Friday, April 22, 2005

Americanisms I

Matt Taibbi's assailing of Tom Friedman has earned much attention in the zeitgest because of its Menckenesque pretensions. Here he is on Friedman's new book "The World is Flat":

i) "Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example, drawn at random from The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here's what he says:

'I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.'

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses."

ii) "On an ideological level, Friedman's new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country."

iii) "Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end—and I'm not joking here—we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman's book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author's metaphors.

.... For instance:
And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

... His description of the early 90s:
The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been—but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.

How the f_ _ _ do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?"

Bracketing for the moment the literati's titillation at Taibbi's venom, the article raises a familiar but vexed problem: the relationship of style to politics; form to ideology:

"It's impossible to divorce The World Is Flat from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called "the most important columnist in America today." That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he's in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country's most important columnist. You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case.

Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it. In politics, this allows America to invade a castrated Iraq in self-defense. In the intellectual world, Friedman is now probing the outer limits of this trick's potential, and it's absolutely perfect, a stroke of genius, that he's choosing to argue that the world is flat. The only thing that would have been better would be if he had chosen to argue that the moon was made of cheese.

And that's basically what he's doing here. The internet is speeding up business communications, and global labor markets are more fluid than ever. Therefore, the moon is made of cheese. That is the rhetorical gist of The World Is Flat. It's brilliant. Only an America-hater could fail to appreciate it."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Authenticity and Performance at Smith

On the one hand, we have conservatives and romantics (that is to say, radical conservatives) whose god term is "authenticity": into this bracket, slot in words like "all-American" (i.e. white, male, upper/middle class); "anti-American" (i.e. anybody who is against the Iraq war), and "masculinity" (i.e. Schwarzenegger versus "girly men").

On the other hand, we have liberals and postmodernists (that is to say, avant-garde liberals) whose god term is "performance": into this bracket, slot in words like tenured professors (i.e. after all, getting paid $100,000 to describe comma splices as "subversive" gives "performance" a whole new meaning; and besides, we have worshipful graduate students who cushion us from the real world).

.... Meanwhile, another frontier opens, as the Financial Times reports :

i) Established 134 years ago, Smith has educated some of America’s most influential women. Feminist pioneers Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are graduates. So is the poet Sylvia Plath and former Republican first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Set on a slope overlooking the town of Northampton in western Massachusetts, Smith is one of the four surviving “seven sisters” network of elite all-female schools.

It has been resolutely dedicated to the advancement of women (and women only) ever since it was set up. Its founder, Sophia Smith, was a wealthy New Englander who made it clear in her will that she wanted Smith to be a liberal arts college for women, equal to the best available to men; a place where women could “develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood”.

But now, a new insurgency by transgender students:

ii) Of the 2,500 women who attend Smith, about two dozen describe themselves as “female-to-male transgender”, or women who have become men. The term “transgender” itself is a catch-all that includes a wide spectrum of people who don’t identify with their birth sex; from transsexuals, who use surgery to change their sex, to those who change their appearance cosmetically - cross-dressers, as they used to be known, though such a term is considered old-school today. The number of transgender students at Smith is small, but it has been enough to create significant divisions on the campus. On one hand are the students who take an orthodox view of their college’s mission. These are the “girls with pearls” - the more traditional women who are at the college because of its rigorous academic training and its venerable heritage.

This is just a microcosm of a debate that has been held on campus for almost two years. In the spring of 2003, “trans” students began campaigning for a referendum to purge the school constitution of all gender-specific language. They wanted to replace “she” with “the student” and “her” with “the student’s”. About 1,100 students took part in the plebiscite, and the proposal was passed narrowly, by 50 votes.

A year later, the School Government Association held elections in which SGA vice-president Shawn Basta, a transgender student, ran for president. During the campaign, a broad coalition called for another referendum to overturn the constitution’s pronoun change, claiming that there had not been enough information before the original vote. Many students saw this as an unpleasant move aimed at calling attention to Basta’s gender identity....

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sexual Fetishization and Culture

The Yale Daily News has a column by Sallie Kim and Shannon Stockdale on the sexual fetishization of Asian women in the U.S. The article draws our attention to events that define a phenomenon, often characterized by the powerful as essentially benign, or, sometimes, as a mere annoyance:

i) "Recently, Princeton graduate student Michael Lohman admitted to police that he had been silently terrorizing more than 50 Asian women on campus by clipping snippets of their hair, spraying them with his urine and pouring his semen or urine in their drinks at university dining halls when they weren't looking. After three years of these repulsive acts, investigators finally caught up with and arrested Lohman last week. They searched his campus apartment and found stolen underwear and women's hair stuffed into mittens that he had been using for sexual self-gratification."

ii) "For example, in 2000, two Japanese college women were abducted, raped, videotaped and told that if they told anybody what had happened, the videotapes would be sent to their fathers. The three white assailants admitted targeting Asian women precisely because they had a sexual fetish for "submissive" Asian women, but also because they believed that this same submissiveness and cultural shame would prevent the women from reporting the assaults. In 2002, N.C. State University student Lili Wang was stalked and murdered by Richard Borrelli Anderson, a white classmate who was infatuated with her and had admitted to a colleague that he had an Asian fetish."

iii) "Not only are Asian women disproportionately targeted in sex crimes, but they are also the least likely to report such incidents. Sex crimes are already grossly underreported, with only an estimated 26 percent of rape victims coming forward, but the percentage of Asian women who do so is even lower, at a mere 8 percent. Police hope that the Asian women will come forward about their harassment in the Princeton incident; however, the statistics tell us that it is not likely."

The article offers two bits of cultural criticism:

i) "Though it may be difficult to identify the exact origins of violence targeted at Asian women, there is no denying that media portrayal of this minority population has had an effect on building preconceived notions and shaping stereotypes of Asian women as passive, exotic and more easily dominated. Images of the Japanese Geisha girl, the South Asian seductress and the China doll pervade American culture and add to the misconception of Asian women. This has had disturbing results. For instance, in 2002, Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne conducted a content-analysis study of 31 pornographic Web sites that advertised scenes depicting the rape or torture of women, and found that nearly half of the sites used depictions of Asian women as the rape victim."

ii) "Part of the reason why Asian women are not likely to come forward about their victimization in sex crimes is that many Asian cultures put the blame for such crimes on the women. They feel a sense of shame for having been the target of such attacks and feel that they might have done something wrong to invite the attack. It is these ideas and this culture that we must fight and abolish. The stigmatization of rape victims must end."


The New York Times on the history of the Vatican conclave:

"During a 13th-century conclave in Viterbo, Italy, one that might best be described as interminable (it lasted almost three years), the townspeople finally got fed up. They removed the palace roof to expose the cardinals to the elements, and sent in only bread and water. The deadlock quickly broke, and a layman was elected Pope Gregory X; he accomplished much in his five-year reign. "

[Story: "Even Cardinals are Prone to Peer Pressure"]

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

High Culture Dittohead .....

According to Lawrence H. Summers, who is male and the president of Harvard University, "innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math." The Boston Globe reports that, "Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities."

Watesaji, Wabaguzi, Wasaliti

According to a survey conducted by Cornell University, 44% of U.S. citizens believe that the government should curtail the civil rights of Muslim Americans.

The Cornell News reports: "About 27 percent of respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government, and 26 percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Twenty-nine percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising. About 22 percent said the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats based on the fact that they are Muslim or have Middle Eastern heritage. In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans."

Religious values:"The survey also examined the relation of religiosity to perceptions of Islam and Islamic countries among Christian respondents. Sixty-five percent of self-described highly religious people queried said they view Islam as encouraging violence more than other religions do; in comparison, 42 percent of the respondents who said they were not highly religious saw Islam as encouraging violence. In addition, highly religious respondents also were more likely to describe Islamic countries as violent (64 percent), fanatical (61 percent) and dangerous (64 percent). Fewer of the respondents who said they were not highly religious described Islamic countries as violent (49 percent), fanatical (46 percent) and dangerous (44 percent). But 80 percent of all respondents said they see Islamic countries as being oppressive toward women. "

And by political party:"Researchers found that opinions on restricting civil liberties for Muslim Americans vary by political self-identification. About 40 percent of Republican respondents agreed that Muslim Americans should be required to register their whereabouts, compared with 24 percent of Democratic respondents and 17 percent of independents. Forty-one percent of Republican respondents said that Muslim American civic groups should be infiltrated, compared with 21 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents. On whether mosques should be monitored, about 34 percent of the Republicans polled agreed they should be, compared with 22 percent of Democrats. Thirty-four percent of Republicans said that profiling of Muslim Americans is necessary, compared with 17 percent of Democrats. "

The Anawim

The anawim are the dregs and refuse of society, its tragic scapegoats. They are the flotsam and jetsam of history who do not need to abandon themselves to be remade, since they are lost to themselves already. And it is with them that Yahweh identifies. He will be known for what he is, in the words of Luke 1:53, when you see the mighty cast down and the lower orders exalted, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. The true sacrificial figure, the one which like the burnt offering will pass from profane to powerful, loss of life to fullness of it, is the propertyless and oppressed (Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper 2003b: 277).