Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The end of YPIS?

As mentioned below, the trend of calling out others' "privilege" as a way of asserting one's own commitment to social justice, or of implying one's own relative hard-scrabble-ness, reached something of a low point yesterday, when a bunch of Jezebel commenters decided that a 22-year-old's privilege was showing. No matter that this 22-year-old had been written up for having just been killed in a car crash. Clichés such as "you can't take it with you" and "death is the great equalizer" convey why it's illogical to discuss the privilege of the no longer living; common sense indicates why hurling a your-privilege-is-showing in the general direction of those mourning Marina Keegan is in poor taste, if not outright cruel.

But this goes deeper into the heart of YPIS. The ostensible point of these YPIS-hurlers is that pretty, wealthy white girls' lives are valued more than others', and that it's wrong to call someone "promising" just because she went to Yale and were about to start her first post-college job at the New Yorker. But Keegan had actually made something of herself. Her myriad accomplishments were not exactly things handed to you as a reward for being the child of privilege (if indeed she was one! everyone is taking it for granted). That she almost without a doubt had more opportunities than a young person in war-torn Africa would (barring Kristofian intervention) doesn't diminish how much she would need to have done to thus distinguish herself from many, many other pretty white girls of equivalent privilege. Insofar as we as a society highlight the obituaries of the accomplished, Keegan's was an obvious one to highlight, and not really of the "missing white girl" mold.

One might speculate that in this case, the YPIS was in fact less about missing-white-girl or social justice and more about jealousy. This thread is basically a morbid version of the Tavi Gevinson one a while back. Gevinson, the tween-now-teen fashion prodigy, does not, by the usual fashion-world definition, come from privilege. Her father's a teacher, her mother an artist and not, from what we know, a rich and famous one. She grew up (technically is growing up) in a suburb of Chicago, not exactly a hotbed of glamor and connections. Which didn't stop the "Jezzies" from holding forth about how privileged Tavi must be, and how if we take this privilege into account, we see how slight her accomplishments are, considering.

Successful fashion-blogging, admission to Yale, a job at the New Yorker, these accomplishments are easy to envy, because it can feel as though they're all about luck, not talent or hard work. (There are not too many random Jezebel readers convinced that amorphous "privilege" is what keeps them from being Nobel-winning physicists, Williams-level tennis players, etc.) Anyone can write a sentence! Anyone can take a picture of an outfit! A natural, if less-than-admirable, response to achievements along these lines is, "Why not meeee?" But because it's petty if not socially-unacceptable to express that, those wishing to do so instead turn to how dreadfully unfair it is that a theoretical inner-city teen is not reaching these heights. With Gevinson, this was ridiculous. With Keegan, grotesque.

The coldness of this response gave the impression that many readers' commitment to calling out cluelessness had, paradoxically, rendered them out-of-touch with reality. Did they really think the unfairnesses of life that make some better-situated to become Yale grads or New Yorker editors are effectively addressed by claiming that it's not sad when a young person dies immediately after graduating from college?

What was remarkable in this thread - and what led me to this post title - was that other Jezebel commenters decided that enough was enough, that YPIS had gone too far, that the term "privilege" has been so mis- and overused as to have lost its power. It feels, if you read the thread, like the tide might be turning. YPIS just felt over.

And - to anticipate the counterargument - the answer isn't to chuck the concept of privilege. It's to chuck YPIS. It's to remember that privilege as a topic up for discussion is one that relates to populations, not individuals. All things equal, whiteness and wealth are privilege. The answer isn't to embrace some kind of arch-conservative, boot-straps, victim-blaming ideology that pretends we all begin life with equal opportunities, or to shrug our shoulders about systematic injustices in the name of life-isn't-fair. Instead, it's to acknowledge that when it comes to others as individuals, especially others you don't know personally, you can't say that they haven't had to overcome massive obstacles, albeit invisible or unannounced ones. It's to remember that certain individuals are unlucky as well as, by certain objective standards, "privileged." I believe this came up regarding Ann Romney, and I've seen it in even more absurd cases as well: if someone's seriously ill, the proper response isn't 'and think of how much worse that princess would have it if she didn't have health insurance.' It's best to save privilege-checking on the individual level for yourself, to count your own blessings, and to try your best not to be clueless, entitled, and so forth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Big city living

Links that could be posts, if it weren't for Napoleon

-Jane Brody declares herself an optimist. A commenter has a different interpretation.

-Jezebel commenters will have you know that a dead 22-year-old's privilege is showing.

-The female Dan Savage?

Of interns and housewives

It's abundantly clear that the rise of unpaid internships is bad for those who need to work. But it's surprisingly tough to convey why they're a problem even for those privileged enough to be in a position to take one. And that's a message that needs to get across, because a protest on behalf of those who aren't about to take unpaid internships anyway doesn't seem to be getting anywhere.

But it's not self-evident, because of our YPIS ("your privilege is showing") mindset. Rather than thinking it's pathetic that a college-educated 27-year-old is in a position to think he should be asking his parents to pay for him to go work at a job, we focus on the privilege angle. We frame it as, kids who don't need to work, and who can access whatever leg up an internship might (key word: might) provide should be grateful.

And this is fair. In a society without much of a safety net, anyone who isn't a paycheck away from misery is, well, privileged. The point of this post isn't to detract from that, or to claim that it's somehow worse to be an unpaid intern at the firm of your choice, with no money worries, than to be trying to pay off loans while the best job you can get is part-time at McDonalds. (For readers who need to situate the author, I've never experienced either extreme, and have never been an unpaid intern.)

To understand why setting up a norm of unpaid work is a problem even for those who don't face destitution, consider the position of a mid-century wife of a man who made enough that she would not need to work to avoid being on the street. Employers back in the day justified paying women less for the same work because a woman's income was presumed to be supplemental. Feminists didn't like this arrangement, and not only because of its negative impact on unmarried women and those who, however low-paid, still out-earned their husbands. While wives who didn't need to work were 'privileged,' they were also dependents. If their husbands left, they were were screwed. But even if their husbands stayed put, this financial arrangement impacted women's sense of self-worth, in and out of their marriages.

Yes, second-wave feminism stands accused of having focused too much on the plight of the privileged (white, straight, married, at-least-middle-class) woman. But that doesn't mean the plight was a figment of their imagination, or that the way to achieve social justice would have been to keep such women from earning substantial incomes of their own. We intuitively get that financial dependence along traditional gender lines can (doesn't always, Ann Romney, doesn't always) lead to misery, even if not of a kicked-to-the-curb-with-no-source-of-income variety. Today, a woman with a high-earning husband who nevertheless also has a job of her own is certainly not not respected for choosing to work. If anything, we admire the wives of incredibly high-earning men who are professionals in their own right. No one praises Ann Romney for nobly refusing to 'steal' a job from someone who needed it more, which is to say from just about anyone.

The problem with the rise of the unpaid internship is that it puts young adults in much the place of girdle-era wives looking to work outside the home.* It defines as uppity and entitled any youngish adult who works in order to have independence, and who demands a paycheck merely to be fairly compensated for their work, but who has some alternative (be that living in splendor in an apt. their parents pay for or living in the basement at home) to living off his own wages. It has a negative impact on youngish** as a caste, and incentivizes dependency.

*What analogy is perfect?
**What is "youngish"? In looking things up for a somewhat different and - yes, you can thank me - much longer and now-scrapped version of this post, I found that law schools' financial aid depts. take into account the finances of an applicant's parents if the applicant is under 30. 30!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fundamental human rights

-The Atlantic had a piece recently by Talia Minsberg about Israel's new skinny-model ban. The comments go in precisely the two directions we'd expect: fury that Israel's being mentioned in a context other than chastising it for being the most evil country ever to exist, and complaints from those with BMIs under 18.5 about how unfair it is that they could not, in theory, work as models in Israel. Never mind that they're probably too short, old, plain, and not in Israel for this to apply to them, and never mind that without government or industry intervention, thus far high-fashion modeling has, for a while now, effectively only been available to those with BMIs under 18.5. (Frame of reference: "A five-foot, seven-inch individual, for example, must weigh at least 118 pounds to work as a model in Israel.") As if there's some kind of fundamental human right to have you or images of yourself held up as beautiful, one that we can ignore when it's an entity other than the state doing the enforcing.

-The great debate over straight women's presence in gay bars has resurfaced once more, now that an L.A. bar - one that evidently features chiseled go-go dancers - banned "straight bachelorette parties." (Presumably lesbian bachelorette parties wouldn't be held there in the first place.) The bar is doing so because - and this is reasonable enough - they think it's offensive to use gay bars as a place to celebrate marriage, when gay marriage is not yet legal across the nation. Reasonable, but quite possibly a noble-sounding pretext to exclude women from the establishment. (Does every straight bachelorette party identify itself as such?)

And if it is a pretext, so what? Do groups of women have a fundamental right to go to gay bars? Maybe, maybe not. Ethically I suppose it would depend on what kind of gay bar it was. No idea where the law stands, not terribly curious, not my concern here. There are plenty of great reasons a gay bar could give to keep some/all women out. Most notably, the purpose of the bar is for men to be among men, which would still be true even if gays could marry across the galaxy.

What is my concern - and I said this the last time this came up - is that critics of women-in-gay-bars keep acting like the only reasons straight women would go to a gay bar are a) to avoid unwanted sexual advances from men, and b) because they think of gay men as fashion accessories or zoo animals. It would seem that the more obvious reason for their interest in these locales is that they're chock-full of individuals of these women's preferred sex. This ogling is not - as Gawker's Louis Peitzman claims - about gay men as novelty items. Some women will enjoy seeing men kissing men, just as the equivalent is true. But this is fundamentally about it being appealing to a heterosexual woman to be in a great big horde of men. But a straight woman - all the more so a self-proclaimed "bachelorette" - surely cares only about handbags, shoes, and avoiding dirty, hair-mussing sex.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"'We still have to cater to the administration’s personal and exceptionally professional fashionista tastes.'"

The NYT links to a new, and evidently controversialdress code policy at Stuyvesant, which goes as follows:
As we approach warmer weather we would remind students to wear appropriate attire to school.

Guidelines for appropriate dress include the following:
• Sayings and illustrations on clothing should be in good taste.
• Shoulders, undergarments, midriffs and lower backs should
not be exposed.
• The length of shorts, dresses and skirts should extend below
the fingertips with the arms straight at your side.
Let's do a close reading of this dress code. There are several clues that the matter at hand is what girls wear. Inappropriate slogans on t-shirts would have been just as much of an issue before the weather warmed up, given that kids do not wear overcoats to class, and given that (and we all know this to be true) the boys who wear those are not leaving home with a tasteful v-neck merino sweater over them, and at any rate the ACLU can swoop in in their defense. This is, as the girls themselves note, about girls.

My first guess was that this was about the sleazy male teachers-and-administrators, who were certainly sleazy in the 1997-2001 era. Teachers, and rarely male students, did the ogling. (Even though, as one quoted student notes, “'Most students don’t really push the envelope so to speak, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything too provocative at Stuy [.]'" The most ogle-happy teacher would turn his head for a girl who wore jeans, but filled them out to his liking.) This was certainly supported by what the principal (whom I don't remember as particularly sleazy) had to say in the school paper:
“Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s no where else to go,” Teitel said. “If they’re at finger length when they stand, then at least when they sit, the length will be livable.”
Seems like he's really thought this through!

But it also appears that culprits include female school employees who are either sleazy in their own right or, as is statistically more likely, who are being forced to contend with the sad fact of life that we are only 17 once. Or who quite simply have a screw loose. One student writes (and this is worth reading in full):
I have been stopped to justify my clothing many, many times since the beginning of this school year, and nine out of 10 times, I wasn’t breaking the dress code. I’ve been told that even though my skirts were technically acceptable, they were still too short for me to wear, and once it was suggested that I should follow a separate dress code, wherein my skirts should end at least four inches past my fingertips, and preferably at my knees. Even though hearing that I needed an individual dress code was hurtful, it wasn’t even the worst thing that’s happened to me regarding the dress code. That would be the time that I walked in wearing a dress that did in fact follow the rules, only to be stopped by one of the women sitting by the scanners. She told me that my dress was too short, and that I would have plenty of time to “show off my curves” when I wasn’t in school (I found this to be ridiculous because the dress I was wearing was shapeless). She then went on to say that the dress code was only instituted for my protection, because there are a lot of bad men outside school, and if I was raped nobody would be able to take that away from me. Then, she said, “and you want a husband, don’t you?” I called my mom later, in total shock, and told her what had happened. She called the school, and funnily enough, I haven’t been unfairly targeted since then.
Another student notes that different body types mean the same outfit gets a different response depending who's wearing it. Which, of course, continues to be the case into adulthood. Thus the choice of many hourglass women to steer clear of styles that would look conservative on Kate Moss. But the message that there are inappropriate ways to dress is one that these kids are going to learn just fine, and the danger that they will show up for their McKinsey interviews in hot pants and stripper heels is approximately nil. This is, as is abundantly clear, not about Life Lessons, but rather about easily titillated school employees behaving far less appropriately than the students whose clothing might be riding up ever so slightly.


Aside from all the general issues this raises, it also bothers me on a personal level. I remember it being great fun to transfer from a school with a uniform (not just a dress code) to one without. One ostensible point of school uniforms - that they make it so kids aren't begging their parents for the "right" jeans - only works insofar as they instead must have the right shoes, backpack, etc. It's never a mystery who has money/whose parents indulge their every whim. And the "appropriateness" one... let's just say what I wore in eighth grade, a navy pleated miniskirt and white polo shirt, was far more appealing to the creepy-man-on-the-street than was my ninth grade "uniform" of unflattering boot-cut jeans and gray v-neck t-shirts. The only possible good reason for a school uniform would be for the parents/caregivers of very young children, who then don't have to worry about what the kid is going to wear to school each morning.

At any rate, once I got to high school, I don't remember any rules whatsoever about what we wore. Most students wore nothing worth remarking on. There were a handful of Russian girls (of all builds) in crop tops, gay boys I inevitably had oblivious crushes on in leather pants, goth kids, thrifted-paisley-skirt-wearing girls, some recent Chinese immigrants who for some reason in 1998 favored Nautica logos, etc. There was even a Muslim girl who regularly paired a conservative headscarf with a skimpy tank top. Every possible high school look, with the exception of the one look otherwise definitively adopted by American high school students in that era - Abercrombie - which for whatever reason all the school's many subcultures decided was unacceptable.

And oh my goodness does this bring me back:
It was 7:55 am when I swiped my I.D. card through the scanner one morning. I was in a hurry to get to physics on the 8th floor (my teacher has a tendency to give pop quizzes at the beginning of the period).
At least I know the setting for my next anxiety dream.

The mean girls of Pinterest

Having just about run out of things to pin onto Pinterest, I suspect that this will be my last post musing on that site. (The previous.) It had such time-suck potential, but having scoured the internet for that which is space-age, gamine, etc., and reached a bit of an end-point, for me, at least, it may have run its course.

But one final observation. There's one truly objectionable use of the site that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere, which is the creation of boards dedicated to that which is, like, gross, and totally not cute at all. In the "Go Fug Yourself" mode, I suppose. I think I'd noticed it before, but I was reminded of it when I posted some outrageous menswear which was repinned three times, onto boards called "Hmmmmmm........," "Judgement" (subhead: "In what world was this a good idea?"), and "things that weird me out," respectively.

This is fashion in the Quinn-from-"Daria" fashion-club sense, which is not fashion at all, but "fashion" as a pretext for anything from dressing so as not to stand out, to actively mocking those who are more adventurous. And with Pinterest, unlike life, there isn't even the angle of, not everyone has the privilege of experimenting with pastel hair colors, because there's no requirement/assumption that you, personally, own/wear anything you post.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"[U]n jeune astrophysicien"

Typically, when this blog goes astronomical, it's to tell you about the latest in space-age attire. But today I must make an exception: my husband's astrophysics work has been written about in the Libération science blog!!! Nice touch on the journalist's part, pointing out that neither Jo nor his co-author are in fact Einstein. (I'm not being sarcastic - this is quite possibly the first flattering use of the expression, 'he's no Einstein.')

Those who want the backstory can also read about it in English here or here.

"Most people have more pressing things to do with their time than actually find out whether the organic berries at the store were grown using sodium nitrate mined in South America that leached perchloride into surrounding waterways, which might interfere with the human thyroid gland if it seeps into drinking water."

Not-so-deep in the archives, PG and I got to debating the food movement. And I think we got sidetracked. The question, as far as I'm concerned, isn't whether it's practical, this very week, for the Obama administration to announce a Bureau of Kale Enforcement. It isn't whether consumers should lobby the government, the food industry itself, or simply raise awareness of issues they heard about on NPR. It's whether we want the locus of change to be the individual grocery-shopper's choices. Not individual advocacy. I mean what we actually put in our carts or tote bags.

I've been following this issue, but I'm not sure what's to be done on a large scale to fix the U.S. food system, or, rather, am confident that if I offered what I think might work, it would be quickly shot down by anyone actually employed in that industry. But I'm quite certain the current approach, the one that asks individual consumers to turn food shopping into a research project, is the wrong way to go, for the following reasons and more that I'll remember upon posting this:

-To get the obvious, if not necessarily most important, out of the way: people often think that by food-shopping 'ethically', they've done their good deed for the day, year, etc., and otherwise become insufferable.

-Individual consumers who seek to shop ethically don't have any reliable way to approach this. Even the foods that are clichés of virtuousness aren't necessarily sustainable. Quinoa and ramps don't make the cut; kale, I'd watch out. What about the never-ending stream of contrarian announcements that local food can actually be more wasteful to produce/transport? What about organic? On that, see this post by Margot Finn (whose work sounds amazing), via Nick Troester:

What really makes the veins in my temples throb uncomfortably is when people post things like the [agribusiness-protesting] ad above with a tagline like “This is why it’s so important to know where your food comes from!” I don’t expect people to be experts on Bt, or any other aspects of farming and food production. Most people have more pressing things to do with their time than actually find out whether the organic berries at the store were grown using sodium nitrate mined in South America that leached perchloride into surrounding waterways, which might interfere with the human thyroid gland if it seeps into drinking water.
Precisely. People who care, care in the limited way that involves forming some vague opinions about which foods are more 'pure' than others, and - and how else to approach this? - using shortcuts in the form of food labeling or, indeed, food presentation. But there is, at the very same time, an entire marketing approach - as Finn points out - dedicated to winning over the customers who believe that their food-shopping choices are of utmost ethical significance. We don't know what to look for on labels, or if we do, we don't know if the labels are accurate.

-Gender. Yes, men cook more than they used to, but the reality is that anyone advocating for increased scrutiny, by shoppers, of each supermarket purchase is at least neutral on the fact that this is an extension of women's household labor, another arena for never-good-enough. Rather than blaming the state or the food industry for putting Washington State apples in New Jersey supermarkets at the peak of apple season, we blame the person (the woman) who bought her apples at the supermarket rather than visiting the charming apple orchard just 50 miles down the road.

-Choosing farm stands, farmers' markets and CSAs over the supermarket because you believe in ethical food-shopping (as opposed to, because it's something to pass the time, because the food tastes good) has something in common with choosing a private school for your kids over the mediocre local public elementary. A perfectly understandable choice that's often better for the individual family, but that's basically throwing up your arms and saying to hell with the version everyone else has to deal with. But it's an imperfect analogy, in part because here, cost isn't necessarily the issue. It's great that many markets take food stamps, but the accessibility issue isn't limited to - to borrow a phrase - the price of arugula these days. Markets are not necessarily anywhere near where you live or work, are held at inconvenient times (early morning on weekends, or in the middle of the work-week), are cash-only, require a separate transaction for each type of ingredient you're getting (which can take forever if the market in question has a pretense of folksiness), and - and this is the clincher - will never, not even in Union Square in July, have everything you need, grocery-wise, so you leave still needing to do your food-shopping. For all these reasons, we should want that which is sold in these markets to be sold in supermarkets.

-So many factors go into deciding what to eat, setting aside convenience. Taste (subjective, goes the accurate cliché), class signaling, weight issues, specific health concerns, religious rules, etc., none of which ought to determine what is and is not available in mainstream supermarkets. It's unrealistic to expect that many will ever put food-movement-checklist first; those who claim it does might just be using it as an excuse to get better-tasting food (farmers-market vs. industrial strawberries, no contest there) or to impress the Pollan-reading Joneses. The more universally-applicable concerns - food safety, sustainability, animal welfare, and, of course, labor conditions - thus need to be dealt with before food gets to stores.

-Knowing where you food comes from becomes a substitute for - as opposed to a road towards - making the right choices. Thus the ragingly popular foodie notion that it's somehow more ethical to eat meat if you're unsqueamish about it (will to butcher a pig, gut a fish) than if you think of meat and tofu as just two things that come wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. Thus the food-movement obsession with the tragedy of kids growing up eating pizza, without any idea what a tomato plant looks like.

-Big picture, small picture: What really needs to happen, at the individual level, is more vegetables need to be consumed, more meals prepared at home. What we now have are some shoppers tearing their hair out because the asparagus came from Chile and not New Jersey (where we are positively inundated with the stuff), and others skipping right past it to the deep-fried-frozen-hot-fudge aisle. But things like meat vs. legumes, these are choices that both can and should be made by individual consumers, who can perfectly well differentiate between the produce and Cheetos sections of the supermarket. If some asparagus, tomatoes, eggs, whatever, are really that bad, this is something that needs to be verified, culminating in that product not being in stores.

None of the above is going to come as a wild surprise to those who've been following this issue, and the various contrarian take-downs it elicits. (See the tag for evidence that I'm repeating myself here.) What's different from the usual sympathizer's critique is that all I'm asking is that we stop putting the onus on the individual shopper.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Daily Mail Online headline brilliance

"Man goes to hospital with a kidney stone... and discovers he's a woman"

"'It was the pasta's fault': Dr Oz explains THAT trouser bulge... claiming spaghetti 'excited' him in Good Housekeeping shoot"

"Pretty accounts manager who left woman fighting for her life after nightclub glass attack walks free as judge describes her as a 'decent young woman'"

How civilizations end UPDATED

-At their new Manhattan branch, Montreal-themed Brooklyn deli Mile End lets you order an $18 deluxe sandwich platter to stay, but doesn't offer any seating whatsoever. No bar-stools, nothing. If coffee places can do this, why not giant-messy-sandwich shops? With coffee, at least there's the glamorous precedent (pretend it's Milan!), and at least you can sympathize with owners who have to deal with a clientele that thinks a coffee shop is a second living room. With smoked-meat sandwiches and matzo-ball soup, there's no precedent and no excuse.

-Someone, somewhere, thought that what was missing from middle-school dances were VIP areas.

-Here, some inspiration for how to dress for your unpaid internship. Save up enough from your $0 paychecks and you, too, might be able to name as your "summer must-have" the "Burberry Prorsum trench."


Or try the Louboutin "intern" flat.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On my immediate surroundings, as I wait for the shuttle


-It's the only reliable, one-stop source for (almost) everything I buy. I want a big bag of bulk rolled oats, and a splurge on plumcots. They come through.

-It isn't more expensive. People want it to be, because it's so insufferable (see "Hate" below) that it seems it ought to be, and maybe it is in some parts of the country (Chicago?), but in most of my experience, it's not. It was cheaper than the nearby Gristedes in New York, and is about the same as Wegmans here. (An employee at WF here once remarked to me that Wegmans is so expensive, which was, I think, overkill.) One gets the impression that it's more expensive because the kind of items that tend to cost a lot (produce, meat, fish) look so much more appealing here, so you end up leaving with more. And I suppose the per-pound stuff is expensive for what it is, but it looks no more appealing than any other salad bar, which is to say it ranges from nauseating to that which could be prepared in two seconds for a tenth of the price, so I avoid it.


-Every single thing that isn't food is pure, unadulterated rich-hippie obnoxiousness. Cosmetics, skin creams, paper goods, and placebo-or-worse supplements, all packaged in such a way as to make you think you've done your good deed for the day/week by making that selection. This takes up a huge amount of (in this case) the middle of the store, such that if you want ice cream or bread (and why wouldn't you?), you have to wade through a sea of it. Given the number of "Smile, You're On Camera" signs in that section, and the prominence of lotions that won't slowly kill your baby like what's sold at CVS, it would seem that the very purpose of it is to give bored SAHMs with a case of kleptomania something to do. I, at least, have yet to find a purpose of it, and the shuttle drops us off for two full hours, so believe me, I've tried. A bunch of extra-non-toxic nail polish in colors that are always just slightly off.

-Because the presumed customer is a sanctimonious beeyotch fresh from a hard day lounging at the self-refurbishment spa, people who work here fall into two categories: obsequious/chipper in that way that so confounds people who aren't American and seething-class-warrior. Once again, today I got on line for the latter. In a brilliant move that saves the company labor costs while giving the customer the illusion of labor solidarity, they've effectively phased out baggers, so if you bring your own bags, you bag as the cashier rings you up. Because I'm not from a country where it's always been thus, I'm slow at this, and have trouble coordinating the bagging and the checking of prices on the little screen. So. Today, I made the grave mistake of mentioning that I'd used four bags, as I had not seen the "BYOB" discount ring up. Turns out the cashier had entered it already. I apologized, thanked her, apologized, thanked her, and so on. Then, when she handed me my receipt, she angrily insisted on pointing to where the bag discount was indicated. "I believe you," I assured her, but to no avail, further evidence that the bag refund at WF is more trouble than it's worth.

Middle-school followers

I've written here before that I think one thing repelling many from the (primary and secondary) teaching profession is the expectation that every teacher be, well, a saint. I was reminded of this not long ago when listening to some public-radio podcast about the teacher who'd been fired for posting a picture of herself having a glass of wine on vacation in Europe. The incident itself was by then old news, but what was remarkable was how vigorously a guest on the program, in some position of power in this field, was defending the firing. The guest explained that even though the teacher's behavior was legal, as well as uncontroversial to many, teachers must be held to a higher standard, and it's up to communities to decide what that standard might be. If your community abhors alcohol consumption, a thimble of Champagne to mark your 55th birthday crosses the line.

Which is, I think, a deterrent to becoming a teacher, because who among us couldn't point to aspects of our own lives that are entirely legal as well as ethical within our own milieus, that some community somewhere in the country might think made us unfit to influence the youth? I'm not much of a confessional writer, nor does my married life in the rural edges of the suburbs, with the alcohol tolerance of an Ashkenazi sparrow, offer much in the way of scandalization-of-the-youth. But my coffee consumption - well-documented on the Internet - would cross the line for a devout Mormon community. A strict Jewish community probably wouldn't like that I'm an atheist married to a Belgian who, alas, isn't from the Antwerp shtetl. An anti-materialist hippie community might not like my Pinterest account. And so on. (I'm now thinking my tameness is underexploited unless I become a school-teacher, which is not my plan. Oh well.) 

Something along these lines, and yet not, came up in the latest question to Slate's Digital Manners:
[M]y sister-in-law recently requested to follow me on Twitter, but after looking at her Twitter feed, I denied her request.

The majority of her tweets consist of what I feel is inappropriate banter with her much younger brother and his friends, who are all in high school, swearing (sometimes very explicitly) and calling him inappropriate names. She also tweets a lot about how drunk she got and how hung-over she was the next day. The worst part? She’s a middle school science teacher and many of her students follow her tweets.  
This is of course a less clear-cut case than the wine-on-vacation-in-Europe one, and, for what it's worth, I agree with the Slate duo that this teacher's being an idiot. The teacher here is doing several things wrong, most glaringly having a personal Twitter account followed by her middle-school students, who probably shouldn't have Twitter accounts in the first place, let alone have this extracurricular connection with their teacher. Even if the Twitter account were just an informal online meeting-place set up specifically for the class, that in itself would be toeing if not crossing the line.

The stuff about the younger brother is less straightforward. What constitutes "swearing" is subjective (anything exceeding 'gee golly'?); "inappropriate names" even more so. But let's assume this refers to R-rated language. If the brother and friends are high school seniors, and not at the same school she teaches at, it would still seem that this is foolish behavior mostly because she knows her own middle-school students are reading it. If definitive lines here were being crossed - if she's flirting with her brother's 15-year-old friends, or expressing bigotry - presumably the letter-writer would have mentioned it. Even assuming none of that, bad judgement? Probably, but how bad - setting aside the question of middle-school followers - is hard to say.

Now. The drunkenness and hangovers. Whether a dozen drinks were downed, or whether bragging and exaggeration influenced the description, maybe not something to announce online. But even there, what if what's being confessed is a bit too much fun at a friend's wedding? (Remember: anything more than one drink for a woman is officially excessive, and it's entirely possible to get a hangover from even less than that, rumor has it.) It's easy to think of a thousand ways "drunkenness" might be alluded to without anything approaching the level of, say, a bad-boy chef's memoir of hitting rock-bottom. If the letter-writer is an abolitionist, any reference to non-sobriety is "Girls Gone Wild."

Where does this leave us? In a sea of ambiguity. What if whichever postings took place before someone decided to teach middle school? What if the students are following the account using pseudonyms, and the teacher, assuming no one on the site is underage, because the site doesn't allow it, posts away? What if - leaving the specific example of Twitter aside - with enough digging,  students are able to find out that a teacher exists as a person after school and on the weekends? While this teacher seems to fail on enough counts that her job might rightly be in jeopardy, it doesn't seem obvious where the line might fall, or whether a combination of good judgement and discretion would suffice.

I suppose the question we need to ask is whether tameness should be the main trait we look for in teachers. If not - if, past a certain tameness-and-discretion minimum, there are other qualities more important - something is presumably lost under the the-tamer-the-better hiring strategy. You might, if you're lucky, still get some hard-working and talented instructors, but you'd exclude a good many others, and valuable time might be lost to pursuits like making sure dress straps are thick enough.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why I'm off to the library

For context, this is Bisou standing on top of a large chair. In between cameras at the moment, so Photobooth it is. I think she's officially decided to be a biped, and there's no turning back.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Napoleon chapter

I've reached the clichéd point in dissertation-writing, where I simply must sit down and force myself to do it. I understand that, according to legend, this stage should have come sooner, and that I'm lucky it took this long, lucky that I'm quite close to a full (if rough) draft. I still think my topic is just fascinating, but in that kind of cold, distant, objective sense, like how a man feels who's been dating a Victoria's Secret model for a while and kind of lost interest. I'd love to read it, but writing it, meh. The adrenaline-filled joy of paper-writing got me through the initial working-through of the questions I address in the project, but now it's the lab-report-like filling-in of chapters, making sure that it's clear I know French-Jewish History 101 (or haven't forgotten it - there were, of course, exams), trying to keep the overall prose at least a tenth as compelling as my average post here.

I think the answer at this point, with this second-to-last chapter, to just get it to a point where I can print it out and read it without any ADD HEREs interrupting the flow. If I pretend that I'm reading someone else's work, I can take the easy air of someone with no investment in it. Other solutions include not trying to write in settings such as: under a bust of Einstein, while being playfully clawed at by a hardly underexercised poodle, with an article about Facebook billionaires I went to high school with in another window. Better settings include: NJ Transit (with the most beautiful reward, New York, on the other side), the coffee shop in town with you-have-to-ask-and-I-don't Internet, and the ostensibly-poodle-free "study" in the apartment. Only the last of those is free, but investments in sanity - unlike investments in expensive handbags - I believe in.

And I like the Napoleon chapter. It's not as much a showcase for primary-source findings as the others, but it sets up the entire argument, the why-this-question, and shows where I diverge from established wisdom in the field. But I want it done.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"A little humility"

As promised, below is the letter I emailed off to the Times, in response to what was about the most absurd defense of unpaid internships one could imagine:

Ilene Starger is correct that "[n]o task required to keep a business running [...] should be considered menial," and that every organization "depends on elbow grease, small details and often 'boring' tasks to keep it functional and thriving." Starger uses this to justify unpaid internships, when it does precisely the opposite. If an intern is performing tasks a company "depends on," then the intern is owed compensation. The question is not, as Starger implies, whether entry-level employees ought to do grunt work, or whether there is any value to on-the-job, outside-the-classroom learning. It is whether entry-level workers must be paid.
Happily, a similar point is addressed in some of the letters they did publish. If others were more articulate, all the better.

Starger's original letter, reprinted in the linked letters page, was incredibly sneaky. It gave the impression that the unpaid-internship debate is over whether young people fresh out of college should have to do low-level tasks, as if the issue was that Kids These Days are so entitled, and think they ought to be given CEO salaries and Anna Wintour responsibilities their first week on the job. When the issue is most definitely not whether those at the bottom of the totem pole should suck it up - there's absolutely no debate on this, absolutely no one arguing the reverse - but whether or not 25-year-olds should have their rent paid by their parents, or suffer for not having/opting to use that option.

One letter-writer, Lillian Marsano, takes the bait, misses the point:
I was in a senior hiring position for many years and was occasionally confronted with very naïve [note: anti-naiveté, a running theme] and — yes — demanding young people who seemed to believe that their “superior” college backgrounds should elevate them to inner decision-making circles. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Starger, especially her comments that “no task required to keep a business running ...should be considered menial.” 
For those who feel exploited, I would say: What makes you think you should be doing the work of someone who has invested much more time and effort in learning the business? An internship is a tremendous opportunity to work and be tested in a real office environment. Those with flexibility and talent know that a career takes time, effort and dedication to the smallest details. It also doesn’t hurt to show a little humility.
Yes, yes, young people are the absolute worst, but what about the little detail of compensation? "Humility" is a nice on-the-job (and off-the-job) quality, but this "boss" you're groveling before needs to hold up her own end of the deal, namely $$$ (or, more to the point, $). I mean, sure, maybe Marsano had to deal with some unpleasant recent college grads. But the exploitation we're discussing here is what workers feel who aren't paid. 

More specifically, these are young adults who've been told that the reason they're not being paid is that this is not a job but an educational experience. It's one thing to clean the toilet at your paid job, because it's just one task that needed to be done at your place of work, and you're not the boss, so get to it. (I speak from personal, and not even ostensibly janitorial, experience.) It's another altogether to be ordered to do so by someone who's not even paying you a cent. And yes, I suppose it would be extra annoying if you were taking out loans to pay an elite college in exchange for "credits," and were in fact paying for the opportunity to clean that toilet. All on the remote off-chance that you will so charm them with your plunger skills that they write you a really enthusiastic letter of recommendation for when you apply to clean the toilets of someone else in the glamorous field you wish to enter.

Put otherwise: young people who'd put up with crap literally or figuratively at an actual job may well make a fuss if they're not actual employees. The unpaid internship system is as good as designed to make young people seem entitled, because it's utterly reasonable to feel entitled to an educational experience if that was what was promised. Conversely, someone who expected a warm-and-fuzzy educational experience from a regular entry-level job could rightly be called out for being entitled. But it's also less likely to happen in the first place, because when you're depending on a job for money, you intuitively know to suck it up.

The reason unpaid internships don't make sense - separate from the myriad reasons they're unethical - is that the Builds Character skill one learns on the job very much depends on a dynamic created by the employee depending on that job for money. You put up with whatever your boss demands, within reason or not, in part to advance your career, perhaps, but also because that's where your money comes from. Removing that element creates this fiction that every mundane thing you're asked to do isn't for the benefit of the company, but for the building of your character, your ability to function in an office environment. When of course if an internship is of a stuffing-envelopes variety, when - and this was what was so outrageous about Starger's letter - a company refers to 'needing' to hire an intern, the organization benefits. (Note the continued sneakiness in Starger's response to these letters: "Most interns do not take the place of salaried workers; they augment staff." Sneaky, because the issue isn't that someone working unpaid 10 hours a week in an entry-level capacity ought to make $30k for that labor. It's that for the time they are there and the work they are doing, if the company benefits, pay up.)

While some internships, I've heard, take the 'educational' angle seriously, it's now acceptable for 'educational' to mean that you - Starger again - "learn how to write a business letter, how to file and organize and how to interact with associates." What, then, is the incentive for businesses to ask of interns anything above and beyond whatever tasks need to get done? Any job that teaches you, 'this is how it goes in the real world, kid,' can now not pay. Which is preposterous, because what can be more 'real world' than depending, financially, on the subjective desires of your employer?

Friday, May 18, 2012

A big deal

You know when you find out that someone you went to high school with is now kind of a big deal? And you feel that special mix of excitement at having known them when (assuming this wasn't someone you remember disliking) and the horrible realization that it's been X years and your... deal isn't so immense? Up there today for that Facebook thing where everyone got billions of dollars or whatever was... yup. Front and center next to the most famous names, on the usual news sites, plus, because we are of course Facebook friends, the entirety of today's feed. I mean, "billionaire" is effectively incomprehensible to a humanities grad student. That's a whole lot of... asparagus? dry pasta? There are other uses for money? The incomprehensibility of sums like that, except in the context of, I don't know, GDP, aside, it's kind of cool to realize I was, I vaguely remember, kind of acquaintance-friends with this person. Less cool when I think of what the market value is of knowing a lot about nineteenth-century France, but cool all the same.

Rufus of the Day

In response to Rufus Wainwright calling a church on 23rd Street "crappy" in comparison to Notre friggin' Dame in Paris,

One nearby resident said Wainwright “needs to apologize . . . and buy the church some candles. Parishioners are up in arms that their church, which has long served the poor, has been insulted by a neighbor.”

Wainwright told us, “It is a beautiful church, and I hope that it gets the restoration it deserves. But considering the Catholic Church’s views on gay rights, they won’t get much help decorating.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The height of philanthropy

-There was a girl in my high school class whose stomach really did go in, or at least not poke out, even when she sat down. Perfect skin and hair, gorgeous in a feline, Olivia Wilde kind of way. It was what it was. Which is why I'm still not at all on board with the choice of anti-Photoshop as an all of a sudden central feminist cause. If anything, the knowledge that there's such a thing as retouching allows those of us who don't live in a fashion capital (she says, reporting from the Princeton Public Library) to imagine that it's all totally fake, that we too are a mouse click away from perfection, although there's presumably that girl at every large-enough high school. More artifice, I say! And show your daughter pictures of Liz Lemon's two paramours, the guy from SNL and the one from Mad Men, alongside their real-life girlfriends. You just never know.

-Finally! A bit of recognition that the individual meals consumed by upper-echelon yuppies are not what will make or break the national or global food system. The sooner we get past the idea that a $150-for-two meal at an agriculturally-themed restaurant is the height of philanthropy, the better.

-Speaking of the height of philanthropy, and in keeping with this post's theme of "persistent motifs," I genuinely wish to know whether it is now a thing that one must tip a dollar in coffee shops as one would at a bar. Is this about whether you get a complicated drink/get it to stay? Is only for complicated drinks? Never? Social norms change, and if this is now one, I'll maybe get coffee out less (which is to say, once a month rather than every two weeks), but won't leave without paying, which is effectively what it is to get a beer and pay for the beer but not leave that extra buck. Today, I splurged on foam, to-go, and tipped the change plus a quarter, so 35 cents, and got a how-dare-you look from the guy ringing me up, same as if I'd left nothing at all. Now, if this is a matter of caring whether people who work in coffee shops like me, I'm not concerned. But I want to have paid in full. And because no one I know actually tips a dollar at coffee bars, while plenty of people I see in coffee bars do just that (perhaps plants by the establishment???), I must turn this all-important question over to the WWPD readership.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The accompanying text

Much to the severe disappointment of my male readership, these days I'm directing more of my extracurricular-online attention to Pinterest than Blogger. It's visual rather than textual, upbeat rather than contrarian/cynical. It is, in other words, a far better antidote to dissertating.

But my desire to explain the reasons behind my pins sometimes gets the better of me. I know, I should let the images and brief captions speak for themselves, and keep the textual/critical out of it. But I feel compelled to provide a guide to each fashion personality as currently conceived, and the challenges it brings. In order of my excitement about them, from most to least:

Space-age: That which is studded, that which is neon, and, of course, galaxy prints. Mod, punk, and goth all make their contributions. It's about looking futuristic. Silver wedge boots are a must. Avant-garde Antwerp designers, why not?

While "space-age" can be a persona, this isn't best accomplished by wearing head-to-toe space-age everything. (Tavi would disagree. As would steampunks.) Instead, it's a kind of post-goth minimalism, with more gray than black, with the occasional "pop" of neon or galaxy-print, if you're so inclined. As a rule, in life, it's best off keeping that-which-is-space-age to accents. All of this adds a certain unavoidable incoherence to a space-age board.

Another challenge with this board has been deciding whether or not to pin everything space-age I can track down. As it turns out, not everyone with access to galaxy-print material has a good idea of what clothing to make with it. (Thus why a huge piece of it is hanging on the wall behind me, like a futuristic tapestry.) And there are a lot of DIYers out there taking a Pollock approach to black Keds, with mixed results. There are items on this board I would not wear, or encourage others to purchase. But I've been erring on the side of over-inclusion, just to keep track of what's out there.

Gamine: The "gamine" look is, as I've mentioned before, overplayed. As I also noted, it's how I like to dress. Every time Uniqlo gets a new shipment of horizontal-striped jersey material, every time it discounts said shipment, I'm there. So I'm not conflicted about celebrating a look that's not exactly outside the mainstream. Nor do I feel compelled to include everything striped. I know gamine when I see it.

The challenge with here, however, is that too often, "gamine" is used to mean "that which is worn by a slender, flat-chested woman, preferably French." I don't want to fall victim to a variant of the "models off-duty" trap: thinking a look is "gamine" because the woman wearing it is, even if the look in question would be the opposite of "gamine" on anyone else. A Birkin spawn in a Patagonia is, for example, not "gamine."

Glossy Tribeca Whole Foods Mom: As the name suggests, this category was inspired by the women I'd see when shopping at those odd, midday, grad-student hours at said supermarket, near my old apartment in Battery Park City. The "Tribeca" Whole Foods, not actually in Tribeca, is nevertheless the headquarters of the berry-and-soy-milk-smoothie set. I would wait on line at 2:30 or whatever, inevitably behind a woman with a quilted Chanel bag and an engagement ring worth all five guaranteed years of my stipend. But what interested me weren't so much the universal-at-this-point status symbols, as the particular, and particularly American (it has L.A., Chicago, and suburban incarnations, among others) way of looking rich. It's a polished look. Shiny hair and nails. Glossy. Unlike the women of the Upper East Side, they're not striving for some other persona (WASP circa 1962, Catherine Deneuve circa 1965...), but are perfectly content going out in public in leggings and running shoes. They look fit, not skeletal. They are, at the very shortest, 5'10".

Here, the problem I run into is that there aren't a lot of garments that convey the look in question. It's a way of carrying yourself. Think of the women from the "30 Rock" fight-club episode. A certain glow. How do you convey, via fashion, hair that's glossy to the tips? Well-toned upper arms? Non-waifishness? Cosmopolitan Americanness? But ideas keep coming to me. The board lives on.

Swiss/Northern Italian Socialite: This is a woman unironically enthralled with what she imagines upper-class British women wear. But, despite herself, she dresses more elegantly than they do. There's a certain overlap with the recent, oxymoronic "heritage" trend, certainly in the color scheme and choice of fabrics. Lots of brown leather, camel knits, (the illusion of) quality materials.

Allow me to sound (even more) insipid, but the challenge here is that "heritage," this cycle at least, is done. Unlike "gamine," it doesn't seem to have staying power. Fisherman's sweaters once again look frumpy. Efforts by Banana Republic and so forth to look extra staid have lost their charm. There is hope, though, because S/NIS isn't heritage. It's more refined. But is it maybe too refined? Perhaps the problem is where I live. I pass a Ralph Lauren every time I go into town, and the window is chock full of inspired-by-equestrian, and it's underwhelming.

At least I'm not dressed like Napoleon

Thank you, NYT, for tossing this WWPD-bait in my direction. Because my current environs don't lend themselves to roaming around Broadway and 85th Street with a dozen overloaded Zabars bags, wearing Naot sandals and mismatched socks, railing about the government, if I wish to be that kind of crazy*, my best bet is becoming one of those people who send letters to newspapers. The fact that this particular item was accompanied by an explicit "Invitation to a Dialogue" from the paper made this irresistible. When they don't print what I've sent in (although I was concise, so they might), expect the concise response, as well as my full, no, copious thoughts on the subject, here.

*Eccentricity enhanced, I might add, by the fact that my husband's away for a couple weeks, leaving me (for the most part) in in-person communication only with a poodle. My work, which can but probably shouldn't be completed from home, involves wrapping up a dissertation chapter on Napoleon. If that's not a recipe for furious letter-writing to newspapers, I don't know what is.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The male gays

Hilton Als, in a recent New Yorker, wrote of a well-known mid-century writer, that he "found a number of ways to talk about his sexuality. One was by endowing his female characters with a male gaze and having them fall for the kind of men he was attracted to." I'm leaving out which writer for the moment, because the question at hand is a broader one: what does it mean to attribute a "male gaze" to a heterosexual woman?

The second part of Als's description - the tendency to crush on guys a gay man would crush on - hardly seems definitive. Not only do gay men sometimes fall for men whose sexual orientations make true reciprocation impossible, but who among us, ladies, does not have a high school boyfriend, crush, or prom date who turned out to be gay?

Is the "male gaze" simply a matter of being wired to immediately know who's the best-looking person of your preferred sex in the subway car? Because if so, women are most certainly endowed with it, to borrow Als's loaded terminology. People with the capacity for sight are visual creatures. Men as well as women.

It would seem that what Als is implying is that a woman who notices a man for his looks is not so much a woman as a figment of the gay male literary imagination, a motif whose purpose was to make gay love stories palatable to pre-"Will and Grace" audiences. (Although "Sex and the City," the most often mentioned example of women-as-stand-ins-for-gay-men, suggests this might live on.) Als's first example is of a female character who "talks about the beauty of a long-ago crush with the avidity of someone cruising in a bar." Why would a woman not do this? Does Als imagine that women reminisce what great personalities our youthful crushes possessed? Their senses of humor?

I mean, it's not that a gay writer, especially in that long-ago era before Obama had finished his evolution, wouldn't rewrite his own loves as heterosexual. (OK, Als is discussing Tennessee Williams. See also: Proust.) That I don't dispute. But unless what's being depicted is a woman engaged in the kind of anonymous outdoor sex that Dan Savage recently condemned on behalf of wholesomeish gay men everywhere, and that really doesn't seem to be a thing among women, it would seem that a woman depicted as lusting after men is a woman depicted as heterosexual, or, if also women, bisexual, and not a gay man trapped in a woman's body.

A silver lining here might be that due to the (waning) unacceptability of depicting gay male romance, the culture ended up with a handful of accurate examples of the female heterosexual experience. Of women as beings with the capacity to be infatuated, as opposed to either inspiring lust or nagging a dude. Ideally, in our new, more tolerant age, openly gay characters might coexist with enthusiastically straight female ones. "Modern Family," at least, doesn't provide much hope in that regard, but the night is young.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Quote of the day

A ringing endorsement: "[T]here have been no recent accounts about bullying behavior by Mr. Romney."

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"[A]ctual fields of knowledge"

Between Obama's announcement (sometimes I'm incredibly sappy and un-cynical, and today was one of those times - no doubt there were political machinations, but I couldn't possibly know what they were, and I choose just to be thrilled) and what's discussed below, I might as well sign up officially for The Left. Quick, conservative/libertarian readers, find me something equally egregious from the progressive end of things, so that I can return to my center-left comfort zone. I'm begging you. 


The Phi Beta Cons are, unsurprisingly, declaring this L'Affaire Riley, in a misuse of the Dreyfus concept exceeded only (in recent memory) by Polanski's (via). George Leef, who at least seems to have read an article about the Riley controversy, which is effectively the same as having read several dissertations in Black Studies, has this to say:
Some of the comments there (and elsewhere) contend that she committed a terrible sin by offering a critical opinion about black studies based on just three dissertation titles. But blog posts are places for offering up opinions, not full-scale analyses. The dissertations sure look like the kind of extremely narrow and highly tendentious research that is common in many academic fields. I hope that someone picks up the gauntlet lying on the ground and reads, then writes a thorough critique of one or more of the dissertations. Are they scholarship that advances knowledge? Maybe so. Or are they in whole or part merely extended rants?
OK, first off, and as I'm not the first to point out (see the post below, and comments), the title of the original blog post - "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations" - implied that Riley had "read the dissertations." Which, if she titled her own post, means she oopsed a bit, no? As for what Leef thinks these dissertations "sure look like," fine, he's making the point that a blog post is intended for weighing in on that which one knows nothing about, and is driving that home.

But what's truly amazing is his call to someone (why not Leef? isn't his job writing conservative critiques of education?) to read and tear apart these dissertations. "Are they scholarship that advances knowledge? Maybe so. Or are they in whole or part merely extended rants?" Nice way to dismiss the work, as it's not terribly ambiguous what Leef already knows - having read something about something about something about these dissertations. Nice pretense of an open mind.


Via PBC, there's a Minding the Campus post by John S. Rosenberg, which begins by noting that the Chronicle of Higher Education "used to be the pre-eminent publication covering higher education [.]" And what, pray tell, has replaced it? Archie Bunker's thoughts on the Meathead's studies? Rosenberg completely misses why the accusation of racism came up (which is to say, he thinks it's because Riley criticized Black Studies, when it's more because her criticism was, in effect, to say that Black Studies sure sounds like a load of bunk), then defends her by pointing out that Riley's husband is black, and that Riley herself did not bring this up. OK, points to Riley for not bringing that up in this context, but Simon Doonan has a Jewish husband, and, you know... Some-of-my-best-friends is certainly worse when employed by the person defending himself from a charge of racism, but, used on someone else's behalf, it doesn't magically clear the charges. If I've learned anything in the course of writing a dissertation on Jewish intermarriage in French history, it's that joyfully coupling off with someone from Group X and having unfavorable views towards Group X are not mutually exclusive.


Jonathan V. Last, of the Weekly Standard, offers something that might properly be viewed less as a disclaimer or disclosure and more as a reason not to take seriously anything that follows: "Naomi is a good friend of mine, a sometimes contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and a fine writer." And - science! - this means she must have been wronged.

Last excerpts part of Riley's post, adding by way of paraphrasing, "Naomi then went on to dissect two other incredibly silly 'Black Studies' dissertations." What what what? Riley didn't "dissect" any of these dissertations, what with having not read any of them, by her own admission. So on what basis might Last, who merely read Riley's interpretation of blurbs about these dissertations, deem them not only "silly" but "incredibly" so?

Last's conclusion is awfully rich, given that writing for a neoconservative (is it still? or just conservative these days?) magazine is participating in the hard sciences.
The great irony, of course, is that the whining and gnashing of teeth from the “Black Studies” crowd only reinforces Naomi’s point about the “discipline.” You’d never see chemists or physicists or mathematicians worked into a hysterical mob by a critical blog post. Because they study actual fields of knowledge—and don't simply tend the garden of their own feelings.
Where oh where oh where to begin. While I'm well aware that conservatives aren't thrilled with the current state of traditional disciplines such as English and history, what Last is effectively saying, in singling out chemistry, physics, and math, is that the humanities and social sciences are inherently nonsensical. Even studying the Great Books. Even doing so with a beard, armchair, pipe, and sycophant female grad student on the knee. 

Well, using my humanities skills, I noticed two key words - "hysterical" and "feelings" - which, along with an earlier remark in the piece about how the Chronicle's readers "generally reacted as though they were suffering from a case of the vapors," made it abundantly clear that this passage of Last calls for a bit of - get this - intersectionality. Which, in layman's terms, means that Last is calling those who rose up in defense of the-humanities-in-its-current-incarnation a bunch of women. Which, well, we the humanists of today pretty much are. This at any rate supports my longstanding theory, that much of the CCOA fervor comes less from any actual changes that the humanities have undergone, and more from the fact that the fields are now associated with/at some levels numerically dominated by women.


Seriously. Park Slope Food Co-op? Anything happening there these days?

An Oh, Riley job*

The laziest, and (thus) most popular, conservative critique of higher education involves listing a few course, discipline, paper, or lecture titles, remarking, to an audience of the converted, on how silly they are. There shall, of course, be no analysis of the content or rigor of the work itself. As the world's foremost expert in Conservative Criticisms of Academia Studies (no less than one of the Phi Beta Cons provided my credentials), I feel obliged to weigh in on the latest installment: Naomi Schaefer Riley's anti-Black-Studies ramblings in, and subsequent firing from, the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

It is telling, or unfortunate, or something, that the title of Riley's article was "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations."** Given that no one reads dissertations, in Black Studies or any other field, except your committee, it would be one heck of a stretch to believe that a contrarian blogger sat down with a big stack of 'em and confronted each with an open mind before reading the thing cover to cover. What Riley did - and indeed all she herself claims she did - was read a sidebar summarizing recent dissertations in that field. But if she's allowed to comment on the quality of dissertations she has only read about, it seems a touch unfair for her to come down hard on readers who imagined - no doubt from the title of the piece, which she maybe didn't write - that she ought to have read them.

The circular argument, outlined in her Chronicle self-defense, is that her very point about these dissertations, her very critique of academia, is... let's let the woman speak:
[T]there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.
In other words, she knows these dissertations are obscure and unreadable because no one, herself included, reads them.

While lacking a PhD doesn't disqualify Riley from commenting on academia, it might help to explain why she appears not to know what getting one entails. Much - most! - of my program thus far has been about keeping me away from my good friends the nineteenth-century French Jews and their frenemies, nineteenth-century French non-Jews who wrote about Jews. Why? Because, teaching. Through coursework and exams, as well as the teaching we do while in grad school, we get prepped for the wide world of people who could not care less about our research topics. 

So thus far I haven't addressed the elephants in the room: was the post/is Riley racist, and was it right for the Chronicle to fire her? 

As to the first, the post was racist in the same way that anti-Israel critiques that fail to acknowledge equal or worse wrongs in other countries are anti-Semitic. While Riley herself may simply be a CCOA, one who'd be equally annoyed at Women's Studies, and no doubt some of her best friends are women, a free-standing piece about the pointlessness of Black Studies will of course come across as racist. Riley's self-defense here is basically a don't-you-know-who-I-am-and-everything-else-I've-ever-written-or-thought-on-this-and-related-topics. She must have understood that bashing just this one incarnation of Studies would lend itself to less-than-generous interpretations. 

As to the second, Hamilton Nolan of Gawker may have said it best: "Riley may have been a victim of a mob. But the mob had a point." As Nolan points out - and I will only add that I see echoes of Walt-Mearsheimer-gate - the issue here is largely bad writing. Riley did not bravely take a controversial position on Black Studies departments. She took the CCOA shortcut of calling work she hasn't bothered to look into unworthy.

*Apologies to "Fawlty Towers."

** I see David Schraub got there first. Read his post as well. In her tepid defense, on this and this only, she perhaps didn't write the post title. But she ought to have read the post title, and thus understood where readers might have gotten the idea that her job was to read the dissertations she was declaring worthless.

Ring finger as crafts project

Coughing, fixing the parts of my Napoleon chapter that don't require too much intellectual capacity, jogging incredibly slowly around Genius Circle, and, yes, Pinterest. My observations on the last bit:

-One exciting use of Pinterest is, you get a window into the taste of others generally, and of those who repin/like the things you post in particular. There's a woman in Vilnius whose taste matches up almost precisely with my own. Vilnius! There are others who, when I see the context (prom dresses? hordes of kittens?) into which they've repinned something I'd pinned, make me question my own taste.

-To my fellow fashion-and-style pinners, found via the general "Women's Apparel" section: If you profess to have a interest in fashion/style, and wish to share it with the world, why are your thoughts on the items you pin limited to "want!!!!" or "super-cute!"? It's not that "cute" is a meaningless modifier (although I'm confused about applying it to running sneakers, goth attire...), or that Pinterest is anything other than a glorified wanty list, or that "articulated" has to mean "with text." I'm not saying you need to justify your choices ala your reading list for a qualifying exam, but there should be some articulated something.

-Along the same lines, if your aesthetic preferences just happen to line up with exactly what's out of your price range at Neiman Marcus, your wanty list is less a statement about your style, and more one about your relationship to your personal finances, or your desire to convey status, your insecurities, etc. Yes, Pinterest is an excuse to "get" things you never would in real life, to break free of the practical limitations of cost and comfort, but how many Jimmy Choos must we be asked to admire?

-Along the opposite lines, but reminiscent of the shopping "dieters'" fantasies I read about for this article, it's difficult to get inspired by a pair of sensible plain tennis shoes or unremarkable bootcut jeans. If the mere thought of going to the Old Navy website fills you with adrenaline, perhaps, again, this is about something other than style - a shopping-related neurosis, perhaps, or evidence that you're not really such a fashion-and-style person after all. Don't get me wrong - appealing design is by no means limited to high-end. I myself have made fashion-victimy purchases (ugh, Alexa Chung) from L.L. Bean. But some of these choices seem to be missing the point, and anything that involves dumping the entire Lands End catalogue onto a wanty list would qualify.

-More disturbingly: is it really now done to paint the nail of that finger a different shade than the rest? Does this originate with the addictive treacle that is Cupcakes and Cashmere? "Ever since I got engaged last year, I’ve been wearing glittery polish on my ring finger [.]" When a diamond isn't enough. Women whose income is not via glossy retro-values style-bloggery, do not try this at home. Or, god forbid, at a job interview.

-Most disturbing: despite having evidently banned pro-anorexia postings, the site includes tons of "inspirational" images of thin women, diet advice, dieting mottos, juice "cleanses," etc. Often with a nod to "health." It would seem that these postings are "healthy" if their recipients actually, by some rational measure, could stand to lose some weight/get some more exercise, but are "thinspo" if their audience is 100-lb women shooting for 95, 95-lb women shooting for, I don't know, zero? The audience, at least as much as the content of the advice itself, tells us where to draw the line, but is, alas, unknowable. While there are, as we are constantly reminded by newspaper commenters and other great minds, more overweight/obese/thin-but-sedentary Americans than anorexics/bulimics/exercisaholics, my entirely anecdotal and non-representative sense of these matters is that the women with this obsession tend to be the thin-already-but-never-thin-enough, some of whom would qualify for medical definitions of eating disorders, most of whom would not. The entire "fitness" aspect of Pinterest baffles me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


College graduates, recent and not-so-recent, take unpaid internships. As that first episode of "Girls" demonstrated so elegantly, we're not sure whether to blame the entitled, bratty youth who think they're too good for a real job, or the system that has redefined much of what used to be paid work as valuable learning experiences, as networking opportunities for which a young (or not-so-young) person must express gratitude, and nothing mars an expression of gratitude like bringing up crass concerns like the need for rent money or health insurance. Paid work becomes this elusive thing, available if you're willing to scrub toilets for a living, or, under more glamorous/sanitary conditions, if you've successfully completed a few dozen internships and/or pricey graduate programs.

The obvious alternative to unpaid arts-and-letters-ish internships is the humanities doctoral program. And we the graduate students remember this, when it's suggested to us that we might have simply taken a job in journalismbookpublishingetc. The "job" would have been a series of unpaid internships, with perhaps a sprinkling of debt from a journalism MA or an MFA on top. The lucky few ultimately land that great if low-paid writing-and-editing job. But the lucky few also get tenure; the lucky few law students are top students at top schools; the lucky few humanities majors double-majored in Engineering and Assorted Usefulness and have their own highly-profitable plumbing start-ups. If you're going to be a heap of not-so-marketable skills, it's perhaps better to be paid and have health insurance in the mean time. Perhaps, but if you get a PhD, this means you will end up on welfare. Or have a less than 2% chance of doing so - same thing. Doom. Once again, we're unsure whether the blame lies with single parents who think medieval history pays the bills, or...

-It's one thing if the demand for X has dropped. It's another if the demand is there, but the pay is not. Sure, demand for medieval-history experts might hover around nil, but demand for college history/writing instructors is not. Along the same lines, unpaid interns doing the work of entry-level or admin staff can't precisely be said to be doing work for which there's no demand. They're not getting paid for structural reasons. Meaning, it has become acceptable to ask for certain kinds of work in exchange for no pay. If humanities-types were simply sitting around pondering the meaning of life, "finding themselves" in Thailand or South America, and lo and behold not receiving compensation, we might call them entitled or foolish. But if services are being rendered?

-What changed? Paradoxically, what changed is that a lot of people who actually need/expect an income are entering fields that used to be for dabblers with family money. Just as a shift towards more and more kids going to college has coincided with college now costing more than ever, an influx in various never-exactly-high-paid careers of hordes without a parental manse has been accompanied by work-with-little-to-no-pay in various incarnations.

-As fields get super-competitive, one go-around is to announce your willingness to work for no pay. Or, more accurately, as genuine massive-trust-fund-havers are few and far between, it's to announce your willingness to subsidize your children until age who knows. The number of parents able to contribute something to their adult children's lives is not insignificant, not limited to those who come across as "rich."  While it's tough to/tempting not to fault individual families for making these choices, this explains $4,000 two-bedrooms shared by college-educated roommates each of whom earn, if anything, $11k.

-Also paradoxically, this pool of young people who need the money, or who have parental assistance that might cease at any time (again, "Girls," or the many, many college students whose parents can and will help financially up to but not a day after the BA is conferred) are perhaps more willing to fight for scraps, scraps such as nebulous "prestige" or "opportunity" that might never materialize into anything, well, material. And we've for a variety of reasons - Groucho Marxist, would-be-aristocratic, sadly realistic - come to believe that anything that would pay you money to do something is probably the less prestigious alternative, the worse option in the long run. A post-doc that charges a fee to apply must have something really special to offer. The college that offers you a full ride is desperate - better to go into debt at the one that didn't. If choosing between two magazine internships, keep in mind that the one that feels it must offer you financial compensation probably can't offer you the same rank of experience. An internship with a lot of coffee-fetching suggests the person whose coffee is to be fetched is important, that the coffee-fetching is important, and more so than reading manuscripts or styling shoots or something would be at another company.

While these "opportunities" are, as has been endlessly discussed and as is universally understood, more readily available to those without bills to pay, these calculations about future utility of theoretically-temporary entry-level "work" are only going to be made by young people who do expect careers for themselves in the future. While a kid with a trust fund and no real ambition, or a content housewife of a rich dude, looking for something to keep busy with once the kids are in school, might settle into a low-salary line of work, and only end up truly unpaid if volunteering in the traditional sense of for a charity, someone not so set in life will have reason to accept scraps, under the above-explained circumstances, with the hopes of returns.

-The point of the above is that structural forces - and not (just) a straightforward market worthlessness of humanities-ish skills in This Technological Age - are keeping entry-level-loosely-defined pay down. Way down, sometimes at zero or lower.

Sunday, May 06, 2012


Quite a weekend. Bisou is now a year and a day old, and groomed. Not matted in the least, thanks to daily brushing and combing, neither of which she's grown accustomed to. Would-be poodle-owners, take note. And in what might be good news in the long run, what I'd thought were severe nature allergies brought on by a long woods walk with Bisou is actually just a cold. So for today, less hanging out with a bunch of astrophysicists, more vegging on the couch with poodle and Pinterest.

Speaking of vegetables...

Should those squeamish about eating whole animals become vegan? That's what Mark Bittman seems to think: "The combination of tenderness and crunch makes it [soft-shell crab] one of the great delights of eating. (If you’re squeamish about this, I suggest you get over it, or swear off animal products altogether.)" My question here would be why non-squeamishness makes animal-product-consumption somehow more acceptable. If I were to proclaim my willingness to slaughter a cow myself, if I were to go out and prove it, would I somehow not be taking a cow's life for a hamburger?

I know I promised that when the NYT contest panel (Bittman among its members) failed to pick my brilliant defense of meat-eating, I'd post it here on WWPD. Close enough - what I remember as being my main points, give or take:

-Meat and animal products are over-consumed, and this is the case whether or not you think it's unethical to kill an animal for food. But it's possible to drastically reduce your animal-product consumption without declaring yourself a vegan or vegetarian. The advantage of this is that you will not need to be constantly asking what broth might have slipped into a meal your hosts have prepared for you. (I get that there are vegans and vegetarians who make such concessions, but on the whole, those who don't seek out meat but also don't ask for an ingredient list tend not to so identify.) There's a positive value of going through life an agreeable person, and of choosing your battles. If your refusal of an ingredient is about finding it abhorrent to eat X, about it going against your religion to do so, about the horrible allergic reaction eating X will set forth, fair enough. But if it's simply a matter of, you think X raises some issues, a fuss might not be worth it. Dealing with these issues on a large scale, in terms of government subsidies and the like, may free you up from the relatively petty concerns of what goes into your digestive tract in particular.

-The goal of an ethical approach to food should be reforming the food system, not making individuals feel at peace with/smug about their personal choices. An overemphasis on individual consumer choice makes those who do care about this issue feel that they've done their part by asking the waiter a dozen times precisely what went into the seasonal-vegetable risotto.

-While one might argue that individuals making a fuss add up to a social movement, this can also have the opposite of the intended effect, repelling many from the cause, and producing a defiantly carnivorous caste.

We should not be surprised that the contest winner, Jay Bost, doesn't question that the individual should be continuously preoccupied with personal food choices. The contest presupposed not only that eating meat is unethical (thus the twist - explain why it is ethical), but also that individuals' choices at the supermarket have significant ethical content. My own argument, I suppose, boiled down to thinking that we shouldn't be treating grocery trips in this way, even if we should absolutely subject our food system more broadly to that kind of scrutiny. The individual consumer should have the option of good and bad choices, that's reasonable, but at the level of produce section vs. processed-frosted-trans-fat aisle. The idea that we need to know the backstory behind each vegetable, to make informed decisions about local vs. organic, to know, off the top of our heads, what's in season when, and to remember that "in season" only really applies to things grown nearby, or does it, etc., this I can't get behind.

Bost's conclusion:
For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks. 
I'm not convinced, and not only because I so clearly had the stronger arguments, even if I have no intentions of getting a PhD in soil science (although there are days my dissertation has a dirt-like quality). 

Re: the first point: accepting mortality, including our own, sounds very zen, or something, but we clearly draw a distinction between humans and other animals. Even the most zealous vegan will not be aghast at seeing someone walk by in leather shoes as anyone - vegan or otherwise - would be if they knew the "leather" had "Silence of the Lambs"-ish origins. 

Re: the second, individuals are rarely in a position to have any idea what was produced how. Meat might be labeled in one way or another, but who among us knows where their "grain" comes from? (Does "a bulk bin at Whole Foods off Route 1" count?) The government - sorry, libertarian readers - needs to draw a line. If some hippies - sorry, hippie readers - want to go above and beyond, that's great, but if choosing this tomato over that one is really of such consequence, the evil tomato shouldn't be in the store in the first place.

Re: the third, perhaps I was simply born-and-raised too cynical for that sort of thing. There are certain people/milieus whose personalities lend themselves to ostentatious or just abundant pronouncements of gratitude, but I'm not sure where that gets you. I suppose everyone not starving is on some level grateful for that. But other things might be going wrong in your life that are legitimate, and that having food on your table doesn't fix, even if whatever the problem might be plus not having enough to eat would be worse. But more to the point, and to bring things full circle, being thankful for your meat, much like being unsqueamish about it, hardly changes anything about the ethics of meat consumption. 


Related: great minds think alike.


Not unrelated: within biking distance, I could go pick my own asparagus. The catch is that the self-picked asparagus costs the same as the pre-bunched from the very same farm. An unpaid internship in asparagus.