Archive for ‘Culture’

Really, it’s not funny

By , 12 November, 2010, 9 Comments

Two weeks ago, I joined much of the young American Left at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I didn’t travel down to Washington for the occasion; I’m not that much of a Daily Show devotee. I had meetings with various sources, a very good college friend to stay with, and my sister to see in Philly on the way back. The timing and location were convenient.

The rally was, to be honest, boring, certainly not as funny or as compelling as the two television shows from which it derived. Given how little effort I put into getting there, that’s fine. But when I think about how many young folks actually traveled to be there, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that the ideas around which young liberals rally en masse are so unsubstantial.

I was not the only person who felt that way. Mark Ames had a screed at The Exiled on the rally, and it’s definitely got a lot of problems [basically, skip the second half], but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the piece that is worth excerpting at some length.

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More About Grizzlies

By , 3 November, 2010, 15 Comments

I’ve got a post about GOP women up at Forbes right now: basically, I took a look at how GOP candidates fared with women voters. And interestingly, in this so-called year of the GOP woman, it was GOP men who got the women’s vote, while GOP women were successful with a more traditional Republican base of white men. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m inviting theories from you, so please, go read the data and comment.

Who are the Mama Grizzlies?

By , 27 October, 2010, No Comment

Over at ForbesWoman, I’ve got a piece on the ‘Mama Grizzlies,’ meaning the Sarah Palin-endorsed GOP women running for office this fall. The piece asks: are they feminists? and if not, how should we think of them?

Yet while these candidates may have a catchy new name, the Mama Grizzly moniker and campaign is, at the surface, built around the most traditional of female roles: mother.

I go into some of the history of this phenomenon, of the patriotic mother being invoked in politics for a confusing mix of progressive and regressive goals. And I try to suss out where the Grizzlies fall. Conclusion:

the Grizzlies are more appropriately thought of as “feminine conservatives” than “conservative feminists.”

Readers of this blog know that the problem of anti-feminist, post-feminist or false feminist women is a major bugaboo of mine, so while I don’t write on politics frequently, this piece was interesting to report, even if some of what I learned was frustrating.

Go read it. And remember to vote.

History Matters

By , 18 October, 2010, No Comment

I just posted this in a mammoth comment on Google Reader, but the comment is basically as long as the post its commenting on, so it really needs to be its own blog post. I was responding to Matthew Yglesias’ post on whether reading spoilers on books and movies and TV shows detract from the experience:

I think “spoilers” aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be. I knew Macbeth dies in the end before I read the play, I knew that Troy falls because they stupidly let a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into the city walls, and I knew that things weren’t going to work out for Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Foreknowledge doesn’t ruin these works or any other work of quality. If anything, it’s the reverse. If you look at a well-constructed story—be it Season 3 of the Wire or the Great Gatsby or whatever you like—I think you’ll find that knowledge of where things are headed enhances your ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together.

There is definitely something to the post, especially the bolded part, which is one of the reasons I so frequently re-read favorite works. But at the same time, I don’t like the way he’s lumped together this collection of great works from different eras. As I commented:

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Whither literature?

By , 15 October, 2010, No Comment

Two interesting recent takes on what’s happening in lit-land. First and foremost, this blog post by Jed Bickman [disclosure: a friend] on the rise of DIY publishing houses. Jed mourns the demise of big name publishing and with it professional editing.

As a writer, I benefit immensely from working with editors, and I have already had the good fortune to work with a few brilliant ones. They have not only fine-tuned my prose, but also my ideas and values. The best editor-writer relationships are like deep friendships: they change you, and your writing shows it. Think of Maxwell Perkins with Hemingway and Fitzgerald; or Robert Giroux with O’Connor and Malamud; or Gordon Lish with Carver and Ford.

As a college student, I worked for a few months at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, first as an intern reading manuscripts in English and French, then as a freelance consultant on an early e-books project. FSG is a special place in the pantheon of American publishing houses, rivaled only by Knopf as a supporter of ‘high’ literature, unabashed in its eggheadiness. That at least is its reputation and it still publishes some writers who fit that bill. But when I was there, I found that the culture of building personal relationships with those writers is fading. The desire to go out and find promising writing and help it grow into something great is waning. Instead, like every other form of media, book publishing is becoming a margins game looking for the ready-made bestseller. It is hard for me to pity the big publishing houses if they aren’t doing the kind of work I admire anymore.

Moreover, writing is changing in a way that threatens the old editing model. We’ve seen the rise over the last few decades of the MFA program, of writers whose most important editors are their classmates and professors at the University of Iowa or Syracuse University or indeed, my alma mater, Brown. They come out of these MFA programs with nearly flawless technical skills, able to write prose that is refined and sophisticated, but, as Elif Batuman argues in the London Review of Books, they often don’t have the ability to tell stories that have meat on their bones, because, in many of these graduate programs, it’s the technique not the narrative that matters. The Batuman piece is over the top, setting out to offend nearly everyone it describes, but there is a kernel of truth in its argument about how good form can mask the absence of content. The effect that this has on publishing is important: it means that it is easier to get by producing books without editing books, and that the kind of back-and-forth with writers that shapes the substance of their work is happening in classrooms long before they meet a publisher.

Feisal Rauf & I: A (Very Long) New York Story

By , 12 September, 2010, 11 Comments

On Friday morning, my family and I celebrated Eid by attending a brief service in Westchester. The service was not in a mosque, but rather in a hotel. Men and women were sitting in the same room, side by side, though in two groups. Plain white sheets covered the floor and everyone was reading off crib sheets with phonetic transliterations of Arabic words. Many were glancing at their neighbors to figure out exactly when to sit, stand or bow. Though Eid marks the end of a month of fasting, several of us–all of my family, for sure–do not keep all the fasts. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen any of the women in a hijab.

Welcome to a Feisal Rauf congregation.

Rauf has been our family’s imam for many years, so many that we couldn’t agree on the car ride home just how long it has been. However many years ago it was, he decided to start performing holiday services outside his main Tribeca mosque for New York’s large population of liberal and essentially secular Muslims. People like myself, whose families had perhaps set foot in a real mosque less than five times in ten years. His goal, to be sure, was to bring us back into the fold, and for some of us, he succeeded. I went through a phase in high school and into college, for example, where I prayed frequently and kept all the Ramadan fasts, and Rauf’s super-liberal version of Islam had much to do with that.

But what is more interesting is that when I gave up my religious practice five years ago, Rauf’s teachings did not lose their appeal, or their spiritual value. I still attend and I am still, consistently, moved by what he has to say. That is because he is a true pluralist. He is not someone who sees the differences between various faith traditions and says, “We disagree, but I tolerate your views,” but a someone who says “I find my own spiritual gratification IN the richness of our differences.”

The way he put it on Friday was particularly striking. Like many moderate theologians, he began by putting forward the argument that the real conflict is not between Islam and the West, or indeed between moderates and extremists inside Islam. But he took this premise in a direction that I’ve never seen another leader of an organized faith go.

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Sex and the City, revisited

By , 14 July, 2010, 6 Comments

I recently came across some poll data about gender. Gender equality, in the abstract, is a widely supported goal, especially in the developed world and among women, but nearly half the respondents “believed men had more right than women to obtain jobs in a down economy.”

Unpack that. Firstly, it suggests that men are supporting families while women are working for kicks. Secondly, it suggests that because women are working for kicks, they will be the ones taking time to worry about raising families. If you’re an employer, the argument goes, a woman who wants to make her kids’ doctors appointments is a less reliable employee. And when you have limited funds, you want the reliable bang for your buck.

The first point is false: the majority of women, like the majority of men, work because they have to. If they are lucky, they will enjoy it, but that’s not why they do it. But women do take the lion’s share of responsibility for the house and the kids. The answer to that should be a reorganization of family life that makes it easier to achieve equality in the workplace. But the truth is that the notion of workplace equality is, on its own, fairly appealing to people, while the notion of shared domestic responsibilities still scares us.

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World Cup Bracket

By , 16 June, 2010, 1 Comment

Followers of my Twitter feed know that I’ve done nothing for the last week except talk soccer. My friends and family know that my sleep schedule has been adjusted 6 hours forward to accommodate this new obsession. But lest all of you at ICapp feel left out of my fun, here’s some World Cup for you too: my bracket. Totally unsubstantiated and almost certain to be wrong. But feel free to ponder and pick apart anyway.

In Defense of Anglophilia

By , 15 May, 2010, 1 Comment

Regular readers of this blog, as well as followers of my Twitter and Reader feeds, will know that for many months, I have been obsessed by the British general election. Earlier this week, my friend and True/Slant blogger Ethan Epstein chastised American journalists for over-hyping this story at the expense of more significant elections, like the August ouster of the Liberal Democrats in Japan.


To be sure, in their domestic political contexts, the recent Japanese or (I might add) Chilean elections were milestones that deserved better treatment from the media. But from the perspective of U.S. media outlets concerned primarily with American foreign policy, the British election carries weight.

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His Name is Khan

By , 7 March, 2010, No Comment

This week, I saw My Name is Khan. Generally, I do not like Bollywood cinema. And Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood’s Alpha Male du jour, specializes in my least favorite Bollywood genre: the “masala,” a saccharine mix of romantic comedy, melodrama and musical. Yet there I was, in line to see his latest venture, my curiosity piqued by the political maelstrom the film has unleashed.

First, the plot: Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim with Asperger’s Syndrome, immigrates to America, becomes a beauty products salesman, marries a divorced Indian Hindu beautician, and adopts her son Samir. Then 9/11 happens. Locals boycott the Khans’ beauty salon. A neighbor dies in Afghanistan and his son blames Samir. Samir is killed in a fight between the boys at school, Rizvan’s wife throws him out in a fit of rage, and tells him not to come back till he has convinced America not to hate on Muslims. She says, “Tell the President of the United States, ‘My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.’” Autistic Rizvan takes her literally and runs off on a road trip across the country trying to convey his message to George W. Bush. At a presidential rally on a Los Angeles university campus, a social security operative overhears Rizvan shouting “terrorist” in the crowd, and has him arrested. A student journalist catches the incident on film and begins investigating, discovering just how harmless Rizvan is. When the story airs, disability rights groups begin phoning government offices, and Khan is released. Instead of going home to his wife, he continues his quest, but is derailed by a major hurricane that Washington is ignoring. [Sound familiar?] Khan takes charge of the relief effort in a small Georgia town, and becomes a national hero, again. By this time, Bush has been replaced by President Obama, who comes to Georgia to meet Khan on his release from the hospital, and the film (finally) ends.

There are no song and dance numbers and there are no long-lost cousins back from the dead. For Bollywood, that’s realistic, but to audiences unused to Indian cinema, the above should sound absurdly far-fetched. Many Indians had hoped that after Hollywood came to them via Slumdog Millionaire, their own work would have crossover appeal. But a plot like this is not going to appeal to American audiences.

Rather, I think MNIK’s merits lie in the conversations it can start inside India. It is these nerves touched that have invited all the outrage

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