Thoughtful Revolution


Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Political and Social Criticism category.

Elements of a Classroom

From reading this site, you’d think that all I ever did was whine, whine, whine. And while cursing the world is a cherished pastime of mine, I do occasionally channel it into more positive, constructive thoughts. (Really!) So I may spend a good percentage of my time dwelling on the bait-and-switch betrayal of unschooling, or the failures of the public school system (which I have no doubt I’ll post about in the near future), or the rank flaws and inequities in the private-school sector — but, every so often, I’ll come up with a solution or two.

Now I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on educational strategy, or the problems therein. I have no doubt that most of the things I might suggest have been tried and failed miserably. Regardless, my ideal classroom (hopefully unhampered by such downers as money, cranky administration, etc.etc.) would look something like this:

One steps onto a smooth linoleum floor, softly carpeted in the center — not the omnipresent bristly brownish-greyish industrial carpet, lined in scuffed black rubber, but some brightly-hued shag or soft, dusty ornamental rug. There are no doors, only wooden frames, and five or six picture-sized windows line the outer wall. The first thing that stands out to the visitor is the vibrant wildness of the walls: on the first day of school, the students were given paintbrushes and pigments (or, depending on the grade level, other materials) and allowed to put their own stamp on the classroom. On the last day, they will paint over their designs, leaving the walls a blank slate for next year’s pupils in a miniature, free-form torch-passing ritual. This is the home room.

In any one of the building’s classrooms, a crueler eye might see more of a resemblance to an antique shop than a place of learning. The family-style table in the center of the room is strewn with paper, with pens, with crayons, with the childish handwriting of the first-graders who study there (or the neat printing of the seniors; I haven’t decided yet which grade to assign this hypothetical classroom, but I imagine that the others in the building would look somewhat like it). There are musical instruments in the corner, guitars and gently used trombones donated by parents or music stores, which can be taken to the practice rooms elsewhere in the building or outside. Bookshelves line two of the four walls; one of the remaining two sports printouts of famous faces and works of art and writing, while the other is speckled with the students’ own work. Independent, eclectic pieces of furniture — desks, beanbags, loveseats — hover at the room’s fringes, ready to be pulled out in case a student should require furniture outside of the central table. And in the very back of the room, next to the closet (not cubbies — God forbid!) where the children keep their coats and bags, there’s a large crate stuffed with extraneous items. These items, again brought in by teachers, stores or generous donors, are seemingly random and entirely unrelated to one another: a set of jacks, perhaps, and a bouquet of faux flowers, and a bucket of clay, and a large stuffed elephant. Should a student wish to use (play with, study, destroy) any of these items, that student must a) sign it out and return it at the end of the day and/or b) replace it with another item. Negotiations over items must be brought to the teacher, who will also provide for exceptions in case of financial need. This is the give-and-take, the wild card of the classroom. I’m not sure what didactical purpose it fills, but it sounds like fun.

Leave the classroom in one direction, and you will come upon the well-stocked and easily convertible science lab. Walk in another direction, and you will find an assortment of “studios” — tiny, maybe 10×10 pods, empty and available for a student to practice his/her instrument or write in private silence. Walk outside, and next to the field and gravel expanses, you will find a sizable, year-round garden, tended every morning by student volunteers; its produce makes up the bulk of students’ school lunches, though a number of last year’s seniors started a small offshoot that grows fruits and veggies for local shelters. The cafeteria itself looks out onto the garden, almost like a walled-in porch, and while students are given the option of eating outside or at local restaurants, most choose to spend their lunch hour socializing in this pleasant space. Lunches themselves are prepared by students, on a rotating basis; students can volunteer to take more than one lunch duty, and students who work in the garden are exempt unless they choose to participate. Students also have the option of “signing out” the cafeteria during school hours or after school, giving them the opportunity to work on the cafeteria’s equipment; once a student has signed up, s/he is allotted a designated amount of time in the kitchen with (depending on his/her age) varying degrees of adult supervision. With some exception, s/he must provide her own ingredients. The hallway is dotted with classrooms, some small and intimate, some (like the art room) more spacious. And right off the side of the foyer, well-marked and inviting, is a reasonably sized black box theater, easily convertible and ideal for the school’s frequent student events and performances. This space, like the cafeteria, can be signed out on a case-by-case basis.

Administration looks slightly different in this school of mine. Yes, many of the teachers are specialists and experts: folks who are qualified to inspire and facilitate student work in their area of expertise. But many of them serve not as professors but as mentors. Each of these mentors is given approximately six students to work with, varying between the ages of 5 and 18; these students are assigned based on personality and shared interests. Each mentor will meet with his/her mentee at least once a day (they are welcome, by mutual agreement, to meet for longer hours or after school) and talk, interact, discuss. The hope is that the mentor becomes a support system and an interesting “older friend,” both someone to wipe tears and to test new ideas. Students who choose to may switch mentors at the end of a school year, although the hope is that a partnership will stay together for most if not all of the child’s schooling.

Independent work is critical; more and more independence, coupled with a greater focus on mentor-mentee relationships, is granted to students as they get older. Below is a hypothetical first-grader’s schedule:

8:00 – Arrival. Go to home room. Foreign language.
9:00 – Reading period. Students who choose to can read on their own; others congregate as the teacher reads to them.
10:00 – Basic math. Some students do worksheets; others use blocks, jacks, etc.
11:00 – Mentor-mentee meeting.
11:30 – Lunch
12:00 – Recess (independent play or a structured activity)
1:00 – Special period. Specials (art, music, P.E.) rotate based on day of the week.
2:00 – Teacher’s choice: usually a science experiment or social studies activity.
3:00 – Independent playtime.
3:30 – Dismissal.
[extracurricular activities]

And a seventh-grader:
8:00 – Arrival. History and Philosophy of Thought*
9:00 – Go to math classroom (different classrooms based on level). Math class.
10:00 – Elective class — art, music, P.E., or another class, depending on what the teachers can offer. Students may take a certain elective class for more than one year of middle school but must try at least two.
11:00 – Science, social studies or foreign language; switches based on day.
12:00 – Lunch.
12:30 – Recess.
1:00 – Reading/literature.
2:00 – Mentor/mentee meeting.
3:00 – Independent period.
3:30 – Dismissal.
[extracurricular activities]

And an eleventh-grader:
8:00 – Arrival. Reading/literature.
9:00 – Science/social studies/foreign language.
10:00 – Math.
11:00 – Thought, Structure and Rhetoric.*
12:00 – 3:30 – Independent half-day. Students can, in conjunction with their mentor, plan whatever they want for this period; they have any of the school’s facilities at their disposal. The site and timing of their lunch period is at their discretion, as is that of their mentor-mentee meeting.
Students can apply for independent work during the rest of the day. These applications will be accepted for no longer than a three-week period, after which students must apply again to extend their full-day independent study. This option is for students immersed in specific projects, within or outside of the school.
[extracurricular activities — encouraged!]

*This class is intended to allow students to explore philosophy, rhetoric and critical thinking on an intense and discussion-based level. Middle school students begin by reading and discussing the history of thought, including basic philosophy; as students grow, they begin to form and work through their own philosophical ideas, while practicing oral argument and critical thinking in an increasingly Socratic format.

So I know there are lots of logistical issues with this school: money, size of student body, and staffing, to only mention a few. But if we’re talking in terms of ideals, and the nature of an ideal is that the nitty-gritty need not come into play. I’ll try to figure out a more concrete plan for this school and get back to you; in the meantime, feel free to pick and choose ideas, adopt them (or disagree with me)!, or just enjoy. Also, find me a way to add more hours into the day.

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The Perfect-Girl Paradigm

(or, Why We Need To Shift The Way We Look At Young Women)

Embarrassing and little-known secret: For the first seven or eight years of my life, I had a serious fairytale habit. My second-wave egalitarian parents, who plied me early on with Legos and Girls Can Do Anything, looked on in horror as I devoured Disney movie after Disney movie, as I worked my way through crates full of the world’s fables, myths and princess stories, as I dressed myself in pint-size gowns that would put a wedding cake to shame. Granted, by third grade, I had started developing a critical eye towards said obsession, writing a book report that denounced the — and I quote — “sexism, ageism, racism, and lookism” of my favorite stories. (Clearly, little has changed since I had feet the size of Snickers bars.)

Thus, via this phase and the reactions it elicited, I learned something very quickly: that fairytales were bad and wrong because, among other reasons, they elevated female beauty to a stratospheric plane. In a fairytale, a woman is (generally) not recognized for her sense of humor, her fashion sense, or her terrific fastball; Prince Charming elevates her out of obscurity on the basis of extraordinary beauty. It is worth pointing out that that beauty cannot be on the level of “above average” or “cute.” The successful princess-to-be is always described in superlatives, her face the fairest in the land, her hair more golden than the radiant sun. There is no room for a single freckle — or, God forbid, a zit — on her narrow button of a nose. While it is certainly true that there are no ugly princesses, there are also no pretty princesses; a woman’s beauty must literally be beyond mortal imagination to register in a fairy-tale.

The problem is, even after I learned from the adults around me that intelligence, not beauty, is the important factor in a woman, I didn’t leave that paradigm behind.

And I’m not just talking about physical insecurity, though I am, despite my best efforts, humiliated by my body — it would take a small miracle for a young girl to grow up immersed in our culture and feel entirely comfortable in her own skin. No, I’m talking about the expectation of perfection we have for young women; when we are taught to literally replace beauty with intelligence in our judgment, that expectation (as abstract and flexible and fraught with nasty baggage as it is) can become as oppressive as the norms we seek to escape. There must, it seems, always be some impossible standard by which to judge a young girl, some self-improvement footrace with no finish line. 5.0 weighted GPA, captain of five different extracurriculars, glowing reports from teachers? Merely bright, in a corporate-establishment conformist valedictorian sort of way, a good test-taker, lacks originality and individual spark, we’ll never hear from her again. Prodigious artist, painting since she was five, a vision to rival the professionals? Would it be so hard for her to get a decent score on her SATs, or to bring home a sparkly report card for once? And of course, either of these exceptional young women would be judged in compound for the size of their waist, the length of their hair, the tint and clarity of their skin. By introducing intelligence as a benchmark on which to judge women (and it is a worthwhile benchmark, of course!) without fundamentally changing the form of our judgment, we’ve introduced another severe and poisonous invitation to self-loathing.

Is the ideal to return to the days when a woman’s intelligence, her creativity, her personal brilliance was discounted? Of course not, and it would be absurd even to propose that. But I’ve seen the smart, hard-working, strong women around me struggle with the fact that their many and varied achievements are just not enough, they’re never enough, by the standards on which we judge brightness. The chase for the elusive “genius” demarcation is exhausting and painful, as I’ve learned more and more in the scramble to set my own boundaries. A truly progressive, egalitarian system of evaluating individuals would replace the hyper-evaluation of single unachievable gifts (beauty, intelligence), with a more measured and case-by-case appreciation of a single person’s unique skills. It’s unrealistic, certainly, to expect that we as a society will wake up one day and stop setting yardsticks for women: after all, it took long enough just to add another system of measurement to those yardsticks. But we cannot claim that the fairy-tale-ification of intelligence, this Randian ideal of mental perfection, is a profound step in the right direction. Like beauty, it plays into the fiction of the “perfect girl” — a fiction that torments young women with its nonexistence, that undermines our self-confidence and constructive growth as we strive to build ourselves into it.


Feminist Self-Definition

(or, a post in which I do it.)

My feminist awakening, I admit, took place mostly via the Internet — that grand, interactive, fragmented world of thought — and as such, I’ve never quite been allowed to be “just” a feminist. One is a Feministing type, or a Shakesville type, or an IBTP type, each with their own connotations, styles, and set strands of belief. And I’ve flirted with each of these categories in chronological order, then had difficulty with each and moved on to the next. Right now, my feminism seems to be floating in cyberspace, often-but-not-always found via Natalia Antonova or various tumblrs, not always streamlined to any given style. And in real life, folks generally take it for granted that, when I say “feminist,” I’m referring to whatever belief set the listener associates with the word. Suffice it to say, I’m rarely asked to define my feminism.

My feminism is fluid. It’s sex-positive (mostly), empathetic (hopefully), and thick with analysis (though not always well-phrased).

My feminism is staunchly pro-choice, even if the choice you might make in any given situation is a different choice than mine.

My feminism is predicated on intersectionality, even if you or I are most passionate about non-identical areas of that intersectionality, even if I may sometimes be clueless enough not to see the intersections as they reveal themselves.

My feminism is a constant flow of learning and maturation, even if that means that I will make (and that I will have to politely correct) dreadfully stupid mistakes.

My feminism is always in favor of sexual autonomy and pleasure, even if your route to that pleasure is unappealing to me, or vice versa.

My feminism wants to move beyond the gender binary, both in allowing me to define my own gender and persona and by inviting others to enjoy that same freedom; my feminism is conscious of the ways in which the patriarchy oppresses cis men, and cis women, and trans men, and trans women, and the many of us who don’t fit cleanly onto one point of the spectrum, and my feminism wants that vast party of people under its umbrella.

My feminism does not inevitably dress its mouthpiece in sleek blond hair, a wasp waist, a delicately tapered middle finger — my feminism knows how alienating it can be to enter a supposedly progressive world where I (in all my stubby frizzy bespectacled Russian Jewish glory) am no more accepted as a “face of the movement” than I would be on the staff of Vogue. My feminism can be painted in many skins, and many textures, and many lengths and breadths, on many diverse canvases.

My feminism can be all of my life or a sliver of it; I can be, say, a proud feminist activist who does some calculations on the side, or a mathematician whose feminism is only one integrated part of my wide-ranging identity.

My feminism is about conversation over rhetoric, open ears over closed-mindedness.

My feminism can’t help but chant that old slogan — “The personal is political” — my feminism is rife with raw emotion and the power of one’s own experience, and with the close-knit bond that comes of hearing someone else speak.

My feminism understands the limitations of the computer screen as a means of consciousness-raising.

My feminism grapples constantly with cognitive dissonance, with the pernicious effects of internalized sexism, and allows for myriad solutions to that cognitive dissonance without assuming that anyone has “just not thought deeply enough.”

My feminism is shaped by family and friends, by lovers and writers, by harrowing experiences and empowering ones, by Sleater-Kinney and my mother’s yellowing sheaf of folk songs, by the front page and the editorial page, by self-education and the mentorship of others, by a literary culture that doesn’t know what to make of women and a feminist world with its own rich reading list, by vegans and omnivores and childfree folks and mothers of three, by the figures I love and loathe, by the pants that never seem to fit and the knapsacks that always do, by the burden of understanding that I will never be beautiful enough or bright enough, thin enough or moral enough, by the struggle of accepting worlds of privilege, by the chill that runs down my spine when I see something change within or without me.

My feminism is not my own. It’s shared by individuals and organizations across the world, by people of all ages and experience levels coming into themselves. It’s sometimes flatly wrong, it’s sometimes well-meaning and still wrong, it’s still developing and riddled with the confusion of a baby-duckling philosophy finding its feet. And sometimes my faith in it flags, sometimes I question it until it’s punched full of doubtful holes, and then I’ll wake up the next morning and find it welcoming me back, altered slightly but suffused with its own strength. My feminism scares me sometimes, and sometimes it weighs heavy when I’m trying to balance it with the minutiae of my life, and it’s radiant even when it’s napping at the back of my mind. My feminism is one of my many homes, its threshold always open to me, and even in my darkest days I find myself coming back to the door.


Musings on Chanukah

*

No one knows how much of the Chanukah story is fact. General consensus, scientific and otherwise, has it that the “miracle of the oil” never came to pass. It is established that there were Maccabees; it is established that they were revolutionaries. It is not established that they were heroes. According to modern scholars, the Maccabees’ quest may have been a quest for religious orthodoxy and not freedom from Syrian rule, a conflict not between liberation and oppression but between — as the author of the Second Book of Maccabees himself writes — “Judaism” and “Hellenism.” The brunt of the Maccabees’ force was initially directed at assimilated Jewish “collaborators,” and the bigoted, grossly incompetent Antiochus became the story’s centerpiece villain only when he stepped in too far on the side of the Hellenists, prohibiting Jewish practices in a chess move that would backfire on his head for all time. After the guerrilla war was waged in full force, the Syrian-backed Hellenists defeated, and the brief period of Hasmonean rule began, many of the victorious Maccabees sought imperialist campaigns of their own. Judah Maccabee, in particular, hoped to conquer lands with sizeable Jewish populations and convert the rest of their inhabitants. History is nothing but an amalgam of pop culture and oral tradition, the detritus of fact and the gems of self-aggrandizement, a collection of myths propped up on the discovery of a decomposing tibia or a hairpin someone threw away. It changes with the winds and the generations only peripherally; at its core it is oddly persistent. We think we are above mythology, and yet we cling to our creation myths with a shared and righteous fervor. We do not know our ancestors.

**

On Chanukah we fry things. Latkes and sufganiyot fill Ashkenazi skillets, and American preschools from Augusta to Los Angeles. Other traditions bring zucchini fritters, beef and leek patties, ricotta-stuffed pancakes, fried dough balls soaked in milk and rosewater, stuffed peppers, borekas, kibbeh, donuts stuffed with dulce de leche. There is no one smell that screams Chanukah across the world; there is no one taste, no one texture. The prayers hit our ears differently in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires — the melodies vastly diverge, and the accents each lend the words their own unique tinge. The only universal earthy appeal we have on the night of Chanukah is the most mundane, isolated in a corner of the kitchen, consigned to what has traditionally been the women’s realm: the sound of newly poured oil crackling on the griddle.

***

Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish canon. It was elevated to its current status mostly because of its proximity to Christmas.

When I was in elementary school, no one asked anyone what faith they practiced. Instead, the question was, “do you celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah?”

****

I always try to spell Chanukah C-h-a-n-u-k-a-h. The other spellings don’t quite cut it for me; I’ve never bought the substitution of H for Ch, the verbal assimilation of a Hebrew word. And the double K’s in the alternate spellings overstate that consonant’s power: the K should pale in comparison to the first grand guttural onslaught of the Ch, or the booming depth of the first A. It is the first syllable — the Cha — that rings out like a shofar, that calls a people to attention; to weaken its pronunciation is to weaken its power, and to sublimate it beneath the afterthought of the “kah” is to demean it entirely. (I also try to pronounce “latke” as “lat-kuh” instead of “lat-key,” but maybe that’s just me.)

*****

Sometimes I like to let my fingers close to the Chanukah flames, even singeing the calluses on the tips of my fingers, just to see what it feels like. My mother sets down foil so that the mantelpiece will not stain beneath the chanukiyot. My parents ask me not to lean over the candles — my hair will catch a spark and burn. I play with tiny drops of hot wax, letting them adhere to my hand, both for the color and for the stinging, oddly comfortable warmth.

******

In our most basic traditions, there are two persistent icons: food and fire. On a primal level it makes sense — Judaism stems from a period in the unimaginable past, a period where the dearth of light could be as frightening as starvation, could be explained as the wrath of an angry God. The beginning of our day of rest is signified by the lighting of candles, and so is the end. Our Chanukiyot are placed in our windows, fulfilling a commandment to share the beams of light with the world. Even our Passover seders, in the sunny peak of spring, begin with candles and prayers. And of course, in the first few centuries, there were the ultimate lights: the altar flames of animal sacrifices, sending not just their aroma but their illumination up to the heavens.

And yet, these little self-contained fires nestle themselves in the back of their minds, long since replaced by fires that rage and consume despite our best efforts. When I think of fire in the Jewish iconography my mind jumps not to the Shabbat table but to the Eleh Ezkerah, the Yom Kippur martyrology, where malicious flames are omnipresent. Earlier in the service we repeat the line “And who by fire;” in the Eleh Ezkerah, we are given an all-too-literal answer to a rhetorical question. Rabbi Akiva and his students, allegedly burned by Roman imperialists, wrapped in the Torah scrolls they studied. The victims of the Inquisition and of other European heretic-hunts, set afire and forced to suffer for two or more hours at the stake. Whole villages razed by soldiers in the employ of the czar, fires that struck seemingly at random and with devastating force. And, most resonant in modern memory, the countless victims of the Holocaust. Synagogues have burned, and shops, and private homes. Fire is inescapable and terrifying, and now that electric lights fill our homes and electric stoves heat our food it rarely has the redeeming value of being needed. Somehow, still, it is lovely to look at — but it is a new sort of loveliness, the sort of loveliness that moves you to sobs in silent moments, a light that is sad and dangerous and painful but still has a way of sending a shiver of beauty rippling through a dark room.

*******

Chanukah music is joyous and rowdy. With the exception of the venerable chestnut Maoz Tzur and a handful of children’s songs, it does not recant old tales, or even pray. Even its most ethereal minor-key ballads revel in earthy pleasures: the pleasures of bright lights, and good food, and drink, and games, and family, even the snow lit up by the glow of the chanukiyah. In the spring and summer and fall, we reflect; in the winter, we dance. We humans have always staved off early nights and bone-chilling cold by retreating to our most visceral comforts — and even with our central heating systems and constant light, somehow, we still continue.

********

I do not receive lavish presents for Chanukah. I have never gotten an iPod, or a digital camera, or a glistening new cellphone. I have always been given the gift of books.


How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic (A Basic Primer)

First of all: I know I changed the Thoughtful Revolution look. Again. This will be the last time, I swear — but I didn’t want people to mix me up with Quixotess’s far superior site.

Anyway. As an active member of an active Jewish community, I hear a lot of discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about its representation by media outlets and arbiters of public opinion. Accusations of anti-Semitism are routinely slung, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Almost everyone in our synagogue seems to accept paraphrased variations on a basic mantra: “legitimate criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.” Such a statement is a cipher, vague enough that everyone who hears it can graft on a convenient meaning. What constitutes legitimate criticism, and who gets to decide? And if legitimate criticism is “not necessarily” anti-Semitic, some of it is implicitly anti-Semitic, and… therefore illegitimate? As much as these may sound like meaningless semantics, in a debate that hinges so often and so heavily on word choice — or, more broadly, “fact choice” — they are questions worth asking. I will try to answer them.

Let it be said that my definitions are subjective. My family members will certainly say that they encompass too little, while many of my friends may label them too broad. I am setting out the basic protocol for discussing the conflict in front of me, and while I happen to think that my rules are fairly good ones, not everyone will agree with me — so if this post causes a mashed-potato-slinging catastrophe at your next family gathering, don’t blame me.

1. Standards.
It’s the most elementary idea in the book: judge a nation on its own merits. That doesn’t mean that historical context or internal discrimination or myriad other variables can be taken out of the picture; it means that those variables should be weighed as they would be weighed for any other country. Basically, allowing the fact that the dominant religion in question is Judaism should not affect the standards by which Israel is evaluated. This doesn’t only go for conventional anti-Semitism per se, the kind that might judge Israel negatively because of a negative opinion of Jews. No, this is applicable to any school of thought that applies blanket statements about Jews to a judgment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether or not it is a favorable judgment.
Acceptable: Applying impartial standards to Israel and finding it wanting.
Unacceptable:: Applying different criteria, either laxer or more stringent, to Israel based on an opinion of Judaism. Saying that “Israel is honorable because the Jews are honorable” is as unacceptable as “Israel is repugnant because the Jews are repugnant.” Likewise, it is unacceptable to criticize Israel because we Jews ought to be “a beacon unto nations,” or morally superior in any way; this is a trap that is unfortunately popular in the progressive Jewish community. “Positive” stereotypes are as problematic as explicitly nasty ones (though that’s another post).

2. Hyperbole.
It’s a question of common sense: don’t blow things out of proportion. Especially when those things happen to fall under the category of “age-old anti-Semitic trope.”
Acceptable: “AIPAC has an undue influence on American reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Unacceptable:“AIPAC controls U.S. foreign policy/the government/the media.”

3. Inappropriate conflation.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Judaism ≠ Israel.  Jews ≠ Israel.  Individual Jewish friends or acquaintances ≠ Israel.  To accuse “the Jews” of screwing shit up in the Middle East, or to say that Judaism is racist because some policies of the Israeli government have been, is to reduce a vastly diverse and multifaceted religion (and one that predates the State of Israel by millennia) to the actions of one infitesimal sub-sub-sector of its population. And that is neither fair nor logical.
Acceptable: “Israel oppresses Palestinians.”
Unacceptable: “The Jews oppress Palestinians.”

4. Pseudo-psychology.
Along the lines of the whole blanket-generalization issue. I have enough psychological qualms of my own; I don’t need an entire new pack of “syndromes” attributed to me because of my membership in a certain religious group. And when someone accuses Israel of Stockholm syndrome or other oppression-related disorders — because they’re Jewish, and all Jews suffer from Stockholm syndrome, and all Jews would reflect that vaguely defined Stockholm syndrome in a position of power — the effect is frustrating on multiple levels. It posits that the oppressive policies enacted by the Israeli government stem directly from their Jewishness (as opposed to privilege, or power, or other factors that have been reflected identically in a whole hell of a lot of non-Jewish countries), which I think has a somewhat self-explanatory place on the anti-Semitism meter. It refuses to take into account the existence of Jews outside of the context of Israel, Jews who to my knowledge have not uniformly displayed signs of Shoah-related “disorders.” It’s condescending, and ableist, and an intellectually masturbatory derailing of knowledgeable discussion. And it, at the most basic level, disqualifies Jews from holding any leadership positions: because whether as government officials or CEOs or drama teachers or high school newspaper editors, we just wouldn’t be able to stop ourselves from harming our underlings, because history has irrevocably screwed us up, and that’s that.
Acceptable: “It’s wrong for the IDF to commit acts of torture.”
Unacceptable: “The IDF soldiers learned it from their grandparents.”

5. A few other assorted thoughts.
Okay, so, first of all: The Holocaust is not an appropriate metaphor. Ever. Not when critics of Israel use it, and not when Abe Foxman uses it. It was genocide, not a ready-made rhetorical device, and I am personally offended when it becomes a new, shiny feature of political speech. That’s as trivializing as it gets.

Also. What do you mean when you call the state of Israel illegitimate, or use words like “destroyed” or “dissolved?” If you want a more liberal, secular, democratic, accepting Israel, one that is “the Jewish state” rather than “a Jewish state,” and one that does not use politically decreed Jewishness as a reason to suppress non-Jewish populations, I’ll buy that absolutely. But if by “destroyed” or “dissolved” you mean actually rendered nonexistent, your point seems moot at best and poisonous at worst. Look, the state of Israel exists, and will likely continue to exist in our lifetimes. And if you don’t like that, feel free to consider its “destruction;” think about it in terms of violence, if you must. But also consider your feelings about Canada, and the U.S., and Australia, and myriad other countries built on the displacement of indigenous people. And if you can only muster up destruction-worthy feelings about Israel, shame on you. It’s wonderful to work for an end to the occupation and discrimination espoused by Israeli policies; it’s wonderful to encourage education campaigns and anti-racist work and initiatives to improve Israel as we know it. But advocating for the destruction of Israel, as opposed to integration and change (and a right of return for all Palestinians, and a public excoriation of Avigdor Lieberman, and so on), is not only futile and counterproductive but raises some serious questions about your motivations.

For insightful posts on the subject from someone far older and wiser than myself, check out this site: http://modernmitzvot.wordpress.com/. The author is a wonderful writer and a joy to read, even as she grapples with issues as diverse from Judaism to capitalism to the “War on Christmas.” If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’d sort of like to be her when I grow up.


Things that Taste Better than Skinny Feels (and Why This Post Is Worth Writing)

As I’m sure everyone is, by now, probably aware, Kate Moss (waiflike model of ’90s fame) was recently quoted as saying this: “Nothing tastes better than skinny feels.”

Come up with at least 5 problems with that statement. In 30 seconds. And if you can’t — which is highly unlikely — I’ll supply a few: use of pro-ana rhetoric that smacks of garden-variety “thinspiration,” reinforcement of a single attractive body type, reinforcement of the artificial [fat=gluttony-laziness-disease]/[skinny=glowing-with-perfect-health] dichotomy, refusal to acknowledge the diversity of female experience, unoriginal repetition of a retrograde diet mantra that has existed, in some form, for decades.

And finally: I believe, with all my mind, body and soul, that a hell of a lot of things taste better than skinny feels.

Before I start enumerating those culinary pleasures, there’s a word or two left to say. Posts on the subject by fellow bloggers have raised enough questions that I figure I ought to attempt some answers preemptively; below is a reflection that I hope will address any qualms.

Disclaimer. The last time I could reasonably have been accounted “skinny,” I was three years old. I have struggled with my weight all my life; the only way I could return to a state of skinny — much less Kate Moss skinny — would be through full-out starvation, and indeed I was at my thinnest when, in tenth grade, I stopped eating for extended periods of time. Ergo, for me, skinny feels lousy and unhealthy and unnatural. Would someone who was naturally pencil-thin feel the same way? Of course not, and it’s insulting to assume so. But I don’t mean to relish the pleasures of food as a covert way of saying “eat a sandwich”. I also don’t mean to imply that those who suffer from eating disorders could just cast all their troubles away if they wanted because this food tastes so darn good. Because that’s been a major concern with many “Things that Taste Better than Skinny Feels” posts, and justifiably.

But feminist blogging is meant as a safe space for everyone, and a safe space not only to take on problems but to embrace pleasures that patriarchy has traditionally withheld from women. Yes, I realize that it is triggering for folks with eating disorders to read list after list of favorite foods — I’ve been there, I know. So, too, is it triggering for women with vulvodynia or other physical barriers to sexual pleasure to read about the joys of sex. Does that mean that, for an arena to be properly sensitive and feminist, all positive discussion of food or sex must be scrapped? Such a move seems counterintuitive to me, even as I understand the motivation behind it. Food, like sex — though arguably more so — is something that society discourages women from enjoying; in what might be colloquially called “the real world,” visible enjoyment of food is too often suppressed or accompanied by the requisite fat talk. A feminist blog is designed as a safe space, and in that vein should be a haven not only for complaints but for pleasures that we are, as a general rule, not supposed to express. I can’t talk about food when I sign off the computer — my ability to discuss it online is as much a prerogative, and a feminist prerogative, as yours to avoid discussion of it. That has been an operating principle of this blog, and if it seems repugnant and hyperprivileged, please feel free to call me out.

And without further ado, a few “Things That Taste Better Than Skinny Feels.” (These are not all vegan. I am not all vegan. And that’s that.)

1) Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.
2) Fried rice, browned all over and slightly burnt on the bottom, or coconut rice.
3) Alfajores. I had about thirty of these in Argentina: a pair of cakey sugar cookies, sandwiched together with oodles of dulce de leche and smothered in coconut shavings. Mmmm.
4) Hot chocolate with vanilla extract and whipped cream.
5) Fettuccine pomodoro.
6) Crusty Italian bread with olive oil and cracked pepper.
7) Spring mix salad with oil and vinegar.
8) Sauteed mushrooms.
9) Cucumber tea sandwiches.
10) Pumpkin anything. I’m a big fan of pumpkin soup.
11) Panang tofu.
12) Green curry over seitan and broccoli.
13) Crepes stuffed with grilled vegetables.
14) Vegan With A Vengeance’s coconut cupcakes.
15) New Mexico-style vegetarian Frito pie, with plenty of green chile.
16) Yuan Fu’s “chicken” with cashew nuts.
17) Shahi paneer.
18) Really excellent pad thai.
19) Sourdough bread with avocado, lettuce and red pepper hummus.
20) Potbelly’s Vegetarian Sandwich, hold the American cheese.
21) Cherry pie.
22) Pumpkin pie.
23) Any other kind of pie.
24) Red bean buns.
25) Eggplant in garlic sauce.
26) Nutty brown rice, tossed with the leftover sauce from any given main dish.
27) Veggie pizza, with an emphasis on the roasted tomatoes.
28) Guacamole with corn chips.
29) Burritos.
30) Black beans, rice, and salsa, all scrambled together and microwaved: the most satisfactory “quick lunch” out there.
31) Stoned Wheat crackers, despite (or because of?) the unintentionally hilarious name.
32) Chocolate-covered raisins.
33) Honey-roasted cashews.
34) Asparagus.
35) Avocado sushi, topped with pickled ginger.
36) Fondue.
37) Symphony bars.
38) Freshly baked sugar cookies, topped with a handful of rainbow sprinkles.
39) A toasted plain New York-style bagel with chive and onion cream cheese. Anything less is blasphemy.
40) Tabbouleh salad.
41) Acorn squash.
42) Beets.
43) Ripe figs, on their own or stuffed with goat cheese.
44) Sweet potato latkes with cardamom applesauce.
45) Kung pao tofu, complete with crushed peanuts.
46) Blondies, which I maintain are far superior to brownies.
47) Black bean soup in a bread bowl.
48) Spanakopita.
49) Trader Joe’s Masala Burgers.
50) My mother’s matzah ball soup.
Feel free to add your own!


Decoupage (and Why I Love It)

For most of my life, everyone who’s been anyone has also been a knitter.  I say this, dear readers, with a complete lack of sarcasm.  Though the older folks in our lives (read: parents) continue to think of of knitting as vaguely oppressive, the province of “bovine grandmothers” who’d slept through the sexual revolution, we teenagers know better.  The knitters in our schools are the hip countercultural types, the ones who match their hand-crocheted scarves with fishnet stockings and whose painstakingly crafted beanies sport Rasta colors.  Knitting is hip, it is sexy, it is DIY, it is radical.  It is, as so many knitters will tell you, a way of declaring freedom from the sweatshop-driven, earth-hating, nonconformist-breeding system of production.  And while it has been reduced, as faddish pastimes inevitably will be, to one of the trappings of a label (If you wanna be a Certified Indie Chick, lace up your Chucks and pick up those needles!), it still manages to keep its trendy veneer of bohemian independence.  In short, if you’re a knitter, you’re a bad-ass.  If you’re not, no matter how otherwise rebellious you may be, you’re inexorably out of the loop.

So imagine my chagrin when, after putting in my best efforts, I discovered something that I was sure would dash to hell any hopes of a social life: I didn’t like knitting.

To be frank, I found it boring.  The image — that of a young, copiously pierced, black-plastic-rimmed-glasses-clad, Artistic-with-a-capital-A knitter — was enchanting; the activity itself was not.  I lacked the attention span to keep up that regimen of stitch after stitch after stitch, with no room for improvisation or little flourishes or even the tiniest mindless deviation from the pattern, and as hard as I tried my attention span simply would not stretch.  Finally, I gave in.  My first and only scarf is still languishing in a corner, stuck at a length and consistency that might, with luck, manage to keep a Keebler elf warm on a slightly cloudy day.

This, inevitably, led to despair.  Would all my friends abandon me?  Would I lose all hope of becoming the iconoclastic crafty chica I so hoped to emulate?  Would I continue to support the all-devouring capitalist system with my capitulation to store-bought mittens?

Ladies and gentlemen, I tell you now: Decoupage saved my life.

Or at least my self-esteem.  In a funk from the crash-and-burn misery of my knitting experiment, I gave up on the DIY ethic completely, in a move that might be called “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”  For weeks I wept that I was unoriginal, uninspired, a waste of space, because I could muster neither the creativity nor motivation to knit.  It was decoupage — an activity that I took up on a whim — that made me remember my love for crafts, that glorious desire to put something new into the world.

Decoupage is the beautifying of an object with nothing more than paper scraps, scissors, and glue (or rubber cement, if you prefer).  Together with its more free-form sister, collage, it takes the detritus of civilization, of daily life, of affluenza, and puts it to an artistic and practical purpose.  You don’t need no fancy yarns or bamboo needles to decoupage, only an eye for color and access to your neighbors’ paper scraps.  It is quintessentially Freegan.  It is quintessentially DIY — in many ways, may I add, more so than knitting.  And it creates the sort of personalized sheen that few objects, whether storebought or handmade, can muster.  After all, you didn’t just sew together the pattern: you created it, down to the last tiny shard of text from what once was a March 2008 copy of Newsweek.

Decoupage is easy, it’s fun, it’s cheap to produce.  It’s even, dare I say it, liberating, and not only in a strict political sense.  It allows for all the little flourishes and halfway-through epiphanies that knitting actively forbids — in fact, the more license you take, the cooler it looks.  Want to layer that baby’s head on top of a military tank, which in turn is perched atop a line of sheet music, which itself is nestled between the ankles of a surly elephant about to charge?  Go for it.  It’ll all be under the same layer of glue anyway.  And such creative success, the kind that allows endorphins to pump through one’s head and Elmer’s-soaked fingers, will lead to a rekindling of creativity throughout one’s quotidian life — it certainly did for me.  I no longer feel like a failure as an artist because knitting leaves me cold.  I could make my way into the elite Countercultural Artists Brigade, though at this point I’ve lost much of my longing to do so.  I have my stack of Vogues and Washington Posts and cast-off worksheets and old art exhibit fliers, and I have a big strong gluestick and a perfectly sharpened pair of scissors, and that, dear readers, is all I need.


An Unfortunate Advertisement

There is plenty that could be said about the ANSWER Coalition; all of it — whether pro- or anti-ANSWER — has been said ad nauseam, and so you will not find my opinion here.  But however one feels about the controversial coalition, it is difficult to deny its status as an influential, often galvanizing force in the anti-war, anti-imperialist movement.

So I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to view the official poster for this year’s keystone march.

First off, I don’t believe that ANSWER is an intentionally sexist organization, any more than I believe that it’s an intentionally colonialist one.  On the contrary, its stated mission is to combat colonialism, and I have no doubt that — though a cursory search of the website yields no mention of women’s rights — the progressive ANSWER crowd endorses them wholeheartedly.  But this image, to me, smacks of both sexism and colonialism, simultaneously presenting women and Afghanistan/Iraq/Palestine (and especially, needless to say, Afghani/Iraqi/Palestinian women) as powerless victims in need of marchers’ rescue.

The meme of the damsel-in-distress has been deployed in many a movement, from temperance to anti-choice to pro-“war-on-terror”; I don’t need to explain that it plays on the patriarchal fantasy of “saving” a nubile young woman from the destructive ignominy of alcohol/abortion/scary-faceless-terrorists.  And as admirable as the cause may be, implying that we Americans are the only ones who can save poor miserable women from colonialist aggression plays into the same fantasy, while reinforcing the all-too-prominent stereotype that Middle Eastern women are obedient, spineless victims in constant need of white male protection.  Which is a very effective marketing tactic, no doubt, but from a coalition that advocates following our better instincts rather than the allure of the convenient, it seems out of place.

ANSWER, I’m sure, would have something to say about the way that “the defenseless Middle Eastern woman” has been used as a pawn to advance right-wing political agendas.  First, however, it would have to embrace that there are two problems with that attitude: not only the right-wing political agendas but the infantilizing use of women as pawns.  And while I understand the efficacy of enticing potential marchers with the lure of a damsel in distress, the ad’s underpinnings contradict the very ideals that ANSWER so hopes to protect.  In conclusion: ANSWER, find yourself a better marketing team, one aware that a big ol’ font and a catchy slogan can be every bit as eye-catching as, and far less of a turnoff than, an offensive picture.


…Thanks, but No Thanks

Even putting aside the fallacious arguments of the article itself — and I’m not even going to go there — you can’t help but be shocked by this now-infamous editorial in the South Carolina paper Times and Democrat. On Sunday, a pair of South Carolina Republican county chairmen wrote in to the T&D to defend Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC)’s disdain for earmarks; they began with this statement:

“There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves. By not using earmarks to fund projects for South Carolina and instead using actual bills, DeMint is watching our nation’s pennies and trying to preserve our country’s wealth and our economy’s viability to give all an opportunity to succeed.”

To this I can only say: Are you serious?

The potential danger in the use of this stereotype (even — or especially — when labeled a “compliment,” as the writers did when questioned) needs not be enumerated here; I trust that readers are aware of the possible corollaries and consequences of such a view, and aware that it is, no matter how veiled in “complimentary” rhetoric, anti-Semitic.  What I find disheartening is the pervasiveness, even now, of such anti-Semitic views in American society.

I’m not talking about the logically dubious but oft-circulated idea of a “New Antisemitism,” generally defined as an exponentially growing trend of widespread anti-Semitism hidden behind criticism of Israel; likewise, I’m not talking about “the self-hating Jew,” a concept that I believe mostly operates as a popular, casually misdirected rhetorical device.  No, I’m talking about hatred that is not new but persistent, that may be better-veiled but bases itself around the same bigoted, irrational, rancid myths and attitudes that have fueled anti-Semitism since time immemorial.  I’m talking about assertions that “the Jews” (or their stand-ins in mainstream publications, the “New York/San Francisco/Hollywood elite,” inevitably represented by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen) control the media, or entertainment, or politics, or the financial sphere.  I’m talking about absurd but not terribly rare conspiracy theories blaming everything from 9/11 to the war in Iraq to the recession on Jews, expressed in a less obvious form by a certain undue fascination with relatively minor — but Jewish — politicians.  I’m talking about the exclusive focus on the Madoff scandal amidst a culture chock-full of corporate embezzlement and greed; I’m talking about the reaction to that scandal, including a sadistic, frankly flabbergasting feature in the Post that invited readers to submit suggestions on how best to punish Madoff.  And I don’t think any of this is new — on the contrary, it’s a 21st-century carbon copy of attitudes that have never been absent from American society — but it shocks me that, even now, it can be so ever-present.

As for solutions, I have no easy ones.  Thought patterns as deeply ingrained into the fabric of a society as anti-Semitism (or racism, or sexism, or any other form of bigotry) are difficult to alter, and certainly can’t be altered by a rallying cry at the end of a blog post.  But I do think it’s important to be conscious of anti-Semitism, to — as with any other prejudice — examine which thoughts, words and actions of ours might reflect it, and try, in whatever ways possible, to counteract it.  That’s abstract and self-explanatory, but it’s all I can give.  And it applies not only to individuals (though individuals cannot be exonerated) but to news sources, publishers, etc.

Thankfully, the gentlemen from South Carolina have just gotten a quick, simple, and very harsh bit of consciousness-raising.  Perhaps, in the future, they will understand that blanket statements are nearly always ill-advised and indicative of broader prejudice.  Perhaps, too, they will have learned not to be freaking idiots — though I wouldn’t place any bets.


Gabo, Cacho and Art

This is one of the more difficult situations I’ve come across in a while — not because of its challenging subject matter, or its prominence, but because I admire one of the protagonists very much.  And that’s the protagonist I can’t bring myself to entirely side with.

Essentially, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 2004 novella “Memoria de mis putas tristes,” roughly translated as “Memories of my Melancholy Whores” (promising title, right?) was, like the more famous “Love in the Time of Cholera,” going to receive the silver-screen treatment.  This elicited considerable controversy from activists across Latin America, and as per the Post, “a human rights organization called the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean filed a criminal complaint with the Mexican attorney general last week, asserting that the filmmakers would be ‘responsible for acts that could be constituted as the crime of condoning child prostitution.’ ”   So the government of the state of Puebla revoked the $1.5 million in taxpayer money that had previously constituted 25 percent of the film’s budget; the film has been postponed until further funds can be scrounged up.  Since that move, Mexico City’s media has been rocked by the controversy, with well-known intellectuals publicly voicing their support for either side of the debate.

One of those intellectuals is the amazing Lydia Cacho, a world-renowned feminist activist primarily known for her work against the sexual abuse of women and children; she vocally opposes the film’s production, saying that “[her opposition to the film] is not about censorship or prudishness, but about the need of an in-depth debate about the ideological support for child exploitation.”

I agree completely.  Which is why I think that legally forcing the termination of the film’s production is a terrible idea.

And that’s hard for me to say, because in any given debate, I don’t want to side against Lydia Cacho.  I certainly don’t want to side against her by going with Gabo.  It must be noted here that I am one of the few people I know who wholeheartedly dislikes most of his work, particularly the vastly overrated, unremittingly prurient, seemingly substance-less “Cholera;” I also think that his novels are among the most (consciously or unconsciously) sexist I’ve ever read, and it shocks me how infrequently this comes up in critical evaluations.  Simply put, Gabo unfailingly characterizes his women as either hardbitten matrons or lush, dewy-eyed virgins, all of them happy to sexually pleasure male protagonists at a moment’s notice.  He is too willing to treat them as faceless entries on a list — in the case of at least two novels, they literally become sexual-conquest statistics — and far too willing to whitewash rape or present it as an act of love.  Finally, perhaps most disturbingly, many-if-not-most of his novels come close to lionizing pedophilia; there is barely a male hero in Gabo’s work that has not, at some point, sexually pursued a prepubescent girl. And it’s not presented in the gritty, morally ambiguous sense of “Lolita” — rather, it is romanticized, honored, shown with cascades of rose petals like a Harlequin paperback by way of Roman Polanski.  (“Memoria de mis putas tristes” is a prime example: the book concerns a 90-year-old man who “gives himself the gift” of sex with a 14-year-old virgin, drugged until completely unconscious.)  Lydia Cacho’s objections are well-founded.  This is not, in an era plagued with human trafficking and sexual abuse, the sort of thing we’d like to see circulated, much less praised as art.  Certainly, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of taxpayer funds being directed towards the production of the film — especially when granted by a governor who attempted to protect a known child abuser.

But it seems to me that, while concerns about the movie are absolutely well-founded, I’m not sure that legally banning it is the best path to take.  The most obvious, and perhaps most dangerous, reason is this: that it will attract more attention, and the wrong kind of attention, to the book.  Were all that attention coming from legitimately curious readers, I would have no problem with that; in fact, I’d be excited about the possibility of a greater discussion about Marquez’s work and the disturbing undercurrents therein.  But if a work is famously banned as child pornography, it will increase its appeal to readers in search of titillation — titillation that, if you’re already in search of it, Gabo’s books can provide, with a handy helping of moral exoneration to go with.  Nabokov was good enough to make “Lolita” ambiguous and ugly, unappealing enough to mostly negate the effect of readers in search of a cheap sexual thrill; “Memoria” and “Cholera” are not solely pornography but their truly distressing possibilities lie in their not-so-quiet okaying of pedophilia.  And not just quiet pedophilia limited to the realm of fantasy, but exploitations, manipulations, abuses, rapes, all romanticized past recognition until they seem desirable.  If the film goes forth, both book and film will be inconsequential, and when either comes up it will be primarily as a subject of discussion.  If it does not go forth, the book will become forbidden fruit, elevated to pornographic heights and singled out by the very readers on whom Cacho fears its effect.

The other reason, of course, is a precedent of censorship.  I believe, of course, that child pornography should be banned.  But, though it might have that effect on readers who seek it out for sexual purposes, none of Gabo’s work can be placed under a conventional definition of pornography; certainly, however overrated his talents, his novels have enough “literary or artistic merit” to escape such a classification.  Legally, much as we may wish it, we cannot ban these books for their themes, nor should we.  Art can be disturbing, and not always purposefully.  Likewise, art can be sexist, racist, repugnant, and not always purposefully.  Art, as much faith as we hope to put in it, can be wrong.  But can we ban Marquez, or Rand, or Hemingway — or, hell, Margaret Mitchell — for themes that are repulsive, or themes that could have a pernicious effect?  It seems a societal slippery slope, and an undesirable one.  In part, I dislike the idea because it would give Marquez’s sleazier defenders ammunition, attention and support with cries of undue censorship; in part, I dislike it because to ban media without circulating it would be to eliminate any factual basis for genuine discussion, for shades of gray if you will.  Allowing the film to go through will do far less damage than banning it would (and, incidentally, is based on the fundamentally wrongheaded and vaguely condescending assumption that more people would make the effort to watch a mediocre, uncontroversial, inconspicuous movie on TV than to read a short, un-esoteric book around which controversies and accusations of child pornography swirl) — and might even, if handled with the expertise that Cacho and other prominent defenders of human rights have demonstrated, give way to an intelligent, meaningful reevaluation of Gabo and the mores that pervade his work.