“White Supremacy Ate My French Homework” Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

In his NYT obituary of Joan Rivers, Robert D. McFadden refers to her as “the brassy Jewish-American princess from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in Westchester County.” This jumped out at me, not just because “JAP” is a slur (which it is, but one could argue that it honors Rivers to violate PC), but because… Flatbush? Some of my family lived in more or less that part of Brooklyn at more or less the same time, and it seems an odd place to label “princess” country.

I made that point on Facebook, which led to a discussion about whether one must be born a “JAP” to be one, or whether one can, through scrappy hard work, deck oneself out in tasteless-but-expensive garb and become a princess in the derogatory sense. Can one ever earn unearned advantage? Is that a thing?

Which brings us back to the more general question of “privilege.” Can privilege be earned? Is the combination of talent, hard work, and luck that brings a handful of people from not-so-privileged backgrounds success enough to move such individuals into the “privileged” category? Or does the word specifically refer to advantage that’s the result of being born to the winning side of some systematic inequality?

That’s a big part of the conversation that’s emerged in the response to my earlier post, in which I took issue with Rod Dreher’s choice to call out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “privilege” when what Coates was describing – taking a French class as a successful adult, in a situation that wouldn’t have been available to him as a kid – seemed a fairly clear-cut case of earned advantage. Freddie deBoer takes issue with that assessment:

Of course Coates has been the beneficiary of unearned advantage.

It’s an unearned advantage to be born without crippling medical ailments. It’s an unearned advantage to be born male. It’s an unearned advantage to be born in the United States rather than in Afghanistan or Somalia. And so on. Is that what most people mean when they talk about privilege? Maybe not, but then another of the central points of privilege theory is that the privileges that are most profound tend to be those we don’t acknowledge. Besides: Coates has written at length about the benefits he had growing up thanks to his parents, and to being politicized by his father, a former Black Panther. That’s a classic kind of privilege, parental privilege, and one that absolutely matters.

Such talk will inevitably piss some people off, but it shouldn’t. The fact that Coates has been the recipient of great advantages compared to many people in the world doesn’t change the fact that he has also been faced, his whole life, with the disadvantage of living in a structurally racist society, or the relative disadvantage of his own economic circumstances compared to some others. The point is that “privileged” is not a binary category, and in fact essentially all people are some combination of advantaged and disadvantaged.

Despite a tone that suggests he and I are in stark disagreement, I basically agree with him on this. And he’s right that Coates, going the 2012 article I suspect he’s at least partially referring to, probably would as well. How anyone ends up where they do in life is always going to be some incalculable mix of effort and unearned advantage. One of the great flaws of “privilege” as a concept – and as deBoer notes, I’ve held forth on this topic quite a bit; if my ending was “underwritten,” it was out of a fear of length of the holding-forth that could ensue – is that it fails to account for the myriad unearned advantages and unfair (but often invisible) obstacles that don’t fall into any particular privilege framework. Is talent “privilege”? Is growing up in a dysfunctional but upper-class family a lack thereof? It’s always going to be possible to point to individual rich people who’ve had it worse than individual poor ones, individual black people who’ve had it easier than individual white ones, and so on. We can all point to people we know who are, on paper, more privileged than we are, but have struggled more than we have, and vice versa.

But this is only a problem when one tries to apply “privilege” to individuals. The concept works much better for describing society, because it’s about all-things-equal. While unearned, idiosyncratic advantages have doubtless contributed to Coates’s success, that doesn’t somehow tell us that white privilege (or white unearned advantage) isn’t significant in some broader sense. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d be wary of taking this critique of privilege as far as deBoer does when he describes “a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t.” Yes, life is complicated, but it’s not that complicated. Are we really going to say that the Harvard legacy kid has precisely the same level of unearned advantage as the kid who got in thanks to hard-work-and-dedication-privilege?

Two readers address this question of systematic inequality more eloquently than I could, so let’s end with their observations. The first:

I think the critique of Coates’ essay regarding privilege misses a key component of TNC’s entire project. When you argue: “people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television.” You miss the key difference, in a way that Dreher does as well. TNC’s point (and he links repeatedly to the research backing it up both on Twitter and in the Reparations essay) is not that there’s some vague privilege in having grown up in one neighborhood vs another and that if only his family had been middle class he’d be different. It’s that structurally, a black child in a family that we would call middle class is vastly more likely to grow up in a bad neighborhood, attend worse schools, and have far more contact with actual poverty than a white child with the exact same family profile. That is the access to culture we’re talking about here. It’s not a vague sense that someone reads with a child or that mom and dad talk about books or whatever. It’s that for black families, being middle class isn’t enough. They will live in worse neighborhoods, they will have greater contact with poverty (and violence, and likely the police) and their outcomes will be constrained because of it.

That’s what’s actually more galling about Dreher’s response. It’s that he hand-waves away the research TNC puts forward with anecdotes about his family, and so he never confronts the structure of the argument at all.

And the second:

I suppose this list of qualifications – senior editor a respected magazines, writing for top publications, spending a summer studying French at Middlebury – is a set of markers of class and privilege. But consider this set of qualifications: tenured professor at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country, respected scholar with an international following, board member of a number of prestigious cultural institutions. Pretty upper class, right?

Of course, I’m describing Henry Louis Gates, who if we all recall was arrested in 2009 after being locked out of his house.

I’m neither a senior editor at a national magazine, nor a professor at a prestigious university, but if I’m ever locked out of my house, I don’t worry that a neighbor will call the police on me. Yet should that nonetheless happen, I’m extremely confident of my ability to explain the situation to the police and avoid arrest. And I’ll wager however much you like that Dreher is in the same position.

Here would be where I point out that this is white privilege – but I think “privilege” is not actually helpful, nor accurate. Rather, here is where I point out that this is in fact a question of class, that class has many components, and that alongside income, wealth, education, and profession, race is one of them.

Race is part of class, and I think a lot of the bitterness comes from the realization that however many achievements a black American may achieve in 2014, race often still trumps achievement as a designator.

“White Supremacy Ate My French Homework”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Like Bill McKibben, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on learning French with interest. I did so both because French, and because of how powerful and prescient I’d found his reparations article. I read this latest essay as a reflection on the ways that studying a highbrow, so-called universal subject can bring about deeper insights on more particular struggles. While I came to the piece with as good a sense as anyone of how studying French can impact Jewish identity (that being, in a roundabout way, the subject of my doctoral dissertation), I had very little idea of what effect it might have on black identity. But it seemed natural enough to me that it might have one. It didn’t, then, seem out-there to me that Coates would take the opportunity of describing his adult-ed French classes to segue into musings on the state of education for African-American children.

Rod Dreher has a somewhat different take. A part of Dreher’s critique of Coates makes sense. Another part of it, however, does not, and then there’s Dreher’s witticism in the comments to his own post: “The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that TNC’s essay amounts to ‘white supremacy ate my French homework.'”

The more I think about that sentence, the more I think that it expresses exactly the sort of breezily-expressed viewpoint – not quite racist (although I’ll leave that for readers of the race in question to decide), but definitively insensitive – that gives conservatism a not entirely fair reputation as… less than ideal, let’s say, when it comes to issues regarding race.

But first, the bit that made perfect sense:

Dreher takes Coates to task for conflating “white” childhoods with ones steeped in cultural capital. This is a common problem with “privilege” critiques – people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television. This gets at a problem I’ve long had with the word “privilege” – while the concept it refers to is sound, the word itself has a tendency to give the impression that anyone with one form of privilege is privileged in the colloquial sense, i.e. all-around advantaged.

On the one hand, it’s part and parcel of lack-of-privilege that you don’t know how it goes for the more privileged in whichever area. On the other, if the end goal is highlighting actual injustices, then it should be pointed out where advantages actually lie. It’s completely fair to point out that some aspects of Coates’ struggle with French are related less to racism than to his class background, or to the fact that he was older than his classmates. Next, the not-so-fair:

Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!

I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist.

Agreed that Coates doesn’t end on a particularly upbeat note, but why exactly shouldn’t studying French lead Coates to reflect on racial injustice? Because anyone who gets to go to a language summer school somewhere “verdant” should be so busy expressing gratitude that they wouldn’t even find the time?

Dreher proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole in a follow-up post. “Ignore the author’s tendentious race politics,” writes Dreher, “and there’s a deeply human lesson in that essay.” Dreher, in other words, instructs readers to ignore the point of the essay. More frustratingly, he constructs a dichotomy between the black and “human” aspects of it: “What he discovered at Middlebury was not the effects of white supremacy, but the limits inherent within himself — limits all of us will eventually discover about ourselves, one way or another.”

Dreher seems oddly attached to the idea that Coates could only possibly have been talking about a universal experience – as if anything particular to Coates’ experience as an African-American was something that a better editor would have thought to take out. There’s a certain irony in this, given that Coates’ essay inspired Dreher, in turn, to discuss the particularities of his own upbringing.

Dreher remains committed to calling out Coates’ “privilege”… when what he’s actually calling out are achievements Coates has earned.

From his initial response:

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it.

And the second:

He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.

We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.

I suppose Coates is privileged in the it’s-been-a-privilege sense. Unearned advantage, though, is a tough case to make.

Off With Their Heels

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Rebecca Willis ponders the eternal question of why (some) women wear high heels:

We’ve heard it all before and it is, of course, a conundrum. Women say they feel empowered in heelsperhaps because they can look men in the eyewhen in reality they are physically handicapped by them. A lot of ink has been spent over the years trying to explain why we still wear them. To summarise: a high heel is sexual, changing the way we move, signalling passivity and availability. It’s misogynist, rendering women decorative and in need of a strong arm to hold. It’s a sign that we’ve escaped the prison of domesticityhave you tried doing housework in heels? And it’s a status symbol, as tallness is associated with privilege and good nutrition. Even so, many women, women with brains enough to understand that feet are a feminist issue, still want to wear heels. The long view may be that we’re going through a patch of cultural turbulence, but the close-up is that we really want that sense of lift. So for now let’s accept the existence of that desire, however ideologically unsound it may be. …

You have only to go to the chemist’s and stand in front of the shelves of gel insoles, corn pads, blister plasters and heel grips to see that footwear can be torture. And women are more tortured than men: according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are two to four times more likely to have hallux valgus (that’s bunions to you and me) and four to five times more likely to have hammer toes. If we could make ourselves immune to fashion and novelty, we’d be better off spending our money on a couple of custom-made pairs of shoes rather than lots of the off-the-shelf, one-shape-fits-all variety.

But what if this question is not, in fact, eternal? In a piece accompanied by a sketch by Konstantin Kakanias of fashion’s A-list in their preferred flats, Sadie Stein (NYT) announces a new, hobble-free era:

Today, all the old tropes and even the recent ones (Birkenstocks, Tevas, shower sandals) have been taken out of the box and made to look fresh and new. You can find driving moccasins, once an icon of staid WASPiness, bristling with ironic attitude, deck shoes in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn.

In the summer heat, urban women resembled Greek goddesses in strappy sandals. On runways from Marc by Marc Jacobs to Chanel, the look was bright sneakers and flat boots. Rather than teetering to their town cars, top fashion editors and stylists were suddenly able to hop on Citi Bikes or toodle through the Tuileries. From Lanvin’s laceless oxfords to the Row’s crocodile brogues, Marni’s tasseled loafers to riffs on Dr. Martens at Céline and Alexander McQueen — these are shoes you want to walk in. Nothing could feel more grown-up right now.

So, could this be it? If Fashion says heels are done, does that mean the next big thing will be higher heels than ever before? Most likely. But as a short, shoe-loving woman who was avoiding heels before it was cool, I vote for the flat-shoe trend to go on indefinitely (oxymoronic as that wish may be).

Brilliant Women Who Explain Things To Me

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Rebecca Mead describes the challenges Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has faced as a prominent female academic:

At Cambridge [in 1972], the inequities of gender began to dawn on Beard. “Most of the people who taught us in the faculty were blokes,” she says. “There were only twelve per cent women among the students, and you thought, Actually, there is an issue here. You go into a dining hall of a men’s college, and everybody’s portrait was a bloke. Well, perhaps some female founder back in 1512, some lady who gave the cash—and everyone else was a bloke. For the first time I saw that, somehow, I was there as sort of a favor.” She attended women’s groups and joined campaigns to open the university further to women. The women of Cambridge were undertaking more personal voyages of discovery, too: in a drawer somewhere in Beard’s house is a plastic speculum that she acquired at one consciousness-raising gathering.

Beard left Cambridge in 1979, for King’s College London. She completed her Ph.D. in 1982; two years later, she returned to Newnham as a fellow. At the time, she says, she was one of only three women on the classics faculty, out of a total of twenty-six; before long, both of her female colleagues left. (Now there are roughly four men to each woman.)

That was then. Today, explains Mead, Beard is active on social media, and holds her own in an ongoing battle with the ubiquitous misogynistic troll contingent. Mead addresses the particularity of how Beard, whom “the Queen recently appointed … to the Order of the British Empire,” battles lesser names (or the altogether anonymous):

There is, [Beard] acknowledges, an irony in the imbalance of power: as a prominent scholar, she does have a voice, however unpleasant the threats to silence her may be. Most of her Twitter detractors are grumbling to only a handful of followers, at least until she amplifies their audience.

Mead’s article brought to mind a pattern I’ve noticed within feminism, which I’ve called the Second After Sartre problem, namely that of women who aren’t merely privileged but are major leaders of their age, who call out the obstacles that prevent them from achieving what their male equivalents can, or from doing so as easily. It’s in reference to… I’ll let LisaAppignanesi explain the story I’m referencing:

De Beauvoir and Sartre met in 1929 when they were both studying for the aggregation in philosophy, the elite French graduate degree. De Beauvoir came second to Sartre’s first, though the examiners agreed she was strictly the better philosopher and at the age of 21 the youngest person ever to have sat the exam. But Sartre, the future author of Being and Nothingness, was bold, ingenious, exuberant in his youthful excess, the satirical rebel who shouted, “Thus pissed Zarathustra” as he hurled water bombs out of classroom windows.

Being second after Sartre, when you should have been first, is indeed an injustice. Injustices that occur at the top – ones well beyond the First World Problem-ness of having-it-all feminism – are instructive (if even the most elite, confident women face sexism, perhaps sexism is actually a thing!), and of course it matters if the tippy-top of whichever hierarchy is open to all who qualify. But the trouble is that we end up hearing a wildly disproportionate amount about such injustices, because, well, who gives lectures at the British Museum? It can start to feel as if feminism is primarily about recognizing the achievements of the most accomplished women. That’s part of what feminism should be, but perhaps not quite so big a part.

See also (my grievances with) “mansplaining.” Rebecca Solnit’s article, “Men who explain things,” which more or less launched the concept, was about a man trying to explain to Solnit a topic she had just written a book about. That is… not the usual situation. More often, in cases where a man conflates maleness with superior expertise, the man and the woman know approximately as much (or as little) about the topic. Neither is likely to be a certified expert. What if a woman wishes to speak and she isn’t the world’s greatest genius? Men who fail to meet that standard have been known to say their piece.

This is my roundabout way of saying why I’m so curious about Roxane Gay’s writing. From Lucy McKeon’s review of Gay’s two new books:

Amidst Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk of “having it all” and Sheryl Sandberg’s talk of “leaning in,” Gay’s Bad Feminist, a collection of essays of cultural criticism, offers a complex and multifarious feminism to answer the movement’s ongoing PR issues, its flaws and its failures. Gay’s is a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored. Analyzing a wide range of material—from 12 Years a Slave to the Sweet Valley High series, from the reality TV trope “I’m not here to make friends” to the gendered politics of likeability in fiction, from professional sports to Tyler Perry, from the fallout of mass tragedy to legislative control of women’s reproductive rights—Bad Feminist surveys culture and politics from the perspective of one of the most astute critics writing today.

Yes, the time has come for “a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored.” It couldn’t have come soon enough.

The Short Shrift

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Alice Robb flags some research that says short men make better boyfriends and husbands:

[A] preliminary new study suggests that shorter men might actually make better partners: They do a greater share of housework, earn a greater proportion of household income, and are less likely than their taller peers to get divorced. In a working paper (it has not yet been peer reviewed), Dalton Conley, a sociologist at NYU, and Abigail Weitzman, a Ph.D. candidate, used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamicsa University of Michigan project that’s been collecting demographic data on 5,000 families for almost 50 yearsto look at how a man’s height impacts different areas of his relationship after the initial dating period. …

Divorce rates for tall and average men were basically indistinguishable, but 32 percent lower for short men. Weitzman explains this by saying that women who are “resistant” to marrying short men are more likely to “opt out” before it gets to the point of marriage: “There’s something distinct about the women who marry short men.”

But… isn’t it anti-feminist to ask women to care less about male appearance? So argues Kat Stoeffel:

Yesterday, Daily Beast writer Emily Shire argued that Jezebel’s nude rendering of Disney princes “perpetuates the same pressure on men to exhibit a certain physique that [Jezebel] critiqued Disney of doing to women.” That may be. But Shire has missed what makes exerting that pressure so fun. “Not being objectified” is just one of the many advantages of being male. When we selectively revoke this freedom from body scrutiny, we don’t do anything to diminish the meaningful economic and reproductive advantages men enjoy.

Put another way: We will stop Dong Watch once there’s a female president, zero wage gap, and Swedish-level paid parental leave; once tampons, birth control, and abortions are all available free and on-demand.

And so I, too, contend. (My take is less colorful, less recent, and less inclusive of cartoon genitalia.) It’s bleak to think that women must choose between physical enjoyment of a partner they’re attracted to, and one who’s a decent person. Bleak, but also confusing – if it’s empowering to choose a partner in part on the basis of physical attraction, what does it say if the tradeoff of a more attractive partner is having to load the dishwasher every time? (It isn’t in all cases, but Science is not interested in individual anecdotes about strapping men who do their fair share.)

But I digress. What about short men?

The importance of male height in hetero dating strikes me as perplexing, because women aren’t imagined to care about looks in the first place. Women aren’t visual creatures, or so they say, they who have not observed women observing packs of shirtless joggers. Why would any aspect of male appearance matter to women?

Part of the double-standard in terms of who gets to select a partner they’re physically attracted to, without (excessive) shallowness stigma, is just sexism. Men feel entitled to being attracted to their partners, whereas women are, I don’t know, meant to thank their lucky stars if they have company of the non-cat persuasion. A man who falls for a beautiful woman, well that’s just natural! A woman, meanwhile, seems as if she’s regressed to the life stage when falling for a Jordan Catalano was age-appropriate behavior. Yet some of it may also relate to the way female looks-concern most obviously manifests itself, namely in an apparent fixation on this one, unalterable trait. A woman can, if she sees fit, take various measures to be more conventionally attractive. Height, however, basically is what it is.

But is the male-height thing even about looks in the sense of physical attraction? Or is just a status marker? Obviously this will vary from woman to woman – subjective preferences and cultural ideals do tend to overlap. But they don’t overlap entirely. Do women’s heads really not turn for shirtless joggers under 5’7″?

My official verdict on this is that if you truly only find yourself physically attracted to tall men, you shouldn’t somehow force yourself to be intimate with people you don’t want to be. If, however, you’re simply afraid of what your friends will think if you date a shorter guy, and are rejecting shorter men you are attracted to in order to date the people you think you should be dating – and I suspect that this is the case most of the time – then yes, you probably should reconsider. If that means more dates for short men, and more equitable division of household labor, fantastic.

So Random

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Jesse Singal laments the decline of the traditional college roommate experience, in which you’re paired with a random classmate:

It’s unlikely a circa-2014 college freshman will ever have to go more than a few hours without having a chance to communicate with distant loved ones. All of which only makes the rando roommate more important.

Just ask Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth economist and one of the leading researchers into the effects college roommates have on each other. Sacerdote is a fan of random roommate assignment. Partially, that’s because it’s exactly the sort of event just about all social scientists love: a predictably timed injection of randomness. In what other situation could a researcher — ethically, at least — say, “Hey, let’s see what happens when you have a white Midwesterner live in close quarters with a Vietnamese immigrant for a year!” Since colleges have loads of data about who kids were before they matriculated — and since it’s easy to keep track of them in the years that follow — random roommate assignment is a unique opportunity to study how humans influence one another.

Singal goes on to cite research showing how beneficial roommates-of-difference can be:

According to Sacerdote, research shows that rooming with someone from a lower socioeconomic class “impacts your attitudes about financial aid, about redistribution,” leading to greater support for policies that help close the wealth game. It’s easy to see why: Rich kids tend to come from rich towns, and as a result don’t have much of a sense of what it means to struggle economically. But if you live with someone who is living financial aid check to financial aid check, things will (hopefully) snap into perspective pretty quickly.

This is well and good, until you consider how it goes for the learning-experience-providing roommate.

If you’re the black student brought in to diminish the endemic racism in a sheltered white one, the poor student offered up to teach a rich kid that not everyone winters in Switzerland, the gay kid who will gosh darn it help rid his roommate of homophobia… this is maybe a bit much to ask of a college freshman. The learning-experience model seems geared towards the relatively-advantaged roommate. (And to social scientists.) What’s in it for Mr. or Ms. Learning Experience? Singal briefly turns to the advantages for the have-not:

None of this is to imply that these rando roommates exist solely as plot devices to educate their whiter or richer roommates (and they may be doing just as much griping to their friends back home about their own rando roommate — the concept of rando is, of course, relative). They, too, can derive benefits from living with someone different with them — from exposure to social networks they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise (if you’re a recent grad from a low-income background trying to get financial support for a business venture, imagine how much easier that will be if you roomed with the son of a hedge-fund manager your freshman year), or to the aforementioned contagious effects of interests or ideology. In many of these instances, the benefits flow in both directions.

This ignores the stress – on top of everything else you’re doing first-term freshman year – of being a representative of your kind. The “benefits” would seem to flow primarily towards the already-more-advantaged roommate.

Am I, then, a proponent of self-segregation via app? No. What I’d advocate is random matching in halls or suites, but without the bedroom-sharing requirement. No one should have to be on call at all hours to provide a taste of authentic Otherness.

“It Really Doesn’t Matter Whether Or Not You Agree With The Israeli Government’s Policies”, Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I want to thank the Dish readers who responded to my recent post on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yes, even the furious ones. You’ve helped clarify my thoughts on the topic. Below, I respond to several (overlapping) dissents. One reader writes:

Regarding Phoebe’s post “It really doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the Israeli government’s policies,” I think she and others are misreading the NYT’s letter to the editor, or at least I (and I’m sure the many others to whom this letter is not “jumping out”) read it very differently. I do not read the reference to “patrons” to mean Jews living outside Israel.  I read “patrons” to mean countries (obviously, most specifically in this instance the United States). The term “patron” is routinely used in the context of foreign affairs (and in the NYT) to describe one country that provides some kind of support (financial, military, etc.) to another country or entity. This is particularly true in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian/Hamas/Hezbollah conflict. The United States is routinely described as a patron of Israel, and Iran and Syria are routinely described as patrons of Hamas and Hezbollah. Given the context it is far less likely that the writer intended “patrons” to mean Jews or some “nice little loophole” than that the writer was simply using common vernacular to refer to the countries who aid and support Israel and who most certainly do have influence over the Israeli government.

These angles of the issue should really be addressed in a post like this on the Dish.  While there should not be any connection between anti-semitism against Jews (whether in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere) and the Israeli government’s policies, it is a simple fact that there is a connection. Does Phoebe contend that there is not a connection between Israel’s policies and anti-semitism?  (which, again, is plainly a different question from whether there should be a connection).  And, if there is a connection then what exactly is objectionable in the writer’s paragraph about Israel’s patrons if “patrons” is read to mean the United States and other Western governments, as that term is widely used in foreign affairs?

I’ll address the second paragraph later, but first, the first: I agree that “patrons” is ambiguous, and that it’s entirely possible that Bruce Shipman meant countries (or just the US), not global Jewry. Indeed, the most charitable explanation I can come up with, reading, rereading, and rereading the letter some more, is that, by “patrons,” he meant the US government. If that was what he meant, though, he might have said so, and not relied on highly sophisticated readers catching the foreign-policy jargon. There would have been a clear way to indicate exactly which parties he was holding accountable, and he opted against. What reads to me, and to some other Jews, as a dog whistle doesn’t read that way to all. That’s… the trouble with dog whistles. Either you hear it or you don’t. As it stands, he used roundabout language that leaves very much open the possibility that he means Jews. After all, as another reader points out, many Jews do patronize Israel:

I find Ms. Bovy’s argument a little hard to follow. American Jews have a very strong connection to Israel, both financial and political. I have numerous friends and colleagues who are “secular” Jews. They aren’t particularly religious, but the older the get, the more often they go to synagogue. They make their kids do the Bar mitzvah thing. And they travel to Israel on vacation. For the most part they are politically liberal. But when it comes to Israeli policy, they are right wing nuts. If I say anything – anything – negative about Israel, they freak out. Anti-Semitism. You can’t even have a conversation about the Middle East in their presence.

I must admit that I found part of this response similarly hard to follow. Is there something sinister, or even surprising, about “‘secular’ Jews” expressing some religiosity? But I will set that aside, and turn to the “freak out” portion of the paragraph. I can’t speak to this reader’s personal experience with otherwise impeccably progressive friends who start railing on about Judea and Samaria at a moment’s notice. There are plenty of people who are fully liberal or conservative but for the one area that affects them personally; surely that category wouldn’t exclude Jews.

I can, however, offer some thoughts from… the other end of such conversations. I’ve been in situations, in the US and elsewhere, where I’m the token Jew, asked to account for what my kind are doing over there in Israel. In cases like this, it’s easy to feel on the defensive, and to come across as more rah-rah Israel than one might if not feeling cornered on the basis of a personal identity that frankly isn’t opt-out (born Jewish, always Jewish, in the eyes of society), or if discussing with other Jews.

The most vigorous dissent, however, comes from a third reader:

Phoebe Malz Bovy owes Rev. Bruce Shipman an apology for her latest post. Her dishonesty lies in her simply substituting one term for another, making a joke about doing so, and proceeding as though that substitution is legitimate. Shipman did not name Jews as the target of his remarks, and in fact “Israel’s patrons abroad” includes essentially every national politician in America, the vast majority of them gentiles, to say nothing of an enormous number of mainstream gentiles living in the United States and elsewhere. If we’re simply allowed to substitute one word for another out of rhetorical convenience, then we’ll very quickly find ourselves accusing everyone with whom we disagree of the worst bigotry.

Bovy’s post– in which she does not use the word “Palestinians,” which is typical of her erasure of that inconveniently living people– is typical of her work, which seeks to wave half-heartedly at the notion that there might be some such thing as legitimate criticism of Israel and its brutal, racist occupation, and then turns around and calls every actual instance of such criticism anti-Semitic. Which is particularly untoward, given that so much of that criticism, in the United States, is carried out by anti-Zionist Jews, a large and growing movement of liberals and leftists who are rightfully and naturally disgusted by the conduct of Israel.

Nor is there any acknowledgment of who, exactly, is the threatened party in greater Palestine. This is a reality that Ms. Bovy has to grapple with: Israel is among the safest countries on earth. By any rational estimation whatsoever. In fact, Israel– with its immensely powerful military, its nuclear arsenal, and the unwavering patronage of the United States– is among the least existentially threatened countries in the region. Any dispassionate consideration of its military, diplomatic, and economic security leads us to conclude that it is a stable and secure nation. The same cannot be said of the Palestinians, a refugee people, lost without a state, at constant risk of death from the Israeli government that occupies its land. As Rev. Shipman said: the only legitimate, moral solution is the recognition of the Palestinian people as fully human and thus fully deserving of human and democratic rights. It is Israel’s refusal to grant that recognition that is to blame for Israel’s increasing isolation, and that refusal which threatens its soul.

Two things, one small, one more big-picture. The two are related. The small – the personal – is that I’d have to dispute this claim of  “erasure” of Palestinian suffering, and would direct this reader to the same guest-post of mine I link to in the post in question.

The second is that no, I don’t think it’s “erasure” to respond to stories of anti-Semitism – by which I mean unambiguous things like synagogue vandalism, attacks on Jews who aren’t even in Israel – without mentioning Palestinians. Now, to only notice anti-Semitism and to ignore Palestinian suffering (and every other global tragedy) would be to ignore the broad picture of what’s going on in the world. To those who note that anti-Semitism is not the greatest threat to mankind at this particular point in history… I agree! Bigotry against a group one happens to be a part of is, however, bound to stand out. That’s true for Jews as it is for other groups – it’s the universality of parochialism.

But back to Shipman’s letter. To bring up the questionable or even outright wrong things done by one group of Jews (namely those who have power in Israel at the moment) whenever bigotry against all Jews comes up is to… sorry, but yes, it is to cross the line into anti-Semitism. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure what Shipman’s specific criticisms of Israel entail; for all I know they’re ones I – an opponent of the settlements – would share. It’s not only – for more, see David Schraub – “anti-Zionist Jews” who have such criticisms. To be a “Zionist” isn’t necessarily to be in favor of the current Israeli administration’s policies. For me, it just means thinking there ought to continue to be a Jewish state in some part of the area where there currently is one.

What I found troubling in Shipman’s letter was not that he expressed criticism of Israel, but the context in which he did so. After agreeing that there is “growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond,” he turned immediately to the aspects of Israeli policy that may have inspired this “trend”, and not… to the people targeting Jews. In doing so, he treats anti-Semitism as a legitimate form of protest.

Shipman made two leaps: first, that anti-Jewish acts outside Israel are merely expressions of outrage at the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, and second, that this explanation should be not merely understood (as one seeks to understand the roots of everything that happens) but addressed. Shipman is saying, effectively, that European anti-Semites are making demands regarding Israel policy, are protesting by attacking Jews, and that we should give in to those demands (as if there even are articulated demands when a synagogue is defaced). That’s where justification enters into it.

The problem with criticizing Israeli policy in that context wasn’t that this policy is sound. It should be criticized! The trouble here is that nothing any country – including but not limited to Israel – does can be used to justify acts of hatred against those who share the ethno-religious background in question. There are many good reasons to keep trying to achieve peace in Gaza and to bring about Palestinian statehood. Today’s anti-Semites’ tendency to give Israel policy as a pretext for Jew-bashing? Not one of them.

Ultimately, I think arguments like Shipman’s are worrying to many Jews, but are also not any great favor to Palestinians. Dignifying anti-Semitism as pro-Palestinian advocacy only serves to unfairly delegitimize the Palestinian cause, and only contributes to Palestinian suffering.

“It Really Doesn’t Matter Whether Or Not You Agree With The Israeli Government’s Policies”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Naava Mashiah finds that as some European Jews, fearing anti-Semitism, move to Israel, some Israeli Jews are moving in the opposite direction.

So I see two sectors of the Jewish population, one in the diaspora, one in Israel, which believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. You wonder whom is deceiving themselves and whom will actually follow through and make the move. Will the exodus from Israel be larger than the inflow of immigrants from Europe? Will the immigration from North America still continue to make up the gap? Even as I write this, after the beginning of the cease-fire, a plane has landed with a planeload of new immigrants.

The Israelis whom move to Europe, as I did four years ago, will find out that the policy of the Israeli government will inevitably affect their life in Europe, even a small remote village. For the local population will remind you that you are Jewish and therefore connected to this homeland. It really doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the Israeli government’s policies. … Many in Europe say that it reminds them of Europe in 1936, and are reminded of those whom were proactive and departed, ending up as survivors. Some do not think we have reached such a drastic situation. While in Israel, it is no longer considered ‘against the stream’ to emigrate as it was in the 70’s when the immigrants were considered traitors to the country.

Here in the States, though, surely things are different, right? Perhaps for the most part – and anyone who thinks anti-Semitism is this country’s principal bigotry has been living under one of those proverbial rocks – but then there are moments like this, in response to a NYT story about rising European anti-Semitism:

To the Editor:

Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.

The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

(Rev.) BRUCE M. SHIPMAN
Groton, Conn., Aug. 21, 2014

The writer is the Episcopal chaplain at Yale.

Permit me to spell out what makes a letter like this jump out. (And jump out it did, but there’s no way to link to personal Facebook pages here.) Shipman is not merely stating that there’s some relationship between tensions in the Middle East and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, but that poor behavior on the part of Israel excuses anti-Jewish acts in places other than Israel. He’s saying that Jews (sorry, “Israel’s patrons abroad” – nice little loophole of a possibility that he mostly means Evangelicals) are responsible for anti-Semitism, and have brought it upon themselves, as if the typical European (or, for that matter, American) Jew has some kind of influence on Netanyahu. Shipman, as David Bernstein points out in his posts on the letter, blames the victim. Shipman’s saying that if you’re in any sense a “patron” of Israel – a vague enough term that could, depending how one understands it, include nearly all Jews – you can expect continued bigotry until a permanent peace arrives in the Middle East, which is, dare I venture a guess, not imminent.

The reason a letter like this gets published in the NYT, and isn’t jumping out at everyone, is… basically what I was getting at earlier, namely that the commonplace definition of anti-Semitism excludes cases where a pretext is given. As in, there’s been this odd rounding-up, or rounding-down, or something, whereby it’s not just that we must recognize that criticism of Israel exists as a thing separate from anti-Semitism, as is sensible. It’s also that anti-Semitism somehow doesn’t count as such if it’s expressed by someone who also expresses legitimate criticisms. Which is, oh, maybe not so sensible if one stops and thinks about it.

Parental Whoa-vershare, Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Alex Goldman rounds up some responses to the latest parental overshare debacle, and provides a note of clarification:

The original article was written mistakenly as though the [author] had written about his son using his son’s real name. He was, in fact, using a pseudonym for his son, though critics note that his son’s real name can easily be found online with the information given in the article.

Slightly less nausea-inducing, then, but not much. Goldman sort of defends sharing of this nature, because stigma:

I’m of two minds on this one. It certainly wouldn’t have marginalized the impact of the story had [the author] pseudonymized his son. At the same time, I feel like this conversation has some implicit porn shaming in it that doesn’t acknowledge pornography as something that should be destigmatized (which is, to be clear, hardly a settled matter, rather a personal opinion). I think that Eagle handled the subject as delicately as he could in his article, but I wonder if that’s enough for a kid who is about to enter adolescence and will always deliver search results that include an article called “I didn’t expect to find pornography in my 9-year-old’s web history.” Placing myself in the shoes of this kid, I think I would be annoyed about this article when I turned 15, and find it funny by the time I turn 18. And no sane employer would fault someone for finding an article his dad wrote about him when he was nine in his search results. It’s kind of a matter of perspective.

I was, I should say, good and ready to be done with this topic. But I feel compelled to return, because Goldman’s point is the now-standard defense of these pieces. Sure, the thing revealed about is embarrassing (Goldman hedges on this, but kind of admits it), but it shouldn’t be. That goes for any number of topics broached in such essays – mental or physical illness, body-image neurosis, awkward early-dating woes, why-do-all-my-friends-hate-me middle-school tantrums, and so on. The defense, then, hinges on the notion that, by writing about these sensitive issues, parents shed the relevant stigma, thereby helping both their child and others with the same concern.

The most obvious problem here is that if there is a stigma on whatever it is, even if there shouldn’t be, you’re humiliating your kid. If dude wants to reduce the stigma on porn consumption, by all means, let him tell the Atlantic about his own preferred websites. But how much is stigma, and how much is a matter of privacy? It’s one thing to say that many, many people look at porn, and another entirely to say that the specific porn they look at, or looked at at age nine, is a public matter. It’s hard for me to picture just what this stigma-free utopia would look like where all information about every moment of every person’s life is happily shared at all contexts.

A Zoolander Award? Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I guess my beat here is known, because everyone is passing along the following:

Where European anti-Semitism meets offensive fashion, indeed. As Elena Cresci’s piece (like so many of the many, many others discussing this) mentions, this is only Zara’s latest oops-my-bad:

It seems there were also some keffiyeh-print shorts…

…but I’m not sure whether those are a problem because a) they seem to some to be too supportive of the Palestinian cause, or b) it’s cultural appropriation to turn a keffiyeh into haute jogging shorts. As in, basically everyone can be offended by those shorts. Well done, Zara! With one pair of probably not all that flattering shorts, you’ve created the common enemy that will bring peace to the Middle East once and for all!

But back to their latest blooper. Is the “sheriff” tee the ultimate in Zoolander? That it had been available in Israel definitely adds to the cluelessness. Seems the shirt itself was relatively affordable – I mean, it’s a kid’s shirt from Zara – so there isn’t that added Zoolander level of something being in poor taste as well as comically expensive. But something resembling a concentration-camp uniform for a child scores fairly high on the tone-deafness scale, I should think. I’d say it’s a serious contender.