Further Thoughts on Nick Kristof

12 Mar

I have a piece up at Al Jazeera America following up on the Nick Kristof/public intellectuals kerfuffle of a few weeks back. Some highlights.

In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:

For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.

There’s one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration.

At their best, intellectuals do more than package their research into digestible bits for policymakers or the public. They force us to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking. They are an invitation to imaginative excess and political trespass. Academic experts in the mainstream media reassure us with their authority; young intellectuals in the little magazines arrest us with their divinations.

It may be, however, that the economics that make little magazines and blogs possible also make them unsustainable. Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.

But grad students graduate, 20-somethings make families, and rents go up. Struggling writers in 1954 could flee to tenured positions in academia; their counterparts in 2014 will find no such refuge. Nearly three-quarters of all instructional staff at colleges and universities today are not on the tenure track. They’re insecure, contingent workers, an army of cheap and casual labor that make the universities go. While young writers can afford to do the kind of intellectual journalism we see at the little magazines, older adjuncts teaching five classes can’t.

Writers and academics who fret over the fate of public intellectuals may think they are debating vital questions of the culture. But their discussions are myopically focused on the writing habits of a rapidly disappearing elite. The vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic 1 percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.

David Brooks: Better In the Original German

11 Mar

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.

There’s no business like Shoah business

4 Mar

I’ve been reading Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m hoping to blog about it when I’m done, but for now, I wanted to tell this little story from the book.

In 1966, Anne Marisse, who was playing Tzeitel in Fiddler, was fired after she missed a performance on Rosh Hashanah without, the producers said, giving advance notice. Marisse’s firing proved controversial in the Jewish community. For two reasons: first, because Fiddler was a show about preserving Jewish traditions in the face of the secular (and other) demands of modernity; and second, because Sandy Koufax had refused the previous year to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. One particularly irate man in the Bronx wrote to the producers: “Your ‘show must go on’ regardless…Six million of our people also had a ‘show’ of their own when they marched into gas chambers.”

Vanessa Redgrave at the Oscars

2 Mar

When I was a kid, there was probably no actor more reviled among Jews than Vanessa Redgrave. This was the late 1970s, and Redgrave was an outspoken defender of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.

It all came to a head in 1978 at the Academy Awards (this is why I’m thinking about her tonight). Redgrave was up for an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia, a film my family refused to see (boycotts run deep with me, I guess). The Jewish Defense League was out in force that night. Apparently there had been a major campaign to deny Redgrave the Oscar on the grounds that she supported a Palestinian state. She got it anyway. Instead of offering an olive branch to her critics, or keeping quiet about the controversy, she took the opportunity of her acceptance speech to denounce the “Zionist hoodlums” who had campaigned against her nomination and possible receipt of the award.

Her speech didn’t go down so well with the audience, some of whom booed her. Later that night, the playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky used the opportunity of his presenting the award for Best Screenplay—to Woody Allen for Annie Hall (Allen, of course, has himself become the source of some controversy this year)to denounce Redgrave for using the opportunity of her acceptance speech to make a political statement:

I would like to saypersonal opinion of coursethat I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning the Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple “thank you” would have sufficed.

Whatever you think of the protagonists, it was great theater.

Thinking back on that night tonight, I was curious to see where Redgrave wound up landing on the issue of Israel/Palestine as it presents itself today.

I did a little research and noticed that in 1986, she came out in favor of a cultural boycott of Israel. No surprise there. This position earned her no end of condemnation from defenders of Israel, including Jane Fonda, her co-star in Julia. Fonda joined Tom Hayden, her husband at the time, to say:

We are appalled at Vanessa Redgrave’s attempt to organize a cultural boycott of Israel. We urge all cultural workers to strongly oppose this vicious act and we are confident that it will be rejected by people of conscience everywhere.

In 1986, Hayden was in the California State Assembly, his eye on higher office. I have no idea if that played a role in the two making their statement.

But in 20o9, Redgrave would join Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman to issue a denunciation of filmmakers who were protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to spotlight and showcase films coming out of Tel Aviv. As Redgrave and her co-authors put it in a letter published in the New York Review of Books:

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

Now she was a critic of the idea of a boycott (though in truth the filmmakers weren’t calling for a boycott; they were merely protesting this one decision). Ironically, one of the most prominent voices protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision was…Jane Fonda.

Since the debate over Israel and Palestine increasingly pits parents against children in the Jewish community—the most recent Pew poll, which got so much attention last fall, documents a decreasing attachment to Israel among younger Jews—I can’t end this post without posting this clip of Redgrave and her father, Michael, doing Act IV, Scene 7, from King Lear. It’s the scene of Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation. Lear had unfairly banished Cordelia from the kingdom over some perceived slight, and now, slipping in and out of madness, he recognizes the terrible wrong he has done to her. He says:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

And in one of the most heart-breaking lines, Cordelia responds:

No cause, no cause.

That murmured protest of Cordelia—no cause, no cause—seems especially poignant in light of the ways that Israel/Palestine has divided Jewish families and the generations.

Gaza: A Tower of Babel in Reverse

1 Mar

The Tower of Babel is a story of the peoples of the earth, united by a common language, coming together in order to establish and preserve themselves as a unity in the sky. Gaza is a Tower of Babel in reverse. Having already cut off its residents from the rest of the world by land and by air, the Israelis built a wall to the bottom of the sea in order to seal them off entirely. Despite some periodic reversals, that isolation remains, thanks in part to the collusion of the Egyptians. Unlike its biblical predecessor, this upside-down Babel is still standing.

Backlash Barbie

20 Feb

We interrupt our regularly scheduled arguing about Israel to bring you a word from our digital consigliere, Laura Brahm. Laura is a freelance writer who periodically—i.e., every day—helps me figure out what I’m doing with this blog. This is her first guest blog here.

Apparently it’s a banner time for ambiguous feminist heroes—BeyoncéClaire Underwood…and now, Barbie.

This week, she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Mattel is marketing the campaign using the language of women’s empowerment (the hashtag is #unapologetic).Feminist Backlash Barbie

At first I thought this was funny and clever in a knowing, lipstick-feminism kind of way. Like Barbie was embracing her inner drag queen. But then things got ugly. In response to real live feminists who tried to rain on her beach party, Barbie took out a full page ad in the New York Times for an op-ed, “Why Posing for Sports Illustrated Suits Me.” She writes:

Upon the launch of this year’s 50th anniversary issue, there will again be buzz and debate over the validity of the women in the magazine, questioning if posing in it is a blow to female equality and self-image. In 2014, does any woman in the issue seriously need permission to appear there?

I suppose you could argue Barbie is indeed making a feminist rhetorical move here, insofar as she’s engaging in the time-honored practice of trashing other feminists. She goes on:

Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT.

Unless that last line is targeted at boys, she’s a little off base.

There’s been no shortage of brilliant, enraged responses to this campaign. But one aspect may get overlooked in the troll-feeding frenzy.

It’s funny Barbie should use the language of careers and the workplace. If only it really were the anti-pink, non-fun-having feminists who were holding women back from achieving their dreams or even just from being pretty at the office.

But the truth is we can’t be free to celebrate who we are at work if we have no First Amendment rights there. If we are subject to “at will” employment and have no paid parental leave or flexible hours enabling us to stay home when Skipper is sick.

In short, it’s not feminists who are telling you what color you can or cannot wear to work.

As a child, I loved Barbie. I still remember the gold lamé mini-dresses and the exciting hint of the glamour of being an independent grownup woman. But with ad campaigns like this one demonizing feminists, I will never buy her for my own daughter.

So, Barbie, I agree with you that “pink is not the problem.” But before you point your insufficiently separated finger at other women, take a closer look at your boss.

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

19 Feb

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

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