Thursday, March 31, 2011

Think of the children with children

Gerry Garibaldi writes:

Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.
Did you catch that? The single mom most celebrated in the 2008 election was Obama's mother. Not, oh, which was the one whose name might come to mind if we think '2008 presidential election' and 'single motherhood celebrated'? Hint: her name was tattooed as a ring on her then-fiancé baby-daddy's finger. If anyone, in that campaign season, was getting all worshipful of the single mom, it was the Republicans, with the Palin teen pregnancy such a fine example of a family doing the right thing. And now Bristol's even an aspiring pop star of sorts! Fine, fine, blame social services you dislike on libruls, but the glorification of single parenthood, when it's called "keeping the baby," is plenty right-wing. I don't remember anyone comparing Obama's mom to a police officer. Whereas I do remember B.P. becoming some kind of folksy idol.

Garibaldi, who, according to his bio, chose inner-city teaching as a second and seemingly lower-paid career for reasons I will not be cynical and suggest have to do with wanting to run for office or make a movie out of it, is right that 15-year-olds should not be having babies. And couples who have babies do well to stick together, which for straight couples and some gay ones is best accomplished/asserted through legal marriage. These are reasonable views, and it's noble of Garibaldi to throw Hollywood away and join the selfless profession he has. So far, so good.

But is the main issue for a 15-year-old who wants a baby that the father isn't prepared to marry her? More to the point, is it really a teacher's place to have students describe their future plans, then criticize them for their lack of marital aspirations? Even more to the point, there are no circumstances, none, in which a high school teacher, a male one especially, should tell a female student, pregnant, mother already, or otherwise, "'I think you would make a wonderful wife for someone.'" None.

Gar! of the day

Found an amazing primary source. Read Tome I. Tome II is hors d'usage at the BNF, and not anywhere else, not even the most obvious place, which is to say Google Books, which is not so surprising as I'd already checked. (Of course, they keep adding and adding...)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"La toilette de la jeune Hébreuse"

-The first chapter of the book I just opened is called "La toilette de la jeune Hébreuse."

-If my amusement at this - in no way lessened by the fact that I know this just refers to primping, dress, or beauty routine - isn't enough to have me banished from the Very Serious Library, perhaps my tendency to take short breaks to stare mindlessly at fashion blogs will. I looked at a slideshow of shoes - a sufficiently quick and SFW break, but one that somehow seems wrong sitting at the table in front of circulation where you have to be if consulting a book in especially bad condition.

-So, so much more primary. Just when I thought I was done with the mid-19th! Time to switch the diss focus to just those years? Hmm.

-WANT! Not the "cuties," who look great if hipsters are your thing, but the coffee. The coffee that isn't just consistent (coffee in Paris isn't bad, just consistently mediocre in precisely the same way) but good. OK, that and I look at these photos and think how New York these people all look, and miss that. Also, an iced coffee drink of any kind would hit the spot. (They do exist in Paris, but are over four euros and at Pain Quotidien, two strikes against.)

-Peer pressure alert! I have imitated the Parisian 15-year-olds who frequent my favorite bakery/café and worn (navy, tailored-looking) shorts with (black, ribbed) tights. The shorts (consignment Claudie Pierlot) are beautiful and now that I know about this method I will be wearing them every day year-round, also because, ahem, the exchange rate, and it seems I paid $65 for a pair of used shorts. The same price as my two pairs of Uniqlo corduroys and one of thrifted A.P.C. sailorish jeans combined. I don't regret this, though, because the shorts greatly improve my, uh, toilette. They will be my uniform, and I will not resort to Old Navy lounge pants. That, and I think I already have pasta enough for the rest of the semester in my dorm room. Suffer for fashion, indeed.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"A daintier shoe would be overpowered"

In an earlier post, I discussed the issue of the kind of dieting women do not to get from "fat" to "normal," but from "normal" to emaciated. The kind of disordered eating that is standard-issue for women who ostensibly could take "worrying about weight" off their list of concerns, and worry about something else - international tragedies, career and family, what color to paint their toenails... the possibilities are endless.

In the comments to that post, there was some dispute over what constitutes a legitimate weight-related concern. That is, when will a woman actually benefit, in some tangible way, from attention to calories and portion size, beyond what's necessary to more or less maintain a natural-ish set point?

What seems to be the case is that there's a size at which a woman becomes no healthier and no more attractive if she loses weight, yet her non-emaciatedness, which serves as proof that she, well, eats, is classified - by the woman herself, by other (dieting/disordered-eating) women, or by (sadistic) men - as problematic. Not problematic insofar as weight loss would in some way improve the woman's looks. More like, women are expected to be careful about their diets, to feel guilty for eating bread/meat/pasta or other non-salad, non-yogurt items, and a woman whose physical appearance suggests having perhaps opted out of that game (although of course plenty of women of all sizes are dieting and exercising like crazy to be as they are) poses a threat to... to other women's desire to play the game? To men, who want to keep women down? Who knows. Women in this category would be laughed out of town (or accused of failing to own their privilege) if they referred to themselves as anything but thin, yet there is this substantial pressure on such women to be thinner still.

So we have the Sartorialist (via, and note the mention of "Sart's" fellow fashion-blogger girlfriend referring to her beau as her "weight-loss coach" because he tells her what to eat - delightful as always; more coverage here), with shots of a woman who has the audacity to blog about fashion at maybe a 4 rather than a 2, patronizingly declaring,

The subtle thing she achieves so successfully in these two looks [in photos, the woman has on massive platform heels] is to complement the sturdy but beautiful shape of her legs with an equally strong shoe. A daintier shoe would be overpowered but these shoes create a beautiful harmony for the lower half of her body.
Ah yes, thin-but-not skeletal women do best to wear thick stilts, because they're just a pair of kitten heels away from grotesque. Just... just... yes, heels can be slimming, and the wear-something-thick-at-the-ankle-to-give-the-illusion-of-slimmer-thighs strategy is nothing new, and explains why every so many years, flared jeans and '70s shoes make a comeback. The Sartorialist, for all his alleged fashion expertise, has highlighted a well-known phenomenon, not discovered something new and interesting about "proportions." But it is supposed to be some kind of rule that if a woman fails to reveal no body fat whatsoever, she has to wear massive clunkers on her feet, as though with a more delicate footwear choice, she'd positively stomp through it, crushing the poor ballet flat to bits. (In a classy touch, "Sart" features this woman, a blogger, he notes, without linking to her blog or providing her last name.)

But that's from the world of fashion - at a good remove from the sphere (so to speak) of models themselves, but it's true that, especially with the prominence of fashion blogs, those who write about fashion are held to an unusual standard. So consider that in a "Well" blog thread responding to the question of grown women with eating disorders, we have a commenter with no known association with fashion, unconvinced by a previous commenters claim that "Dropping a size does nothing to help society, and frankly, does not make your own life any better either."
I disagree with the latter part of this statement. My life has vastly improved since I lost weight. I didn't even lose that much - 15 lbs off a small 5'2" frame to put me around 100 lbs. But I was previously "pleasantly plump" while I am currently "fit" or "wiry" depending on who you ask. ALL areas of my life have improved - career, relationships, general life efficacy, you name it. Strangers, male and female, of all ages, are even nicer to me. It's a very strong reinforcer, and there are many days when I wonder if losing more weight will make my life even better.
Let's see. I get that bodies are different, and the same height and weight might appear as slimmer on one person than another, that a woman used to being a particular size who "balloons" up to Weight A will feel different about that weight than will one of the same height and proportions who struggled to get down to the same. So I will not go as far as to say that because I am and have for my entire adult life been something like this woman's "fat" size, and would be hauling myself to zee Parisian psychiatrists if I became concerned that I was fat, that this tells us anything definitive. But unless this woman's "extra" 15 pounds were contained entirely in a double chin, it's hard to see how, at her "heavy" weight, she presented as anything but slim. Not thin enough for the runway, but this isn't a concern a woman who's 5'2" and old enough to mention "career, relationships, [and] general life efficacy" should take into account.

I will toss out a wild guess and speculate that the positive changes this woman experienced are 90% her own thrill at being some arbitrarily-chosen weight, 10% the approval women get from others who are equally weight-obsessed for having "accomplished" something along these lines, for having asserted her membership in the just-a-salad club. Or maybe it's exercise endorphins. Oh, and she's probably wearing more form-fitting clothes, and confusing the fact that tight pants turn men's heads with some kind of transformative effect stemming from her weight loss. (Side note: leggings-as-pants never really caught on in Paris, but one of the few times I saw a woman in those, the male head-turns they inspired were quite something.)

Women in our society who are in fact overweight/fat/heavy, who lose weight, get compliments and witness a spike in male attention, perhaps career prospects. This is not in their imagination, and this is why we refer to such a thing as sizeism. Thin women who lose weight and claim to see this effect are witnessing something easily attributed to other factors (explained above), and are projecting the genuine concerns of heavy women onto themselves. In extreme cases, they imagine that they really are fat to begin with, which is what leads this particular woman - who is already, as another "Well" commenter points out, below BMI-normal - to write, "there are many days when I wonder if losing more weight will make my life even better."

And who's to say it wouldn't? Maybe she'd be so happy to weigh as little as she could before keeling over that if she was informed that a side effect of toeing that line was keeling over, she'd consider it worth the risk. It's a bit like the ex-gay who gets more pleasure out of thinking of himself as a heterosexual Christian than he would from an actual sex life with another man. The problem in both cases is not at the individual level - who's to say what works for individuals? - but once these broadly-speaking ridiculous goals get imposed on the general population, as they have in both these cases.

Tossed salads and scrambled responses to the CCOA question

I've been following the comments to this post, and reposting the ones Blogger seems to eat, but had not had time to respond, on account of being in London, where men have historically been especially Great and White, then back in Paris, under the blog-inhibiting influence of running around with my mother, having an especially bad cold, and now, back in the dorm, the school's decision to pick now as the moment to demolish the empty rooms that oh just happen to be next to mine. Plans to sleep off the rest of this rhume are off, and I'm now wondering where is a good place to sleep at a French library. I think less in terms of long-term damage to my hearing and whatever may come of having inhaled whatever is in the pinkish dust, and more in terms of think-of-how-great-it-is-to-be-in-Paris, think-of-how-great-it-is-to-be-in-Paris...

So, my addled attempt at responses, below:

-I asked: "How is one college student face-to-face with Mill an education?"

Withywindle answered: "Umm ... didn’t you go to U Chicago? I think they have an answer to that question."

Umm, indeed. I did go to UChicago, where I read and enjoyed Mill, and where I encountered the one college student face-to-face with Great Book method. It has its plusses and minuses, which is why, it bears mentioning, UChicago does not exclusively use that method, even in undergraduate education. (For that, there's St. John's.) The student-and-book approach is wonderful in many ways, for college freshman especially. It's a way of letting students know that big, famous books that might have seemed dry or intimidating are actually texts that anyone capable of reading English can grapple with and learn from. And then there's the fun fact of being someone who read Mill in college, with the class and cultural-capital implications that entails. For someone who is not going to specialize in Classics or Political Theory, the rest of college is going to cover territory significantly less Great, but all for the best. Which, Withywindle, gets at the distinction you made between undergraduate education and research. Undergraduate education is, ideally, a progression, from Here Are Great Books, Go Think Critically to specialization of some kind, which is to say, no more sitting in a room with a decontextualized copy of Mill. Specialization for a college junior or senior in a liberal-arts setting is not worlds away from academic research, or else how would it occur to anyone to go to grad school in the first place? It's not that a college student has, by junior year, run out of Great Works to contemplate. It's that a (humanities/social sciences) student will generally get more out of college if the skills learned in the first couple of years are applied to something the student is particularly interested in. That topic may end up being Great Books but more specialized, or it might mean the analysis of minor/mediocre literature.

-The discussion here has, in the time I've been blog-neglectful, meandered into one about what constitutes a Great Book, whether one must wait 50, 100, or 0 years to make such an assessment. The value of a work's staying power is a fine debate to have, but I'm not sure how relevant it is to the CCOA question. The question being, after all, not whether it is possible to assess literary merit (I promise that even profs miles to the left of Withywindle think it is), not whether a core curriculum that provides a common knowledge base to those with a liberal arts education is valuable (again, find me the lefty prof who believes Glamour is an acceptable substitute for Adam Smith), but a) whether Great Books must form the whole of the college experience, at least the humanities/social sciences courses, and b) whether, once we've granted the utmost importance of providing college students only with the Greatest of the Great, we should set terms on the definition of Greatness that make it unlikely any PC slips in. (Is there anything more CCOA than criticizing Toni Morrison? No, there is not.)

-Re: Britta's point about white men as universal, Flavia's about the CCOA double-standard for obscure white-Christian-male writers... A couple things. One is that, in partial defense of the CCOAs, there has been a movement on behalf of left-leaning sorts to bring women and certain minorities into the canon, one that has sometimes, presumably, presented itself as affirmative action of sorts on behalf of authors. CCOAs suspect, correctly, that authors who fit the various criteria may have been given a boost, from which they jump, unfairly, to an assumption that artistic production by anyone other than a white Christian man is fluff being promoted only in support of a political agenda. They also miss the extent to which affirmative action of another kind had, until quite recently, given a massive boost to authors who were not black, not female, etc. In other words, the same issues brought up by affirmative action in general come up here. So that's Thing One.

Thing Two is my own experience of the universal-particular question in scholarship. Studying French Jews, it is always assumed that "Jews"="particular" or "parochial," "French"="universal." Remember that with the exception of Primo Levi, Anne Frank, or anyone else who had anything first-hand to say about the Holocaust, that an author was Jewish is unlikely to cause those on the right or the left, in the US at least, to attempt to include them from the canon; nor, in this day and age, is Jewishness viewed as cause for excluding an author from the category of Great (White) Men. This is thus an example of how "Otherness" is dealt with when the "Otherness" in question is not one it's especially PC to celebrate. The CCOA qualms about Toni Morrison do not extend to Philip Roth.

Now, considering that there were/are Jews in places other than France, and the entire world is certainly not French (a fact American scholars are aware of on account of our going to France and finding it, well, different), also given the long histories of both France and Judaism, it might seem as though universal and particular would both describe both the "French" bit and the "Jewish" one. It would seem that in a study of Jews, the French case would be "particular," and of France, the Jewish one would be, and that would settle the matter. However, when what's being studied is not France or Jews, but French Jews, those discussing the matter today tend to fall into the pattern of referring to that-which-is-French as "universal," that-which-is-Jewish as "particular." This is something I could go on about as it relates to the history of French Republican universalism, but it's also a test case of sorts of how, even in a situation in which affirmative action of topics or authors is not being suspected, that which has to do with Others gets classified as "parochial," that which has to do with unhyphenated Western Europeans as an unhyphenated example of Humanity. This is an impulse many of us have even if we see ourselves as liberal, open-minded, and above that sort of thing.

Point being, the assumption that certain subsets of humanity are default/universal/unhyphenated is ingrained, not just for CCOAs with their own particular concerns, but in us all. Political correctness in academia provides the useful service of reminding us that we are all particular, universal in our particularity. This is what the student-face-to-face-with-Mill approach misses. Writers, even Great ones, came from and were responding to specific situations.

-Withywindle wrote: "I think conservative critiques would have a bit more bite if they stated more clearly which strand of critique they endorse. But I also think that liberal defenses of academia that say 'Oh, you're being inconsistent on X and Y', by falsely assuming there is only one conservative critique, also lose a great deal of power."

To which I'd respond: First off, this discussion is not about "liberal defenses of academia." It's about CCOA-skeptics, a cohort that could well include those plenty critical of academia, from the left, from the center, or for reasons separate from the political spectrum. CCOA critics even include - or should - conservatives critical of academia. In other words, not about liberals, not about those who defend academia, but about those unhappy with the CCOA status quo.

Next, I'm not sure who's assumed there's one conservative critique. I, at least, was responding here to Epstein's article, which jumped all over the place, hitting as many talking points as possible. But this is a pattern one finds in conservative critiques - a preemptive dismissal of academia, with the assumption that the reader is coming at the topic with eyes in ready-to-roll position. While not every article or blog includes every complaint, there's generally a mix of several talking points (overall silliness and lack of rigor, classes with silly-sounding names that might be serious but why check, too many coastal elites congregating and promoting themselves, not enough Great White Men, too much Toni Morrison, radical profs, promiscuous coeds) that aren't exactly "inconsistent," but that add up to a critique more about giving conservatives of all stripes something to agree on (that is, that academia is dumb) rather than changing academia to make it more conservative or more hospitable to conservatives. The only inconsistency is that academia is faulted both for being impractical and for being too preprofessional, although here I would say it's unlikely the same conservatives are making both criticisms, or if they are, their issue is that elite (bright, good-familied, whatever) kids shouldn't major in marketing because they should be reading Hegel, while kids from the middle-class masses shouldn't major in marketing because they should be training as plumbers.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Best of French TV

Fascinating stuff, if you happen to be interested in the intersection of intermarriage and French national identity.

Feverish baby-animal observation

Back in the dorm after a trip to London and some tourist-time in Paris with my mother. I'd have a whole lot more to report if I hadn't - as always happens after I meet a bunch of deadlines before a break - come down with a feverish cold, the one going around the dorm, and my turn had come. I can, however, report that French cold medicine combined with spicy pho from Le Palanquin (better than Pho 14! how is this possible?) kept me going on the evening I was about ready to take advantage of the non-board-like hotel bed and hibernate.

But, some observations all the same...


-It felt very odd, after a train ride not much longer than to Brussels, to all of a sudden be in a place where everyone spoke English, where the same chains exist as in the States, and where the architecture so resembled New England (technically vice versa, but anyway). That combined with seeing my mother gave me the sense that I had somehow returned home without the hassle of crossing the Atlantic. It finally made sense why some ferners refer to "Anglo-Saxons" to mean Brits and Americans - not such major cultural differences, it seems. The famed embrace of multiculturalism as versus the French Republican uniformity isn't something I could speak to after a few days, but I did notice that there's a whole lot more intra-subculture variation in fashion, hairstyles, etc. in London than in Paris, making London more like NY in this regard. In Paris, there are uniforms. Visible foreignness isn't (entirely) about ethnic difference, but about, say, being 15-30 and female and not wearing one's hair long and tangled, pairing that with a blazer, denim cutoffs, black tights, and ballet flats. A chic look, but it gets repetitive. Further thoughts on the national-identity aspect of this await my getting some sleep.

-On account of all the pre-travel deadlines, I hadn't really had time to look up what to do in London. There's now a great big NYT Travel section spread on the topic, but there wasn't when we were there. One thing we found accidentally, but that was quite different from NY or Paris and pretty great, was the Sunday (Up)Market, at the area around it, including the Spitalfields Market. It wasn't so different, I suppose, from the Brooklyn Flea, just a whole lot more festive and fun. There were also Yohji Yamamoto dresses to gawk at, pale-pink patent leather oxfords to acquire, and - drumroll please - a galaxy print shirt/tunic/dress! For 35 pounds (reduced, looks like, and more vivid than in that photo)! Fine, steep for a t-shirt, but a whole lot less than the Christopher Kane equivalent.

-They say the food in London is better than it once was. Not knowing how it once was, I'm left wondering what could possibly be worse than a "Thai" "tofu-chili-basil" "stir-fry" that amounted to some pieces of long-since-fried tofu with a sauce consisting only of soy sauce. Perhaps at the high end, things are otherwise, but culinary highlights included a lemon poundcake with decent icing but whose cake part tasted either like beef or lamb, we couldn't decide. With the exception of fish and chips at Applebee's and some deliciously MSG-tasting Chinese food, things were pretty grim on the delicious-food-that-Americans-imagine-exists-everywhere-but-America front. Best bets included Pain Quotidien and Carluccio's, which is, it seems, an Italian-themed Pain Quotidien equivalent - high-end fast food, reliable and vacationish. As someone who places eating good food high on my list of reasons to visit a place, this was kind of a let-down, if an unsurprising one. Although it was through London's Pain Quotidien pit stops that I learned there is, in fact, such a thing as iced coffee in that chain, turns out in Paris as well.


-Not much new to report, having been here for a while now, but I will confirm David Lebovitz's assessment, via Amber, that buying mundane items in Paris can mean inadvertently inviting a shop attendent to reach what American middle-schoolers refer to as second or third base. That, and the Boulanger des Invalides continues to be the most fabulous place in the world.

-Other than that, by the time we arrived in Paris, it was fever city for me, peaking, of all places, in the home of the author whose works I struggled with most during my qualifying exam preparation back in the day. Victor Hugo, I now associate you not only with the most high-pressure exam of my life, but also with collapsing all nineteenth-century malade-like into the only chair that had not been designated patrimoine. One of these days, I will need to read one of your works while eating some especially delicious aged chèvre, to fix the state of affairs.

-OK, here's something: the wallabies have spawned! There are tiny baby wallabies (one, at least, but I thought I saw another) poking out of their mothers' pouches, nibbling on the grass, and otherwise being charming. Readers in Paris, head to the Jardin des Plantes ASAP.

-Speaking of adorable:

Not convinced this is safe for the dogs, and certainly not something someone with my coordination should attempt, but this was a Paris postcard moment indeed. (More so if you can see the couple gazing at each other, but I figured maybe they wanted their anonymity.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Great Books, Great Men, Great Events, Great Discoveries"

Back to the conservative-critique-of-academia discussion. I suppose if I could sum up where I think things get/got derailed, it's that conservatives imagine those within academia who critique the conservative critics of academia (CCOAs) do so in defense of Silliness Studies, of in-class dildo demonstrations, etc. When the reality is that we-the-people-in-academia-and-not-riled-at-it agree with plenty of the individual criticisms, but object to the CCOAs' tendency a) to find ridiculousness by taking things out of context, b) to project the rare instances of genuine ridiculousness that are indeed out there on the whole of academia, and, c) above all else, to criticize academia not with the goal of reforming or even revolutionizing it, but as a way to fan the flames of the culture wars (librul elites!) or to be generally curmudgeonly (college hippies, get off my lawn!). Again, we are responding to the CCOAs not to say that they're wrong on all counts and everything is fine and dandy. We are doing so because their critiques are not substantive or, if you prefer, constructive. I say "we," but in reality, CCOAs are not really attempting a dialogue with academics in the first place, which helps explain why most academics, I suspect, give CCOAs little thought.

Withywindle's response - which is either his own critique of academia, as a conservative academic, or his summary of what he thinks the critiques out there consist of, so if you are Withywindle, please clarify - provides a bit more material to work with. This in particular: "We should not waste time on pop culture, peasant studies, black studies, womens' studies, gay studies, postmodern physics, etc."

The "etc." suggests that the list of areas of study are all of a piece, and that they are all equally ridiculous. These are two pretty big assumptions. Googling "postmodern physics," one finds conservative critiques of it far more easily than anything from this (alleged?) field. Pop culture, meanwhile, is its own thing, and there's a good chance even the leftiest of lefty profs would rather teach Shakespeare than "Two and a Half Men."

As for the rest, it's usually fuzzy whether what conservatives oppose is academic research into literature or history involving subjects with blood lines less illustrious than Louis XIV or who are of interest because we want to know about daily life in another time and place (Withywindle, this would include those chaste male Greek nomads), or the disciplinary nebulousness that "studies" can sometimes (but, ahem, does not necessarily) entail. In Withywindle's case, or in the case of Withywindle's theoretical CCOA, it seems more the latter ("We should teach Great Books, Great Men, Great Events, Great Discoveries [...]"), which I don't think is a supportable position. I mean, yes, these things should be there, but how is one college student face-to-face with Mill an education? I'm not even sure what it means to teach great men, events, or discoveries without getting into any fluff. Wouldn't we soon run out of dates of battles and such to commemorate? I mean, we can learn random things about Napoleon's childhood because the man ended up being kind of a big deal, or move on to somewhat less great men...

The latter has a bit more to it, but again, one is left with the question of how avoiding questions of race, class, or gender furthers our knowledge even of high culture. I mean, fine, let's study Proust only for representations of Art and Time, giving him the Great Man applause he so deserves, and ignore anything to do with homosexuality and Jewishness not merely in his life, but also in his oeuvre. It's surely of no academic interest whatsoever how "Jewish" was defined in salons during the Dreyfus Affair, because this would not go on to have any impact on anything of interest historically.

Or, in less roundabout terms, race, gender, and class are valid avenues of inquiry. Studying them tells us about human existence. Are students ever instructed to find a race, class, or gender angle where there is none? Sure, but then the student points this out, and problem solved. That not every topic has a strong race, class, and gender angle does not invalidate these topics for all. Nor is the correct answer on a student's part to decompensate about how PC academia is - a better (and dare I say, more conservative, in that it assumed the older person higher up on the totem pole is right) approach would be to see if perhaps there is a race, gender, or class angle, and if not, to have the intellectual get-up-and-go to explain why not. To equate all courses that deal with these issues with ones on "pop culture"... gets us at what PG commented, about how, if conservatives won't teach about the civil rights movement, someone who isn't a conservative will have to teach that class.

The broader problem, if Withywindle has summed up conservative opinion and not merely his own, is that the conservative critique ends up being less about nonsense-elimination, and more about advocating that we understand less about the world, for fear of letting the forces of PC win even a small victory. Meanwhile, whatever political sentiments may have been the impetus for the expansion of "history" to include things beyond Great Strapping Men, broadening a focus beyond Great Wars and Lightbulb Invention has been productive. Why can't conservatives just have their own approach to studying race, gender, and class? They seem happy enough to comment on these matters outside of academia. There's obviously the factor of, they don't want to feel excluded at cocktail parties. There is also the not insignificant matter of CCOAs having drilled it into the heads of young conservative college students that the academy is worthless and best avoided.

Conservatism, of course, houses a mishmash of anti-elitist suspicion of book-learning and stodgiest Great Books elitism. Conservatives are furious at the university both because it's fancy-schmancy and more challenging than Fox News and because it isn't the refined sherry-and-cigar club where Mayflower descendants can read Locke and Hobbes that it once was. Granted, not every conservative purports to speak from both seemingly contradictory vantage points simultaneously. However, the two inform each other insofar as the Great-Books critique is typically infused with a heavy dose of 'but who cares about whatever nonsense goes on in academia anyway because it's a bunch of worthlessness for women who should be making babies and men who should be working with their hands.' Add to that the general discomfort of social conservatives over the fact that college women are having The Premarital Intercourse. Basically, hating the university is a great unifier for at least three of the major kinds of conservatives. It's much more productive, I guess, for conservatives to hate on academia than for them to make academia hospitable to conservatives.

Beauty, geek, problems

Advice-column fans, delight! As commenters both places point out, Dear Prudence and Dearest Dan Savage offer advice to what are clearly the man and the woman in the same couple.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Already dreading the search-engine traffic this post will attract

Sometimes, to illustrate the point that Americans could stand to eat more fruits and vegetables and consume smaller portions, we'll see a photo or news item about some festival out in Real America where the tradition is to eat a whole deep-fried pig on a popsicle, covered in nacho-cheese sauce.

Joseph Epstein announces (thanks A&L Daily!) the End of Higher Education because some prof at Northwestern, after warning his class beforehand, went all Monty Python (NSFW of course) on his class, presenting a live sex act. (How anyone can mention this story and not "The Meaning of Life" is beyond me.) Epstein includes in his curmudgeonly rant, for extra curmudgeon points, one supposes, a letter he had written previously to the president of Northwestern, where he himself had been a prof, complaining about the choice of Stephen Colbert as commencement speaker. Because unless students fall asleep hearing someone hold forth on new developments in microbiology, it's not educational. No matter that Colbert, aside from being "in the cant phrase, a fun speaker," is a political force in our culture, someone who will likely show himself to be historically significant, and whom graduates would likely remember having heard speak for years to come, in the way they wouldn't if an especially good stand-up comic got the gig. Colbert is Pop Culture, Epstein is Team Classical-Music-and-Foreign-Films, which is all we need to know.

He goes on to fault the sex prof for... researching sex; maintaining a website about his family; writing a book that "apparently argues" something not so outlandish that Epstein couldn't be bothered to skim or have an intern look at to verify; and wearing "leisure cut" jeans, whatever that means. While there seem to be some valid complaints about the prof's ethical behavior, up to and including l'Affaire Dildo, there's no need to throw legitimate research into human sexuality out with the this-particular-prof-has-issues bathwater. Or so one might think.

Epstein, however, is prepared to dispose of the entirety of academia as it currently exists. He goes off on the question of profs sleeping with students in the name of academic freedom - a fad, if it ever was one, in the 1970s, and certainly not in today's climate of (thank god, on this issue especially) extreme professionalization. Epstein sees the post-1968 moment not as a blip, but as the beginning of a slippery slope culminating in every class as an orgy during which, in fine George Costanza manner, everyone is simultaneously eating pastrami and watching television. He then goes on to explain to the curious reader that, while he sure had opportunities, he as a prof preferred an older woman. Well, that's crucial information. This, in turn, segues into the question of 18-year-old females' virginity or lack thereof in the late 1960s...

Forgive me if I'm getting a bit lost in all this - the article is at this point hopping seemingly at random between various Conservative Critique of Education talking points. Too much fluff, not enough Shakespeare! Slutty coeds! Marxist literary criticism!

Oh, but Epstein meanders back to a point, and his point is that sex is not a valid subject for research. Not that live sex acts in a classroom are about provocation and not education, which would have been reasonable, but that sex is in some mystical realm of the unknowable:

Students don’t need universities to learn about varying tastes in sex, or about the mechanics of human sexuality. They don’t need it because, first, epistemologically, human sexuality isn’t a body of knowledge upon which there is sufficient agreement to constitute reliable conclusions, for nearly everything on the subject is still in the flux of theorizing and speculation; and because, second, given the nature of the subject, it tends to be, as the Bailey case shows, exploitative, coarsening, demeaning, and squalid.
Note again the leap from 'dildo action in class=bad' - something I'd imagine most would agree with - to a blanket condemnation of all academic study of human sexuality.

I know I told Rita that my principal objection to anti-modernity is its tendency to be barely masked nostalgia for a time when it was OK to be a bigot, and I do hold by that. But with Epstein, it's all about the curmudgeonliness, no hint of veiled anything, and it's still damaging. Academia needs thoughtful conservative critics, thoughtful critics of the new, but what we get instead is undirected, clichéd nonsense about how things sure ain't what they used to be.

Monday, March 14, 2011

That doggie in the window

"Jewish mothers are infamous for being overbearing," and other insights from a great new literary mind

Interesting that a book in which a woman describes her encounters with men of different races is divided into "Salsa Fever, Yellow Fever, Jungle Fever, Curry Fever and Shiksa Fever, which refer to her yearning or 'fever' for different races." Spot the difference time: which of these categories is not about the author's "yearning," but rather about the presumed reason a particular "race" of man would yearn for her?

The Daily Mail helpfully provides a list of the screw-PC questions about "bedroom secrets" one J.C. Davies seeks to answer (in the affirmative, no doubt) with her courageous tome:

Do Asian men like women submissive?
Are all Indian men well versed in the Karma Sutra?
Do Latin lovers live up to their reputation?
Are black men well endowed?
Are Jewish men really cheap?
Spot the difference time again! Which of these has not got a thing to do with sex?

What's interesting isn't OMG racism being used to get a rise out of people, or the fact that in 2011, a writer living in NY thinks a relationship between a white woman and a (not Ethiopian, for example) Jew is "interracial," but the way in which Jews are dealt with altogether differently from other groups. The author's not exploring (or playing at) a fetish for Jewish men, but a fetish for being the "shiksa."

Racism aside, we're with the age-old cliché of a woman finding it sexier to be found sexy than to find the man she's with hott - and it is with a Jewish man that she has, for the time being at least, settled down.

The Jewish man, for this lady, is not a sex object among the many Baskin Robbins flavors of her exploits, but appealing in that he can provide her with the sense of being hott simply by virtue of non-membership in the world's infinitesimal Jewish minority. Far easier than hitting the gym, or being blessed with supernaturally gorgeous features. Just find a man who will find you gorgeous by the mere fact that you, like nearly all women, are not Jewish.

Because this is apparently her deal. "Critics branded that comment [about a black man as an "Oreo" - are we charmed by her originality?] as racist and offensive and even Davies admitted that 'she went a little crazy with her references to JAPs - an acronym for Jewish American Princess." (Further asininity along these lines here, with novel observations like "Jewish mothers are infamous for being overbearing." Woman, you are blowing my mind.) The "JAP" is presumably of interest to a woman like this, because on some level she is aware that Jewish women are not by and large frigid, grotesque-looking gold-diggers, and that her own allure rests on that false assumption.

I suppose there are still, to this day, the occasional Jewish men who operate along these lines, and who are absolute catches for women whose principle appeal is a characteristic shared by almost the entire world population, who can play at being Marilyn friggin' Monroe, simply because they have nothing Semitic about them. Jewish women are not sitting around bemoaning the unavailability to us of these men, who are after all a tiny subset of a tiny minority, not representative of Jewish men generally, plus there are enough Jewish men out there who will only date Jewish women that, for Jewish women with that requirement, things seem to go fine. As for these few, on behalf of Jewish women everywhere, I say, they're all yours.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pretentiousness one-upmanship

A letter to the Style section of the NYT:

Regarding “One Way to Encourage Checking-Out at the Library” by Malia Wollan (March 3), about how public libraries now host dating events (“speed-dating”) to attract users to their facilities, I note the following comment made by one individual: “The kind of person the library can attract is different than the kind you get at a bar.”

True enough. But as a public institution, libraries attract all kinds of people, some not so pleasant.

For me, I would much rather meet a potential date through friends or shared mutual interests such as classical music or foreign films.

What could be better than that?
From an article condemning "foodies" for their snobbery:
Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Relationship advice pour les nuls

Dan Savage answers a letter from someone whose boyfriend doesn't want marriage and fatherhood just yet. The twist: it's a 27-year-old man. What's surprising is not that a gay man would want a family, but that one usually hears about this in the context of rights, of couples in which both men want to be settled down, and would but for societal oppression, they'd be the most boring couple on the block. Here, however, we have a standard-issue biological clock complaint, up against a standard-issue commitment-shy boyfriend. These people could not be more predictable, but for the one detail.

Where I'm not 100% behind Savage's answer is the bit about how the boyfriend, if they do have children, "won't be the first person who agreed to have kids under duress." This is not the realm of gender-neutrality. The nature of same-sex parenting - indeed, one of the points about it its defenders often cite - is that unless children are already present from a previous relationship, it requires above-and-beyond effort on the part of both parents to get that kid. Whereas since forever, men - and women! - in heterosexual relationships who are ambivalent about parenthood have had that decision made for them, or at least have reached a point where not having a child is what would take above-and-beyond effort. Indeed, above-and-beyond effort not to have children is the default in hetero relationships.

While it's a nice and romantic notion that the not-so-sure boyfriend would come around just to keep his partner, it seems unlikely, given that the letter-writer has already explained that he really wanted to marry his boyfriend, but would also be happy to just raise kids with him, and the boyfriend wants neither. This is a case where the imbalance of interest might shift if the woman got pregnant (accidentally or 'accidentally', and yes, the latter is bad news), and, as has historically been known to happen, the man decided to stick around and ultimately came to be pleased to have a family. But a gay man in this scenario doesn't have that option, and can't really play the 'oops I seem to have gone through the complicated and expensive process of adopting a child' card. I would have thought this would be obvious - to Savage, to the letter-writer, to anyone with a basic sense of what acts between which people can and cannot make a baby. Anyway.


Sticking around, meanwhile, in the realm of the obvious, there's this fluffiest-of-all-Styles-articles, about how the Middleton-Windsor nuptials will include a gaggle of exes among the guests, and whether we the readers would attend an ex's wedding, or invite one to our own. The entire story, the entire conflict it presents, could be easily resolved by assessing whether the theoretical wedding guests are friends who are also exes, which is to say, more 'friends' than 'exes,' in which case the relevant question is whether the particular person is a close enough friend to be invited, or whether the subject at hand is people using Facebook to look up people they dated years ago and then lost touch with, and sending them invites to make some kind of neurotic point. It seems obviously tacky and a bad idea to invite exes as a category, like 'friends, family, and exes,' unless there are children in common... in which case the ex is being invited in the 'family' category. (And, as an aside, how much do we want to bet that Crowley's ex-wife does not, in fact, want him back, and is now or will soon be rolling her eyes at his new wife's assumption that she does?)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fish on Fridays

-Heights of fame, or at least a chance to make my obsessions with wallabies and garlic scapes known to a wider audience.

-Cultural Catholicism lives on in Paris - in the course of my jogging/grocery-shopping expedition this morning, I ran across many, many fish markets with lots of customers. (I observed this traditional approach to food as I picked bits of the pain au chocolat I was eating out of my fleece. For the record, as crumbs-on-fabric go, croissant flakes do not brush easily off fleece.)

-I finally sat in on a French university seminar. It was ostensibly about something altogether unrelated, but l'Affaire Galliano was mentioned! Several times! I sat up from my usual listening-to-lecture slouch and took notice! Unfortunately this was not the portion of the class during which participation was encouraged, but if it had been, that would have been something.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Whenever someone writes a memoir about drug addiction, wild orgies, eating disorders, poor parenting, reviews will discuss how brave the writer was for sharing. Whereas what's really brave is Stephen Metcalf's NYMag story about having induced sleep in four therapists - his only four therapists - during his sessions with them. Metcalf has admitted to having bored people.

That this is his subject matter can't help but lead the reader of his article to wonder what about Metcalf's monologuing would bring on a good nap. This is not a good prejudice for a reader to have in general, but especially come moments like:

At Yale, I had a swank fellowship, met literary critics I’d worshipped since childhood, read English Romantic poetry, studied Latin and Greek, and I went to the gym ceaselessly. The weightlifting could stand in for the entire experience. I piled higher and higher weights on top of my meager frame, lying on a bench, beet-faced, pushing them off me, and as I did, I only seemed to get weaker. In grad school, I read more and more books, and as I did, I only seemed to get stupider. In therapy, I added more and more sessions, and as I did, I only seemed to get sicker.
A woe-is-me story along these lines, one seemingly designed to fit as many bragging points into a passage ostensibly about the author's personal failings as possible, for the reader who's been primed to wonder, why the yawning... I will confess to having not finished the article. Though perfectly awake, it seems that didactic fiction in the 19th century French-Jewish press proved more compelling. I must, however, commend Metcalf for his bravery, a term I think gets thrown around far too much when it comes to confessional writing.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

WWPD Guides: The Dan Savage phenomenon

Disclaimer: For me, a Dan Savage falls into the same category as a Theodor Herzl. Flawed in some ways, offensive in others, but overall such a fountain of truths that need(ed) telling that I will forgive them their missteps and create shrines in their honor. Readers may have noticed that I'm a bit contrarian, so thinkers who fall into this category are few and far between.

Now, onto the matter at hand:

Benjamin Dueholm's profile of Savage - which I did not, like Rita, find "excellent," although it has its moments - is not especially sympathetic. Dueholm gives the impression (especially in the part Rita has excerpted) that Savage is all about the separation of sex from emotion: "People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy," Dueholm writes, as to correct Savage. I'm not sure why he thinks Savage thinks otherwise - Savage's oft-repeated point about having met his now-husband via a one-night stand is that these two worlds - the Dirty and the Serious Relationship with Companionship - are not mutually exclusive, and precisely that you don't know initially where things will lead. While Savage has that catchy DTMFA slogan, he tends to assume, when people call or write in, that they want to work things out. Savage himself, incidentally, links to another response to Dueholm that makes this point - that Savage himself is on board with a good amount of what Dueholm chastises him for opposing. (And then Savage hems and haws, presumably to be contrarian, because he ultimately kind of agrees the writer defending him.)

Unlike Dueholm, I've tended to gloss over Savage's occasional forays into evo-babble, because they're not such a central part of his message, and because where they lead him is ultimately kind of reasonable. It is not natural to only ever notice one person, once you've committed to that person. It is, if anything, creepy - unless it's being said in a romantic-gesture sense - if your partner claims you're the only person in the entire world who could possibly do it for him or her. Where I'd disagree with Savage is in the idea that monogamy is near-impossible for most people, that noticing has to has to has to lead to more. But his argument about it being better for, say, a married couple with kids, who are not otherwise mortal ennemies, to work things out after an infidelity, or even negotiate an open relationship, rather than divorce? That seems altogether reasonable. As for the value of negotiating an open relationship when there aren't any children, perhaps not even a marriage? I think there's a reason 'let's see other people' has come to be a popular euphemism for 'it's over.'

A small point but still relevant: Dueholm seems overly preoccupied with the fact that Savage uses obscenities freely and discusses the personal - these two shifts, the banalization of swear words and the acceptability of mentioning what goes on in bedrooms - are cultural, not creations of Savage. The whole OMG what would Ann Landers think angle is a bit much. If Savage were answering questions about newly-married couples writing thank-you notes, he'd be of another era. Or he'd be Dear Prudence, who at least also answers the less archaic. He - Dueholm, that is - both acknowledges that Savage is very much of his time and seems to be writing (Dueholm, that is) for an audience that will go all, 'Horrors!' at the mention of open relationships or casual sex, one that is not merely morally unsure about these being positive things, but straight-up shocked that anyone would, or perhaps even shocked at their existence:

By the standards of a family newspaper, his advice is not only explicit but broad-minded to the point of being radical, encouraging people to embrace or at least tolerate previously unmentionable sexual inclinations in their partners, praising open relationships, and celebrating behaviors that might cause even the most intrepid reader to balk.
I'm not sure what the "family newspaper" bit is about. No, the column would not fit in in the NYT, but who are Savage's readers? Those who are "family-appropriate" age - that is, adolescents - are turning to him either for entertainment or because the 'appropriate' sex-ed channels have failed them; those younger than that are not reading newspaper columns, even racy ones. Dueholm makes it super-clear that he has different, more respectable, standards than dirty Dan, referring to Savage's definition of "Santorum" as "unprintable." Oh, it's not entirely unprintable. It's about bodily fluids. It's really not all that shocking. If anything, listen to enough Savage, and you realize that human sexuality is not amazingly varied and fascinating, but largely limited by the number of orifices and most people's lack of originality. Wow, somebody has this weird fetish involving a leather whip! Amazing! Dueholm writes that "it was long difficult to find any cultural medium that navigated successfully between bashfulness and outright smut," but seems to categorize Savage in the latter category. In other words, Dueholm is either prudish himself, or writing for an audience he thinks will appreciate a veneer of prudishness.

As for Savage's code of ethics, which is really Dueholm's subject matter, my impression of it has been that what it comes down to is, acting ethically when it comes to sex and relationships is in how you treat your partner or partners, not in how closely you adhere to a particular religion or political movement's ideals. That's pretty much what the four-pronged description Dueholm comes up with - "disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance" - adds up to. Do unto others and all that. I'm not sure why Dueholm labels it as commercial, as market-driven. Particularly when we have at our fingertips an example of an unabashedly market-based interpretation of romance coming from Mark Regnerus. Ah, but Regnerus is a social conservative, or at least makes socially-conservative arguments, so it's OK.

Another thing: Dueholm accuses Savage of "separating and elevating sexual satisfaction above other things people value," after having mentioned earlier that "for Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self." This makes it sound so deep, but really, he's a sex-advice columnist, so he overemphasizes the importance of sex in our lives. This is, alas, like blaming Dueholm, a minister, for suggesting that sexual self-determination is morally suspect. It's like blaming Aldo, which is 90% a shoe store, for having a limited handbag selection.

Dueholm, when he is generous with Savage for small moments, has his own moments with which I, in turn, might be generous. "In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores." Yup. Savage's anti-anonymous-sex, pro-parents-staying-together-for-the-sake-of-the-kids, wariness-about-encouraging-the-polyamorous-to-be-"out" moments reveal... not that he is a conservative, but that the moral framework he's come up with ends up overlapping a good deal with old-school ones.

And I do think he's right that for all his self-presentation as a shaker-upper, Savage is largely in step with the mores of his age. There are certainly still battles to fight - gay teen suicides, attacks on Planned Parenthood funding, the nightmare that is Mike Huckabee - but overall, what Savage stands up for, which actually has a bit to do with why I agree with him so much, is a center-left status quo.

And, Dueholm's defense of monogamy has a lot in common with my critique of Savage when it comes to women: "Potential romantic partners, unlike firms in the classical free-market model, are not infinite in number, and a life of comparison shopping is not free of cost." True for men, more so for women, although in Savage's defense, he does differentiate between the cost of leaving a three-month-long relationship, say, and ending a marriage. What concerns me with Savage's take on women is not his tongue-in-cheek (so to speak) remarks about vaginas being icky, or even his (not unrelated) pronouncement (to which he aired a correction, to his credit) about women not being able to wash intimately with soap, but his refusal to acknowledge some of the particularities of relationships that involve women. I'm thinking specifically of his insistence on everyone under 40, basically, as being so young, too young to concern themselves with settling down. Fine advice for a Clooney-resembling, city-dwelling gay male 39-year-old, not so much for a woman looking to reproduce, or even just a straight woman looking to settle down while still at an age when enough men find her attractive that she'll have the greatest possible say in who with.

All of which brings me back, I now realize, to an earlier discussion about how social conservatives - at least ones writing for a not exclusively conservative audience - seem intent on gender-neutrality, on asking men and women alike for premarital restraint and monogamy.

On not worrying about it

I can't have been the only one struck less by the particularities of the weight-loss plan discussed here than by the obvious unsuitability of some of its adherents and would-bes for any weight-loss plan, especially one this radical. One woman who considered but ultimately decided against the regimin "is 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds, but said she hoped to shed 20 pounds in time to be a bridesmaid at an April wedding." Just, just... it would be Bridezilla enough if a not-even-heavy-to-begin-with woman wanted to become underweight or the low range of normal, not sure precisely where that falls, for her own wedding. But this is for someone else's! And good grief, she's not even fat! As a fellow short woman, I know that even a few extra (or fewer) pounds can show, but a 20-pound, experimental-diet-induced weight-loss on an already-small person is, in the medical opinion of this French-lit PHD student, not a wise idea.

An even less wise idea: Another woman who did sign up "said she was thrilled to lose six pounds in seven days, and hopeful about reaching her goal of losing 30, which would bring her close to her ideal weight of 135 [at 5'8"]. She said she did not feel hungry and did not obsess about food as she had years ago, when suffering from anorexia." Emphasis mine, but also emphasis implicitly added by anyone with a brain who got through that paragraph. It's obviously a brilliant idea to put people who used to be anorexic on a 500-calorie-a-day diet.

I realize it's not that simple, and that female eating in our society is pretty much disordered-by-default, but it would be all kinds of fantastic if women could do the following:

Step 1: Assess if they are, medically speaking, overweight enough for it to be a concern. If so, and if they're concerned about it, by all means they can look into (sensible) diet and exercise modifications. If not...

Step 2: Assess the likelihood that they will ever be ballet dancers, models, gymnasts, or ingenue actresses. (Hint: if you're over 18, that ship has sailed. Same goes for most under-18s as well, of course.) If yes, they stand to benefit in the form of money and glory if they stay thinner than otherwise necessary. If not...

Step 3: Assess whether anything whatsoever in their lives would be better if they went down a size or lost 10 pounds. And, for women in this category, who are not up for roles in "Black Swan II: The Even Skinnier Version," life would most definitively not be better at a smaller size. Yes, society penalizes women for being large. Yes, it rewards (a tiny subset of) beautiful young girls for being very thin. What it does not do is treat differently a within-normal-limits adult woman who wears a 4 and another who wears an 8.

What's left, then, is a woman who realizes she's been dieting for its own sake, because that's what women do, because it's fun to be able to fit into some arbitrarily-sized pants.

To be clear, the alternative is not to declare it noble and righteous to ignore all nutritional science, to live off foods with "Reese's" written on them, and to be blissfully indifferent to major weight fluctuations. There's a point at which not-caring veers over into something as unhealthy as caring too much, and that point is hard to pin down. I suppose what I'm getting at is that there's on the one hand the issue of people - men and women both - who arguably, for health reasons, have reason to be concerned, and on the other a whole lot of women who are, in a sense, worrying a whole lot about what is essentially a health concern they don't have. This results in a society in which "diet" (or all the various euphemisms that amount to the same thing) becomes not merely something for someone who by some not-unreasonable standard needs to lose weight, but the default attitude of women of all sizes.

I have more to say about this, but am having trouble articulating it further, so if commenters have thoughts...

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Men, women, and what-ifs

Andrew Sullivan has a couple good posts up, in response to Douthat's piece, about "premature monogamy." Before discussing those, I'll make a plug for Léon Blum's Du mariage, summed up, for those who can read French but are not about to track down the whole thing, here. The idea that it's dangerous for men and women to marry the first person they sleep with was not invented in 2011.

Anyway, here I'm with Sullivan 100%: "What I find unpersuasive is Ross's dichotomy. There's either pre-marital monogamy or everything else: 'casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.' In real human lives, isn't this a spectrum rather than a binary choice?" That, yes, and as Dan Savage correctly points out, one-night stands can lead to serious relationships, even ones that lead to - gasp - families, whereas waiting some socially-acceptable amount of time does not mean two people will reveal themselves to be compatible, sexually or otherwise. In a sense, there's nothing worse than two people deciding that theirs will be a Serious Relationship, that they're Serious Relationship people, who go about things in a Serious Relationship way, only to realize that they should probably be having their serious relationships with other people, and have been wasting time with each other.

Here, not so much: "Many men especially, to my mind, should be wary of marrying the first person they fall for or have sex with." Why "men especially"? Madame Bovary, people! Women, being human and all, will of course wonder what else is out there if they marry the first guy who comes along, and what might they do in such situations? Cheating comes to mind, as does filing for divorce. I guess the myth that women innately want to marry and reproduce with the man they lose their virginity to lives on, because otherwise I can't see where Sullivan is getting that there would be a gender difference on this.

If we do as everyone from Savage to social conservatives to anyone who's seen the mess of (many, not all) divorces when kids are involved urges and Think of the Children, what we ought to want is for the relationships in which people actually have children to last. Which means we should care less about the durability of relationships among high school juniors, and more about those of couples in their mid-20s and up, people likely not to be in their first-ever relationships. (Our hopes for 16-year-olds should be that whatever it is they do, children don't result.) And for adult men and women, a great way not to wonder what else is out there is to know what else is out there.

Skeptics will claim that see-what-else-is-out-their-first suggestions are asking young people to be too picky, or to believe that they will find The One if they only sort through every other person on earth first. Meanwhile, some young men and women do interpret it in this way, which becomes more of a problem for the women, who will go, within the span of five minutes, from too-young-to-settle-down to (being labeled as) too old. Which maybe explains Sullivan's point about it being more dangerous for men than women to settle down too soon - it's not so much that women are delighted with the first guy who comes along, that they're immune to the what-ifs, but that the consequences for women if another guy doesn't come along soon are greater than those for men if they dump their first girlfriend and have to wait half a decade for the second.

What should really happen is... a couple things. One, experience, not age, should be the central factor in determining what's "premature" when it comes to settling down. Two, "experience" need not be defined by a particular sex act. It's entirely reasonable to want to reserve the riskier ones (and different people draw the line different places) for certain relationships. Then you avoid a lot of the what-ifs, while at the same time allowing couples who are "so young" (under 30-35, that is, with variety according to region/subculture) to stay together without constantly reminding them there's more out there.

Caveat time: I don't think, in the cases when a first love is going swimmingly and neither party is experiencing what-ifs, the couple ought to break up to see what else is out there. They'd be well-advised not to reproduce before attending prom, but there's no reason for them to end things out of principle. Even following Savage's dictum (why does that sound dirty?) and accepting that there is no "The One," but many Ones, the fact is that some people aren't that curious in this area, or that compatible with that many people, and would be well-advised to stick with the first viable partner they find, even if that is, indeed, their first ever.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Paris marathon

In a comment to Amber's post asking what kind of exercise her readers can stand, I mentioned "Running, outside, with a podcast." This is not entirely accurate. I left off "towards a pastry shop." This, I find, makes all the difference in the world. Whether the end result was Fox and Obel in Chicago, or over the bridge and to the old Bouley Bakery and Market in NY, that's always been a stellar motivating factor in my book. Not optimal if the running is for weight-loss purposes, but if it's for general health, toned-ness, and not getting out of breath when climbing a flight of stairs, a run that ends with "une part de flan, s'il vous plaît" is the best kind of run there is.

Although I'm not sure I can call today's outing, my first-ever - ever! - attempt at jogging in Paris, a "run." I'd hit a wall with the chapter - which is now two chapters, thanks to my advisor pointing out that 60-plus pages is a bit long for one, and the fact that by the time I got this email, said "chapter" had exceeded 80, and figured it was almost second-coffee-and-second-pastry-of-the-day hour. I realized that I could procrastinate slightly longer if I preceded the trip to the bakery with a loop around the inside perimeter of the Jardin du Luxembourg, a loop of about a mile, so slightly shorter than the Central Park Reservoir. It's at any rate a similar kind of running/jogging/whatever experience, insofar as you will be be on a dusty path, surrounded by chain-smoking European tourists. The difference is that the only other joggers will be men, all in nothing-left-to-the-imagination running leggings. While I do miss the Hudson path, it's refreshing not to cross paths with the very high school track team I was on, long ago, with the flashbacks that entails.

Probably half a mile in, I had that moment of, OMGIamsooutofshapewhyamIevenattemptingthiswhenIcouldbeinacafesomewherewithasteakfritesthatisn'teventhatexpensive. But I pressed on, completed the one-mile loop, and wound up at my favorite local bakery. The flan-and-coffee combo, combined with the mental clarity that comes from running, ended up helping kind of a lot with the chapter completion/revision. I may have to do this again.

One last Galliano post

Rhonda Garelick has just penned the best take on l'Affaire Galliano I've yet found. She's absolutely right to contextualize it within both the history of French fascism and the undemocratic aesthetic of fashion even today (token black or average-size models notwithstanding). But that's all I'll say, other than to reiterate that this is a must-read.

Dorm mysteries

Overall, I'm finding life in a tiny dorm room not such a big deal. It helps to have moved to it from a studio apartment - it isn't requiring that much of an adjustment. And, despite the coils, the mattress now strikes me as normal, leading me to wonder what kind of cloud from heaven the plush Queen I'll be returning to will seem like. And initially, the presence of these coils was my main complaint about dorm life, so all is well.

Still, some mysteries remain:

-The thing with the lights. The hallway lights, for example, are on the timer system, such that as soon as you're about to get out your room key and enter with, for example, a pot of pasta, or a few bags of heavy groceries, all of a sudden, you're in the dark. There's essentially no natural light in the hall, so this is the case at all hours. This is, I suppose, the opposite end of the spectrum of those shops that leave on their display-window lights even when closed. A happy medium would be ideal.

The commitment to shutting lights is not merely structural, but shared by the students, who dutifully shut the non-timer-system, i.e. normal on-off, light in the communal bathroom once they're done. What they fail to realize, however, is that perhaps someone else in another stall is not yet done. It's only a matter of time in the dorm until one finds one's self on the toilet in dark, which is not the world's most delightful experience.

-The stream of ants that recently passed through my room, only to migrate to greener pastures in the shower area. Why do we now have ants? Is it ant season?

-The juxtaposition of signs everywhere about an upcoming extermination project (complete with graphic drawings of nasty-looking roaches and rats; ants are to be tolerated, presumably) and the process of communal-fridge-cleaning in the kitchen, which is supposed to involve food being thrown out but which instead involves all the food that anyone thought perishable enough to put in the fridge being placed out on surfaces in the kitchen.

-The presence of crying babies at random times. The students here are not of the babies-having-babies variety. Where do these babies come from?

Virgin grooms?

It was my understanding of the past (that general Western, modern past that we can worry about specifying momentarily) that men were permitted to sleep around, to have sex with 'easy' women and prostitutes, prior to marriage, that somewhat older marriage ages for men gave them a chance to have a few good years like this while in the military and starting their careers, and that only the marriageable women were expected to remain virgins. What's new, then, is the fact that there's no longer that split between demimondaine-types and potential-wives - virtually all potential wives a man meets are women who, like himself, will gladly have sex without the promise of a major commitment. While this split means that there are fewer virgin or near-virgin brides, it also, in theory, eliminates the demand for some small subset of women who will sleep with absolutely anyone.

This is not the understanding of socially-conservative commenters. They seem to always present the past as a time when both spouses came to marriage relatively pristine. They seem to always ignore both the premarital sexual exploits of men and the fact that said exploits were considered normal, healthy aspects of masculinity. They present the past as though there was no real gender divide between what was expected. Ross Douthat's latest is no exception. I assume this is because it gets touchy and will rile The Feminists to suggest that the past, when young women stayed pure, was a better time. So they conveniently overlook the fact that the expectations they, to their credit, at least want to apply (mostly) gender-neutrally, were not applied gender-neutrally way back when.

I have other thoughts on what Douthat has written, in particular the notion that one can so neatly divide may-lead-to-marriage sex and "promiscuity," but the aspect of this that's relevant to recent posts here is what I've mentioned above.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Logo'd schmattas UPDATED

Continuing this blog's long tradition of defending the indefensible, and more recent one of covering scandals in the fashion world, I'm going to have to take LVMH's side over that of Hermès in this battle of the luxury-goods purveyors. That is, I'm not weighing in on the business-ethics aspects of this, which veer towards legal technicalities that one would need one of those JD-MBAs to understand, but rather the cultural question of a big, mean conglomerate taking over a poor little expensive-leather handbag shop. Which is how the head of Hermès is describing this, as a "'cultural fight.'"

We have in one corner LVMH, the fancy-schmancy-stuff empire behind those bags that are emblazoned with LVLVLVLVLVLV, and behind some champagne, and behind a whole lot of other stuff mentioned in the article. In the other, there's a family business, a quaint and humble little workshop that makes aw-shucks products like... the Birkin bag and ridonkulously expensive logo'd scarves. The dude from Hermès "likened [LVMH dude's] incursion to the rape of a beautiful woman," which begins to get at why I'm not sympathetic to the leather-goods-company's cause.

But aside from objectionable word choice, there's the preposterous idea that the folks at Hermès are not in it - "it," remember, being the business of fancy handbags named after celebrities - for the money. That it's all artisanal and about Old Families and How Things Once Were:

One February morning in Pantin, Mr. Dumas pointed to a large Birkin bag that required four Australian marine crocodile skins, instead of the usual three, to obtain a perfectly symmetrical pattern. Such extravagances cost money, but no matter: Hermès artisans never skimp to achieve a lower price point, something they fear that LVMH would press them to do. 
“We never discuss price,” Mr. Dumas says. “We are never thinking that we can sell X number of bags if we lowered the cost.”
OK. I believe that more attention goes into one of these handbags than, for example, the various tote bags I keep accumulating only to find they're less durable than the plastic bags they ostensibly replace. But we're supposed to believe that an international luxury business does not give consideration to price point? That in the Hermès family, which runs Hermès, "money" is "a subject that is almost taboo"? And we're supposed to think the value of a perfectly symmetrical crocodile handbag is something it's noble to protect?

I mean, on the one hand, I get the whole fine-leather-goods appeal (this purchase changed my life, or at least made me 500% less dowdy, and for anyone in Paris or willing to order something off the Internet that they haven't seen in person, I highly recommend that store, where the gorgeous bags will set you back a whole lot less than the logo'd variety), and that even when the end results are identical, which they aren't always, but are sometimes, there's an aesthetic appeal to the off-the-beaten-path atelier that's lacking from something with a massive flagship on all upscale shopping drags worldwide. But Hermès is not a very good example of that kind of small-scale operation. It's relative small-scale-ness, to the extent it's holding out from conglomerates, is precisely about appealing to wealthy consumers' artisanal-leather-goods fantasies. In other words, about making money.

Hermès's leader, who's not part of The Family but nevertheless has rustic credentials on account of riding his bike "in rural Auvergne, in south-central France, whose rocky peaks form the backbone of the Massif Central," reacted to one of LVMH dude's incursions on his company as follows: "This was not the way business was done, he thought — not in France, and certainly not among gentlemen." Blech, blech, and blech. It's one thing if a company is violating the law. But the notion that because the schmattas you're selling are fancy and worn by fancy types, you're "gentlemen" is just... Are these two men going to duel?

Without going down the paranoid road, and mentioning that the artisanal vs large-scale battle once waged in France as a pretext for heaping piles of anti-Semitism, there's a whiff of something unpleasant about the fact that LVMH's head, though "born and raised in France, [...] is, to his detractors here, something of a brassy American in finely tailored Dior." Or maybe it's just my own aesthetic preference against hypocrisy, which is how I interpret a big-name luxury-goods manufacturer portraying what it does as honorable and disinterested.


Surprise surprise, Hermès now claims to represent "slow fashion." Which is, in principle, a reaction to the fast-paced world of Fashion Today, which as we may recall is what turned Galliano into a drunken anti-Semite, but which apparently also involves having models walk down the runway more slowly than usual.

Boyz II Slightly Older Boyz

I just now listened to an NPR interview with Kay Hymowitz, and some clarification was provided. First, this for Britta, apparently in her book Hymowitz does go into detail on the economic factors that lead 20-something men to stay single. Next, someone on the podcast mentioned that way back when, military service was the way boys became men. And I think this is key - not military service specifically, but the fact that the only way to go from girl to woman used to be by marrying, whereas men have always had a wider range of options, such that a male of a certain age was not considered a "boy" if single, whereas a woman of equivalent age was still a "girl."

Next, the real clarification - or source of further confusion? - in terms of age: a woman called into the show to say she's 23, likes to go out and have fun, but is disappointed that when partying all night long, the guys her own age she meets are not looking to settle down. This to me was a perfect, can't-make-these-things-up example of how gendered expectations play into all of this. Here we have a 23-year-old woman clearly enjoying being 23, in no rush to be 24 let alone 30, who nevertheless feels like she has to ask why there are no good men... at the parties and concerts (not classical, one assumes) she's attending every night of the week.

Hymowitz suggests that to find a good man, the young woman consider older men, noting that historically this has been how things tend to play out. Hymowitz then alludes to the fact that perhaps men have always matured more slowly than women, and also more-than-alludes (not here, I think, but at other points in the interview) to the fact that women have limited fertile years to contend with. At which point I'm wondering why we're supposed to be surprised that 20-something men today are not hearing the tick of their own biological clocks. And why there's a problem - if, as Hymowitz admits, men will eventually want to settle down, the women who also want to do so at 23 have their pick of these dudes, while those who don't can party on with their peers, meeting men they may one day start a family with, but it won't be at 23-and-a-half.

The caller responds, basically, that older guys have cooties. OK, not quite, but she said she likes that guys her own age are fun and not focused on their careers, seemingly defining "fun" as "not focused on one's career." At this point, I'm wondering what, exactly, we're supposed to think the caller means when she says that men her own age are too immature for her, relationship-wise. Is the issue that she wants three-week flings rather than one-night-stands? If she were actually interested in settling down, starting a family, or even a long-term commitment, she wouldn't get the creeps when a man makes reference to having a steady job. Which as good as confirmed my hypothesis that the caller felt she had to repeat a cliché about the difficulty of finding good men, while at the same time being altogether content with her current situation.

I was left thinking... pretty much what I'd thought before, which is that the window-of-opportunity is the real problem. This particular caller seemed to be genuinely enjoying being 23 more than most enjoy being any age. But in general, a woman that age is being told both that she's too young to settle down and that the age at which it's too late is around the corner. The problem is that there are these two fairly rigid ideas women have about which age group they're in, whereas men are allowed a more gradual transition from youth to maturity. And... I may have more thoughts later, but this is the update for now.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Strapping young lads

This was buried (and poorly articulated, alas) in a recent post, but I will put it front and center: was there ever a time, within Western modernity, other than (what I understand of) the 1950s, outside of any extreme-for-its-time religious sect, when 20-something men were expected to be married with kids? I'm not asking whether men at that age were ever settled down, or whether any of the major religions technically gives its OK to the kind of sex had by bachelors. My question is whether it was ever expected of men, whether social tsk-tskers (again, religious authorities, who tend to aim beyond what's really expected, aside) were aghast that a 35-year-old man might only now be thinking of settling down, a past of premarital exploits behind him.

I ask this because today's secular-ish moralists seem amazed at how immature 20-something men are, how useless they are to 20-something women. I'm wondering whether there was ever a time (see caveats above) when 20-something men were expected to be of use to settling-down-oriented 20-something women. Wasn't this considered 30-and-up men's responsibility?

Meanwhile, if anything - and forgive me the same imprecision re: time and place as those I'm responding to - it could be that what's new is that 20-something women are expected to be interested in 20-something men. Whereas once, a 21-year-old would be matched with a 40-year-old, her presumed partners are now 21-year-old men. This, and not the maturity of 20-something men, may be the difference we're seeing.

The responsibility for this shift - assuming there's been a shift, and perhaps when I'm less preoccupied by far more precise details of 19th C marriage patterns I'll look into this in more detail -  would seemingly lie in everything from reliable birth control (not every partner or even relationship needs to be about supporting children) to the fact that a great number of activities (college student, lawyer) are not divided along gender lines. Women have far more choice than in the past about who to pick or pursue, and for what kind of relationship. And - shock of shocks - despite refrains about graying men being 'distinguished', 20-something women find 20-something men attractive. In other words, it's not that 20-something women are and always have been more mature than 20-something men. It's that it's always been more appealing to choose who to be with and when and under what circumstances, and women now have the option of doing what men always have. (If it weren't for declining fertility with age, there'd be no compelling reason for women to want to settle down at any particular point. But fertility doesn't stop at 22...) Anyway, if what 20-something women wanted was to snag men ready to settle down, they'd be after older men, who would likely oblige. That they're not suggests that settling down is not their priority. Which is why this bit of Mark "Remember Him?" Regnerus's Slate piece was so baffling:

Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market's realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend's hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn't oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants. Meanwhile, Julia, a 21-year-old from Arizona who's been in a sexual relationship for two years, is frustrated by her boyfriend's wish to "enjoy the moment and not worry about the future." Michelle, a 20-year-old from Colorado, said she is in the same boat: "I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who said that, um, he didn't know if he was ever going to get married because, he said, there's always going to be someone better."
Perhaps there are regional particularities here that I'm missing, but isn't it usual for traditional-age college students of both sexes to assume that the relationship they happen to be in is not with their future spouse? Isn't it possible that "Jill" happens to be more interested in her current boyfriend than vice versa, and that this - rather than something gender-specific - is the issue, and that Jill's optimal scenario if the boy were more interested would be, I don't know, a change in Facebook status to "In a Relationship," not anything more official? (And, things being subjective, how exactly can Regnerus know how appealing Jill would be in some hypothetical situation other than the one she's in? Is he qualified not only to assess Young People Today, but also their objective hotness?) Isn't it for the best that 20-year-olds of both sexes who are unsure about their current partners make that known and move on, rather than forcing a commitment with the first person with whom there's even slightly sustained mutual attraction? And - this one for "Michelle" - are we really supposed to take seriously the declaration of a 20-year-old's ex-boyfriend, who could well have been 17 when saying this, that he's not sure he'll ever want to marry?

I have said before and will say again that I think if two 20-year-olds have found each other and wish to look no further - and remember, at 20 someone could already have been in a few other serious relationships - then there shouldn't be pressure on them to see what else is out there. So if that's what's happening, if these young men have been told by society to leave perfectly happy relationships - and I suspect that is what happens some of the time, with male and female dumpers - that's a problem. Regnerus, however, implies that these boyfriends and ex-boyfriends really are ambivalent, really are ready to move on. In which case, they - and their female equivalents - should reject their current partners, even if, horror of horrors, it prevents some dumpees from marrying their college sweethearts. At any rate, this is the problem with "20s" as a concept, the conflation of ages at which settling down makes sense for many, and at which it makes sense for very, very few.