Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blueberry bagel as subtext

So. Lots of the people on the cultural appropriation is wonderful bandwagon, or adjacent liberal but anti-"PC" bandwagons - and who are at this very moment being called out for their white obliviousness on that topic - are Jewish. This has been the case for the last however many rounds of this topic. Best as I can tell, it's true in the US and Canada alike. What does it all mean?

-The ungenerous interpretation: The Jews in question are white, middle-class or well-off, and but for this one marginalized quality, Jewishness, would be raging alt-right white supremacists, as versus contrarian liberals. They feel as they do because they're white; their Jewishness is incidental. And after all, Jews are also well-represented among this set's critics.

-A more generous interpretation: Those with a liminal, intermediary, ambiguous identity - Jews, but also, to varying degrees, white women, gay men, non-black POC - have unique insights into how it goes for the oppressor and the oppressed. Even if they're not announcing their Jewishness, and instead opining as white people critical of 'identity politics', it's relevant.

-The sympathetic interpretation: Jews have long been oppressed, still are, especially by the newly-revived neo-Nazi movement, but a left framework refuses to acknowledge this one form of oppression makes some Jews feel excluded from the broader anti-oppression struggle and be sort of like, screw you, left and right. (Subtext: 'We never got a chance to complain about the dreadful things done to bagels.') But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

-The meta interpretation: I keep thinking about Item 3 from Bret Stephens's (yes, how apropos) advice to those who "aspire" to write op-eds. It is, in effect, to avoid nuance. That this is what the style does indeed demand means opinion-writing can't ever quite reach the subtleties of opinion-having. A stance that places you on a culture-wars team sells better than one that does not. (I'm still amazed that I got the opportunity to write a book that's critical of privilege discourse, but not team-anti-identity-politics.) To really get into the subtleties of how Jewishness impacts an experience of whiteness, this is something that needs... introspection? A separate study of its own, one not in op-ed format?

As might be obvious (?) I lean towards all of the above. I don't think the answer here is to say that well actually, white opinion-writers A, B, C, etc., are Jewish, both because they're still also white and because the listing of the Jews, no matter the motivation, can feel like a sinister activity. But not mentioning that A, B, and C are Jewish somehow feels - to me, a white Jewish writer a few notches to their left - like missing something important.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The beginnings of thoughts

-The post-decency presidency. He's not just unconcerned with niceties on some liberal-arts-seminar level. It's this elaborate performance of, how would a person act if totally OK with being awful? And the answer is, unsurprisingly, not great. 

Because oh. my. goodness. Say what you will about virtue-signaling. Roll your eyes, if you feel like, when acquaintances with no personal relationship to a tragedy, no news or help to share, post about how they find it sad. But if your job is president of a country, then even if your mind is on which flavor of potato chips to next eat, you really do have to at least pretend to care. Ideally you would care, but given who the president is, that's exceedingly hard to picture happening.

All I can think is, Trump won on a platform of opposing political correctness broadly defined - not just of-the-moment hypersensitivity and progressive Tumblr excesses. Not just baseline, mainstream-etiquette rejection of overt racism and sexism. No, it goes further. It's about rejecting whatever check most of us but especially politicians are meant to have on selfish and tone-deaf impulses.

Which, look, if his thing were that he said what popped into his head, had no concern for niceties, but had good policies, and diverted the energy that might have gone to platitudes and PR towards improving things, then... fine? But no, this is not what he was doing. This was never what he was going to do. He's dispensed with niceties and put, in their place, awfulness.

-The White Lady, post-post-election. (Chapter 4 is on this but I wrote it - like the rest of the book - pre-election.) Anne Helen Petersen's essay and much of the Taylor Swift continues to exist content. Also: Chelsea Clinton continues to exist content. Louise Linton's #designerboasting, Paris Hilton's canine McMansion. The lady who opened a fancy-Toronto-neighborhood-named but also appropriative bar in Brooklyn. Marie Antoinette.

As always, there's the question of, how much of ugh-white-ladies is anti-racism and/or anti-oligarchy, and how much a form of ugh-women-in-general but with a progressive-seeming veneer? It would seem to be a case where speaker identity matters. When a white man - I don't care how sure he is that he's speaking As An Ally - declares white women the worst, particularly a straight white man who likely has a romantic history (real or desired) in which white women play a substantial role, I have to wonder. Whereas when a woman of color - especially, in the US context at least, a black woman - makes what are in principle the same points, I'm ten trillion times more likely to think there's something there.

But this still leaves the question of whether it's on the whole a positive development that Bourgeois White Lady Awfulness has become such a thing in the culture. How much is it a necessary corrective to the idea (an idea someone may in fact hold, maybe?) that the real racism or classism is sexism, i.e. that rich white women of the Louise Linton persuasion are, because women, just as oppressed as, say, trans women of color? And how much is it just a new way of sparing rich white men - that is, the people with the most power, but oh, not the most luxurious privilege, just, you know... power - their comeuppance?

-Sam Sifton or maybe the NYT on behalf of him crowdsourcing female authors. A response tweet that one got - and that I'm now not finding - with someone's spreadsheet listing books they'd read, with the authors' gender and race also noted. The necessity of feeling allowed to like what you like (and of having some space where you consume whatever you consume, without an audience), but also the advantages of being... thoughtful? intentional? when, as a critic, you're deciding what to promote. Which is a different thing. And which is what a summer reading list in a big newspaper consists of. The whole thing didn't begin with online activists digging up a Goodreads account.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

As yet unanswered: what brought "Meghan" to the back room in the first place

If there were ever a question that feels of another (recent) time, it's the one about whether it's offensive for straight women to go to gay bars. A time when same-sex marriage was not legal, making (straight) bachelorette parties in gay bars not just out of place but unthinkingly cruel. Also, maybe, a time when gender and sexual orientation categories weren't quite as fluid as they now are, in some quarters.

And yet, here we are. Kind of. The latest installment of this oddly persistant topic began with a somewhat all-over-the-place think-piece by Rose Dommu, in Out. Dommu was arguing that "in 2017, women can go anywhere we want to!", gay bars included.

Most of what Dommu says is harshly phrased but seemingly uncontroversial - bachelorette parties behaving badly shouldn't be in gay bars, but not all women are bachelorette party participants (or, for that matter, straight, cis; from between the lines, seems Dommu herself is describing straight, cis women as a group she's not a part of). Also: men, even gay men, should not say cruel things about women as a group. Agreed! The only remarkable thing about the piece is Dommu's insistence that it's misogyny for a gay man not to want to have semi-public sex where women are present. ("If you can't dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you, not call for that woman's removal.")

 Is it a violation of consent to demand access to a space where there's implicit consent among members of a particular gender? I'd think yes, kind of? But what do I know - it had honestly never occurred to me that the fact that it's 2017 would have any bearing on whether women should expect an enthusiastic welcome at gay male sex clubs. I don't believe Title IX covers this.

I learned about the story from the latest Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage interviews Alexander Cheves, about his response to Dommu. So, two men discussing whether or not a phenomenon (excluding women from gay bars) is sexist, which isn't great, but at the same time, the 'right' of women to go to gay male sex clubs seems an absurd thing to make one's cause. Cheves and Savage discuss an incident where a woman inadvertently (or so she claims?) stumbled into the sex-club back room of a gay bar, got groped (most likely, as Savage and Cheves speculate, by someone who, in the dark and given the context, thought they were groping a man), freaked out, and then got the back room (but not the bar itself) shut down.

The discussion is a fascinating (to me) case study of what happens when there's no clear answer to who falls where on a privilege hierarchy. It's a great privilege talking-past: For Dommu, gay men are part of this privileged category, men, and thus in a position of exclusionary privilege when deciding women can't enter their establishments. And for Cheves, straight women fall into their own privileged category, straight people, and are showing up at gay bars out of a sense of straight entitlement. Which is closer to what's happening, but which is also, I think, missing the point.

Cheves ends his piece with the sentence, "Check your privilege at the door." He's able to arrive at that clear-cut explanation - that this is simply about straight privilege and queer spaces - by changing the terms of the debate from the ones Dommu (messily) laid out. That is, he responds not to Dommu's point about women, of all sexual orientations, belonging anywhere, but instead addresses the question of straight people generally demanding access to and control over queer spaces generally, with straight women this barely-differentiated subset of The Straights.

Writes Cheves:

There are cultural zones for certain demographics that are intentionally exclusionary — not out of hate, fear, or prejudice, but because everyone deserves space, and you must respect it. Straight women: If you don’t like this, go literally anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be straight people there.
Which... look, he's right, Savage is right, straight women should not be shutting down gay sex clubs because of our delicate, sex-negative lady-sensibilities nor holding bachelorette parties at gay bars (which is evidently a thing, if not one I've ever encountered so much as anecdotally), even in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. But is it really true that all space except gay bars is safe and welcoming for women? In the whole world? Which... Cheves would seem to get, in that he references "straight male violence against women" in the previous paragraph.

I guess what I'm wondering is, does straight entitlement explain why "Meghan" - the name Cheves gives to a straight cis straw-woman - is at a gay bar in the first place, if not as a guest of a gay male friend? Or rather, does it fully explain what's happening there?

It's curious how straight womanhood gets discussed - in this conversation and others - not so much as a sexual orientation but as a sort of absence thereof. As the desire for convention, for stability, for social approval. It's readily forgotten that it's the desire for men. Straight women are imagined to have no desire apart from the desire to be desired. Not to be all ridiculous here but: Think of the meme. Women are either the nagging girlfriend or the unattainable object of desire. The sometimes humiliating but ultimately powerful role of protagonist goes to men. It's not that the meme Is Sexist, but rather that it only works because everyone knows these tropes.

So why are these straight ladies in gay bars? Here's a theory! They're there to look at men. Not men they consider pets or zoo animals. Men they consider... men. To look at men without being looked at by men. Also, perhaps - and this is all speculation, not the results of, like, a bachelorettes-at-gay-bars survey - out of a certain degree of identification with gay men. This, to be clear, is an explain-not-excuse.

Human beings are complicated; a straight woman who's by all accounts cis might still identify with desire as gay men are understood to experience it - a desire for men, for a particular man, that's not linked up with a desire to be a people-pleaser. This is merely a subset of how cis women can - for reasons having zilch to do with gender dysphoria - will sometimes, in all sorts of contexts, wish they were men. This is something I've tried and it feels like failed to explain here various times over the years (!), so rather than explicitly linking to posts from 2011, 2012, I'd suggest reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent new essay on more or less this topic.

But yes, it's true: A straight woman who sees herself as belonging - physically or just symbolically - in gay male spaces, even ones that are bonkers for her to expect a welcome in, is revealing oh so many unchecked privileges: her identification with maleness is nothing compared with what trans men experience, but also, and more to the point, she's missing that it's not actually an easy-breezy party to be gay in our society. She's missing that she could be open about her crushes growing up, her boyfriends later on. She's missing that her desires conveniently - at times annoyingly, but mostly conveniently - line up with societal expectations. She's ignoring that the reason gay male sexuality is viewed as so separate from white picket fence land is that gay people were, until five minutes ago - and socially, to some extent, still- prevented from having that outcome.

Her privilege, agreed, it is showing. But her choice to exercise it in that way is - if there's anything to my theory - rooted in a lack thereof.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 2017, are there still blogs?

Hello again, blog readers. I blog to you from a coffee shop, in a country led by a handsome liberal-minded leader. I hope your 2009 is going well.

If I were to give you recent updates of my day-to-day life, you would hear a detailed account of syllabus-planning and IKEA-furniture-building. Are you me? If not, you may not find this compelling. So instead, some links:

-Sarah Ditum on the at times overestimated role of women in organized white supremacy. Pair with Tanya Chen's story about racist bots posing as "basic white girls."

-Kat Stoeffel on feminism pre- and post-election.

-Penelope Green found a woman who's "paying $3,499 for a 212-square-foot room" on the Lower East Side, "which comes with a terrace and four roommates." A correction notes that the room is not, as originally stated, 65 square feet.

-In further exorbitance: French presidents sure do spend a lot on makeup! Presumably no-makeup makeup. As is the French way.

And in the self-promotional realm:

-I discussed what happens when the White Ladies called out (by other white ladies) for doing anti-fascism wrong are white Jewish ladies, for TNR.

-Soon after arriving back in Toronto, I did a TV Ontario book interview, with Nam Kiwanuka. Who was fantastic. This was my second-ever TV appearance, the first of which was when C-Span came to a book event. I was - and doubtless seem - terrified. The program aired last night; there's also a book excerpt accompanying. It's the book's afterword, which I - although yes, I would think this - find relevant to our times.

-New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni interviewed me for his column. No big deal, things like that happen to me all the time. (They do not.)

And finally, some Toronto and non-Toronto recommendations:

-The new Sud Forno, near the Eaton Centre. Custard bombolone heaven.

-Kintaro Izakaya. Current contender for best restaurant in Toronto, according to the very subjective izakaya-centric rating system WWPD adheres to.

-Riverdale Farm. Specifically, the sheep.

-That new HEMNES dresser. Enormous and life-changing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Other writers

Other writers live in New York. If you, too, live in New York, then other writers live in a specific Brooklyn neighborhood. If you live in that neighborhood, then other writers live in Manhattan, in townhouses or Classic Sixes they were handed upon reaching majority.

Other writers are three years younger than you are.

Other writers have held beautiful-person jobs, which they write about more eloquently than you ever could.

Other writers got there by connections.

Other writers had the gall to not get there by connections.

Other writers are raising five kids which actually makes them better at managing their time, would you believe it.

Other writers are friends with other other writers and make this known on Other Writer Instagram.

Other writers have secret family money.

Other writers definitely don't have secret office jobs.

Other writers are sent Glossier products for free.

Other writers' eyebrows don't even need those products.

"As if it were nothing"

I knew Taffy Brodesser-Akner's feature on the status of the diet industry in an ostensibly post-diet culture would be brilliant before I started reading it, given author and angle alike, and yes, it sure was. Diets are passé, but eating less to lose weight is not. If you'd ever wondered about how that's supposed to work (I had! I had wondered this!), you need to get to it.

It's a deeply reported piece, as well as a personal one. Brodesser-Akner leads with the reported, not the autobiographical, but it's hard to picture a story working at the level it does if it were written by a journalist, however talented, who lacked personal experience in that area. The personal angle comes through most clearly in the conclusion:
A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still.
I've read through a handful of the piece's nearly a thousand comments, which was enough to see I was not the only reader to wonder about the "ease" Brodesser-Akner says she witnessed. It seems possible, I think, both to respect her response to seeing thin women eating non-diet foods, and to question whether "as if it were nothing" is an approach to food our society ever really allows women, of any size. Which is something she argues, or at least suggests, elsewhere in the piece, when she writes, "A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own."

What that conclusion describes might be called thin privilege - that is, the blithe indifference of the thin to the struggles of those for whom every bite is fraught. But is thin privilege, in that understanding, something all or even most thin women have ever experienced firsthand? Is it the typical experience of slimness?

Let me be clear: In a society that stigmatizes being fat, it's advantageous not to be fat. In one that valorizes thinness, it helps still more to be thin. If you're someone who has never had to wonder if you'd fit in an airplane seat, or if the store has a large enough size, if a doctor has never suggested you lose weight, you probably can't get what such experiences are like, and may have never even considered them. If I were privilege-categories dictionary dictator, that would be Thin Privilege.

But how many thin people - how many women especially - experience "ease around their food and... their bodies"? Is that thin privilege? Once you include people who were once fat but are currently thin due to tremendous effort, and once you add to those the ones who'd be not-fat regardless but remain thinner still due to (yup) tremendous effort, you're talking about a whole lot of... effort. (See Alana Massey's excellent essay on this phenomenon.) Some of that effort crosses the line into diagnosable eating disorder territory. That which does not will nevertheless often take up huge amounts of time and mental energy that could be going absolutely anywhere else. Throw into the mix women whose thinness is the result of stress or illness - here, see Maris Kreizman's - and you've got quite a lot of women who absolutely reap the unfair advantages of thinness, but maybe don't experience thinness as "ease."

I point all this out not to say that well actually, thin women have it worse, or even as bad. Certainly not. Rather, it's that because these two things - societal weight obsession and sexism - are intertwined the way they are, they're that much more difficult to dismantle. In theory, "wellness" and so forth might have proven a great equalizer, reminding that you can be living well, or not, at any size. As Brodesser-Akner's piece makes painfully clear, it's done nothing of the kind.

Dieting has long been the default (not universal, but yes, default) state of women's food consumption, as well as an activity engaged in by women and men who - because society has deemed them fat - are trying to lose weight. The concept of "clean eating" manages to somehow merge existing fatphobia with a purity requirement extending to all women. It's not a chipping away at thin privilege. It's the worst of both worlds.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Assorted thoughts because it's pouring outside

-When men wait in line once a week to see which new clothes a store has in stock, it's not about stuff. It's an experience. (Is Ruth La Ferla tongue-in-cheek here? Her sources, at any rate, don't seem to be.)

-Working from home may be associated with coffee shops but the afternoon coffee is almost inevitably leftover coffee from the morning carafe, over ice.

-Another budget tip (forgive me but I was, until three days ago, paying rent in two cities): Lululemon Run Club. What it is is, you go to one of the stores at a designated time and have... well, what you have is track team practice, minus the track meets. The fee is the same as for high school track practice (assuming a public school): free. No, you do not need to wear Lululemon to participate, although I have done so, both because that's the make of my non-disintegrated shorts and because it somehow feels like a nice gesture. If you need a kick to go running - which, in Toronto at least, with its absence of obvious running paths, I do - it's just the thing.

-There is a Lena Dunham controversy. Probably another since I started typing this.

-There is also curvy wife guy. Basically a man who's some sort of Inspirational Influencer Ted-talk-giving beacon of Positivity posted to Instagram that he's always liked shorter, curvier women than are on the covers of magazines (i.e. the vaaaaaast majority of women; dude has always liked women) and is Not Ashamed to admit that he loves his short, curvy, cellulite-having wife. (He mentions her butt cellulite in the post.) It went viral - if I'm getting the timing right - first with encouraging responses (his wife is among the post's vocal supporters), then with variations on WTF.

I'm embarrassed to admit I find this story incredibly compelling. Why? Is it because at a formative age, the "neg" was a big topic? Because of how similar dude's line is to the thing where men (Jewish or not) admit to actually liking Jewish women? Because it's yet another fine example of body positivity being a conventionally attractive young woman in tight clothes? Because it's a window into a whole non-poodle use of Instagram I find hard to comprehend at the best of times? Because it's hilarious to think of equivalently not-actually-flattering things a woman could say about a male partner's physique? Because dude seems to have confused body positivity (which is about how people, girls and women especially, see themselves) with his own coming to terms with liking a body type that is... what women tend to look like, give or take? Is it - as Sarah Ditum suggests - the "low expectations" angle, that is, how he wants to be congratulated for... loving his wife?

What I keep coming back to is, it's that he presents himself as someone who could have married a supermodel, but only after reckoning with his unusual preferences and becoming A Feminist was he willing to pursue his dream of partnering with a merely attractive woman. That's the premise of the post - that not-a-supermodel was a choice he made, as versus the reality for nearly all humans. That, or his premise is that all men could be partnered with supermodels (something an unfortunate number of men perhaps do believe). Either way, it's a heck of a starting point.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Supermodel vs. Schlub

Recently the following Twitter exchange made the rounds, with a comeback that has won praise from at least two people I follow: Chrissy Teigen - model, actress, social media personality (nearly seven million Twitter followers), wife of John Legend (marital status relevant to the tweet at hand) - tweeted, "I have a best selling book, great boobs, a family I love, am literally eating pasta on a lake in Italy and I married rich." This (since-deleted) tweet was not gratuitous self-congratulation. Rather, it was in response to another tweet, from a now-locked (but one might infer, Trump-friendly) account with 314 followers, suggesting that getting blocked by Trump on Twitter was the high point of Teigen's otherwise pathetic life. Her point? Yeah, not so much.

One response to the episode is that Teigen sure told dude. Another: this was a punch down. Supermodel vs. Schlub. Presumably the fact that dude's account went from public to private in the course of my writing this blog post has something to do with him being inundated with negative attention from Teigen's numerous supporters. Teigen had been personally insulted, but only one of these two people was in a position to instigate a Twitter pile-on against the other.

There's a third possibility, which I'm getting to...

Versions of this dynamic, involving people with platforms but not Teigen-level celebrity, play out on Twitter all the time. Someone behind an account with relatively few followers (or - as in a case I'm thinking of, just one follower) will say something fairly garbage, directing their women-should-serve-men, their all-lives-matter, at someone with a large platform, who is also personally (as in, identity-categories-wise) impacted by the issues at hand. It won't be report-worthy abuse, but it will be on the cusp. The speaker will be, individually, quite powerless, but will be speaking in defense of the powerful.

What are the options of the marginalized-but-platform-having party? Should they just take it silently, missing an opportunity to show what oppression looks like in action? (That was certainly my response to a wave of Twitter harassment I received, just before it became the thing to RT one's harassing mentions.) Retweet but with a screenshot? Obscure the account name? Quote-tweet and mock the idea but not the person? Quote-tweet with a 'look at this idiot'-type message? How responsible, if at all, should they feel for subsequent harassment the last of those might inspire?

And what's the threshold, once we're talking not about real influence but just... disparate follower counts? I had few qualms reacting to tweets from a dude (I think?) who thought he'd dug up something really nefarious when he went to the Wikipedia page for the Israeli flag and learned it had ~Zionist~ origins. As if this was some sort of discovery. My aim, in sharing the tweet (which had already been RT'd - favorably, I would guess from the context - by SlutWalk Chicago, which was how I'd found it in the first place) was to point out the abysmal level at which a conversation supposedly about "Zionism" was taking place, with craptastic consequences for Jews, regardless of position on Israel. Does it matter that flag dude and I have follower counts in the same general range, and are neither of us even Twitter-famous?

Or was I, in calling out bigotry-tinged stupidity on Twitter, part of the problem of how one just can't say anything these days, and therefore the Reason Trump Won TM? I felt a twinge of guilt for sharing it. Guilty, that is, not because I doubted the importance or correctness of calling out that (consequential) foolishness. Guilty for taking pleasure, even a little bit, in doing so.

If we take a step back and return to what the Teigen-and-troll back-and-forth was actually about, we see that the president is blocking people on Twitter. The same president who uses his Twitter account to do things like announce a ban on transgender people in the military. If Teigen chooses to use her platform to draw attention to the absurdity and general disastrousness of the Trump presidency, isn't that... good?

The third option, then, involves - sorry, this is not very exciting - taking things case-by-case. A norm that says it's always bad and inherently harassing to publicly tell someone they've said something offensive, if you have more of a platform than they do, effectively eliminates social media's capacity for righting wrongs. It is a good thing about Twitter, say, that there are people from marginalized groups with power on there (sometimes elsewhere, too!), who are able to expose and push back against all manner of horribleness. Meanwhile a norm that every misstep needs to be called out by everyone who sees it, however tangentially involved, just leads to the kind of awful Twitter pile-ons where self-proclaimed allies battle it out with one another, ostensibly On Behalf Of, and they may each and every one of them mean well, but ultimately for their own entertainment/posturing.

Put another way: blanket rejection of call-outs - when it extends to people who a) are actually impacted, and/or b) were personally insulted and are replying to the person who personally and publicly insulted them - is purity politics in its own right.