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Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

16 Feb

For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”

I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.

What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Those are the bookends of Kristof’s piece. In between come the usual volumes of complaint: too much jargon, too much math, too much peer review, too much left politics. Plus a few dubious qualifications (economists aren’t so bad, says Kristof, because they’re Republican-friendly…and, I guess, not jargony, math-y, or peer-review-y) and horror stories that turn out to be neither horrible nor even stories.

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage  has already filleted the column, citing a bunch of counter-examples from political science, which is usually held up, along with literary theory, as Exhibit A of this problem.

But we also have all of us—sociologists, philosophers, historians, economists, literary critics, as well as political scientists—who write at Crooked Timber, which is often read and cited by the mainstream media. There’s Lawyers, Guns, and Money: judging by their comments thread, they have a large and devoted audience of non-academics.  My cohort of close friends from graduate school write articles for newspapers and magazines all the time—or important research for think tanks that gets picked up by the mainstream media—and books that are widely reviewed in the mainstream media. (And what am I? Chopped liver?) Kristof need only open the pages of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Boston Review, The American Conservative, Dissent, The American Prospect—even the newspaper for which he writes: today’s Times features three opinion columns and posts by academics—to see that our public outlets are well populated by professors.

And these are just the established academics. If you look at the graduate level, the picture is even more interesting.

When I think of my favorite writers these days—the people from whom I learn the most and whose articles and posts I await most eagerly—I think of Seth Ackerman, Peter FraseKeeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lili Loofbourow, Aaron Bady, Freddie de Boer, LD Burnett, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adam Goodman Matthijs Krul, Amy Schiller, Charles Petersen, Tom Meaney…I could go on. For a long time.

(And though Belle Waring has long since ceased to be a grad student, can someone at Book Forum or Salon or somewhere get this woman a gig? We’re talking major talent here.)

Whenever I read these folks, I have to remind myself that they’re still in grad school (or just a few months out). I sometimes think they’re way smarter than we ever were when we were in grad school. But that’s not really true. It’s simply that they’re more used to writing for public audiences—and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose—than we were.

When I was in grad school, my friends and I would dream of writing essays and articles for the common reader. I remember when one of our cohort—Diane Simon—broke into The Nation with a book review (of Nadine Gordimer?) We were totally envious. And awestruck. Getting into that world seemed impossible, unless you were Gordon Wood sauntering into the New York Review of Books after having transformed your field.

The reason it seemed so difficult is that it was. There just weren’t that many outlets for that kind of writing. None of us had any contacts. More important, aside from, maybe, a local alternative weekly, there were no baby steps to take on our way to writing for those outlets. There really was no way to get from here—working on seminar papers or dissertation proposals—to there: writing brilliant essays under mastheads that once featured names like Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

I remember all too well writing an essay in the mid 1990s that I wanted to publish in one of those magazines. When I looked around, all I could see was The New Yorker, Harper’sThe New York Review, that kind of thing. I sent it everywhere, and got nowhere.

Today, it’s different. You’ve got blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, and all those little magazines of politics and culture that we’re constantly reading about in the New York Times: Jacobin, The New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and more, which frequently feature the work of graduate students.

Now there are all kinds of problems with this new literary economy of grad student freelancers. And from talking to graduate students today (as well as junior faculty), I’m well aware that the pressure to publish in academic venues—and counter-pressure not to publish in public venues—is all too real. Worse, in fact, than when I was in grad school. Because the job market has gotten so much worse. I often wonder and worry about the job prospects of the grad students I’ve mentioned above. Are future employers going to take a pass on them simply because they’ve written as brilliantly and edgily as they have?

Back to Kristof: Even from the limited point of view of what he’s talking about—where have all the public intellectuals gone?—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So what is he really talking about, then?

You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.

Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.

(Incidentally, as an editor pointed out on Facebook, Slaughter and Lepore, along with Will McCants, who Kristof also cites approvingly, are all published by Princeton University Press. So much for academic presses churning out “soporifics.”)

Now I happen to know Jill rather well. She and I first met in the summer of 1991, when she was looking for a housemate and I was looking for a temporary place to stay. I moved in for a time—one of our other housemates was Mary Renda, who would go on to write a kick-ass book on the US invasion and occupation of Haiti, which it would behoove a trigger-happy Kristof to read—and later got in on the ground floor of her dissertation. She’s a truly gifted historian.

But there are a lot of gifted historians. And only so many slots for them at The New Yorker.

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for The New Yorker. It’s that it’s a rather selective place. Kristof says that Lepore “is an exception to everything said here.” She is, but not in the way he thinks. Or for the reasons he thinks.

If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything. And Kristof doesn’t. He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker. He doesn’t see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand.

And to the extent that he’s right about the problem of academics publishing for other academics he doesn’t identify its real causes:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

Not really. The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism. Jacoby understood the material sources of the problem he diagnosed. Kristof doesn’t.

But the material dimensions of Kristof’s oversight (or lack of sight) go even deeper. When we criticize Kristof or other academics-don’t-write-for-the-public-spouting journalists, we tend to do what I’ve just done here: We point to all the academics we know who are writing in well established venues and places and cry, “Look at them! Look at me!”

But there’s an entire economy of unsung writers with PhDs who are in a far worse position: Though they want to write, and sometimes do, for a public audience, they don’t have a standing gig the way I or The Monkey Cagers do. They’re getting by on I don’t know what. And while most of the people I mentioned above, including many of the graduate students, are getting their work into fairly mid- to high-level places, these folks aren’t. Certainly not in high enough places to pay the bills or to supplement whatever it is they’re doing to get by.

Take Yasmin Nair. Yasmin’s a writer in Chicago, with a PhD from Purdue. She’s also an activist. She’s impatient, she sees things the rest of us don’t see, she’s intemperate, she’s impossible, she’s endearing, and she’s unbelievably funny. Think Pauline Kael, only way more political. (Actually, Freddie deBoer did a pretty damn good job describing her work, so read Freddie.) She’s got two essays that I think are, as pieces of prose, brilliant: “Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts” and “Why Is America Turning to Shit?

In my ideal world, Robert Silvers would reach down from his Olympian heights and snatch up Yasmin to write about or review, well, anything. (Didn’t that kind of happen to Kael with The New Yorker?) But that’s not going to happen.

And that not happening doesn’t even begin to describe the real challenges facing a writer like Nair. Somehow she’s got to pay the bills. But unlike professors like myself or even graduate students who’ve got fellowships or TA positions (and happen to be lucky enough to live in places with a low cost of living), at least for the time being, Yasmin doesn’t have a steady-paying gig.

This isn’t just an issue of precarity or justice; it’s intimately related to the Kristofs of this world bleating “Where have all the public intellectuals gone?” Yasmin is a public intellectual (there, I said it). But without the kinds of supports the rest of us currently have or will have in the future, her pieces in The Awl or In These Times or on her blog—which is how the rest of us academics make our beginnings in the public writing world—can’t give her the lift she needs to get her work up in the air where it belongs. Because she’s always got something else, here on the ground, on her mind: namely, how to pay the rent.

And she’s not alone. Anthony Galluzzo has a PhD in English from UCLA. He’s also been adjuncting—first at West Point, now at CUNY—for years. He’s written a mess of academic articles. Two years ago he wrote an article in Jacobin that I thought was pure genius. It was called “Sarah Lawrence, With Guns,” and it was about his experience teaching English at West Point. That’s a topic that another English professor at West Point has written about, but Anthony’s treatment has the virtue of being coruscating, funny, ironic, honest, and not boosterish. Like Mary Renda’s book, the kind of writing Kristof could profit from.

When Anthony’s piece came out, I thought to myself, “This is the beginning for him.” But it hasn’t been. Because he’s been adjuncting around the clock, sometimes without getting paid on time, and worrying about other things. Like…how to pay the rent.

I had to smile at Kristof’s nod to publish or perish. Most working academics would give anything to be confronted with that dilemma. The vast majority can’t even think of publishing; they’re too busy teaching four, five, courses a semester. As adjuncts, as community college professors, at CUNY and virtually everywhere else.

I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise.

But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? Why not head over to the “Sunday Reading” at The New Inquiry, which features all the greatest writing on the internets for that week? Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read: not as a matter of justice but for the sake of the culture? Who knows? He might even learn something.

(Special thanks to Aaron Bady for reading a draft of this post and contributing some much needed additions.)

Update (4:30)

I mentioned Boston Review in my post. But as a friend reminded me, they deserve a special shout-out. Because not only do they regularly introduce and publish academics like myself—one of my earliest and IMHO most important pieces was chosen and championed by Josh Cohen, the magazine’s editor—but they often solicit work from graduate students like Lili or Aaron and non-academically employed PhDs. So if you’ve got that gem of a piece and are wondering where to send it, send it to Boston Review.

Update (5:45)

Also, I should have said this in the piece, but this line—”He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker.”—was something Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. I should have quoted it and credited to it to him in the post. My apologies.

David Brooks Says

18 Dec

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the most recent column of David Brooks.

David Brooks says:

We are in the middle of…a dangerous level of family breakdown.

David Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites. The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids. Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

David Brooks says:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families.

David Brooks says:

It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

David Brooks is getting divorced.

Must Malcolm Gladwell Mean What He Says?

11 Dec

Malcolm Gladwell on Dave Eggers and Tom Scocca:

When [David] Eggers says, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one,” he does not mean you can’t criticize a book or a movie unless you’ve made one….

Eggers is not Wittgenstein…He says pretty much what he means.

David Grossman v. Max Blumenthal

5 Oct

Anyone familiar with Max Blumenthal’s journalism—in print or video (his interviews with Chicken Hawk Republicans are legendary)—knows him to be absolutely fearless. Whether he’s exploring the id of American conservatism or the contradictions of Israeli nationalism, Max heads deep into the dark places and doesn’t stop till he’s turned on all the lights.

Courage in journalism requires not only physical fortitude but also an especially shrewd and sophisticated mode of intelligence. It’s not enough to go into a war zone; you have to know how to size up your marks, not get taken in by the locals with their lore, and know when and how to squeeze your informants.

Max possesses those qualities in spades. With laser precision, he zeroes in on the most vulnerable point of his subjects’ position or argument—he reminds me in this respect of an analytical philosopher—and quietly and calmly takes aim. In academia, this can make people squirmy and uncomfortable; in politics, it makes them downright nasty and scary. But Max remains unflappable; he’s never fazed. And that, I think, is because he’s not interested in making people look foolish or absurd. He’s not a gonzo of gotcha. He’s genuinely interested in the truth, and knows that the truth in politics often lurks in those dark caves of viciousness.

Max’s new book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel has just come out. It’s a big book, but it’s conveniently organized into short chapters, each a particular vignette capturing some element of contemporary Israeli politics and culture (not just on the right but across the entire society). I’m still reading it, but it’s the kind of book that you just open to any chapter and quickly get a sense of both the particular and the whole. You’ll find yourself instantly immersed in an engrossing family romance—one part tender, one part train-wreck—and wish you had the entire day to keep reading. Put it down, and pick it up the next day, and you’ll have the exact same feeling.

One chapter, in particular—”The Insiders”—has gotten into my head these past few weeks. It’s a portrait of David Grossman, the Israeli writer who’s often treated in this country as something of secular saint. Less arresting (and affected) than Amos Oz, the lefty Grossman was to Jews of my generation a revelatory voice, particularly during the First Intifada. But in the last decade, his brand of liberal Zionism has come to seem more of a problem than a solution.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first started reading the chapter because Grossman is not a typical subject for Max. He’s cagey, elusive, slippery. Max knows how to fell Goliath, I thought to myself, but can he get inside David? Turns out, he can.

Max begins his treatment of Grossman by setting out the conundrum of many lefty Israelis: like other liberal Zionists, Grossman thinks Israel’s original sin is 1967, when the state seized the West Bank and Gaza and the Occupation officially began. But that position ignores 1948, when Jewish settlers, fighters, and officials expelled Palestinians from their homes in order to create the State of Israel itself.

But notice how Max sets the table. Rather than rolling out the standard anti-Zionist party line, Max weaves in the voices of the Israeli right, creating a conversation of difficult contrapuntal voices. It makes for a wonderful, if excruciating, tension.

Despite his outrage at the misdeeds committed after 1967, Grossman excised the Nakba from his frame of analysis. Of course, he knew the story of Israel’s foundation, warts and all. But the Nakba was the legacy also of the Zionist left, as were the mass expulsions committed in its wake, and the suite of discriminatory laws passed through the Knesset to legalize the confiscation of Palestinian property. Were these the acts of an “enlightened nation?” By singling out the settlement movement as the source of Israel’s crisis, Grossman and liberal Zionists elided the question altogether, starting the history at 1967.

Though the Zionist left kept the past tucked behind the narrative of the Green Line, veterans of the Jabotinskyite right-wing were unashamed. In September 2010, when sixty actors and artists staged a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank–based mega-settlement of Ariel, earning a public endorsement from Grossman, who cast the boycott as a desperate measure to save the Zionist future from the settlers, they were angrily rebuked by Knesset chairman Reuven Rivlin.

A supporter of Greater Israel from the Likud Party, Rivlin was also a fluent Arabic speaker who rejected the Labor Zionist vision of total separation from the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. (He appeared earlier in this book to defend Hanin Zoabi’s right to denounce Israel’s lethal raid of the Mavi Marmara against dozens of frothing members of Knesset.) Contradicting the official Israeli Foreign Ministry version of the Nakba, which falsely asserted that Palestinians “abandoned their homes…at the request of Arab leaders,” Rivlin reminded the liberal Zionists boycotting Ariel of their own history. Those who bore the legacy of the Nakba, Rivlin claimed, had stolen more than the settlers ever intended to take.

“I say to those who want to boycott—Deer Balkum [“beware” in Arabic]. Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel,” Rivlin told Maariv. Assailing the boycotters for a “lack of intellectual honesty,” Rivlin reminded them that the economic settlers of Ariel were sent across the Green Line “due to the orders of society, and some might say—due to the orders of Zionism.”

Greater Israel had become the reality while the Green Line Israel had become the fantasy. But with the election of Barack Obama, a figure the Zionist left considered their great hope, figures like David Grossman believed that they would soon be released from their despair.

That line about Rivlin being a fluent Arabic speaker is a nice touch. But that line “those who bore the legacy of the Nakba, Rivlin claimed, had stolen more than the settlers ever intended to take” made me shiver.

Max managed to get an interview with Grossman in 2009 at a very difficult moment in Grossman’s life. Grossman’s son had been killed in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and he wasn’t giving interviews. But Max got one.

He opens his account of that encounter on a sympathetic note:

Grossman had told me in advance that he would agree to speak only off the record. But when I arrived at our meeting famished and soaked in sweat after a journey from Tel Aviv, he suddenly changed his mind. “Since you have come such a long way, I will offer you an interview,” he said. But he issued two conditions. First, “You must order some food. I cannot sit here and watch you starve.” And second, “No questions about my son, okay?”

Grossman was a small man with a shock of sandy brown hair and intense eyes. He spoke in a soft, low tone tinged with indignation, choosing his words carefully as though he were constructing prose. Though his Hebrew accent was strongly pronounced, his English was superior to most American writers I had interviewed, enabling him to reduce complex insights into impressively economical soundbites.

Max then moves the interview to politics, and you can feel his frustration with Grossman starting to build.

At the time, Grossman was brimming with optimism about Barack Obama’s presidency. Though the Israeli right loathed Obama, joining extreme rightists in the campaign to demonize him as a crypto-Muslim, a foreigner, and a black radical, liberal Zionists believed they had one of their own in the White House. Indulging their speculation, some looked to Obama’s friendship in Chicago with Arnold Jacob Wolf, a left-wing Reform rabbi who had crusaded for a two state solution during the 1970s before it was a mainstream position. If only Obama could apply appropriate pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, still widely regarded as a blustering pushover, Israel could embark again on the march to the Promised Land, with the peace camp leading the tribe.

“This is the moment when Israel needs to see Likud come into contact with reality,” Grossman told me. “For years they have played the role of this hallucinating child who wants everything and asks for more and more. Now they are confronted with a harsh counterpoint by Mr. Obama, and they have to decide if they cooperate with what Obama says—a two-state solution—or continue to ask for everything.”

Grossman seemed confident that Obama was willing to confront Netanyahu, and that he would emerge victorious. “A clash with a strong and popular president is not possible for Israel. Israel can never, ever subjugate an American president,” he claimed. “I see Netanyahu reluctantly accepting the demands of Obama to enter into a two-state solution. [Netanyahu] will pretend to be serious about it, but he will do everything he can to keep the negotiations from becoming concrete. He will drag his feet, blame the Palestinians, and rely on the most extreme elements among the Palestinians to lash out in order to stop negotiations. My hope is that there is a regime in America that recognizes immediately the manipulation of the Likud government and that they won’t be misled.”

By the time Max poses a question about the US flexing its muscles over Israel, you know exactly what Grossman is going to say, and because of the way Max has set things up, you can see the combination of naivete and cynicism in Grossman’s position on full display.

I asked Grossman if Obama should threaten Netanyahu with the withholding of loan guarantees in order to loosen his intransigent stance, as President George H. W. Bush had done to force Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (Netanyahu’s former boss) to the negotiating table. He rejected this idea out of hand. “I hope it shall be settled between friends,” Grossman responded. “The pressure Obama applies should be put in a sensitive way because of Israeli anxieties and our feeling that we’re living on the edge of an abyss. The reactions of Israelis are very unpredictable. It will take simple and delicate pressure for the United States to produce the results they are looking for. But whenever American presidents even hinted they were going to pressure Israel, they got what they wanted. Netanyahu is very ideological, but he is also realistic and he is intelligent, after all. He will recognize the reality he is in.”

Max doesn’t say anything, but you can see his eyes rolling in frustration and impatience (mine certainly were). Now he’s ready to get personal , to zoom in on the empty silence at the heart of Grossman’s position.

For Grossman and liberal Zionists like him, the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy was not an option. “For two thousand years,” Grossman told me when I asked why he believed the preservation of Zionism was necessary, “we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have the chance to be insiders.”

I told Grossman that my father [Sidney Blumenthal] had been a kind of insider. He had served as a senior aide to Bill Clinton, the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, working alongside other proud Jews like Rahm Emanuel and Sandy Berger. I told him that I was a kind of insider, and that my ambitions had never been obstructed by anti-Semitism. “Honestly, I have a hard time taking this kind of justification seriously,” I told him. “I mean, Jews are enjoying a golden age in the United States.”

It was here that Grossman, the quintessential man of words, found himself at a loss. He looked at me with a quizzical look. Very few Israelis understand American Jews as Americans but instead as belonging to the Diaspora. But very few American Jews think of themselves that way, especially in my generation, and that, too, is something very few Israelis grasp. Grossman’s silence made me uncomfortable, as though I had behaved with impudence, and I quickly shifted the subject from philosophy to politics. Before long, we said goodbye, parting cordially, but not warmly. On my way out of the café, Grossman, apparently wishing to preserve his privacy, requested that I throw my record of his phone number away.

Like Blumenthal, you leave the interview feeling uncomfortable. Both at that anguished and abject confession from Grossman that Jews “finally have the chance to be insiders”—This is what all that brutality against the Palestinians was for? This is what Jews killed and were killed for? To be insiders?—and Blumenthal’s riposte that Jews outside Israel are insiders, too. Whether in Israel or at the highest levels of American power, that’s what we have become: insiders. That’s what Zionism means for us, whether we’re in Israel or without. We’re on the inside. The people of exile, the wandering Jew, has come home.

I’ve been sitting with that bleak exchange for days.

If things seem better in Jerusalem, it’s because they’re worse

24 Sep

My friend Adina Hoffman, whose biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is a small treasure, has a wonderful piece in The Nation this week on the visit by the Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Jerusalem this past summer.  Though film buffs will read and love the entire piece, it also has a lengthy interlude on Jerusalem that should be of special interest to readers of this blog. (Adina lived in Jerusalem throughout the 90s and the aughts, and now divides her time between Jerusalem and New Haven.) The piece  is behind the paywall at The Nation, which is a shame, but the editors have liberated it for a day (today). Anyway, here’s a taste:

These are strange days in Jerusalem. On the eve of the month of Ramadan and at the height of summer vacation—as, nearby, Egypt seethes and Syria smolders—the city is both more bustling and more bewildering than ever, and Makhmalbaf’s unlikely appearance only underscores the confusing nature of this Middle Eastern cultural moment.

In the upscale Jewish neighborhoods on the western side of town, things are looking surprisingly swank. Petunias have been planted en masse in the municipal parks. A hundred new street cleaners have been enlisted by city hall to sweep up after the hordes crowding the pedestrian malls. The Ottoman-era train station—derelict for decades—has been tastefully refurbished and has just opened its doors as an elegant entertainment compound featuring chic restaurants, an airy gallery, and a pretty, landscaped foot and bike path that runs, High Line–style, along the old tracks. Mahaneh Yehudah, the outdoor market, is booming. Alongside the well-established vegetable and spice stands, funky bars and trendy cafés have popped up; the place is teeming with locals and tourists, old ladies dragging shopping carts and young hipsters taking drags from their hand-rolled cigarettes.

Palestinians, too, mingle easily in this mix, in large part because of the municipal light rail, which has been running for two years now. For almost a decade, the construction of the rail line and its protracted delays threatened to destroy already depressed downtown West Jerusalem by rendering it a dusty, nearly impassible building site. Now, winding like some great electric eel down Jaffa Road, the rail line cuts a sleek, silvery figure that, in the gritty context of Jerusalem, appears almost fantastical. The gentle tolling of the train’s bell adds to that enchanted feel—as does the utterly mixed population riding the train itself.

Twelve years ago, at the height of the second intifada, when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up with scary regularity in the middle of downtown and the very presence of a Palestinian on an Israeli bus was enough to make most of the Jewish riders squirm, it would have been next to impossible to imagine the scene on the light rail this summer: ultra-Orthodox women in wigs and Muslim women with their hijabs, miniskirted Jewish teenagers and young Palestinian men in jeans not only sitting and standing calmly side by side, but often packed together without panic as the train glides its way from stop to stop. They rarely exchange a word, but there they are, shoulder to shoulder, in the air-conditioned slither toward de facto “unification” of the city. Each station is announced in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which in any other town might seem an ordinary nod to the linguistic needs of the various people using the train. But in traumatized, sectarian Jerusalem, the co-existence of these languages, as of the riders themselves, is startling for its sheer normalcy.

If things seem better in the old-new city of Jerusalem, it’s in part because they’re worse. Israel technically annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, but it has taken some four and a half decades to create the infrastructural facts on the ground that make the occupation such a concrete and humdrum state of affairs. The light rail is just one example, erasing as it does the border between the Jewish and Arab sides of town. In the last ten years or so, the notorious wall or “separation barrier” has, in addition, cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank, rendering this once-thriving urban hub of Palestinian life little more than a demoralized and demoralizing backwater. This is no doubt one of the main reasons why so many Palestinians have decided this summer to go west to eat ice cream and shop in pop-music-blasting Jewish shoe stores. It’s a chance to pass through the looking glass that this city often is and spend just a few day-tripping hours on the cleaner, more prosperous side of town.

Systematically neglected by the municipality and battered by the larger political and economic situation, East Jerusalem is home to 39 percent of the city’s total population, though its people receive only a small fraction of the city’s resources. West Jerusalem has forty-two post offices, East Jerusalem, nine; the West boasts seventy-seven municipal preschools, the East has ten; eighteen welfare offices function in West Jerusalem, while the whole of the East counts three. Since 1967, a third of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated. According to Israel’s National Insurance Institute, the poverty rate among the city’s Palestinians is 79.5 percent. Of East Jerusalem’s children, 85 percent live below the poverty line. (The percentage of poor Jewish Jerusalemites is 29.5 percent.) The numbers are at once shameful, slightly numbing and somehow too banal to register with most of the world at large, though this is the way a viable Palestinian Jerusalem ends: not with a bang but a bureaucratic whimper.

Not one to be swayed by such sad statistics, Israel’s public security minister must have felt it his duty to protect the people of Israel from the existential threat posed by a children’s puppet festival that was scheduled to open at the Palestinian national theater in East Jerusalem on June 22. Claiming without proof that the festival was being sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, in violation of the Oslo Accords, the minister banned it and ordered the theater shuttered for eight days and its director summoned for questioning by the Shin Bet. Protests by Palestinian and international organizations did no good, and a solidarity campaign by various Israeli puppeteers—including no less than Elmo from the local version of Sesame Street—proved useless. The theater remained closed, and the impoverished kids of East Jerusalem were left to entertain themselves in the heat.

Back in West Jerusalem, hawkish high-tech entrepreneur Mayor Nir Barkat decided that what the people of his city really needed this summer was a $4.5 million Formula One race car exhibition. Blocking off traffic on the city’s main thoroughfares for several days, the mayor, a self-declared “motor sports fan and racer,” arranged for a flashy parade of Ferraris, Audis and Grand Prix motorcycles to vroom past the old city walls in the rather mind-bogglingly named Peace Road Show. It is, declared the mayor in his American-sounding English, “great branding, great marketing,” and “great for promoting peace and co-existence.”

And about that peace and co-existence: Barkat also found time this summer to bestow honorary Jerusalem citizenship on billionaire casino tycoon and ideological sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli-born wife. Adelson took the occasion of the Jerusalem ceremony held in his honor to dismiss the Palestinians as “southern Syrians” and to claim that Yasir Arafat “came along with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and gave it to everybody to drink and sold them the idea of Palestinians.” At this festive gathering, complete with the reading of a fancy parchment scroll and the crooning of “That’s Amore” by singers wearing Paul Revere–style tricorne hats, Barkat declared the Adelsons “Zionist heroes of the city.” At the same time, native-born Palestinians from the neighborhood of Silwan are not considered citizens at all, honorary or otherwise. They are, instead, “permanent residents,” many of them threatened with eviction by the municipality, which is working closely with Jewish settler groups and various government agencies to demolish their homes and put in their place a pseudo-biblical park and tourist attraction called the King’s Garden. The city has also recently approved plans to construct apartments for Jewish settlers in the heart of another Palestinian neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where families are literally being thrown out into the street. That’s amore.

The mayor is a busy man. In late May, he squeezed in a trip to Los Angeles, where he attended a reception hosted in his honor by the evangelical birther Pat Boone, who long ago did his bit for Israel by writing and singing the lyrics to the theme for the movie Exodus. (“This land is mine, God gave this land to me /This brave, this golden land to me.”) While in LA, Barkat met with Hollywood producers, to whom he offered special tax breaks and subsidies to shoot their movies in the Holy City, where a special department has already been established to handle film permits and logistical matters. It’s “not only good business. It’s good Zionism,” he enthused to The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Which brings us back to Mohsen Makhmalbaf….

“The first thing that shocked me” about Israel, says Makhmalbaf, now dressed in a white shirt and looking slightly subdued the morning after the first Jerusalem screening of The Gardener, is that “it was like Iran. I felt I was in Iran.”…

After today, you can read the article in pdf form at Adina’s website (it’s the piece called “Salaam Cinema”; click on the link at Adina’s site). And while you’re there, check out some of Adina’s other essays, on everything from S.Y. Agnon and Elias Khoury to archives and archaeology in Jerusalem. Or buy the book she wrote with her husband, the poet and translator Peter Cole, on the Cairo Geniza. Enjoy!

I was on NPR Weekend Edition

22 Sep

I was on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning, talking to Rachel Martin about WAS’s. The WAS, you may recall from a post I did in the spring, is a Wrongly Attributed Statement. I wound up writing more about WAS’s at the Chronicle Review earlier this week, and that’s how NPR came to me. Here’s the opening of my Chronicle piece:

Sometime last semester I was complaining to my wife, Laura, about a squabble in my department. I can’t remember the specifics—that’s how small and silly the argument was—but it was eating at me. And eating at me that it was eating at me (tiffs are as much a part of academe as footnotes and should be handled with comparable fuss). After listening to me and voicing the requisite empathy, Laura said, “Any idiot can survive a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” I looked at her, puzzled. “Chekhov,” she said. Puzzled gave way to impressed. “Chekhov,” I said, with a tip of the head. Impressed gave way to skeptical. “Chekhov?”

So we did what any couple does on the verge of an argument: We Googled it. And sure enough, there it was: lots and lots of hits, many of them attributing this bit of wisdom to Chekhov. But where had he said it? Not a single hit—at least not that we could find—identified a play, short story, letter, diary entry, note, or testimonial in which Chekhov or any of his characters says this.

I decided to do some more sleuthing. And then I stopped myself. I’d been here before, I realized. I was in the realm of the WAS.

And have a listen over at NPR.

When it comes to Edward Snowden, the London Times of 1851 was ahead of the New York Times of 2013

1 Sep

After a summer of media denunciations of Edward Snowden, I thought this comment from Robert Lowe, a 19th century Liberal who opposed the extension of the franchise and other progressive measures, was especially apt. Lowe was a frequent editorialist in the London Times; this is from a piece he wrote in 1851.*

The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions, until diplomacy is beaten in the race with publicity. The Press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times….For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences—to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world.

It’s hard to believe in progress when a Times editorialist in 1851 is out in front of Times editorialists in 2013…

*Cited in Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck, a posthumously published memoir of the 1990s and 2000s by the wonderful radical journalist, which just came out this year.

Islam Is the Jewish Question of the 21st Century

28 Jul

Imagine a noted scholar of religion, who happened to be Jewish, writing a book on the historical Jesus. Then imagine him appearing on a television show, where he is repeatedly badgered with some version of the following question: “What’s a Jew like you doing writing a book like this? Raises questions, doesn’t it?” And now watch this interview with noted scholar Reza Aslan, who happens to be Muslim, and tell me that Islam is not the 21st century’s Jewish Question.

Thomas Friedman: You Give Clichés a Bad Name

7 Jul

I’m stealing the title of this post from Jim Neureckas. It’s a good summary of the thesis of this excellent piece from Jim Livingston. Jim (Livingston) takes apart the prose of a Thomas Friedman column—I know, easy sport—but as he gets ready to do it, he says something interesting about clichés.

Now I don’t mind the mental nullity of cliché as much as my colleagues, who seem eager, indeed desperate, to demonstrate the idiocy—no, the fallacy—of received wisdom as it takes shape in the vernacular forms of journalism, conversation, pop music, whatever.  In fact, I find comfort in this category of cliché, because its very existence suggests the subversive possibilities of transformation by repetition.  It’s the analogue of rhyme, the space where words sound different because their odd alignment makes new sense.  It’s the occasion of country music, and the origin of rap.

But unlike a country music singer, or a hip-hop musician, Friedman lets the cliché stand as the final word, not the incentive to make something new.

As a cliché-hater of the sort that Jim skewers here—though I never go after pop culture; it’s the journalists and writers who get to me—I have to say that this an interesting way of thinking about them. So it seemed worth sharing.

Edward Snowden’s Retail Psychoanalysts in the Media

18 Jun

As soon as the Edward Snowden story broke, retail psychoanalysts in the media began to psychologize the whistle-blower, identifying in his actions a tangled pathology of motives. Luckily, there’s been a welcome push-back from other journalists and bloggers.

The rush to psychologize people whose politics you dislike, particularly when those people commit acts of violence, has long been a concern of mine.  I wrote about it just after 9/11, when the media put Mohamed Atta on the couch.

I also wrote about it in this review of the New Yorker writer Jane Kramer’s Lone Patriot, her profile of the militia movement.

In October 1953, literary critic Leslie Fiedler delivered an exceptionally nasty eulogy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the pages of the London-based magazine Encounter. Though the Rosenbergs had been executed for conspiring to commit espionage, their real betrayal, claimed Fiedler, was of themselves. Committed Communists, the Rosenbergs did more than mouth the party line; they walked, talked, ate, drank, breathed and slept it. Nothing they said or did was peculiarly their own. “Their relationship to everything,” Fiedler wrote, “including themselves, was false.” Their execution was regrettable, but not particularly notable. Once they turned into marionettes, “what was there left to die?”

Fiedler’s performance stands out in the annals of literary cruelty, not for its heartlessness but for its pitch-perfect rendition of the liberal mind at bay. For whenever liberal intellectuals are confronted with political extremism, the knotty social intelligence that normally informs their work unravels. The radical is reduced to a true believer, his beliefs a litany of crazy proverbs, his personality an inscrutable paranoia. Whether the cause is communism or the Black Panthers, feminism or the abolitionists, the liberal resorts to a familiar ghost story—of the self, evacuated for the sake of an incoming ideology—where, as is true of all such tales, the main character is never the ghost but always the teller.

Kramer hunts for clues to these touchy forest warriors in the dank wood of individual psychology. She writes that John Pitner, the militia’s not so fearless leader, “hated to have to answer to other people.” His father was an off-balance disciplinarian. One of Pitner’s devotees never “had friends, or even a date, in high school.” Right-wing politics provide a stage for the  insufficiently evolved to act out their personal, often adolescent afflictions. As Kramer writes of Pitner, “I sometimes wondered if the Washington State Militia wasn’t, at least in part, a way for him to rewrite the history of the Pitner family.” Reminiscent of Fiedler, she concludes that Pitner “didn’t have a life in any sense I recognized.”

She seems to find quaint and absurd Pitner’s belief that in the early days of the United States “the townspeople got together [and] if they wanted a new road, they all contributed money and they built a new road, if they wanted a new library, they all contributed money and built a new library,” unaware, apparently, that intellectuals from Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have believed much the same thing. That’s not to say that such statements are true (they’re not), but they scarcely denote some strange woodland mishegas.

Tromping through this political wilderness, Kramer falls prey to a New York strain of Tourette’s syndrome, ceaselessly remarking on the strangeness and ignorance of the Northwest, the provincialism and prejudice of the forest. Her sole field guide on such expeditions, which she frequently consults, contains familiar entries on the paranoid style of American politics and the authoritarian personality. The problem with such psychological arguments, of course, is that millions of men and women fit the profile but never join the militia. There are probably more than a few leaders of the Democratic Party who never had a date in high school. And need we even launch an inventory of the editorial staff at The New Yorker?

Lastly, I wrote about it at much greater length in “On Language and Violence: From Pathology to Politics,” a piece  I did for Raritan in 2006. There, I wrote more generally about how intellectuals deal with violence committed by the radical right and left. But the same strictures apply to the journalistic response to Snowden.

Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology?  [Journalist William] Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach:  merely consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist.  Psychological factors, of course, may influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do.  But those who invoke these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst:  that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed.  If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?

There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices.  Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies.  Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama.  What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is a deeply human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.

Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence.  And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two.  Mill did it for imperial Europe.  Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?

But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture.  After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal.  Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too?  Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?

In the same way that journalists call high-level leakers in the executive branch “White House officials” and low-level guys like Snowden “narcissists” or “losers,” so do they dole out accolades like “Secretary of State” to mass murderers like Henry Kissinger while holding the Snowden-like epithets in reserve for Al Qaeda, Communists, the Militia Movement, and the Weather Underground.


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