Saturday, December 29, 2007

But what will happen to The NY Sun?

First an ode to Christmas, then this. Note the fascinating bio of William Kristol, which in such a short space makes clear a) that he hates the Times, which he has just agreed to write for, and b) the role nepotism presumably had in the younger Kristol's success, or at the very least, the role that Irving had in his place on the political spectrum.

Award for silliest health advice ever goes to...

...not "Personal Health" columnist Jane Brody, after all! The award instead goes to psychiatrist Paul Steinberg, also writing in the Times, on the subject of drinking. "If you must binge, start at age 40, not at age 16." This from's current most-emailed article.

Indeed, it is better to be irresponsible at a point in life when one might actually have some responsibilities (including young children), and when one is far more likely to own a car. The advantage to age 40? Early binge drinking has "significant, though often subtle, effects on the brain and cognition." (Prepare to ignore the reality of how almost all the intelligent and unintelligent people you know spent college.) But more obviously, this suggestion has all the practicality of advising that one first begin to experiment with neon hairdye, purchase Goth spiked platform shoes, or whine to one's parents about how things can be so unfair upon reaching middle age.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

From blob to edible!

Not promising, and very much stuck to Saran Wrap.

Browned on top! Or would have been if I'd been five minutes more patient.

One knife for jam, one for Nutella!

Not putting any bakeries out of business any time soon, but the rolls were rather tasty, considering the amount of straying from the recipe necessary to achieve what I imagined to be the consistency of bread dough.

Keeping my day job

Because it's vacation, I am reading some books that are only tangentially related to France and Jews. First is Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which I'm finding flawed but useful, for reasons I will get around to explaining once I've finished it. Next is Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings. I'm never sure what to make of Jewish-themed collections put together by those other than the writer herself (or, in some cases, himself) . Clearly the decision not to collect one's own writings under this theme was a conscious one. But that should not prevent critics from finding themes. I just wonder if these thematically-centered books should be heavier on the critics' analysis than on fully-reproduced but reassembled works of the writer being discussed. But whatever, I'm intrigued, so we shall see. And finally, Frederic Jaher's The Jews and the Nation: Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France looks worth tracking down, to get the often-elusive non-France perspective. Far too often I find myself implicitly comparing the situation of French Jews, whether in 1800, 1900, or 1960, with that of American Jews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, i.e. the obvious. Reading this book will, I hope, be a way out of that trap. Not that it's always a trap, but it can't hurt.

In other vacation news, an attempt at baking bread is going not quite as planned. It either won't rise or will fill the entirety of my very much NYC-sized apartment before the hour is up. If neither of these events transpires, I will photograph the happy (if oh so unlikely) result.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What "Jew York Times"?

The NYT Weddings pages are filled with page after page of couples getting married by rabbis. The paper's most-emailed articles are often on Jewish-related subjects. And the city in which the paper is based has maybe some Jews, not to mention non-Christians of other sects, and many of all atheistic bents. The Times is by no means a local paper, but its spiritual center is no more than a bagel's throw away from Zabars.

So answer me this: What's the point of today's leading editorial? Cited in full to reveal full ridiculousness:

When Christmas Morning Comes

This is a simple holiday. Ask any child, or, better yet, ask yourself what you recall from your own childhood Christmases. Presents, yes, and shopping and decorations and the return of familiar songs and the smells of baking and perhaps the cadence of a few verses from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. What persists above all is the feeling of finally going to bed on a dark winter’s night full of hope for what the morning will bring. Even jaded adults can remember how that felt, and they remember it as viscerally as they remember anything. The emotional truth in that transition lies at the heart of Christmas. It captures the most basic rhythm of our lives — going to bed at night and getting up in the morning — and makes us keenly, happily aware of it. That rhythm is all the more stirring because the season is so penetrating, the winter darkness so long. Both of the basic stories we tell about Christmas, the shepherds in their fields by night and the peregrinations of Santa Claus, fill the darkness with life and possibility. A stranger, an extragalactic visitor wise enough to look past all the shopping, might be forgiven for thinking that this is the festival in which we celebrate the magic of sleep. After all, what other holiday do we attend in robes and pajamas? The optimism, the generosity, the charitable warmth of Christmas do stem, of course, from the pattern and the meaning of the biblical story. They have their source, too, in the sense of regeneration now that we’ve turned this darkest corner of the solar year. Christmas is imbued with a more everyday hope as well, a recognition that the transition from sleep to waking always carries with it the immeasurable gift of a new day. The very premise is hopeful. No one expects to wake every day as joyfully as a child at Christmas, or to sleep as badly the night before. The gift of possibility is there every morning.

For those who share my fascination with French-Jewish history, "regeneration" obviously jumps out, although the use--if not the context--here is quite different. But, um... "Ask any child" about "the cadence of a few verses from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke"? In New York City? Really?

The language of universality, of how "No one expects to wake every day as joyfully as a child at Christmas," and how Christmas "captures the most basic rhythm of our lives," is poetic but bizarre, along with the persistent use of the first person plural. What kind of horrible person's heart doesn't soften upon hearing the word "Christmas"?

Admittedly a good number of non-Christian New Yorkers go in for the tree-and-gifts celebration, and still more enjoy a day off from work whenever one's offered, but what this editorial evokes is something between a New England WASP fantasy and an Old Navy commercial, not Christmas as it is nondenominationally understood. This editorial is a story that takes place in a house, not an apartment, but quite possibly in an L.L. Bean catalog. The characters are a multigenerational family of Christmas adherents and, presumably, a golden retriever.

So why is any of this a problem? It's simple, just like Christmas: For Jews who are truly bothered by Christmas, and who want to live in a country where the inconvenient days when everything shuts down are at least our own holidays, there's Israel. For Jews who've fallen head-over-heels for the Ralph Lauren lifestyle of let's-overshoot-the-mark assimilation, there's nearly all of America. For those who can deal with the Christmas music and decorations for a couple months but would prefer to rest assured that they are not the only non-participants, there's New York City. What this editorial does is place the Times, a representative of the city, on the same side as Huckabee in the "War on Christmas." What I want to know is, why?

Monday, December 24, 2007

A break from tradition

This might come as a shock, but I was not the only one to think of the newly-reopened 2nd Avenue Deli, rather than Chinatown, for December 24th early dinner. OK, not so much of a shock. So while the rest of my people flocked to the Matzo Ball, I enjoyed the namesake soup, along with half of a pastrami sandwich, and a never-ending pickle bowl, yum! The meal ends with something called a "Bosco shot," which is chocolate syrup mixed with seltzer, in a shot glass of course, thus confirming the stereotype re: Jews' preference for food over alcohol. Sure, there's an extensive Israeli wine list, but there is no proper wine, no matter how kosher, to match with such a meal.

Let the hibernation begin.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


At a cafe early this evening, I noticed a copy of a magazine left behind by whomever had been sitting at the next table before. Blake Lively, aka "Serena" on "Gossip Girl" was on the cover, so I of course had to turn to the page with the relevant article (or, as it turned out, list of preferred clothing/shampoo brands/varieties). Just as I learned that Ms. Lively didn't used to care about shampoo but now buys (insert product placement here), who should walk into the cafe but... Dan from "Gossip Girl"! OMG! With a woman who might have been his mother but in any case is not the one who plays his mother on the show. It took all my restraint not to say, when he was standing close by, "Congrats on the New Yorker story," but a) I had too much of the cookie I was eating in my mouth at the time, and b) I have a bit of self-respect. I did, however, watch as a girl who was maybe 10 got his autograph, and she had exactly the thrilled look on her face that I would have had at 10 doing the same.

But it gets better. All of a sudden, after a few moments pretending to be fascinated by my coffee, I look up and who should be going to sit with Dan and his real-life mother but... Serena! This was just too much. "Dan" looked just as excited to see "Serena" as he does on the show, suggesting that the line we draw between "Reality TV" (which we all know is semiscripted anyway) and shows like "Gossip Girl" must be questioned.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Done! continued

So after a careful reconsideration, the pants were a no-go. The reconsideration included a second opinion from my mother: the pants are apparently (and, alas, I'd have to agree) more for a 16-year-old--although presumably not Jamie-Lynn--what with all of the decorative zippers and embroidered birds (not as odd as it sounds, but still sort of odd). What I neglected to mention in the last post was that prior to considering the pants, I got a superchic shirt-dress-thingy at Uniqlo, one that is, I hope, age-appropriate, and that without a doubt does not bear Kate Moss's name.

In other news, two celebrities spotted in the course of a day more or less in Soho: Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Stipe, along with countless anonymous models, none of whom look like they spent the past week wearing pajamas and eating cheese; if they were also writing papers about French theory, they found other means of reaching the finish line.

"We met in church" UPDATED

Paper three of three is in. I celebrated by getting a cappuccino and almond croissant in Nolita and reading "Hannah Arendt: the Jewish Writings," or some of it, at any rate. Didn't quite finish the croissant either, but let's just say I came a lot closer. Then I walked around Soho and tried on a quite reasonably priced (at Barneys but on sale) and chic-looking pair of "Kate Moss for Topshop" jeans, which I might get--they are the right length, which means they are automatically equivalent to a $15 cheaper pair of tall-person-length pants, but they are a bit low rise, and I'm not a fan of that look.

In case this makes me sound like too much of an intellectual, I should note that I have been avidly following the Jamie-Lynn Spears story. My reaction was about the same as what it was to the baby-production of her older sister.


The official social-conservative word on the matter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paper-induced insanity?

Or does this American man whose family just decided to upgrade from pied-à-terre to château look just the slightest bit like Pierre Bourdieu?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The real danger of procrastination

I'm writing my last paper of the semester. I stopped for a moment to look at a couple blogs, and what do I find? A link to an article about decade-long humanities and social sciences doctoral programs (!) and a contest asking professors to submit the silliest sentence from papers written by their grad students (!!!). I get it, I get it! Back to work...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Faith, Cheesiness, and Freedom

Matthew Yglesias writes, of Huckabee's less-than-subtle "Christmas" tv ad, "Of course the more secular Jewish liberals complain, the better Huckabee will do." Speaking as one who counts as two of the three identities just mentioned, I'd say my first response to the ad was remembering that NYU opened a branch in Tel Aviv, there is a way out... but my second response was, this is actually a good sign for America. If a candidate feels he has to go out of his way to show that he celebrates Christmas, he is arguing against a rather strong current of such a stance not being tolerated. His ad reminds viewers not of Christmas, but of the "War on Christmas," and offers up the now-standard persecuted-minority presentation of what was once default white American Protestantism. His staged Christmas observance comes across not as a natural outgrowth of a Christian leader in a Christian country, unaware that anyone might behave otherwise, but as a man advocating for but one of many possible agendas.

If he wins, on the other hand, save me a falafel.

Banality and alterity

First, Jews wishing to claim to be no different from other men did so by asserting membership in the majority, in the dominant ethnic group of their land. When this didn't work, the modern-day, liberal-minded equivalent of those previously-mentioned Jews decided to claim that Jews are no different from other oppressed minorities, oppressed, if nothing else, on account of being in the minority. If we can't show that we're basically WASPs with less per-capita blondness, then we can at least rest assured that we have a place alongside blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and gays.

Felicia R. Lee has a fascinating (in terms of this question, at any rate) profile of Jamie Kastner, writer, director, and producer of "Kike Like Me," a film about Jewish identity. Kastner refuses to answer the question of whether or not he is Jewish, although his subject matter, along with Lee's description of "the curly-haired, 35-year-old Mr. Kastner" (the accompanying photo confirms this) push one to believe he might not be, say, Chinese. He gets defensive in the interview when asked if he himself is a Jew, assuming that the only reason someone would want to know would be anti-Semitism or a desire to set him up with their daughter. But it's for Kastner to decide what faith or lack thereof to adhere to. What's interesting is not so much Kastner's refusal to declare himself one thing or another, but his fear that his movie about Jewish identity might be mistaken for... a film about Jewish identity.

“I’ve always seen this not as a film for Jews particularly or about Jews but about identity, about what it means to be an outsider,” Mr. Kastner said in a recent phone interview. “There are certain issues for those who are perceived as other.”

Ah, the amorphous "other," friend of grad student and, apparently, documentary filmmaker alike. Kastner is not afraid to provoke, yet he is afraid to come out and say that he made a movie about Jews. It's not enough that the movie is directed at all who are interested, it has to be about every subject matter possible. He cannot simply show the film and let viewers draw their own comparisons, he must assure the wary audience from the get-go, this isn't about Jews, this isn't about Jews, until they relax and realize that it is, in fact, a movie about human beings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Try lingual

Jo and I took a field trip uptown, which included a visit to the wonderful Fairway supermarket. Over by the Israeli cucumbers (called Persian cucumbers at markets not on the Upper West Side) I overheard a woman ask her companion, "Aifo haagvaniot?" I know so little, but I do know a) how to ask "Where are the tomatoes?" in Hebrew, and b) where the tomatoes are at the Fairway. So I answered, gesturing in the direction of the tomatoes, "Shahm." Then the woman said something very quickly, and I had no idea what was going on, and could barely hear what she said, regardless, because of the thick fake-fur hat I was wearing at the time. I answered that that was pretty much all the Hebrew I knew, and, I believe, repeated this at least a second time... and then she said that she'd been speaking English, and she wanted to know something about deliveries. It's a sad fact that Israeli-accented English plus furry hat equals Hebrew I do not understand. After feeling oh so smart, in just a few short moments, I felt oh so ridiculous.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's American for "Travail, Famille, Patrie"?

How about "Faith, Family, Freedom"?

For the record, I still think "covenant marriage" is a load of nonsense, for the very same reasons I listed in the Maroon way back when.

Bad for the Jews

Where schwarma and shady business deals meet.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Better than steroids

I went to the gym twice in one week, which has to be some kind of record. I cannot believe this article about how, if you think about something other than running, you can run for longer than you could otherwise, doesn't mention the obvious: television. Any television will do. Today it was a show called "Yes, Dear," which I'm pretty sure is the worst of the post-Seinfeld unwatchably bad sitcoms, but I remember the show more vividly than the agony of minute 28 of 30 of the run. I mean, a "South Park" would have been better, but it's painful to laugh and run at the same time, so in a way what you want is one of those shows with a laugh track that doesn't correspond to any real punch lines. If I had a headset with one such show on loop, I could totally run a marathon. Don't quote me on that.

In other news, re: the gym, why must the nomadic Belgian waffle truck park itself out front?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Will Baude, formerly of Crescat, is ridiculously smart.


Professional athletes are not allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs, although it's clear these drugs, well, enhance their performance. The latest "cycle" of America's Next Top Model was an officially non-smoking one, and even included a "competition" to see which "model" could pose best for an anti-smoking ad, thus removing the one common feature the participants might have had with real-life fashion models.

If models can't smoke and athletes can't use steroids, what can't grad students do during finals? After the latkes and gnocchi of last week turned me into quite the potato, I was shooting for not overdoing it at the end-of-semester parties. By overdoing it I mean cheese. And there's evidence that I have gone overboard with the cheese at past events, but to be fair, NYU's French Department serves some very fine cheeses, and the parties always seem to occur at just that not-quite-dinner time when, try as we might to be sophisticated, we still believe dinner ought to be consumed. It all seemed hopeful enough until I arrived at the holiday party to see that this was among the possibilities. Rationalizing that paper-writing requires copious cheese consumption, especially if the papers in question are all about France, I dug in. Hope the models and athletes have more willpower.

The java jacket, undressed

The deli across from my department, where everyone gets coffee, is part of what appears to be an ad campaign for Maidenform bras, and has been, on and off, all semester. What this means is that every cup of coffee people bring to class has wrapped around the cup, rather than the usual brown-paper hand-protecting slip, a photograph of the head and torso of a sultry woman with impressive cleavage, wearing only a flesh-colored push-up bra. So you sit in class, look around the room, and there are all these near-naked women. I can only imagine how distracting this is for those who find breasts interesting.

"No photo available"

Tad Safran, the screenwriter who just published a cliché-filled article about how British women are ugly while American women are high-maintenance, is on IMDB, yet there are no pictures of him to be found.

Via A&L Daily.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Police activity"

Another anti-Semitic act in the metro. A gang of youths heard one person wish another "Happy Chanukah" and began harassing and beating the Jews, since, claimed the attackers, Chanukah is when the Jews killed Jesus. Won't those French anti-Semites ever stop?

Except this wasn't in Paris or a notorious banlieue, but on a train in NYC, headed from Manhattan to Brooklyn. One car away from the one Jo and I were in on Friday night, as it happens. All we witnessed was police sprinting through our car to the next; then, once the train pulled into DeKalb, more police running to the car in question from outside the station. A man in our car told us there were "rowdy teenagers" in the next car, causing him to move to the one we were in. All we learned from the police was that there was "police activity" on the train. Well, clearly. We had actually moved closer to the action, inadvertently, before realizing there was any action, after fleeing the opposite end of the car to get away from a garden-variety subway pervert who was alternating between asking all the women nearby on dates and graphically describing acts that go on between two men. The back of the car seemed the way to go, until we noticed the cops running towards where we were from the direction of where we had been standing. But I digress.

If violent anti-Jewish acts happen in NYC subways and New Jersey towns, why are American Jews so intrigued by French anti-Semitism, which from what I understand manifests itself in about the same way? Since hate crime is counted differently in different countries, I'm not sure how one would go about comparing numbers, but I don't know if numbers are even the issue. When a Jew is attacked as such in France, it's described as a message about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust/Vichy, i.e. some greater conflict. When it happens in America, it just falls into the melting pot of how we interpret hate, i.e., looks like someone didn't get the P.C. message, or is too anti-social to know that attacking people on the basis of race, creed, etc., is wrong.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The definitive first-world problem:

'My townhouse in Manhattan is too big, so big that I needed to get an espresso machine for each floor.'

I challenge all to come up with a problem that better fits the definition than the one presented in "Town House Living: The Untold Story," in this week's NYT Real Estate section.

Restaurant hagiography: Bianca

What struck me first about Bianca was how much it resembles Upper West Side Italian restaurant Celeste. Not so much the decor, but the dishes and prices all looked familiar. Turns out Bianca's officially the downtown version of Celeste, but the real difference with Bianca is the Gorgonzola gnocchi. As a connoisseur of the some-pasta- with-your-cheese? genre, I'd have to say, this one makes the rest taste like Kraft or, worse, like whatever combination one comes up with when, due to a lack of grocery shopping, the only cheese around is one that doesn't make sense to put on pasta (say, Camembert), but ends up on it for lack of other options. In other words, that was some good gnocchi.

A man at a table next to ours ordered what appeared to be the thinly-sliced filet mignon with rosemary. At $15 that was the most expensive thing on the mostly-sub-$10 menu, which by NoHo standards is respectable but by graduate student standards (not to mention person-who'd-just-eaten- a-plate-of-gnocchi standards) it seemed excessive, which is not to say I won't go back and try that and everything else on the menu.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What's a Jew? A not-Christian.

Is there a positive definition of Judaism? There are plenty, but if we removed all the negative definitions, how many Jews would be left? As Steve points out on Jewlicious, many "American Jews have replaced Judaism and Torah study with a secular obsession with the Holocaust." Being Jewish isn't just about remembering genocide, it's also about not celebrating Christian holidays. From a NYT article on interfaith couples torn between Christmas and Chanukah:

“I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” Mr. Klain said. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”

I'd have to say, that's pretty much it for a lot of Jews. A Jew is someone who doesn't celebrate this, who doesn't eat that, and who cannot live in a certain number of countries at any given time. These are all true, and can remain so even for Jews who get nothing positive out of being Jewish. You can choose whether or not to seek out the positive (by which I mean not just fun aspects, but anything that's not just about not doing something), but the negative's there whether you want it or not. And the reality is, if you took away from the 'community' all who are only Jews because they don't eat pork, don't tell their children to believe in Santa, or who continue to identify as Jews to spite anti-Semites, and whose interest in organized religion is zilch, whose interest in worrying more about being Jewish than they already do is nonexistent, it's not clear how many would be left, something those concerned with numbers might want to consider.

Decadence and realism

Withywindle of Athens and Jerusalem agrees that social conservatism implies middle-class values but disagrees that we can use the word "bourgeois" to describe these values in the American context. Too French? I'm all for accepting that French words exist in English--just because they're not keen on returning the favor doesn't mean we have to follow suit. But the point of this post is that middle-class/bourgeois values showed up in a big way in last night's Gossip Girl. Serena's uptight mother finally came around about Dan Humphrey, her rebel-socialite daughter's non-high-society boyfriend. She tells Dan that since Serena's started seeing him, she comes home at a reasonable hour, doesn't drink, and doesn't do drugs. He's what's known as a Good Influence, the dream of every teen parent, on-screen and off-. Dan, who is middle class-ish, brings Serena the middle-class values she so desperately needs, because as we all know by now she's not getting them from her mom or Blair, certainly not from Chuck... In the very same episode, which was, I should note, a bit more interesting than the accompanying pasta, Dan's mother, who has recently reappeared after some fling or other, also imposes middle-class values, announcing that Dan's sister, Little J, is grounded and cannot go to a debutante ball. To be grounded is, of course, very bourgeois. The other characters are above the middle-class law and can go anywhere they want, whenever they want, so long as they marry and go to college in ways that conform with what's needed to stay in the upper class.

But is the Humphrey family really as bourgeois as all that? The father is an aging rock musician, and he lives in Williamsburg. The mother, an artist, sleeps around, literally, and only lives with her husband and children when it suits her. That they nevertheless send their kids to school on the Upper East Side suggests that they might be bourgeois bohemians, but the more likely possibility is that... wait for it... the show makes no sense whatsoever.

"Tribal Jewish backwardness" UPDATED

It's great how much easier it is to be a universalist humanist when nothing about you screams 'different.' If you are a white man, not too old or young to be taken seriously, if you look, oh, I don't know, like this, and have a name that is in no way 'ethnic,' it is much easier to wonder why these other folks make such a fuss than it is if, through no fault of your own, you visibly belong to an 'identity' group. You may begin with no feelings of solidarity whatsoever, but, reminded enough times of 'what' you are, you might soon enough see the limits to the 'we're all just human' outlook.

While I don't believe anything is gained by declaring one ethnicity the American ethnicity, I agree that it's a good idea to consider white Americans as having a specific ethnicity, one with no direct equivalent in Europe, but one with a history all the same. It reminds us that there is no such thing as an unhyphenated identity, that everyone has both an ethnic background and some relationship to the politically-defined nation-state in which he lives. No one is 'just' an American, because ethnicity, even that of the majority, cannot be lined up with the political definition of America.

If Christopher Hitchens argued against publicly-funded displays of religiosity, he would make a fair but less-than-controversial point. If no nativity scenes, then no menorahs, the end. But that's not his point. Christmas trees are, he explains, not about Christianity. Sure, they're used in that way, but if you look at the history, these tree-things were around before. They're just being used wrong, he wants us to believe. But, right or wrong, they are used this way, and if Hitchens thinks they're pagan but the rest of the country thinks they're Christian, it's fair for non-Christians to respond to them with an understanding of what they mean, not what they should mean according to Christopher Hitchens. The whole country shuts down on December 25 for something called "Christmas." Is that, too, a reference to the Vikings?

Menorahs, meanwhile, are about "tribal Jewish backwardness." Hitchens won't differentiate between the allegedly tribal and backward Jews from the Chanukah story and Jews today who observe the holiday. Presumably Jews are still being backward, not just because of what Chanukah apparently celebrates (shocker: I don't share his interpretation) but because we stubbornly insist on not accepting the universal innocuousness that is the Christmas tree, our modern-day equivalent of Greek philosophy, something applicable to all humanity.


I don't feel like this post was precise enough, so before anyone comments (anything could happen), I should add... The main point is not what Hitchens's name is or what he looks like and whether as a white man he does or does not have the right to whichever opinions, but rather that behind much of what presents itself as universalism or humanism is in fact a celebration of the culture and opinions of the majority (or, in some cases, elites of the majority) rather than of an ideology that really does allow for the well-being and participation of all human beings.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chappy Chanukah!


An article in Commentary (link: Arts and Letters Daily) describes a positive turn in the social life of this country. Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin tell us that teen drug use is down, crime is down, welfare and abortion rates, also down. (The authors, who seem to have an otherwise socially-conservative bent, note that this last one had something to do with "the greater availability of birth control." There you have it.).

Somehow the authors switch from a discussion of issues about which people across the political spectrum agree, and that they note have improved in recent years, to noting the one downturn, the one exception to the overall upswing, which is "the family." They explain that "the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend."

Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.

From this they conclude: "The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family."

The authors have found a contradiction where none exists. The increase in premarital cohabitation is in fact part of a trend of improvement. Now that young people are no longer too stoned to think rationally, they understand that it's not such a bad idea to live with a person prior to committing to a life together. Hard as this may be to reconcile with social conservatism, some people take marriage so seriously that they wish to enter into it only when they are sure they will not change their minds.

As for the alleged social problem of out-of-wedlock births, it's important to remember that this includes the children destined for same-sex-parent families, where the parents cannot legally marry in most situations. Parents who choose not to marry (whether put off by religion, discriminatory marriage laws, diamond-ring commercials, or the NYT weddings pages) but who live as married are also offering up "illegitimate" offspring. The classic Lifetime movie scenario of the naive high-school junior whose boyfriend dumped her for a freshman upon learning of her pregnancy is only one of many that count as out-of-wedlock births.

The authors ask, "How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy?" A start would be not making reference to "the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty." These areas are not as related as all that, even if some correlations can be measured, some of the time. A universally-accepted value judgment can be made regarding one set of issues, but not regarding the other. To be fair to the authors, they admit the possibility that illegitimacy might not be the cause of all social problems. But that's only a first step. Allowing individuals, congregations, and families to determine what counts as marriage in the moral sense, and leaving the state out of it, is the only way to move past this abstract and non-existent entity that is "the family."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Trendy coffee bar leads courageous fight against gentrification

Mule, the coffee bar where I worked on grad school applications, is featured in a City section article in the Times about the "graduate students and artistic types" who have unwittingly made posh yet another once-industrial section of Brooklyn. Of all places for gentrification to have spread, it is certainly shocking that the next avenue over in Park Slope (not to mention one that's the site of three convenient subway stops) was the latest to fall. It's clear that when the article's author, Saki Knafo, quotes an "unshaven barista" on his fears of neighborhood development, there's more than a bit of irony involved.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The dangerous lives of dachshunds

It turns out the late Brooke Astor's possibly abusive son was also possibly an enemy of The Dachshunds, and wanted her (creatively named) pets Boysie and Girlsie dead! Strange, given that he himself is a dachshund owner, although as someone mentions in the comment to the post on Gothamist, "one of these adorable dachshunds once bit off a part of Mrs. Astor's finger."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quote of the millennium UPDATED

"Home to the Earth's entire population of 62.7 million people, every single one of the planet's 427 cities, and all of its history, culture, and beauty, France is the only country in the world." -The Onion's atlas


Also relevant: A hint at something language instructors could use when in graduate-student union negotiations.

What if anything is the difference between this and this?

Algeria and Jews: Qu'est-ce qui se passe?

Clementine forwarded me another article about Algeria and Jews, this time only accessible to those who can read French. For those without that highly marketable skill, the gist of the article is not so different from the one in Haaretz, but the end adds a new twist. The problem for the Algerian minister is not just with Sarkozy and his slight Jewiness, but with another potential visitor, Algerian-Jewish singer Enrico Macias: "Enfin, il déclare que la «venue d’Enrico Macias est une provocation»," but why? Why would the visit of this singer cause such a fuss? Because it would pose problems. But why? Via Wikipedia, I found this link to an article explaining that the singer's pro-Israel views are the issue, along with some past actions of his brother-in law (?). Basically Enrico Macias, born in Algeria, now living in France, is considered a representative of Israel.

What's going on?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Algerian minister: Sarkozy in power thanks to Jewish lobby"

No, the above quote is not the result of the WWPD blog-post generator, but is in fact a headline in the English version of Haaretz.

Mohamed Cherif Abbas, Algeria's minister for veterans, was quoted Monday in the daily El Khabar as saying that Sarkozy was brought to power by a "Jewish lobby that has a monopoly on French industry." Abbas also mentioned Sarkozy's "roots," an apparent reference to the French president's maternal grandfather, who was Jewish.

It has that universal sound of Jewish-conspiracy theories. Then this: "In the original interview, Abbas also demanded that France repent for its past actions in Algeria."

By this he could mean colonial violence in the sense in which that's usually understood, or he could mean something else more specifically. Benjamin Stora explains it better than I ever will, but to sum up a very complicated history that is still somewhat over my head, one of France's strangest acts as Algeria's colonizer was deciding in 1870 that, what do you know, Algerian Jews are French. Algerian Muslims, not so much. Pourquoi? Pourquoi pas.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The old switcharoo

Somewhere in our now-epic-length discussions of law, religion, babies and anti-baby precautionary measures, Rita mentioned something about how women still seek out marriage more than men do. This I don't doubt. But it's also clear that women actively seek out birth control and premarital sexual involvement, at times even in cases where there's no chance of or hope for marriage down the line. And it's not that some women are Version A and others Version B; the same women experience both these desires. What exactly is going on?

While the Planned Parenthood and social-conservative ideologies do not overlap, and will never be argued for together in the same op-ed, they enjoy a lively coexistence in the hearts and minds of American women. Almost all of us receive both messages. It's the rare woman whose entire family, friend group, and media consumption point her towards just one value system or just the other. So on some level, we believe both. Both that we should have the same opportunities career-wise as men, which in many professions means not starting our own families at 18. We believe women should be able to have sex without facing risks any greater than do men. We also believe we should get married. We want two contradictory lifestyles, those advocated by two opposing advocacy groups.

To find out how the 'best' among us, the most envied, at any rate, reconcile this contradiction, look to the NYT Weddings pages, as so many have done before us. One would guess that all these successful, super-educated women marrying at 30 were not virgin brides, and that the grooms would for the most part be unnerved if this were the case. Yet they are indeed marrying. It's not that these upper-middle-class, mostly-NY-area (and thus liberal) success stories have rejected old ideals, or that they consider babies equivalent to disease. Believe me as a Park Slope resident, they adore babies. Rather, there's a conventional approach to each age range. It's still frowned upon to be unmarried at 35 (at which point women's chances are seen as quite slim), but the catch is that it's also considered bad news, low class, who knows, for women to be married at 25. The dilemma is not how to 'have it all,' but how to make the switch at the right time.

A less glamorous version of "Sex and the City" is what results when women buy into what we tell one another at age 20, that we value our freedom and want many different experiences, only to reach an age at which the rules have changed, the relationship equivalent of holding onto the belief that peers with good jobs are sell-outs into one's 40s.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No animals were harmed

Vegetarian Chinese food sounds like a terrible idea. When eating at such an establishment was suggested to me a few years ago I was hesitant, but after tasting the delights of fake meat in fried dough, I came around. Then tonight, I came to my senses. I rationalized ignoring the empty-restaurant rule on account of it being late-ish on a Sunday night on a holiday weekend. I rationalized Jo's lack of enthusiasm on account of his being a sensible person and thus resistant to the idea of a vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown. Then my food arrived. Then his arrived. Either it's end-of-semester stress that's destroyed my appetite, which is quite possible, or fake meat plus fried dough is not that great, actually.

As you may notice, I now have a new tag, "back to pasta," which I will use for future posts about disappointing meals on the outside. "Haute cuisine" just seems wrong.

What the heck is social conservatism?

After reading Amber's response to my last post, it hit me why social conservatism is so confusing. While it might seem like the answer to the (rhetorical) question about when the National Review thinks it's OK for anyone to have sex would be, when they're in a married, man-woman couple and looking to have children, things are clearly not that straightforward.

The fuzziness comes from the gap between social conservatism--its American incarnation a mishmash of Judeo-Christianity, 1950s-nostalgia, and pandering populism--and adherence to the tenets of a religious faith. For a Catholic, from what I understand, the sin is premarital sex, no matter how monogamous, not promiscuity or early sexual activity. For many Jews, marriage and children are nothing to celebrate if the union brings together a Jew and a gentile. Protestantism... is different depending which sect, and confuses me regardless, but I'd imagine no one variant matches up exactly with the Republican way.

Meanwhile, for a social conservative, there's a difference in outrage when responding to promiscuity and monogamy among the unmarried, along with a different attitude towards the sexual activity of youth (loosely defined) and that of indisputable adults, assuming of course that these adults are straight. Good, respectable choices according to social conservatism (also, as Amber notes, fiscal conservatism) include an eye towards productivity and a strong work ethic. To a certain extent, as long as a 23-year-old made it that far without getting pregnant or openly putting anyone else in that state, how this came to pass is irrelevant, whether from the perspective of social policy or socially conservative family members, who will look the other way unless something actually happens.

For social conservatives, the question is avoiding what they consider to be social ills--promiscuity, teen pregnancy, abortion, sometimes but not always homosexuality--and these 'problems' do not line up exactly with any one religion's understanding of morality. Yet they feel religious, and social conservatives often borrow from religion in ways that themselves end up contradicting social conservatism. Protesting cheap or free birth control for adult students is a perfect example of this. The social conservative, unlike the Catholic or the Hasid, not only wants to see large families but wants to see them start once both the man and the woman have completed their educations and once the man, at least, has a good, respectable job. Pragmatically this means birth control from (to give a conservative estimate) ages 18-23.

"Student Activity Fee"

It's no surprise that the National Review comes out against discounted birth control for college women. Even though a reduction in birth control means an increase in abortions and out-of-wedlock births, it's the knee-jerk conservative impulse to have this stance on the issue, with all the key words--"college," "sex," "young women,"--pointing in one direction. "Student Activity Fee," eh? Clever!

I don't see why the Congressman quoted in favor of discounted birth control bothers qualifying his opinion, noting, "We’re not promoting promiscuity, but..." Even college students in committed relationships, even married college students, one might even say especially such students are the ones who need this. The question is how to differentiate between the acceptability of telling 14-year-olds not to consummate every flirtation with the unacceptability of asking for abstinence from monogamous 22-year-olds.

Abstinence certainly can be the answer... in the case of the above-mentioned 14-year-olds. One could ask it as well of the 22-year-olds, of the married-but-still-in-school, but does that make doing so a good idea? At what age, if ever, is a person old enough to have sex without the National Review declaring this evidence of a social ill?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving highlights

I learned that cheese in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hovers over $40 a pound. I am thankful not to live in Williamsburg.

At a physicist Thanksgiving dinner, I met yet another Stuyvesant grad, further confirming that we are everywhere. I am thankful that I went to this high school, so that I have something to mention in conversation that implies that I am not entirely idiotic, when my level of comprehension when it comes to pendulums and particles suggests that I am, in fact, idiotic.

Jo and I got a table! It can also function as a desk! I am beyond thankful that I will now be able to do grading without a subway ride to campus or a coffee-shop purchase. The couch-coffee table method has its limits. The thanks really go to Jo for carrying the table up all those stairs.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A win for natalism

Wouldn't it be great if the wealthier and/or more intelligent portion of America's young women started baby-making in their late teens or early twenties? It's time to get excited! Now that the price of birth control pills has skyrocketed on college campuses, Park Slope might lose out to some college town as the stroller-pushing capital of the Northeast.

Most annoying part of the article:

Not everyone is troubled by the price increases. Some people said they wondered why college students, many of whom manage to afford daily doses of coffee from Starbucks and downloads from iTunes, should have been given such discounted birth control to begin with [...]

So college students in America... drink coffee and spend 99 cents on a song every so often. Seeing as they are going nuts and buying everything in sight, they do not deserve to have any control over their wombs at a time in their lives when they have neither the time nor the income (nor, arguably, the wisdom) to raise children. Oh, and of course it's only women whose frivolous spending is really being discussed, since unless one is married and splitting all costs, it's typically the uterus-having individuals making the purchases on their own. And thanks to biology, it's always the woman who faces the physical consequences, whether abortion or childbirth. But to be fair, if these silly girls will spend $10 on lip gloss, they are old enough to face the responsibilities of motherhood.


As readers of this blog know well enough, I have two main interests: French Jews and shoes. They rhyme, which is something. So I'm pointing readers more up for reading about the latter to Julie Fredrickson's new shoe blog, Almost Heeled. This post is especially fun for the maybe three people who both went to UChicago and care about shoes. I can't tell if the comparison Julie makes between the shoe and the sculpture is serious, but it's pretty amazing either way.

Our shared values

Anyone with even the most remote familiarity with the right or center-right press has heard the argument that Jews, Israel, and the West are on one side, while the enemies of all of the above are on the other. The latest installment. Israel's enemies don't just hate the Jews, goes the argument, they hate Judeo-Christian values, our values, the values shared by all Americans and Western Europeans save a few far-left extremists. Which would certainly be convenient, but it does not ring true.

Whenever I see references to 'Israel and the West' I wonder how 'the West' is being defined. The West has arguably caused Jews more problems than the East in the last century. Without going back decades, it's clear that much of 'the West' today is not so thrilled with Israel or Jews. The problem is that well-meaning people, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Americans-- keep asserting a connection between Israel and the West that does not exist outside of high politics and common enemies, or more precisely, of Israel being closer to the West than to the East, which is different from 'of the West.' So much of the European (and American!) Left and Right sees Israel as a problem, not a partner.

Simply put, when political Zionism got started, European colonialism was a fact of life, not something studied critically by progressive academics. When Zionism's founders offered Israel as a way of bringing the 'enlightened' West to the East, this was in part because these same Zionists were (very much despite themselves) of the West, but largely because it was up to Europe who 'got' Palestine, and a case had to be made.

That Israel today is a modernized, technologically-advanced country does not make it part of 'the West' any more than it makes Japan the same. The point is not that Israel is in fact Eastern, but that, as a Jewish state, it just doesn't fit into either category. Since Israel has elements of the West and the East, a case can be made for either, but the difficult truth is, neither. Jews as people or communities can be one or the other, but a Jewish state itself is by definition a third category altogether.

Somehow, the contingent in the West fighting for Western values, the Western canon and so on is now associated with Israel. Yet almost everything that makes Israel unique is that it is not a warmer-climate Switzerland. So then, since Israel is 'the West,' whenever it shocks by not being sufficiently Western, there is explaining to do. As in, gosh, Israelis are rude, this is nothing like my last trip to Sweden!

And ultimately it's not clear whether being 'of the West' helps Israel make its own case. Israel's founding had nothing to do with the European imperial projects of the 19th century, although its history, like that of Arab nationalism, is by necessity intertwined with whatever Europe was up to. Israel was not representing some already-existing nation-state in Europe, but setting out to create a new one. But since Israel equals West, there's no strong argument against the states' founding being European colonialism, other than denying colonization, which is absurd. There was colonization, but not colonialism in the sense of, say, France conquering Algeria.

Perhaps there needs to be a theory of just colonization, along the lines of what exists for war, since in this case it's clear enough that a) there was colonization, and b) although at times violent, it was overall just.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Back from the Panopticon

Jury duty, which I was called for this morning, was sort of a false alarm. The courts agreed that my having not lived in Manhattan for years disqualified me from serving in Manhattan. It did not end up disqualifying me from first watching a short film about what it means to be a juror. The gist of it was how lucky we are to live in America where there is trial by jury. The movie begins with examples (reenactments, even) of medieval justice in action, trial-by-drowning, etc. The point being, thank god that's over with. Of course it turns out my jury duty was on the same day as the class where we're discussing Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which also begins with a description of 'barbaric' pre-modern punishment... only to conclude that today's 'kind' punishments are in fact more cruel. I was all set to explain this to anyone who'd listen so that I could leave the courts and teach my class tomorrow, but thankfully I cannot afford to live in Manhattan, which took care of everything.

Another highlight of this movie was the part about the dark side of ancient Roman justice, which was demonstrated by an image of Christ himself in a crown of thorns. I mean, the good news is they didn't blame the Jews for killing Christ, but the bad news is, how exactly is Jesus's death at all relevant to anyone's jury duty?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

In Humanities

Reading about early 19th century French and Algerian Jews and how Jews were thought to have an innate usuriousness about them makes me wonder by what strange circumstances I ended up with the inclinations, interests, and (on a good day) abilities that led me to French grad school, rather than, say, investment banking. If Jews no matter what the circumstances know how to get a good deal, shouldn't I be at the very least a conniving peddler? All I have behind me is one unsuccessful attempt at selling old clothes to vintage shop Beacon's Closet. Am I the exception that proves the rule, or was one of my ancestors just raped and pillaged by an especially humanities-oriented Cossack?

The above is a segue not into a(nother) discussion about French Jews, but rather one about law school and the humanities major. Paul Gowder, a lawyer-turned-doctoral student, has a post on a blog called Law and Letters (via Amber Taylor) advising Medieval-poetry majors not to sign up for those LSAT courses as a way out. One of the themes running through the comments to that post is that prospective humanities majors ought to consider something a bit more lucrative for their undergrad degrees. But since talents in the humanities paired with ineptitude in the sciences tend to push students in the 'fluffy' direction, it often seems worth sticking with an area where one feels comfortable, for the sake of a decent undergrad experience, not to mention GPA.

Gowder makes a strong case against law school, but his concluding thought is a bit of a cop-out: "What to do instead? Something you love. Something that makes you happy. Something that you value for more than money or status or perceived glamour." Such as? Many fields a humanities grad might seek out instead of going to law school--PR, journalism, fashion--involve hard work, are appealing because of status or perceived glamour, and do not even have high pay as a reward.

Arguments like Gowder's are made quite often about grad school of all kinds. PhD programs are supposed to require a calling. MA programs can mean tuition or loans with no promise of higher-paid work at the end, and as such do not always have the best name. If school is to be discouraged, what should be encouraged?

The missing piece in all of this is what a tough spot humanities graduates without a particular grad program in mind end up with after college. Most of the alternatives to school are variants of the classic 'find yourself,' leading to either a dip into a trust fund or a reconsideration of law school, after all. Assuming a good number of humanities majors are indeed talented and not just incapable of finding the derivative, how about a reinstated patronage system? Cultivating an elegant appearance and marrying the very wealthy? Otherwise, no ideas.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Based on a true story

-At a bar in the East Village last night, a man having a drink with a female companion turned to Jo and me, said he'd been listening in on our conversation, and wanted to hear more about the Belfast Declaration. It took a moment to realize this but it turned out he meant Balfour. Then he announced that Herzl was famous for having written the book, Zionism. Closer by a long shot. Also, apparently Dreyfus was known for being a Zionist. Hmm. It continued along these lines, but the high point was when he announced that he was brought up in a Zionist household. He seemed genuinely curious, but if that's the case it's odd given his background that he didn't know some of this already. Of course, this is precisely why it's good for grad students to leave the library from time to time, to keep the general public informed about such pressing matters. Or maybe it's best we stay put.

-One of the classes I'm taking this semester deals with how historians can (or, do) use novels when writing about 19th century France. The question constantly at the back of my mind is, if 19th century novels tell us something about 19th century reality, can the same be said for contemporary works? What about Philip Roth, who argues that he can write a book with a protagonist just like himself, one often named "Philip Roth," and yet no one should take the book to be in any way about Philip Roth the man? Of course that doesn't mean one couldn't use the book to understand an era without upsetting Roth. But how much of where to draw the line depends on whether an author is still living? (This is addressed in the otherwise eh Exit Ghost.) How much, for that matter, on whether the book is terribly written and obviously semi-autobiographical (think high school poetry), or whether it is brilliantly written and thus deserves to be taken seriously as literature? When can someone be dumped/shunned/fired for writing fiction?

-Quote of the weekend about the other New Yorkers that explains why NYU grad students rarely live anywhere near school: "They were willing to spend $7,000 a month, at the very most, for a two-bedroom rental in the West Village."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Montesquieu and leggings-as-pants

Who knew?

Montesquieu and fashion are both worthwhile subjects, so I like the idea behind this article. Not sure what to make of this, though:

Many Americans do feel threatened [...] by young men, especially black young men under voluminous folds of denim, whether their underwear is showing or not. It seems to me that our fundamental objection is not the occasional exposure, but the impression of concealment. The uniform of the streets has a burka-like quality. In an era when women barely cover themselves, why are young men awash in fabric from head to toe? What are they hiding? Perhaps drugs or guns—or maybe just themselves. It is a costume of alienation, and seeing these slouching, shrouded figures alienates us in turn, while at the same time seeming to embody a kind of accusation. We respond with law and order: at least we can make you pull your pants up and look like you fit in.

The subtle switch from the feelings of many Americans to those of the author, Diana Schaub, is a disturbing example of what the post-PC era has brought us. It is now acceptable to announce that one assumes a young black man in baggy clothing has drugs and guns on his person. We can also assume that Jews' pockets are filled with sacks of gold pieces gotten through usury or the Israel lobby; that professors' tweedy pockets and worn-leather satchels are filled with Marxist gender-studies journals; that Asian kids with backpacks are carrying violin music and Multivariate Calculus textbooks, that...

Later in the article:

"When nothing else works, try tweaking the offenders’ masculinity."

By "offenders" she means those who wear sagging pants, but the double-meaning is clear. The pants imply crime, so rather than fighting crime, we must fight... pants. Perhaps a clever rap song can be written encouraging young black men to make the same switch young women of all races have made in NYC of late: leggings! The thing about leggings is that they conceal nothing.

The beautiful people

I saw this model on a bike the other day. I've stopped listing celebrities I see on the street near NYU because that is clearly the project for a blog in itself. Not an original thought, I realize, but people are really, really good-looking in this city. This can be an argument for or against being a graduate student in these parts.

There's no going back

Does it make sense to consider one's self 'on the left' because one identifies politically with various founding fathers of the left, various leftists from another time? Mitchell Cohen, after criticizing some recent attitudes on the left, writes:

But let me be clear: I am “left.” I still have no problem when someone describes me with the “s” word—socialist—although I don’t much care if you call me a social democrat, left-liberal, or some other proximate term. My “leftism” comes from a commitment to—and an ethos of—democratic humanism and social egalitarianism.

What I care about is the reinvention of the best values of the historical left—legacies of British Labour, of the Swedish Social Democrats, of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum in France, of Eduard Bernstein and Willy Brandt in Germany, of what has always been the relatively small (alas!) tribe in the U.S. associated like Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, and Irving Howe.

This is all well and good until you consider that the left is by definition about a belief in progress, in revolution, in scrapping the old in favor of the new. By contemporary standards of any 'left,' the left that preceded it was racist, pro-capitalist, or otherwise acted in ways that would, in this later period, be considered right-wing. Imagine how, once upon a time, you could be on the left but not believe in women's right to vote! Or, you could be liberal and pro-colonialism! And even not that long ago, the pro-Israel segment of American society, aka Jews and Co., were inevitably associated with the left. Amazing!

It's entirely reasonable, by leftist standards, to seek reform of the left itself. But to seek a reform that is a return to original principles, i.e. a reform that is by its very nature reactionary, might well contradict a good part of what it means to be on the left.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This will go on your transcript

Rita's comments on the post below are quite interesting, but I can't decide if I'm convinced: do we really give too much credit to the transformative power of education? In terms of 19th century France, education (plus military service) were apparently what taught those across metropolitan France the French language. In terms of my own, 20th-21st century experience, school is simply where kids are for most waking hours. Except, as Rita herself has mentioned, on teen-oriented TV shows, teenagers' lives revolve around school. So from that alone, there's the temptation to believe that whatever takes place at school could have some kind of an impact on society.

As for Rita's other point, responding to complaints about the quality of teaching: "But who needs the most talented people in America to teach remedial English to 14-year-olds? Better that those people become rocket scientists and poets, and leave the remedial English teaching to their personable, sympathetic, and literate but not necessarily brilliant peers."

This brings up another question, which is what assessment in education is even about in the first place. Grades are, as Rita correctly points out, not arbitrary, but what they measure, at least before college, is hard work and a determination to get good grades, not brilliance. The "most talented" in this context generally refers to students who have excelled in school, not necessarily rocket scientists (who, for the record, do plenty of teaching) and in all likelihood not poets. An 'A' only goes from meaning 'good boy' or 'good girl' to meaning 'genius' in contexts where the coursework and the fellow students are already at a very high level.

How does this all relate? The skills needed to be socially mobile (or to not regress to the mean) have to do with taking work seriously, but knowing when to cut corners, basically, prioritizing. Many brilliant people do not have these skills, and many who have them are not brilliant. But enough are in both categories to allow at least some mobility, sometimes. Or something.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Socially mobile

There is a connection to be made between these two posts, but I have lots to read and grade this afternoon and so will leave it at that, except...

Should private school be scrapped altogether? Boarding schools are a tough call, because sometimes there really is no good school for hundreds of miles. Same with religious schools, for other reasons. But in a city like New York, what do private, secular day schools add? They alleviate the burden of extra students in the public school system without decreasing the taxes paid by the wealthy to the city schools. But they also a) do much to keep the wealthy wealthy, regardless of talent or hard work and b) create social environments in which almost all the students are either (white) Blair Waldorfs or, in fewer cases, (non-white) students on scholarship. Everyone knows which students are which, and without the ambiguity brought by a middle class presence, two very separate worlds form; the few who belong in neither tend to transfer out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Waffles in SoHo

I have yet to check it out, but there is indeed a Belgian waffle cart on lower Broadway, claiming to be from something called "the Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs."

Lucy and the hats

I bought a pair of boots at Camper. For those who are fortunate enough not to be obsessed with shoes, what this means is that I bought a pair of boots that are not quite designer but not quite L.L. Bean, either. It means months if not years of no more impulse Sephora or H&M purchases, unless I consider a very different line of work, which seems unlikely. It means getting the less complicated coffee drinks (i.e. black coffee, preferably made at home) until the guilt subsides.

What it does not mean, I hope, is that I am part of the "New Girl Order," as described by possible relative Kay Hymowitz. I would like to think that I do not model my life after "Sex and the City," especially not after the watered-down version those of us without cable get to see on TBS. Granted, the X amount of dollars I just spent on boots would go to children if I had children, but luckily I don't, the second year of grad school is busy enough as it is.

According to Hymowitz, Sephora is a prime example of the post-Carrie universe. Although it's nothing new for women to buy makeup, it's fair to say the chain does for mascara what Starbucks did for coffee. It creates a whole activity around what used to just sort of happen on the way between home and work, work and home (ladies, Sephora after class?).

Again, I think the main check on excessive girly consumption is men. It's not because women dress to please men that single women go nuts at Zara. It's because boyfriends and husbands do not see the subtle differences between one pair of black shoes and another, and, on some level, they have a point.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Paradoxymoronic quote of the day

"I came into a small inheritance from Grandma Eva, enough to buy an apartment."

From a New York Times article about "reluctantly" living on the Upper East Side in one's 20s.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Brussels and Jerusalem

While all those crazy nationalists fight it out, it looks like the world will be stuck (or blessed?) with a series of international cities. These urban spaces will not just draw those bored or oppressed by rural or suburban life, but those who find the very concept of identifying with a specific country overly provincial. Don't want to be an Israeli or a Palestinian? Move to Jerusalem! Hate America but don't want to cross an ocean? Try New York!

In related news, it's good to see at least some Belgian politicians are not picking sides in two conflicting-nationalist disputes. Amazingly no mention is made in this European Jewish Press article about an Israeli-friendly Belgian of whether this "Belgian Liberal MEP Frédérique Ries" is a Fleming or a Walloon.

The unbearable anachronism of Gossip Girl

The show makes no sense whatsoever. This much anyone who's seen it can agree with. But why? Gawker has a post on one of the main problems, that the show is shockingly racist, yet within the show this angle is never dealt with at all. Then there is the standard teen-show difficulty of the 'kids' and the 'parents' looking the same age. That, and kids never go to class, do homework, or otherwise exist in the world of actual teenagers, however wealthy. But who wants to experience precalculus in prime-time?

What makes the show odd beyond all else is the would-be engagement between Nate and Blair. Both families are pushing for it, but these are high school students in Manhattan. They are not Hasids or Christian fundamentalists. They do not live in the rural South or Midwest. Their parents, if this were in any way plausible, would be encouraging them to eventually marry someone appropriate, but not before college, networking, internships, and other respectable achievements. In the NYT Weddings pages, the women of this demographic were all "until last month" busy working in PR, as kindergarten teachers, something, before tying the knot with the inevitable i-banker. And the brides are certainly never under 23, let alone 17, and are often well over 30. Anonymous Fellow-GG-Watcher says that this bizarre part of the plot is meant to allow those all over the country to relate to the show. That's certainly part of it. But combined with the non-speaking minorities, what this ultimately adds up to is that the show is meant to be a fantasy version of another era. Whose fantasy is unclear--as is which era--but the show clearly does not take place in 2007. Or does it? Isn't the whole show centered around a blog that the mysterious Gossip Girl is updating via some kind of hand-held device? I, for one, expect more from a prime-time teen soap opera that I half-watch while cooking dinner.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

'Mom, Dad, I'm...'

Gawker has an interesting take on "coming out" as a conservative in a liberal academic setting.

More leggings-as-pants

According to long-awaited Atlantic lady-blogger Megan McArdle, I believe that my generation was the first to think up sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and, most upsettingly, leggings. Since I neither believe this nor said this, I feel I should respond.

Hipsters did not collectively split the atom. They are not innovative or original in some profound way that requires us all to stare awestruck at their amazingness. They, perhaps more than other youth (or youth-ish) subcultures, borrow extensively from the past, rejecting contemporary trappings such as North Face fleeces in favor of the shredded blazers of the 1940s, the legwarmers of the 1980s, and so on. Yet there is indeed an aesthetic/attitude one can ascribe specifically to those who can rightly be called hipsters, specifically in 2007 or thereabout. One can thus reasonably expect that this collectivity, like the mods and hippies before them, will reappear every few decades as a 'retro' look, but will in the short term lose way to some other look. I don't know what in my post suggested that I am too young to understand that fashion is always recycled, or that I believe my generation invented chain-smoking and appreciation of obscure bands. If she is wrong and my generation did in fact invent leggings-as-pants, I do of course apologize as a representative.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The elusive boot

The boot quest continues. A woman on the street in Park Slope (I know, right?) had the perfect pair, although the heels looked a half-inch taller than what I could comfortably manage. The boots also looked expensive, so I did not ask where they were from. I should just face facts and accept that with a massive Eastern Mountain Sports backpack (weighed down, needless to say, by the new Binder System), I will not look chic regardless and might as well wear white 'American tourist' sneakers and carry pens and such in a fanny pack.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

There are no "hipster statesmen."

Drezner might be 100% right about the phenomenon he describes, but the word "hipster" here is misused. A hipster lives in the world of irony, and as such hates sincerity, not global warming. Hipsters look with scorn upon student activists, politicians, and, of course, those bastard trust-fund-having, Williamsburg-colonizing hipsters. Al Gore's sanctimonious An Inconvenient Truth is quite possibly the least hipster cinematic production of all time. So much so that if pressed to define "hipster," I would point to that movie and say, "Something not like that."

That said--and this is the real point of this post--if "hipster" is being used in "Newsweek," maybe the phenomenon is finally over and the women of New York will at last trade the leggings in for the long-abandoned pants.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Bourdieu UPDATED

How did it come to pass that my tastes in so many ways overlap with those of the French peasantry?


After an anonymous Belgian reader pointed out to me that this post didn't really make sense, I realized I should say outright what I was getting at. The most striking thing about (re)reading Bourdieu's Distinction as an American is how even the consumption patterns and food preferences of working-class and farming French folk sound upper-class and sophisticated. Bread, cheese, and wine are the classic end to academic talks--not just in the French Department--and are mainstays at highbrow events of all kinds. Any French restaurant is by definition posh; the more obscure, regional, and peasanty-sounding a dish, the more likely it is people will be willing to pay $23 for it at dinner at Le Somethingorother. Apparently what well-off French people eat--lean fish and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables--is a six-pack of Diet Coke away from wealthy Americans. (Meanwhile, if TV commercials are to be believed, the newest in lowbrow American cuisine, at several different fast-food chains, is some kind of sandwich or wrap containing meat, oozing cheese, and no vegetables whatsoever.)

Organized perfection

Some admire the rich, some the thin, some the brilliant. I, however, have undying and unrelenting admiration for anyone who puts all of his papers in binders. I tend to rationalize my shuffling through knee-deep pools of unsorted papers by telling myself that organizing them would be a waste of time, that the messy approach forces you to remember where things are and what you need them for, thus keeping your brain sharp. But I started to notice that at the beginning of class, my classmates with binders find the week's readings effortlessly, while I'm still digging through an overstuffed folder or, worse, a tote bag. It hit me that, unlike the cool designer jeans some parents buy their kids but some do not, binders are accessible to everyone with a few spare dollars and a willingness to brave the most boring store in the world. I'm now in the withdrawal process, going binder by binder from chaos to organized perfection.

In other organized-perfection news, Jo and I recently solved the TV stand problem, thanks to a minimalist-looking piece of furniture, painted black, with a piece of tape with "Take me, I'm gorgeous" written on it, on the street in Park Slope. It also solved part, but not all, of the book-overflow problem, it's just that fabulous. That's the Park Slope trade-off. You will be accosted by wheelie-shoe wearing small children at all times and will lose whatever inclinations you may have had to one day have kids of your own, but you can furnish your apartment for free.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The banal reality of youth

Why is it that attempts to preserve the innocence of today's youth (read, young women) inevitably end up sexualizing otherwise neutral situations and advocating for father-daughter discussions that sound downright creepy? In the latest installment, Jeff Zazlow is upset that his 16-year-old daughter and her friends agreed to go to a house party rather than a homecoming dance with the boys who were ostensibly their dates for the evening. He reads a connection between this situation and the hookup culture of today's teens and college students, in which kids "trade sex nonchalantly." When it should be obvious that the boys are skipping the homecoming dance in favor of staying home and watching sports games and stupid movies, playing video games and, if the night's especially racy, using some illegal-for-the-underage or illegal-except-in-the-Netherlands substances with their female friends. While it's possible that an orgy will ensue, in all likelihood it will not.

Zazlow makes the rather silly suggestion that "we [parents] should explain that it can be helpful for teens to start practicing relationships -- learning to listen, to trust, to consider someone's needs." Is this so that serial monogamy may begin at 14? How many serious relationships do people need to have pre-marriage? As upsetting as it allegedly is if the hookup doesn't call back, the emotional aftermath of a 'mature' relationship gone sour is far more disruptive. High school students should not be encouraged to enter into what will inevitably lead to a series of junior-level divorces. Or is the idea that in this reactionary fantasyland, you marry your freshman-year sweetheart and stay together forever? Perhaps, but if so, ick. But above all, shouldn't it be clear that the main obstacle to teen sex is not being in a relationship? Aside from the suave few with the social skills to have a frat-boy social life in high school, most only imagine what could be until a less intimidating opportunity presents itself.

It gets worse

When you are thinking of moving to Park Slope, someone should first warn you about Halloween. It turns out the holiday merits stopping traffic, and giving toddlers in silly outfits more sovereignty than is usually the case, something I wouldn't have thought possible. The costume-sporting children are cute if you can ignore the context, but less so when they and their unconditionally adoring and costume-wearing parents fill the streets to capacity during rush hour and lunge at you (technically at Jo) with brightly-lit swords that, it being Halloween, the kids are given permission to wield like maniacs. If you do not find such behavior delightful, you are obviously a nasty child-hater, is the implication.

Whereas getting around the strollers on the sidewalk usually requires a hurdle, last night it was more of a long-jump situation. I cannot jump at all, so I ended up making it from the train to the apartment, which is not so far block-wise, in approximately a hundred years. I can't imagine how those who actually dislike children would manage living here. I don't quite understand the concept of hating an entire age group of humanity, but if I live here long enough, perhaps I will.

Of course, Gawker's on the case.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The need for "gayborhoods"

The one angle I haven't heard mentioned in the discussion of the loss of gay neighborhoods is, if gays stay in the small towns where they grew up, where will they find people to date or settle down with? Is the density issue offset by the fact that in this enlightened age more people are coming out, so even in the smallest of villages there will be a reasonable pool of options? That seems unlikely. Aside from safety, community, and acceptance, isn't it possible that gays move to gay areas because there will be more possible partners to choose from?

This might be the obvious angle that everyone's avoiding because it could sound like it implies that being gay is only about sex. But that's not it at all. Jews wishing to marry other Jews do the same thing, moving to areas likely to have larger Jewish populations and greater densities of Jews in specific neighborhoods. And few would argue that Judaism is only about sex. If familiar with NYC, consider West 96th Street and Chelsea. There's something similar going on in those two areas. Wanting a choice of partners conflicts with a religious requirement or sexual orientation that immediately eliminates the vast majority of people one meets at random in America. What some are calling ghettoization is in part just a way of getting around that contradiction.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The French control the shoes

If it is the role of tenured professors to "speak truth to power," where does that leave graduate students? We know more than some but less than others, and are known to be a sensible and well-rested bunch. What is to be our role in shaping public opinion? Are we (at least the Jews among us) supposed to control the media before or after grading homeworks; before or after writing term papers; before, after, or during our commutes to campus? I have no idea. What I do know is that our (at least the women among us) primary responsibility beyond the ivory tower is providing useful information about the latest fashions in footwear to the general public. So on that note, I will point out that two women I saw yesterday at my university had the boots, the perfect black ones with just the right heel, pointiness, etc. Both of these women are French, and it's no secret that the French control the shoes, leaving us Americans with the sale shelf at Aldo and nothing more. There's totally a cabal and everything.

What I'd really like to find are the Camper ones from what I'm guessing was a few seasons ago; they no longer exist, and seem to have been replaced this season with a version that is not only twice the price but significantly less chic. This is for me a source of endless frustration and despair.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Book news

I absolutely must track down this book. The journal issue on which the book is based looks beyond fascinating, and I am at this very moment giving thanks to the NYU proxy gods that allow me to see it.

Someone recalled the Israel Lobby from the Bobst. This is the first time a book I took out has been recalled when I haven't thought, whoa, someone else is also reading about this topic? Here it's not so surprising. Not only is the book super-trendy, but it has a large potential readership of people who for symbolic or principled reasons would rather not buy it.

Relatedly, a man on one of those nutty right-wing news shows just now had on a man arguing for Vermont to secede from the U.S. The man's reasoning had something to do with the "Israeli lobby" and its control of America. The problem with such a man being on this show was of course that relative to the Bill O'Reilly-type cutting him off mid-sentence, he seemed almost sensible. Further confirmation that any television beyond "Seinfeld" reruns and "Gossip Girl" will cause me to want to secede, or as it is called when an individual does this, emigrate.

Out of your League

A while back, I read the following and was sort of like, huh?* From Oxblog's David Adesnik:

The simple case for Walt and Mearsheimer runs as follows:

Two distinguished Harvard professors believe that the US alliance with Israel damages US security by provoking terrorists to attack us. The terrorists' anger is a result of Israel's horrific abuses of Palestinian human rights.

If that's all that most people remember about this small episode, then it is a victory for Walt and Mearsheimer. (Especially for Mearsheimer, who actually teaches at Chicago.)

Ooh, touché! Is everyone associated with the University of Chicago, or anywhere other than Harvard, for that matter, crying himself to sleep each night? (She types, wiping away the tears.) Megan McArdle discusses the state school-Ivy asymmetrical rivalry. There, at least the non-Ivy Leaguers can pride themselves in down-to-earth, up-by-bootstraps, of-the-people qualities possessed only by those who've attended public schools all the way through; those who teach at them can in turn be seen as supporting social mobility. But what of graduates of and teachers at private non-Ivies? Is it really as tragic as Adesnik makes it out to be?

Admitting a certain amount of bias here, I'd have to say, no, it is not tragic in the least. First off, and to please fellow UChicago folk, I should note that some non-Ivies do better than some Ivies in some much-obsessed-over-rankings. But more to the point, sometimes people really do care about whatever it is they're doing at a college or university enough that they are not obsessed with how people will react to the name on the alma mater sweatshirt they wear when they jog through Park Slope. Not that there aren't moments when it would be nice to have a one-word way to convey to strangers that one is brilliant,** but it would be a pointless thing to obsess about.

*Because that is the extent to which a non-Ivy education permits me to express myself articulately.

**If I get desperate, I can always mention my high school, but that's contingent on not leaving the NYC area. Proud as I am of having attended, it is the result of a score on a test I took 11 years ago, and so as accomplishments go is at this point mostly irrelevant.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Call me 'P'

This has been one strange week. First I'm trapped in a stairwell with someone who is possibly the actress who plays "Blair Waldorf" on a show I just revealed to my unimpressed classmates that I have, err, seen on occasion. Then today, spotted near Union Square, D! This one was for sure. I got a good look from several angles, including one that revealed a small logo on his bag, "CW." As in, the channel that brings us "Gossip Girl" in all its addictive superficiality. He was dressed early-mid 1990s, something plaid and flannelly-for the show? Could be. Taller than I imagined, and further evidence that what counts as the sensitive loner look on TV would be the popular guy at any high school. Not that he looked remotely high school age. He looks like he might have had a deschnozification procedure, but so do all celebrities, whether or not they have. But they all have.

On the other end of the Old-New New York spectrum, Audrey and I randomly ended up at what turned out to be the Yippie Museum Café. They had a sign out front promising 50 cent coffee, which I had not seen since Cobb Coffee Shop in that UChicago building's charming basement. The coffee was not bad, and there was even the requisite lanky coffee-shop employee assuring us that it was organic and fair trade. The building itself is pretty amazing, if indescribable. Loftlike, hippie-like, lots of propaganda in favor of legalizing pot. The bad news is that the café is getting an espresso maker--now there is one option for coffee drinks: coffee-- and a menu beyond the current vegan cupcake selection, and prices are set to go up. Not very Yippie of them. Or is it? I have no idea.

Geopolitical innovation at its finest

The Belgians stubbornly refuse to speak Belgian and insist on using either French or Dutch to communicate. This is part of what's causing the politico-socio-cultural split in that country. Now some are implying they should give up and speak English. My Hebrew teacher seems to find it amusing that countries in Northwestern Europe have internal political conflicts, and claims that the divide is based on the fact that the Flemish drink cappuccinos and the Walloons espressos, or vice versa. As in, isn't it cute when people in calm countries where nothing ever happens pretend to have problems? True, no one's blowing anyone else up over which unpronounceable language the country should speak, but there's still something going on over there. Perhaps the Israelis can come in as the neutral moderators, and Dutch and French alike can be scrapped for the far more practical Hebrew. I expect this suggestion will go over extremely well with all parties.