it's unpopular to suggest Jews belong in Palestine, now that the (re)placing of Jews in Palestine has turned out not to go 100% smoothly, it's like, who were those Jews to demand this? It must be their fanatical religion, telling them that some random bit of land is rightfully theirs. It's easily, easily forgotten that non-Jews also thought that Jews came from Palestine, and were sometimes if anything more convinced than Jews were that Palestine was the Jews' home in a way the European countries could never be. Not to generalize, but Jews were frequently more convinced than others that a Jew could truly be at home in this or that European country. It's not merely that Jews were amorphously unwelcome in various countries at various times. It's that Jews were understood to be unwelcome intruders from a specific geographic locale. It's not, "There was anti-Semitism, which Jews for some quirky reason decided to respond to by colonizing the Middle East." It's that anti-Semitism was intrinsically related to the belief that Jews belonged in the Middle East.

All of this, meanwhile, is a roundabout way of saying not that I personally believe that Jews today all have a traceable, historical connection to the Middle East. (My own family heritage, as far back as I know, is utterly Pale.) My point is that if Jews were/are deluded in thinking they belong in Palestine, if you're going to call Israel a great big mistake (which, for the record, if this hasn't been clear enough, I don't), the blame for this ought to fall a teensy percent to the Jews, for taking their religious texts so damn literally, but the bulk of the guilt falls on the people who actually ruled for all these years, who were in the majority, and who in effect determined the "truth" about who Jews were and where they came from. For supposedly educated, informed non-Jews today to throw their arms up and ask what the heck these white-as-white Jews were thinking, setting up shop in the Middle East of all places, is, on a historical level, disingenuous.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Rocket, Battery Park.

Satellite, same.

House, World Financial Center.

Houses at the base of an apartment building, Tribeca.

Duckling, Battery Park City waterfront.

Poodles, Park Slope.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is there hope for a conservative critique of academia?

Robert Weissberg has written one of the latest from-the-right essays on what's wrong with college today. The piece so perfectly exemplifies what a good conservative critique of academia could be, as well as where the genre inevitably goes wrong, that I had to respond.

Within the article are two potentially-separable strands. One is the classic, the requisite, the bitter, the Conservative Critique of Academia. We learn of colleges that "prescribe birth control devices," that through a "university-funded identity group one can reaffirm one’s homosexuality or blackness." We learn, "Instilling dependency is especially evident with academically struggling African-Americans. If there was ever a category of students who might benefit from acquiring self-reliance, it is this one." (Blacks should work harder! Gays should be more discreet! Wimmin should stop with all that premarital whup-di-do!) It is this portion of the article whose sheer predictability immediately repels 99.99% of people with anything to do with academia, including those with some conservative leanings.

Which is a shame, because if you isolate the other strand, a reasonable argument emerges. One I don't find entirely convincing, but one that merits a discussion. That argument is: How far should colleges go beyond offering courses and hosting libraries? What tragedy would befall us if dorms were replaced by students either living at home or in rooms or apartments near campus? If the parallel transportation systems some universities provide that precisely mirror existing public-transportation options were eliminated, and students were forced to take the oh-so-frightening M14 if they wanted to get from Avenue C to Union Square without exercise? (Not that riding the purple trolley isn't awesome in its way.) What if, rather than eating in dining halls, students had to learn how to procure ingredients and prepare meals? What if (and this one's my pet peeve) the ever-present landscaping services at elite universities, the ones that involve digging up and replanting what looks like the same exact thing each season, were eliminated (to be replaced by... concrete? student volunteers interested in planting an organic garden? does it matter?), and the tuition went down accordingly. Because whatever you happen to think of any individual beyond-classes expenditure (sports facilities, College Republicans, gay-identity-affirmation clubs, etc.), the end result is higher tuition, tuition beyond what many students could even think to meet on their own, without at least some parental assistance. This assistance, in turn, makes the default situation of a motivated 21-year-old "dependent." (Default, insofar as students at expensive colleges whose parents can't or won't pay any of the tuition need to alert others to this fact.)

I'm not so sure conservatives would like the results of a bare-bones university overhaul. What it would do, in effect, is shift adulthood up a couple years. College students would simply be adults living in Town X who happen to be taking classes. The safety net would be gone. (See item 2 in this post for a good explanation of the hands-off versus hands-on conservative visions of the academy.) The whole mythology of the College Experience would be gone. The insistence that students share rooms with other students so as to build character, the taboo surrounding undergrads dating anyone who isn't also an undergrad... The end result might be a conservative-friendly situation, with married, financially-independent 20-year-olds who are also getting BAs. Or maybe the very young would just enter the big, scary world prematurely, in-loco-parentis-less, and with a tougher time tracking down potential marriage partners. The "medieval" model ("When I tell my students that medieval universities only offered lectures, they are dumbfounded.") exists today, but among the less-well-off (community colleges) and residents of socialist-scary Western Europe, groups whose mores conservatives don't necessarily want middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans emulating.

But all in all, it makes sense that a more hands-off university would encourage responsibility, and that this is something that can be argued sensibly from the right, that could be a useful conservative contribution to discussions of academia. All I'm getting at here is that we have, once again, an example of a reasonable enough, definitively conservative, suggestion getting lost in a sea of knee-jerk sameness veering on offensiveness.