To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Annals Of Obsessive Overparenting---And Of A Changing America: Mom Takes The SAT Herself Seven Times To Inspire B-Student Son

A couple of really obnoxious trends highlighted in this Atlantic excerpt of Debbie Stier's new book The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT. One is helicopter parenting runamok. Another is the ADHD overdiagnosis problem. A third, explored only implicitly, is how America has been overtaken by the same kind of Japanese -style hari-kari  hypercompetitiveness that we used to look at through a lens of cultural superiority not so long ago. 

The world was different now, from when Stier was making her way into the world: 

When I graduated from college, in 1989, unemployment had been falling sharply for six years straight, and the world was brimming with opportunity. Twenty years later, the land I would be sending my little tadpole into was a different place. At summer’s end, two years out from the Great Recession, millions were out of work and the news was filled with worry that we were heading into a double-dip recession or, worse, that we were already in one. That August, the economy created no new jobs at all. (The August zero was eventually revised upward to 104,000, still well below the number needed to absorb all the new high school and college graduates looking for their first jobs.) The days when you could la-di-dah your way out of Bennington, into the Radcliffe publishing course, as I did, and from there to a guaranteed starter job in the industry—a job, not an internship—were gone.

Mom definitely gets extra credit points, but I think she’s taking her anxiety for her son just a wee bit far. We may not be the same country that used to cheer Bob of the Church of the SubGenius when he declared that "There must be slack." But there’s gotta be a better way to motivate a kid. I just can’t for the life of me imagine my "Greatest Generation" mother or father doing anything remotely like this even if they were the types to engage in "stunt" journalism like this. What a truly bizarre thing to do. Could this be a hoax? I’d sure the Atlantic didn’t get pranked on this but I kinda hope they did.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Notes On 'Twee' (It's The New 'Camp')

2014 is shaping up as an impressive year for 50th anniversaries: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan; The Ford Mustang; The Gulf of Tonkin Incident; Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty; Sports Illustrated’s annual February swimsuit issue.

The 50th anniversary of Susan Sontag's 
Notes On Camp has been less widely celebrated, though it's arguably just as culturally significant, maybe even more so. The essay appeared in the Partisan Review in February, 1964, establishing Sontag as a major literary and critical presence.

Camp functioned as a kind of underground cultural code for the gay community in the 1950's and 1960's, but hit the mainstream in the 1980's with the flood of pop cultural phenomenon celebrating irony and inauthenticity: David Letterman; Esquire's "Dubious Achievement Awards;" and other manifestations of the "So Bad, It's Good" school of transgressive banality. I published a piece of political anthropology in the Washington Monthly in 1986 which examined the relationship between the two modes of cultural discourse, how camp begat irony, and what cultural needs the two sensibilities answered.

Camp is still here, though almost always in a very self-conscious retro mode. Irony is still alive too, though in a much more muted form, the 1980's consumer abundance that it was predicated on now having given way to an economy offering markedly diminished opportunities.

And so we now have "twee," with its emphasis on the small and the precious, just the barest hint of irony to offset the saccharine and the nostalgic. Twee is everywhere; I don't think it's too much to call it the dominant sensibility of the Millennial Generation. In fact, you could call Millennials “The Twee Generation” or "Generation Twee." 

Among scores of artifacts and examples, think Pinterest, GIFs, NPR's "Tiny Desk Concerts," Lena Dunham's Girls, the fuss over microaggressions, Twitter, Portlandia, cupcakes, ATMs for cupcakes (for chrissakes), selfies, YA fiction (and the adults who write and read it), personal emoticons, Virginia Heffernan, Don Lemon, yadda, yadda, yadda. The New York Times Magazine is practically the apotheosis of twee, with it's diminutive "One Page Magazine" and it's adorable "Who Made That?" column. Sometimes when I read it---scan it is more honest---I think I'm back in my old doctor's office, reading Highlights For Children. Except it's now Highlights For Adults, nominally speaking anyway.  

I mean, really: "Who Made That Tricycle?" I’d give my entire collection of tacky postcards from the 1980’s to hear what Susan Sontag would make of that. 

An Alliance Too Far: Someone Needs To Tell Congress That Israel Is Not The 51st State Yet

Paul Pillar in the National Interest, on a letter that nearly 100 US congressional representatives have sent to House leaders John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, asking that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be invited to address a joint session of Congress when he is in Washington next month to speak to AIPAC's annual policy summit. “Doing so,” the letter declares, “would send a clear message of U.S. support to Israel.”

Pillar, a former top CIA analyst with extensive experience in the Middle East and in Washington analyzing US Middle East policy at Brookings and at Georgetown, offers an appropriately tart response. He writes from a point of view that the American-Israel "special relationship" needs rebalancing and that Netanyahu has chronically meddled in the making of US foreign policy---a diplomatic no-no--- courtesy of the Israel lobby. His headline is what grabbed my attention: Prime Minister, You're No Winston Churchill. Pillar notes that:
If Netanyahu were invited to address Congress next month it would be an extraordinary instance of honoring someone who has repeatedly been poking a stick in the eye of the country bestowing the honor. Among other things, he has been doing everything he can to sabotage the current negotiations with Iran, which is one of the most important foreign policy initiatives the United States and its five foreign partners currently have going. He also has been pursuing policies—including continued colonization of occupied territory and the adding of new demands—likely to ensure failure of another set of negotiations important to the United States, the one involving the Palestinians.
Even if members of Congress were to ignore these factors, one might expect them to be mindful of not cheapening the currency when it comes to one of the few symbolically important ways that Congress can make a foreign policy statement. Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette became in 1824 the first foreigner to address Congress, the privilege has not been profligately bestowed. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was the only foreign dignitary invited to do so last year. None were invited in 2012.
Now get this: Netanyahu already has addressed Congress twice: in 2011 and during his earlier stint as prime minister in 1996. Only one person has been given the honor of doing so three times: Winston Churchill—twice during World War II and again in 1952. People want to put the stick-poker on the same level as Churchill?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Nobody Expected This Of The Spanish Inquisition: Israeli Sephardics Now Eligible For 'Restored' Spanish Citizenship While Israel Thinks About Welcoming 'Conversos' In Reverso

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," Monty Python used to say. So it was with an apt sense of surprise that I read in the Times that “the government of Spain would offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews as a gesture of conciliation for Spain’s expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition.” The Times reports that the initiative has "set off a flurry of interest in Israel."  The paper goes on:

Under the draft bill, Spain would offer citizenship to anyone, Jewish or not, whose Sephardic origins can be certified. The bill would also remove some existing requirements that include the need for applicants to renounce their current citizenship.

One potential Israeli beneficiary told a Times reporter "that to return to Spain more than 500 years later with a Spanish passport would be 'a victory' for his family and the Jewish people."

The Times continues:

Although many applicants are interested in Spanish citizenship for sentimental and family reasons, some Israelis are eager to open businesses in Spain, despite the country’s economic problems and record unemployment, said Ms. Weiss-Tamir, (an Israeli immigration lawyer.) Spanish nationality would also grant holders the right to work in any European Union nation.

“The Israeli spirit is always looking for opportunities,” Ms. Weiss-Tamir said. “People want to move around Europe more easily, or to be able to work.”

The Times also noted that:

A delegation of top American Jewish leaders was visiting Spain last week for high-level meetings, including with King Juan Carlos. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement that Spain’s citizenship bill would “help assure that the history of the violence and exile will never be forgotten.” 

Extending citizenship to Israeli Sephardics might boost the number of Israelis leaving Israel for greener pastures, however, a worrying trend for the Israeli government. Although the number of people who have contacted the Spanish Ministry of Justice is estimated at only 3000, the number is expected to increase. According to the Forward, 100,000 Israelis have applied for and received German passports; many more Israelis are leaving Israel for other countries for a variety of reasons, economic opportunity and security being some of them, as well as the rightward, religious drift of the country and the toxic relationship with Palestinians.

The Times, however, reports that the Jewish State might have a demographic ace up its sleeve, one involving a new definition of the “Right of Return”--- one that is definitely not the “Right of Return” as currently understood by Palestinians.

In what appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, estimated that there were millions of descendants worldwide of “conversos,” Jews who converted to Catholicism under duress in medieval Spain, including hundreds of thousands who were exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots.

“The state of Israel must ease the way for their return,” Mr. Sharansky said.

So in other words, you might lose some, but you could also win some---many more in fact.

I wonder though how Spain—and Israel---will certify claims to Jewish roots dating back over 500 years. The Times mentions that some potential applicants were from families who had “books or documents tracing and proving their ancestry.” One prospect told the Times that 

When his own grandmother and great-grandmother left Izmir, Turkey, for Argentina, they were issued an identity document signed by Jewish community leaders and certified by the Spanish consul there at the time. 

This is age of genetic testing though, and it might not be long before it gets introduced into the mix here. Last year the Times of Israel reported that the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had advised that some Russians hoping to immigrate from the former Soviet Union “could be subjected to DNA testing to prove their Jewishness.“ 

Genetic testing is a vibrant industry in Israel. Too bad Monty Python isn’t available to connect the ironic historical dots on this one. To an American sensibility, the idea of citizenship being based on having the right genes and bloodlines is hardly an affirmation of the “shared values” at the core of the US-Israeli “special relationship.”