Sunday, July 23, 2017

The French Girl vs. The Frenchwoman

Despite thinking the whole thing is silly - and despite knowing, about as much as any American could, that the whole thing is nonsense - I've never quite been able to avoid falling for the whole Frenchwoman thing. I get - and have long since gotten - that the entire thing is based on a myth. It's subtly racist, classist, and more. It essentializes French women, who are real people, not objects for Anglo tourists to gawk at as fashion references. I know - believe me, I know! it's what my degree is in! - that there's more to France than ballet-flat shopping.

And yet.

The women in the posh parts of Paris do have great style. Yes, this is circular - "great style" is defined, in much of the world, as looking like a rich Parisian woman. But I was reminded of this last year, when I was back in Paris for the first time in several years. Gosh but did these women look fantastic. How boring of me to think this, but there it was.

I left feeling inspired to dress like the women I saw there... all the while realizing that this would have to involve clothes purchased elsewhere (because my Canadian dollars add up to 1/16th of a consignment blazer), and that once assembled by me, once on me, nothing particularly Parisian would result. It's not as if taking inspiration from French classmates and professors during grad school (one, in particular, of each, now that I think of it) left me looking Parisian. But was that ever the point?

My thinking is, the appeal of looking like a French woman is really two different things, depending on your age. When I was younger, it was about the gamine look. Not that I ever looked all that gamine - I was, and am, the wrong build for "gamine" - but the idea was to look understated, elegant, not trying too hard. It was a way to look nice but not sexy, which, day-to-day, especially when you're in your early 20s, has its practical advantages. "Gamine" is also a way of tricking yourself getting excited enough about dressing in work attire that shopping for that sort of clothing doesn't seem like a chore, or like a reminder that you're no longer a young person. (Without the myth, without the belief that you're somehow channeling a New Wave actress, you're just a grad student buying used J. Crew ankle-length slacks.)

As I got closer to 30, Frenchwoman style started to be something else: the promise of getting older but not, I suppose, giving up. To me, at almost-34, it seems like a way to look good that doesn't involve trying to look younger. Which is immensely appealing because looking younger is not a thing that's going to happen. Not for any of us. While French women hold no secret where DGAF-ness about aging is concerned (witness the skincare industry of that country), there does seem to be a thing where women of all ages look glamorous. It's an aspiration, even if the reality is, I'm an American with the collection of sweats (school-name-bearing and generic) to prove it.

This is what I think is happening: Younger women and even teen girls in that bit of Paris dress what would seem in the US (and, as I understand it, the UK) to be sort of middle-aged, but the look works for them. Older women dress... exactly the same as younger women, and it works for them, too, at least as well. There isn't, in those neighborhoods, much of a youth culture, at least where clothes are concerned, but nor is there an assumption that The Elegant Uniform is for daughters, not mothers or grandmothers.

My own vision for Older Frenchwoman Chic, for the look I aspire to/to age into/to wear if I can sustain Effort for long enough, is a bit different from the gamine uniform. Fewer Breton-striped shirts. More... black boots? Skirts rather than cutoffs? How far this project goes beyond my imagination, we shall see.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Notes on a gray, almost Parisian Saturday in Toronto

Just now, a lost laundry card turned out to be in the pocket of some laundry-day jeans all along. Crisis averted! Which is, I guess, the theme for the week. If everything that I'd feared had gone wrong, large and small, had done so, this would have been a different Saturday indeed. One not as devoted to the dual goals of living in non-squalor (as in, unpacked and with furniture) and trying to dress more like a glamorous (not gamine; these are different) Parisian.

Today began with a run, and by "run" I mean what was, according to Google Maps, a short jog to the St. Lawrence Market, but which took a long time because I'm still worn out from - yes - a Lululemon Run Club run earlier in the week. (Joining a gym seemed too expensive, so the fancier-sounding but free option it is.) This would have been better to do early in the morning, before the market itself got incredibly crowded. (I'd chosen sleeping in and reading a short story in the New Yorker, about graduate fellowships.) But we now have a lot of Ontario-grown cherries, which came in a pretty basket declaring their provincial origins.

I was still on a noble-and-efficient kick for a little longer, able to sustain interest in getting the apartment reasonable-looking for long enough to vacuum and put some more pictures up, but not quite long enough to find and sort out delivery for a dresser. Still, it's now sort of... civilized here. We can have people over now, with somewhere for them to sit and everything. Which is more than can be said for the last few places we'd lived.

Then came the poodle-centric diversion of taking Bisou to a dog run. There aren't any nearby, so this is a bit involved, and requires taking advantage of Toronto's dog-friendly (off-hours) public transportation system. The run we went to is in the same park as the Allan Gardens Conservatory, which turned out to be pretty spectacular. (And very Midsomer Murders. Orchids!) Right there in the middle of Toronto, all these tropical plants! Cacti! Also: koi! turtles! We took turns, because (very understandably) the conservatory does not allow dogs.

There was something else after. What was that? Oh yes... shoessss. With the help of my more-French-than-I-am spouse, I decided upon a pair from Gravity Pope, in the final sale aka absurdly gorgeous shoes at reasonable prices section. But... too small! And it was the last pair!

Turns out another branch had them in (what I think will be) my size, so in 7-10 days, I will be Inès de la Fressange, crossed with Charlotte Gainsbourg, with a bit of Isabelle Huppert thrown in. I have a whole vision for these shoes, involving black tights, which... look, it does not get hot out in summer in Toronto, at least not this summer, so I might as well wear this outfit before parka season arrives.

Friday, July 21, 2017

New to Downton

Have made it into Season 2 of a show everyone watched a million years ago (why hello again, Canadian Netflix), and can say the following:

-It's like Upstairs, Downstairs but also not really. At first I thought this was going to be distracting, not least because maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) looks so much like Jean Marsh's Rose, and has very much the same kindly personality. But the show is different. Sillier? Campier? Less subtle (esp. re: the horrors of World War I, which thus far I think Upstairs, Downstairs conveyed more effectively)? But on the whole, good and addictive in the same general way. It took me a bit longer to get into, but now it's like, will this be a Downton night? Will it? 

-The big difference? And the point of Downton? The Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith. Her scenes are everything. She's always in the wrong, but you root for her all the same because she's a friggin' Dowager Countess and her conviction of her own superiority feels about right.

-That's a very big house. And almost certainly not furnished through a mix of IKEA Etobicoke and Toronto Craigslist.

-Thomas isn't half bad! If a sort of terrible person. Not sure I buy bland Matthew, however, as the love interest, although I guess the point is that he's an heir. But really, owning Downton seems like more trouble than it's worth.

-The marriage-plot stuff is the dud in an otherwise compelling net of plots. I don't care at all who Mary, the eldest daughter, marries. Which is maybe the point - Mary herself doesn't seem to be losing much sleep over this, either.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Obvious in retrospect: Some things to know before writing a book

As with most life advice, this batch of highly subjective suggestions could readily be condensed to: we all care about our own stuff more than anyone else does. This (yes, clichéd) realization can be disappointing, or liberating, as in other arenas.

Below, a mix of what I wish I'd known, and what I had known but isn't self-evident. It's all in one way or another variants of the meta-advice above:

-If you're fortunate enough to have anyone other than yourself interested in your book, and for your book not to completely disappear into an abyss upon publication, you will be asked two questions most often: Why that title? Why that subtitle? Those are likely to be the two aspects of a book that had the most editorial and marketing input, meaning that the literal answer is a behind-the-scenes conversation of no interest to anyone outside publishing.

While it's certainly important to be able to explain (and to like) your title and subtitle, what you need to do find a way to turn the title question into a book question. Which is, after all, what it is.

-Writing a book doesn't change everything. You don't suddenly emerge in a black turtleneck, with a coterie of acolytes. No one is awestruck - or, if you've already been writing professionally for years, terribly surprised - that you're now an author. Unless you're 22, one of the main questions you'll get will be, "Is this your first book?" And this will be a reasonable question, not a prompt to dissolve into a puddle of self-criticism for having not published one while still in your 20s. But it is cool to see your book in a bookstore, and to have, you know, written a book. (Did I go visit mine at the Eaton Centre - again - over the weekend? Yes.)

-Here's one I was aware of (largely thanks to Emily Gould's essay on the topic), but that falls very much into the not-self-evident category: You will still need to work during and after your book's publication. Google your favorite (famous, even!) writers and note that they too have jobs, at the very least teaching writing at colleges. If your aim is to support yourself solely from writing, a book (or ten) won't hurt, but writing is unlikely to be your job.

-In addition to whichever paid work you're doing, you'll wind up engaging in mostly-unpaid work to promote the book. The more professional promotional help you have, through a publishing house - and I've been tremendously lucky in that department - or otherwise, the more such work you may wind up with. The work can be anything from radio and video/television appearances (which I've done, and which are terrifying at first but a lot of fun) to a self-funded book tour (which I did not have the self-funds for, but which could well be useful.) The part that is (generally) paid is if you do freelance writing related to the book. And on that note...

-Having a book out does not automatically equal leverage in the writing world. If you want a higher fee for a freelance piece than was your rate previously - if you want any fee for one - you still have to ask. If anything, unless you're super-famous, having a new book out might be that much harder on the freelancing front, with editors assuming book publicity is payment enough. (You know how everything costs more once the word "wedding" is uttered? It's kind of like that.) Be advised: Book publicity is not payment enough. 

-Criticism will be more memorable than praise. If someone writes on Goodreads that your writing style is awful (can you tell that I'm writing this item shortly after seeing that comment?) you will never be more convinced of the accuracy of anyone's assessment of anything, ever. Deal with it privately however you see fit, but take Goodreads's advice and don't, like, engage. It's for readers to decide what they think of your book! Probably best not to engage on Twitter at all, but I confess to not having always been able to restrain myself when it's along the lines of 'I haven't read this book, have no plans to, but it says X which is awful' and you - having written it - know it doesn't say X and... yeah. Best to just leave it, I think, even in a case like that.

-Whatever you imagined it would be like to have written a book, it won't be exactly that. My two big book-related fears - that the book would vanish unnoticed, and that it would be read as an Ann Coulter-esque right-wing tract rather than the intra-left critique it is - have, thankfully, not happened. Nor, I suppose, have any of the fantasy versions. One involved everyone with the means to do so buying ten copies and my retiring, at age 33, to a villa in Santa Barbara. Another, a reception that - I realize now but hadn't always - is reserved for the sort of non-fiction books where mere proximity to the tome makes a person seem cooler, more glamorous, more with-it in some informed but not too controversial way.

The other... is trickier to explain. It came from seeing how it goes for fiction-writers, where chances are, those around you will react positively or not at all. And yes, I'm going mainly by some anecdata-affirming advice given by Mallory Ortberg aka Dear Prudence: "Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told 'You have written something bad.' They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails." If you write a novel - or, for that matter, a dissertation - you'll at the very least get responses along the lines of, 'that's nice.' If you write a non-fiction, opinion-driven book called "The Perils of 'Privilege,'" maybe you don't get quite that response. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I don't really know what it's like to have written A Book. Just to have written that one.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Settling in, déjà vu edition

Before moving from Toronto about a year ago, our big - as in, physically big - concern was our furniture. We didn't have much of it, and storing it would cost more than the furniture itself. So we sold most of it on Craigslist. We have now come full circle in that regard. 

While we did wind up back at IKEA for immediate needs (almost a year without a dining table makes me put that into the "need" category), we'd held off on bookcases because it didn't seem urgent, and seemed wasteful (environmentally if not cost-wise) to repurchase so much IKEA, so soon. And then... if you have books, and want access to them, you need a place to put them. A near-year without bookcases made me read... less? Differently, at least. The bookcase-less-ness was starting to really get to me. It just seemed wrong.

And so, what had at first seemed like an inessential, to deal with when we got to it, started to seem very, very urgent. A quick browse of a couple furniture shops on Queen West reminded me exactly why we'd wound up at IKEA the last time - behold, an array of $700 bookcases less attractive than the Billy. A halfhearted search for a Toronto version of Housing Works - that is, a thrift store with good, reasonably-priced furniture - led me to conclude that this is either not a thing here (so much "consignment") or not one you can just find with a few Googling attempts. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am deeply acquainted with this website

So much Craigslist furniture! And at a certain point, so familiar. I know the teak bookcase in the storage unit. The table with the map painted on it. The various round-backed furniture, built for homes without corners, and thus unsellable. The name-dropped Scandinavian designers who maybe are worth knowing, but not when you're in shelf-desperation mode. Oh, and the bunk beds photographed in a room that strikingly resembles a prison cell. And how can I forget? The kitchen cabinets photographed with someone's 1970s dad in front of them.

Why were we even doing this? We don't have a car, nor interest in doing our first-ever Toronto driving as a first-ever U-haul rental. But on some level, I remembered the ottoman. The gorgeous velvet ottoman that an office across the street from our last place was for some reason selling on Craigslist, and that is the only furniture from then that we held onto. You really just need to be able to lift whatever it is, assuming two elevator buildings or houses near each other. (We did carry a street-purchased bookcase to the top floor of a Brooklyn walkup, but that was close to a decade ago.)

On the cusp of giving up, we saw a couple of bookcases very much like the ones we'd sold, but not so much so that they might be the exact same ones. They struck me as being a readily carry-able distance from our apartment. That they most certainly were not, but the seller kindly agreed to drive us-and-them, which meant we could buy both, which... We have bookcases! Two identical ones! This actually happened! 

An hour or so in, it of course seemed like the bookcases had always been there. Totally normal. Why wouldn't an apartment have bookcases?

Friday, July 14, 2017


When that much-mocked NYT Style article about Donald Trump Jr. - you know, the one with him looking wistful, in flannel, on a tree stump - appeared, I couldn't believe my luck. My book had just come out, and here was this perfect example of the phenomenon that motivated me to write the thing in the first place. For here was a man who had benefitted from absolutely everything - rich, white, male, etc., but also Trump's son, and the one who shares his first name at that - but whose self-conception was so thoroughly that of the underdog. A scrappy, misunderstood everyman. And how did he make that case? By presenting himself as uncomfortable with city life, preferring the simple country life. A preference that manifests itself as incredibly high-end-sounding hunting trips all over the world, the likes of which make the hunts the aristocratic families on British TV shows go on to seem positively low-key. But does Donald Jr. see it that way? Didn't seem like it:

“For some people — you see that in New York a lot — they go hunting once every other year and they talk about it at a cocktail party for the next two years until they do it again,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “For me, it is the way I choose to live my life.”
Rather than (accurately) presenting his hunting hobby as a highbrow diversion, he uses it as evidence that he's a man of the people. That his Manhattan childhood was somehow authentically American, in a way that more typical middle-class urban childhoods (without second homes or even, in NYC, first cars) are not.

Donald Jr.'s self-presentation as Mr. Ordinary - set against a backdrop of millions of not especially posh Americans getting cast as out-of-touch elites, just for living in cities - struck me as the epitome of the right's embrace privilege discourse. To be privileged, for the right, isn't about being rich, white, male, and well-connected. It's about whether, on "Frasier," you'd be more a Niles or Martin Crane.

(I have an unfinished thought about the relative indignation caused by Donald Jr.'s safari slaughter and - sorry, I know I said I wouldn't bring this up, but here we are - Lena Dunham rehoming and still financially supporting a rescue dog she adopted but couldn't properly handle.)

All of this was back in March, before this summer's big Donald Jr. revelation. There's sitting on a stump like a decadent aristocrat and being generally unpleasant, then there's colluding with Russia to get your father elected president of the US.

When something is indefensible on that level, the excuses are bound to be pathetic. And the excuse that 39-year-old Donald Jr. is a "kid" is plainly ridiculous. (I'm about to turn 34, and while I wish youth extended that long, I'm confident it does not.)

The question I'm stuck on is how much the ridiculousness of the just-a-kid excuse is about white male privilege, how much Trump privilege, and how much the two can even be disentangled. And yes, I'm thinking of the Bustle piece headlined "The Defense Of Donald Trump Jr Reeks Of White Male Privilege." In it, Dana Schwartz writes:
Don Jr. might be, by all accounts, an idiot. But then he’s also a 39-year-old, grown-ass man idiot. This enormous benefit of the doubt is conferred upon him thanks to the tremendous privilege of being rich, white, and male.
Schwartz gives examples of white women and people of color getting torn apart for far less, and of young white men getting relatively generous treatment. All true, and all very important to point out. (One white man she mentions, Brock Turner, has long struck me as an unambiguous case of privilege in action.) My concern is that there may be a downside to attributing gentle treatment at the level received by Donald Trump Jr. to his broad demographic categories. Why a downside? Because most 39-year-old white men wouldn't experience anything close. They'd have it easier than their female and non-white equivalents, but not on that scale. If we instead limit this to rich white men, we're getting closer, but... I still think what Donald Jr. can get away with is closer to what Ivanka the First could, than to the experiences of rich white men generally.

My issue with the framing is, it becomes all too easy to point out - and be right! - that typical white men aren't quite as privileged as Donald Jr., and in doing so, to dismiss the very real injustices that exist in the general (non-Trump) population.

Then again, Trumpism is certainly about the fantasy of being the sort of white man who could get away with anything, and that's a fantasy with disproportionate appeal to white men, very much including ones for whom that'll never be the reality. So, who knows.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reports from the largest apartment in the world

Because I'm apparently a big fan of living in neighborhoods where I can't afford anything nearby, I'm now a resident of Toronto's Yorkville. It's Toronto's Upper East Side. Its 16e arrondissement. Its Gold Coast. Super duper posh. 

Despite this - or maybe because stodgy is less desirable than trendy - the rent in this apartment is lower than in the one from two years ago, in Toronto's hipsterfied garment district, as well as (apparently?) lower than the citywide average. The plusses of the area are grocery-shopping and a short walk as a commute. The minuses: restaurants are too posh for even special occasions, and this persistent sense that I've somehow returned to my childhood neighborhood, except in a (slightly) different country. 

The plusses of this apartment are, I mean, where to begin? It's huge! (OK, it's a large, well-laid-out one-bedroom.) It has new, working appliances! It doesn't have odd building rules like the last Toronto place. Fine, the downside is that laundry's down the hall, rather than in the unit, but... if you grow up in a NYC building where laundry's in the basement, and spend much of adulthood needing to go to another building to do laundry, down the hall is just fine. Did I mention I live in a palace? I live in a palace. 


The main thing that strikes me about Yorkville specifically, on a day-to-day basis, is the sheer number of establishments dedicated to beautification of one form or another. Cosmetic surgery in so many varieties, including something called fat-freezing. Or of not cosmetic surgery, cosmetic dermatology. (Which, as 34 looms, I'm sure I'd benefit from, but I have neither the money nor the inclination.) If not that, then various forms of hair, teeth, and quasi-surgical facial refurbishment, at an above-and-beyond level. Everything, that is, but nail salons - those exist in Toronto, for sure, but seemingly not at the level they do in New York. 

What I can't figure out is whether there's especially a lot of cosmetic enhancement happening here, or whether it's just more out in the open. That is, big signs, big photos of the taut and line-free promised results. Is Toronto - where everyone's in a parka for much of the year, and where it never seems to go above 80 degrees - the butt lift capital of North America? Or do the US cities I'm familiar with (and to be fair, I've barely seen Miami or L.A.) take more of the Parisian discretion-but-it's-totally-still-happening approach? 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The hoagies of privilege

Now that I'm neither blogging professionally nor working on a book partly about internet controversies, I know I can skip stories of the moment. I can see that Lena Dunham (!) rehomed her rescue dog (!!!) and decide to just let that one sit. It's not that I don't have, within me, 7438297423 words on Lambygate. I've just made a conscious choice not to put my energies towards bringing that potential document into existence.

However! I can't let the David Brooks sandwich story be. Short version: People on the left - liberals, leftists, progressives - might be annoyed at Brooks here for the wrong reasons. Or not exactly the wrong reasons - more like, they're only annoyed, I suspect, because it's a David Brooks column.

Before I go further with why I think this, let me backtrack and remind/explain what I'm referring to: David Brooks's latest NYT column is a quasi-endorsement of the Richard Reeves argument that the trouble with America today is that upper-middle class people don't know they're rich. Brooks, like Reeves, is right that the wealthy but not super-rich try really hard to keep their kids at least as well-off as they are. And Brooks has been on the limousine-liberal-hypocrisy beat for ages, one for which there is always a steady stream of material, so he chose wisely.

Where things go wrong: Brooks takes the privilege-awareness aspect of Reeves's argument - the one that was, at least, only a framing devise in his otherwise reasonable op-ed - and insists upon it:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
By "informal barriers" he means cultural capital. Taste, in the Bourdieusian sense:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
This is the passage that led to all the #trending mockery. Haha, said left-to-liberal Twitter, David Brooks thinks it's elitist to eat deli sandwiches! Or: David Brooks thinks elites know what striata baguettes are, when who knows what that is!

Here's Brooks's conclusion, which interests me more than the sandwich specifics:
We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.
This is... a "privilege" argument. It is the "privilege" argument. Brooks is saying not just that cultural capital exists (which, yes), but that it is actually the most important form of capital. He's saying that the subtle (ahem) distinctions - "hav[ing] the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality" - are the stuff elite status is really made of. Which is - I believe, and argue in The Perils of "Privilege" - missing the point. In the absence of capital-capital, cultural capital doesn't do a heck of a lot. And insisting upon specific giveaways - especially food and drink - never works, because kale and lattes and whatever came after those have long since made it out of whichever Park Slope or Berkeley corridor of artisanal luxe. It's an appealing argument, because cultural capital is a thing, and feels like a revelation when you first learn about it. But ultimately, money - and race, gender, etc. - matter a whole lot more than ingredient expertise.

Where have we seen this flawed idea before? The left! On the left - except in some newly-prominent pockets of the socialist left - it's been one big mutual privilege-accusation-fest for the past decade. Everyone's secret, not-admitted, subtly-expressed privileges were forever being revealed by people just as privileged. That was blog comment threads! It happened offline as well! Until... I don't know, maybe until Trump, or maybe David Brooks's latest column, progressive discourse often involved fancy people accusing one another of recognizing gourmet ingredients, or making ostentatious statements about not recognizing them, so as to suggest a scrappy past. This certainly also existed on the right - Charles Murray's "bubble" quiz! - but it sort of was progressivism, in a much deeper sense.

So yes, it was some mix of a relief and just bizarre to see a progressive consensus around the notion that structural inequality matters more than cured-meat classification. I can only hope that sticks. I'd like to think this means (my fellow) progressives actually get why the salami argument was wrong, and weren't just mocking a David Brooks column for its own sake.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Can we *please* stop asking if Jews are white?: a ten trillionth blog-attempt at explaining anti-Semitism

Missed a whole lot of news cycles due to the move, but it seems the question of whether (pale-skinned, usually but not exclusively Ashkenazi) Jews are white has stuck around. Yes, I was weighing in on this before it was... not cool exactly, but you know what I mean. (It's in the book. It's in the WWPD archives. It's in the dissertation. It was, prior to this, already the subject of plenty of attention, scholarly and otherwise, from others.) For that reason, I feel a bit done with the topic. But... I'm not thrilled with how it's getting explained, nor with how I've previously explained it. So, here goes:

It's understood, on the left, that there are various axes of oppression. Yes, they intersect, but trying to superimpose one axis onto another doesn't work. That is: to understand sexism, you don't ask whether women - all women, as women - are disabled. To understand homophobia, you don't ask whether gay people - all gay people, as gay people - are women. You have to look at each form of discrimination in its own terms. Not in isolation - some women are disabled, some gay people are women, and this impacts how they experience sexism and homophobia, respectively - but in its own terms. By which I mean: It's not necessary to claim that sexism exists solely and primarily as a form of some other type of discrimination in order to believe that sexism is real and really a problem.

So. To speak of Jewish difference as a question of whether Jews - all Jews - are "of color" is to make an analogy. It's to insist upon an analogy. To do so is to be left with two answers: Either we're people of color, and therefore oppression against us counts, or we're white, so any claims we make of being oppressed - certainly in cases where the oppressors are themselves people of color - fall under the old "reverse racism" rubric, which is to say, don't count. Or maybe there will be some middle-ground position, where Jews wind up classified as not quite white. More nuance, same terms.

All these possibilities fail to get at the truth, which is that most American Jews are white, and anti-Semitism exists. Yes, there's such a thing as racial anti-Semitism, which overlaps in some ways with the racism that exists against people of color. (See also: Islamophobia, which ostensibly isn't racism, but which has a tendency to impact even secular people of Muslim heritage, or those of other faiths who are perceived of as Muslim.) But anti-Semitism can't be understood simply as bias against groups according to their relative non-resemblance to Scandinavians. Anti-Semitism is not now and has never been about Jewish non-whiteness, not-quite-whiteness, or even, as a 19th century European would have put it, Jews' "Orientalness." It's about Jewish Jewishness.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A vivid imagination

There's a Twitter formulation that involves summoning one's followers' imagination: Imagine being so stupid/evil that you'd think this thing that I disagree with. This is not an Against "Imagine" Tweets post, so much as an attempt to figure them out.

Like any rhetorical strategy, "imagine" can be more or less helpful, depending the context. Some viewpoints really are incomprehensible, or so craptastic that calling them incomprehensible is basically a way of calling them evil and nonsensical at the same time. A recent clickbait trolling piece about how tough it is for white men - and about how white men specifically deserve credit for preventing Nazism from taking over the world (!) - got "imagine" responses on and off Twitter, which seems... more than fair. Bonkers plus hateful gets an "imagine." That seems right.

Still, "imagine" is not, in most other cases, a formulation I can get all that enthusiastic about. As a rule, why present regular-level wrongheaded opinions as inconceivable? They're just... wrong. Wrong, but not inexplicable. "Imagine" cuts off the possibility of an explain-but-not-excuse. Of a type of understanding that doesn't necessarily imply empathy. It puts up a wall, not simply against generous interpretations of dissenting viewpoints (which... not all viewpoints deserve generosity), but against the type of comprehension that can be helpful in arguing against an idea, or, say, useful for creating a fictional character.

Take the following "imagine" tweet:

"Imagine being so fragile that you're triggered by gender neutral bathrooms"

This is, on the one hand, an implied argument (one I agree with) that gender neutral bathrooms are necessary for many trans and gender non-conforming people, so cis people wary of them need to get over it. On the other, there's the "imagine" angle, which prompts the reader to... well, to do what, exactly? To divide the world into the good people, who can't even imagine how someone could think otherwise, and those other people, whose sentiment is not just wrong but unimaginable

Taken literally, if not as plausibly intended, the "imagine" formulation prompts... imagination. And yes, I could imagine a woman (cis or trans) not wanting to share public restroom facilities with cis men. I can even imagine - not support, not agree with, just imagine - a cis woman existing who did not want to share a bathroom with trans women, "imagine," again, being key here. To "imagine" not the same as 'I can sort of see their point.' It's not devil's-advocate. It's just... X is a view that's out there, I'm familiar with it, I can wrap my head around its existence. To imagine a view in no way precludes finding it misguided or even abhorrent. It's not neutrality. 

Let me put it like this: I can imagine that some people are anti-Semitic misogynists. I'm a Jewish woman. I'd obviously prefer it if anti-Semitism and misogyny didn't exist, but I've encountered both, including in the linked-up variety. I'd rather, frankly, if I could find the existence of people with those views unimaginable. Point being, I'm not trying to virtue-signal my own superior imagination (which I don't even think I have). I'm saying that I think it's a pretense that any of us can't imagine views we disagree with, or even despise. 

Imagines, to be clear, aren't necessarily progressive. They cover a wide range of topics and points on the political spectrum. A sampling:

"Imagine being religious unironically"

"Imagine fleeing to a country as a refugee, being taken in, set up and sent to college only to whine about how awful the country is online."

"Imagine giving a fuck about the founding fathers."

"Imagine being so USA-centric that the only form of slavery you accept the existence of is the kind that was made illegal in 1865."

Oh, and there's even an overtly racist variant:

"Imagine being such a brainlet that u believe 'Diversity is our strength' when literally all statistics, from social-economic prove otherwise"

"Imagine," then, is a way of implicitly faulting others, not for thinking something you don't think, but for being able to wrap their head around the existence of those who do. And... I'm not sure what to do with this.