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Posts Tagged ‘society’

They are not happy in Gaza.
They are not happy in the West Bank.
They are not happy in Jerusalem.
They are not happy in Israel.
They are not happy in Egypt.
They are not happy in Libya.
They are not happy in Algeria.
They are not happy in Tunis.
They are not happy in Morocco.
They are not happy in Yemen.
They are not happy in Iraq.
They are not happy in Afghanistan.
They are not happy in Pakistan.
They are not happy in Syria.
They are not happy in Lebanon.
They are not happy in Sudan.
They are not happy in Jordan.
They are not happy in Iran.
They are not happy in Chechnya.
And where are the Muslims happy?
They are happy in England.
They are happy in France.
They are happy in Italy.
They are happy in Germany.
They are happy in Sweden.
They are happy in the Netherlands.
They are happy in Switzerland.
They are happy in Norway.
They are happy in the US.
They are happy in Canada.
They are happy in Hungary.
They are happy in any other country in the world which is not ruled by Muslims.
And whom do they blame?
Not Islam.
Not their leadership.
Not themselves.
But the very countries they are happy to live in!

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Being unpopular

One of the things I find so challenging about being Jewish is that, at the same time that anti-Semitism has gotten a new lease on life (this time from the Left rather than the Right), Jews are told to sit down, shut up, and stop seeing every critique, assault, or massacre on them, their culture, and their institutions as anti-Semitism.  One of my favorite news blogs had a heated comment thread in which Rabbi Meir Kahane’s name came up, was predictably slandered, and the blogger’s rationale for practically banning discussion of his words and deeds was that Kahane was crazy (evidence: his belief that there could one day be a second Holocaust on American soil).  A high school classmate living in the Bay Area has hopped on the anti-circumcision bandwagon, and when I explained that this measure is a gross distortion of the procedure and a direct assault on the identity and practice of Jews and Muslims, she insisted that the measure, and the accompanying comics which portray mohels as evil, sinister, and fanatical, are not anti-Semitic.  And today I read that Yale University is shutting down its Initiative for the Inter-disciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA).  Its reason?  The university claims that the initiative “has not borne the kind of academic fruit to justify its continuation,” according to Phyllis Chesler.  Chesler, who argues that the Initiative bore far more academic fruit than most academic departments and scholarly fora these days, sees a direct correlation between the shutting down of YIISA and the rise in financial contributions from Arab states and influence at the university of voices that promote Arab/Islamist/terrorist agendas.  She also perceives that the focus at YIISA on contemporary anti-Semitism’s warm home in the Arab Muslim world is unpopular in the current academic climate, which increasingly marginalizes voices which critique the messages of hate and blame that frequently come out of the Arab world’s despotic and/or Islamist regimes.

Even the Shoah, a watershed in the last century proving what inhumane depths Western civilization can sink to and the urgency of defending Jewish identity, culture, and mere existence, is under attack.  Holocaust denial by politicians and “academics” is given credence as “the other side of the story,” and infamous Holocaust deniers like Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Westerners like David Irving, are given the podium at universities and the UN to spout their “revisionist” history.  Those who vow “never again” are cheered and patted on the back, but if they support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against terror and mayhem, they are silenced as aiding and abetting “the Occupation.”

Those who claim to revere international law show a very vague understanding of it as it relates to Israel.  (The video below breaks down beautifully who the West Bank and Jerusalem really belong to.)

Here, too, ignorance seems to reign supreme.  Those who claim that Israel’s possession and settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem are violations of the Geneva Conventions have either never read the Geneva Conventions, or have no knowledge of the history of this region (or both).  They are ignorant of the fact that there is no precedent, historical, diplomatic, or otherwise, for earmarking these lands for Arabs to create another Arab state.  Quite the contrary, in fact; these lands belong to Israel diplomatically, historically, and in every other way.

One of the rabbis on my beit din made a little speech on the day they agreed to convert me.  He said, “The Jews are not a popular people.”  I’ve known that ever since I saw the mini-series “Holocaust” (1978, with a young Meryl Streep) on television when I was ten.  I knew it when I was told I was going to hell by a Christian classmate in Georgia when I was eleven.  And everything I’ve learned about Jewish history, from its earliest days to the present, has corroborated that statement.  That suits me fine.  I have never looked for popularity.  I’ve always been geeky, enjoyed having a small cadre of close friends and my solitude, and wouldn’t know what to do if I were suddenly sought-after.  Over the years, Jews have become more accepted in America, and this newfound measure of popularity has proved a double-edged sword: Jewish women pursued by non-Jewish men who find them “exotic,” non-Jewish women discovering that Jewish men make excellent husbands and fathers, and non-Jewish couples getting married under a chuppah because it’s a beautiful custom.  I don’t know if one sees that kind of attitude toward Jews in other parts of the world.  But if one isn’t popular, isn’t it possible at least to be accepted?  Or is the necessary opposite of popular, a pariah?  Must we be reviled, boycotted, sanctioned, and divested against?  Is it subversive for Jews to be in positions of responsibility and influence beyond their proportion in society?  Does it discomfit the world to see a Jewish state established in its homeland and able to defend itself, by itself?  Is it really so easy to believe that the Middle East’s only democracy, with freedom of press, religion, speech and all the rest, ranks with North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace?

I know that the Ahmedinejads, the Helen Thomases, and the Vanessa Redgraves don’t speak for all of humanity.  I know there are a good number of staunch supporters of Israel and Jewish life on the streets as well as in the corridors of power.  But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that Israeli Apartheid Week enjoys an increasing presence on university campuses every year (which makes me wonder whether the university community has abandoned holding students to any level of serious scholarship, or whether they stand aside and let these circuses set up every year to allow the students to blow off steam and exercise their rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s full of lies and hatred).  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the UN General Assembly invites Ahmedinejad to spew forth his wrath every year, and doesn’t rise and file out as a body while he’s speaking.  It’s hard to ignore the traction the idea of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state has gotten in the international community, when it is clear (at least to those of us living here) that such a state will not create peace in the Middle East or anywhere else, and will very likely create more war and bloodshed than ever.

So what’s a Jew to do?  Pandering is distasteful, and never garners popularity anyway.  Keep explaining ourselves?  While I may be overly pessimistic about this, I think those inclined to understand us do so already, and the rest can’t be bothered with the facts.  I remember a (Jewish) professor of mine in graduate school telling me to stick to my own path of scholarship on an assignment, saying “Don’t look left, don’t look right.”  Looking it up, I see it’s paraphrased from Isaiah 30:21.  “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right, and when you turn to the left.”

What matters is that we keep to the Torah, to our faith, and our ethical principles.  After that, as they say, יהיה מה שיהיה.

(Thanks to Ruti Mizrahi and Westbankmama for the video tip.)

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Banning the brit

I’ve been reading a lot in the past couple of days about a popularly proposed ban in San Francisco on circumcision entitled the Male Genital Mutilation Bill.  A couple of decades ago, circumcision was generally recommended by hospital physicians for what were stated as cleanliness and health reasons.  Jews and Muslims, of course, did it for religious reasons.  Anyone who, for whatever reason, chose not to circumcise was entitled to make that choice.

But the “intactivists” in that rabidly liberal paradise in northern California have decided that circumcision is torture, an act of violence against innocent children, and should be a criminal offense.  The ban’s proponents have collected more than enough signatures to put it on the upcoming ballot, and some have embraced as part of their publicity a cartoon series entitled “Foreskin Man” created by Matthew Hess, president of MGMbill.org.  The first in the series features evil hospital physicians who try to force a hot new mama-babe to give up her baby to a knife-wielding, blood-spattered ogre named Dr. Mutilator.  In the second, a sinister Jewish father goes behind his wife’s back and invites the black-hatted Monster Mohel and his haredi henchmen to come with their scissors to take back what is God’s.  At the last minute, the day is saved by buff, blond, lycra-clad superhero, Foreskin Man, who beats up the bad guys and either returns the baby to its grateful, weeping mother in the hospital or kidnaps the infant and gives it to the boy’s aunt, another intactivist, to raise as her own.

I’m all about freedom of choice and high safety and sanitation standards.  I’m also about not forcing your own choices on other people.  Children of atheists should not have to pray in public school.  Abortion should be safe, legal, and as rare as possible.  And brit milah, like kosher slaughter and alcohol (remember Prohibition?) should be legal and kept to high standards of cleanliness and ethical treatment of animals and humans.

But proponents of this bill are not about freedom of choice.  They’re about inaccuracy (comparing circumcision to female genital mutilation), unsupported claims (that uncircumcised men enjoy sex more—a claim that would be easier to prove if there were circumcised men who obtained foreskins and could compare the experience), non-science (ignoring the health benefits associated with circumcision), anti-Semitism (this ban will most universally affect Jews in the San Francisco area), and adolescent publicity and scare tactics (see the Foreskin Man comics).  As vocal as San Franciscans are about their pro-Palestinian agenda, it surprises me that they have overlooked the fact that Muslims will also be adversely affected by this ban.  Muslim boys are circumcised at age 13, in front of mixed audiences, with no anesthetic, and are expected to undergo the procedure without showing any signs of pain.  But perhaps this is just one more aspect of Arab Muslim culture Bay Area bleeding-hearts have chosen to overlook.  Will Foreskin Man #3 feature the Aryan superhero swooping in to save an adolescent Arab boy from hook-nosed, scimitar-wielding, kaffiyehed Muslim baddies?  I doubt it.

Daniel Gordis recently attacked the arrogance and bigotry of J Street and its statements about Israel.  I am here to attack the ignorance, arrogance, and bigotry of activists for “genital integrity.”  If they have information that is valuable for helping new parents make choices about whether or not to circumcise their baby boys, then by all means, get out there and disseminate it.  More (accurate) information is always better than less.  Teens should get as much accurate information as possible to help them choose when to become sexually active (and the more information they get, the more they should naturally learn about the benefits of waiting until they’re older, in committed relationships, or married).  Pregnant women should get as much helpful information as possible about abortion, including the emotional trauma that can result from getting them.  And parents who are undecided about circumcising should know the benefits that accompany circumcision as well as any (real) reasons not to circumcise.

This battle is just what America DOESN’T need: another hot-button issue.  Too often, the country seems to get wound up over the dilemma between freedom and regulation, and in circumstances like this one, freedom is interpreted to allow me to do what I want, and regulation is to make other people do what I want.  Anything that is a powerful, emotional issue gets turned into a moral issue rather than what Nichols and May would call a “real issue” and if, in the end, it prevents a small religious minority from doing what they normally do, which is usually seen as weird, fanatical, and unnecessary (including by a few renegade members of that religion), so much the better.

What I would find truly refreshing is if people, including those who personally choose not to circumcise their sons, would sit back, look at the big picture, see the infantile and fanatical tactics of these “intactivists” for the alarmist deception they are, and vote the whole ridiculous issue down.  It would be a shocking show of sanity from a part of the country one rarely looks to for moderation.  Nonetheless, I challenge San Franciscans to show signs of intelligent life—or return to the mother ship where they belong.

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The other night, the Cap’n and I watched Timothy Spall in the 2005 film, “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.”  Besides being a die-hard Spall fan (I loved him in “Chicken Run,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “All Or Nothing,” and “Shooting the Past”), I had heard a friend praise the film itself.

Based somewhat loosely on the story of Albert Pierrepoint, at one time Great Britain’s premiere executioner in the final days of capital punishment, the action of the film spans Pierrepoint’s application to the Prison Commissioners, his training and longstanding employment with them, including his commission by Field Marshal Montgomery to fly to Germany to preside over the executions of Nazi war criminals.

One of the things the filmmakers sought to emphasize in the film was Pierrepoint’s ethos regarding the corpses of the hanged convicts.  He explains to his assistant that the reason he performs the task of preparing the corpses for burial himself, rather than letting the mortuary staff do it, is because he believes the mortuary staff would not treat the bodies with respect.  In a later scene, to his military assistant in Germany, he becomes indignant and irritable when they execute 13 Nazi war criminals in one day, but are only provided 12 coffins in which to bury the corpses.  (The thirteenth, he is told, is to be shrouded and dumped into a grave sans coffin.)  He vehemently asserts his belief that no matter who they were or what they did, they have paid the price and that once they are hanged, the body is innocent and should be treated with respect.  His insistence on this point convinces the assistant, who slinks off to find another coffin.

While the highly principled Pierrepoint (and I’m talking here about the film Pierrepoint, not the real one who appears to have been more self-serving and slippery) takes pride in his work, using planning and precision to effect the quickest, most instantaneous death, never concerning himself with the crimes his subjects had committed, and always showing compassion for his subjects’ fear of death (even in Germany), the job takes an increasing toll on him as time passes.  The stress he feels as a result of the unprecedented number of hangings he performs in Germany is further ramped up when he finds himself executing a man who maintains his innocence to the end (one of the historically accurate details in the film), and another, a longtime acquaintance of his, who murdered the woman who jilted him in a moment of passion.  When the film ends with a quotation from Pierrepoint’s 1974 autobiography, “I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people,” the filmmakers seek to show that Pierrepoint had become an opponent of the practice.

These two issues, respect for the corpse and capital punishment, make for an interesting paradox.  Is it possible to have both?  Are there some crimes (mass murder, for example) for which capital punishment is appropriate, and others (first degree murder) for which it is not?  Where does terrorism fall in this?  As premeditated murder, part of a genocidal movement, or something else?  Eichmann was exposed as a wholehearted supporter of the Final Solution and convicted on overwhelming evidence.  He was hanged and buried at sea.  Bin Laden was not tried, though his hand was clearly visible in the murders of 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and after being killed in a raid in Pakistan, he too was buried at sea.  What if Khaled Mashaal or Hassan Nasrallah were to be apprehended alive?  What would they deserve?  Life imprisonment or swimming with the fishes?

And what about kavod hamet (respect for the corpse)?  Sea burial is respectable and prevents the grave site from becoming a shrine to the twisted faithful.  And publishing photographs of corpses?  The Fogel family chose to allow photographs of the bloodied family members (minus Ruth, the mother) to be posted on the Web.  The horror of reading what had happened to them was increased manifold by the photos of the corpses.  To anyone who questioned the humanity of settlers, or tried to explain away the murder of a family as “frustration” at the “occupation,” the photos bore witness to the naked savagery and boundless hatred of the murderers.  So what would publishing photos of a bullet-riddled bin Laden show?  Justice?  Closure?  Simple verification of the kill?  The comment section on a recent Westbankmama post debates the merits of this issue, and while I’m not impressed with the argument of it as a deterrent against crime or compromising the dignity of the corpse (that was buried at sea), I think perhaps its value in debunking conspiracy theories (before they fester into “facts”) is worth considering.

It’s highly unlikely that Israel will have the opportunity to repeat the capture and trial of a major actor like Eichmann again.  None of the high-profile, heavily-guarded figures who seek Israel’s destruction would have any interest in being captured alive, and while there are certainly opponents to targeted killings, I prefer them to drawn-out celebrity trials and orderly executions or imprisonment.  The German conviction of John Demjanjuk, a guard at Sobibor, the other day was suspended pending appeal, and the 91-year-old Nazi will now walk free, most likely for the rest of his days.  There’s also an honesty to simply killing one’s enemies when they’re self-professed combatants, use the language of war to describe their relationship to Israel (and everything else), and violate every law of war and humanity in working toward their ends.  The new face of war is no longer uniformed soldiers engaging a uniformed enemy and observing the Geneva Conventions.  As such, the targeting of masterminds and leaders seems appropriate, and the questions that arise in this context are no longer “whether” but “when” and “how.”

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Feminism on trial

A dedicated reader commented on my recent post about the flap caused by Natalie Portman thanking her fiance at the Oscars ceremony for giving her “the most important role in her life.”  His view of what he calls “modern” feminism in the US appears to be a composite of stereotypes of women who, the story goes, value wealth and career success above family, masculine appearance above femininity, and arrogance above God-fearing modesty.  The stereotypical modern feminist, in the picture painted by my reader, is a short-haired, artificially flat-chested, pro-abortion, plain-faced woman averse to commitment.  I have known and seen many radical feminists in my time, and have never seen one who embodies all of these characteristics. Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist credentials are unparalleled, but her hair has never been short.  The only women I know who make their bustlines smaller are those who undergo surgical reductions, which reduce their chance of breast cancer and chronic back problems.  Abortion is seen as a difficult choice for women, but a choice nonetheless, and one which is permissible in certain circumstances by halacha.  Make-up, too, is a choice.  And nearly every feminist I’ve known or known of has been in a committed relationship (granted, sometimes it’s been with another woman, but that didn’t make the short list of the stereotypical feminist.)  These stereotypes may have sprung from small grains of truth, but they are far from reflecting my experience of feminism in the US.  (I was a full-time American before I made aliyah, went to a women’s college, and took my share of women’s studies classes there.)  I understand that the impression this reader and probably many others have of this brand of feminism is negative, but since one of my little dreams in this blog is to get people to think and question, rather than just say, “Right on, Shimshonit!”, I’d like to spend a little time on this topic.

The way women are supposed to look in the modern world is worth examining in a historical and sociological context.  Anyone who pays any attention to the history of art knows that the image of the ideal woman has changed over time.  In the ancient world, fertility goddesses were  full-figured.  Egyptians created goddess images of lean, long-legged, small-breasted women, but the Greeks filled this image out a little more.  Once Western art caught up to the Greek (we’re skipping the Medieval era here), women filled out again, reaching the Rococo period when beautiful women were positively zaftig.   At the turn of the 20th century, Aubrey Beardsley starved his women back down to pencil-thin, and by the 1920s, the image of the short-haired, flat-chested, boyish-looking woman in low-cut, sleeveless, high-hemmed dresses was shocking at first, but nonetheless became an ideal, if not a norm.  Mae West and later, to a smaller degree, Marilyn Monroe (who was not as plump as some would claim, since sizing standards changed, making numbers smaller for the same size) gave women a slight reprieve, but then Twiggy came on the scene, and that was the end of the normally-proportioned  supermodel.  Whether slender and athletic, like Elle MacPherson or Brooke Shields, or half-starved and sleep-deprived, like Kate Moss, thin became the rule, and has been rigidly enforced by photo-altering software (which was once used to slim down magazine photos of a plump, peachy Kate Winslet, to her outrage).

Shape has undergone changes over the ages, as have other features.  In my college days, women with impeccable feminist cred would often refrain from shaving their legs.  When I traveled to Germany after college on a six-month world tour, this was how I looked, and with my reasonably well-accented German, I passed for native with more than one unsuspecting person.  (I was even told in a youth hostel that I couldn’t possibly be American, since I didn’t have smooth legs, lots of make-up, and big hair.  It turned out the extent of this person’s knowledge of America was from “Dynasty.”)  I heard once that in France at least, the only women who shaved their legs until recent decades were prostitutes.  Now, of course, smooth skin is expected of a well-groomed woman, regardless of profession.  If the women chosen as supermodels are anything to judge the ideal female by, even skin, large eyes, and full, colored lips are the marks of beauty.  So let’s tally it up for a moment; what sort of creature sports soft, smooth, perfect  skin, wide eyes, and bright red lips?  A baby.  (Isn’t that what they call women in rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs?  And ask her, “Who’s your daddy?”)  Take away the fat and add lots of long hair, and you have the ideal woman.  Don’t have those features?  Then Botox, collagen, make-up, plastic surgery, laser hair removal, diets, drugs, and pricey hair treatments await.  Personally, I like to keep people’s expectations of my daily appearance low, so I avoid that stuff and only take out the make-up (some of which is left over from my wedding 11 years ago) for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  I think people should look at a woman with eyes more interested in seeing what’s in her soul than what’s on the surface.

The point of my post, which I hope didn’t get lost in the bit of ranting I did, is that feminism is a good thing, but only when it’s channeled toward healthy choices for each individual.  It’s decidedly NOT good if it’s used to make women feel guilty (either for staying home or for going back to work after having a child) or to condemn their choices.  It’s not a stick to beat women with who either try to make the most of their appearance, or don’t spend excessive amounts of money on cosmetics and time in front of a mirror.  It’s not the sole address of who’s responsible for unwanted pregnancy.  (There was someone else involved, remember, but he doesn’t have to face society’s scorn because it doesn’t show on him and he isn’t the one who has to choose the path his life will take, with or without a baby.)  It’s what’s responsible for relieving women’s honorifics of their tie to marital status (something that has never affected men).  If women hadn’t fought hard for the right to vote, it would never have been offered them willingly by men.  Without feminism, women would still be considered chattel in society.

I was grateful for Rav Averick’s support of women who choose motherhood.  I’ve been viewed as a wastrel and a shiftless layabout by dozens of people since choosing to be the primary caregiver in my children’s lives.  (Apparently, unless one is being paid to care for children, it doesn’t carry the same merit.)  But I also thought his criticism of Wildman’s piece was harsh in its condemnation of the inevitable questions that come up when women see other women hold up motherhood as the ideal state.  That hearkens back painfully to the 1950s (and later) when motherhood was considered by society to be the fulfillment of womanhood, and the only desired result of a woman’s higher education, marriage, and (temporary) career.  It’s inevitable that comments like Portman’s will provoke a response from feminists.  But I found the substance of the feminist buzz and reactions to Portman’s comments to be full of willful misunderstandings and overreactions to her words.  The whole thing, on both sides, was in bad taste, as is so much of what passes for news and commentary.

Feminism took women out of the private sphere and gave them the opportunity to become actors in the public sphere.  It gave them the vote, the chance to hold office, to influence policy, to own property and enjoy full rights as citizens.  One of the things women have attempted to do is to secure the right to keep others out of their personal decision-making.  When a public furor erupts over a woman’s stated preference for a public, professional life (as happened to Sarah Palin) or for motherhood, the public reaction seems to be the same, to excoriate the woman for doing what she’s doing, and not doing what she’s not.  When people finally look at a woman — as they would look at any man — and judge her based on the quality of what she’s doing rather than on what they think she supposed to be doing, then feminism will finally have succeeded.

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I pay little attention to Natalie Portman on the average day.  Her all-out neurotic performance in “Black Swan” left my stomach churning, and I had to put the window down in the car on the way home to battle the nausea.  I guess that means she did a good job.

It was after seeing the movie that I discovered she was pregnant, the father being the choreographer from the film.  I have no strong feelings about this; it’s someone else’s life, and I have no comment on her intended intermarriage (they are reportedly affianced) or premarital parenthood, except to my own children.

However, I recently saw an article in the online Jewish newspaper, the Algemeiner, by an Orthodox rabbi who was reacting to some media turbulence caused by Portman’s thanking of her fiance for giving her “the most important role in her life,” i.e. that of impending motherhood.  My tendency would be to hear that speech with an “Awww, isn’t that sweet?” and move on.  But not surprisingly, there are others who can’t let something like that pass without debating it down to the last letter.

Rabbi Moshe Averick’s piece, entitled “The Natalie Portman ‘Motherhood-gate’ scandal; should we laugh or cry?”, takes to task the author of an article critical of Portman, Sarah Wildman (whose  “A Woman’s Greatest Role?” appears in the online Forward).   A career writer, Wildman shares her struggle to work through her pregnancy, through her labor even, and resume writing post-partum as soon as possible to prove to her sexist twit of a boss that women can do everything men can, AND have babies.  The reactions to Portman’s comment quoted in Wildman’s article descend into the feline, with one writer suggesting her garbage man would also have made a suitable stud for Ms. Portman’s greatest role, and another asking, “But is motherhood really a greater role than being secretary of state or a justice on the Supreme Court? Is reproduction automatically the greatest thing Natalie Portman will do with her life?”

Rabbi Averick objects to Waldman’s “wearisome (albeit sincerely written) example of what has become a cliché in feminist literature: agonizing, hand-wringing, and occasional breast-beating regarding the motherhood vs. career conflict.”  Hokey though it sounds to some people, parenthood does take over one’s life, for good and ill, and because women’s biology often forces them to choose (at least temporarily) between motherhood and career, I think the debate about those choices is inevitable and, much of the time, consciousness-raising.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I think far too much attention is paid to the private lives of entertainers and athletes.  Their wealth, fame, and the scrutiny they’re under by the press make their lives anything but normal, and such people should not be held up as examples of anything to anyone, except wealth, fame, and subjection to press scrutiny.  It is also worth noting what Rabbi Averick says, that “While some dramatic presentations may very well contain meaningful messages, films and plays essentially convey distracting and entertaining illusions. Pregnancy, motherhood, and child-rearing are not entertaining illusions. They are as real as it gets.”

I fear what has happened in the wake of Portman’s speech is the same thing that happened when my alma mater (a women’s college) asked alumnae for stories about full-time mothering for a feature in the college’s alumnae magazine.  There, too, a storm broke out between women who had chosen career over family, who had continued to work and put their children in day care, and women who had chosen to shelve their careers in favor of full-time motherhood.  Never mind that those at-home moms had had their experiences and stories ignored by the magazine for decades in favor of features about career, awards, travel, and public service.  At the same time that my college’s magazine tries to stay in step with prestigious co-ed colleges (where mention of family probably makes the editor grumble, “We’re an alumni magazine, not Good Housekeeping!”), it does bother me a little that making a women’s college magazine so much like that of a co-ed’s implies that family life is un-feminist, that women don’t care any more about talking about their families or hearing about others’ families than men do (although it may be true), and that staying home and having children is dull and a shameful squandering of professional opportunities opened up by the women’s movement.  It all comes down to what we choose and how we feel about it.  My mother chose to stay home rather than pursue a career in nursing and never looked back.  Now when she and my father meet a dual-physician couple, these ignorant young women turn to my mother, assume she’s also a physician (not realizing how rare it was to find a woman in medical school back then), and ask her what her specialty is.  (I tell her to say rug-braiding, book-mending, and grandmothering, which really ARE her specialties.)  On the other hand, my mother-in-law continued to practice medicine and hired nannies to take care of the Cap’n and his brother.  (That was the right decision for all concerned, by the way.)  Thanks to the more strident elements in the anti-feminist movement, she is still haunted by her guilt for having worked outside the home all those years.

One of the most telling parts of Wildman’s article is where she asks, “If motherhood is the most important role, have we negated everything else we do? Does a woman who does not become a mother never reach an apex? What if motherhood isn’t happening — because a woman has decided to skip it or because she can’t have children? What then? Is there no important role?”  The answers, of course, are no, no, other things, up to her, and of course there is, dummy.  Done.  If Natalie Portman thinks motherhood is the most important role she’ll ever play, it is, so live with it.  She wasn’t talking about anyone else when she was up making her speech; she was talking about herself.  (I’m sometimes tempted to create an ad campaign aimed at catty chatterers, cranky feminists and other disgruntled people: It’s not always about YOU.)

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, and will be one until the day I die.  But my feminism is about having choices, about doing as much as we can (though not always at the same time), and about confining our criticism to those who would keep us down, not to women who make different choices, or have more luck or talent or opportunity.  Women, unlike men, have been given (by God, not by men) the biology and the brains to have both children and a career.  Those who choose one or the other, or both, are to be commended, not criticized.  By the end of Wildman’s article, her words and tone seem to be more that of a woman who has already embarked on motherhood saying, “Just wait; she’ll see what it’s really like.”  Why, yes, she will, as mothers always do.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating, difficult and profoundly life-changing.  The best of luck to her.

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Last year, I committed the very great heresy of telling my father that I would discourage any of my children from attending American colleges or universities.  (This from the woman with a bachelor’s and three master’s degrees from American institutions.)  My reason at the time was the overtly hostile attitude toward Israel on many American university campuses, but on further reflection, it goes much deeper than that.  It really spreads to the American academic culture’s attitude toward the West in general.

I don’t think it’s either realistic or necessary for everyone in academia to be pro-Israel.  A country so different from America, in such an incomprehensibly hostile neighborhood, and full of such internal and external complexity, is difficult to fathom for the American mind, nurtured in safety and isolation from immediate threat.  Yet those who would advocate academic boycotts against Israel overlook the fact that Israeli academic institutions, like those outside Israel, are overwhelmingly liberal in bent, and are some of the places most critical of Israel inside this country.  Those who advocate an economic boycott would be loathe to part with their cellphones, instant messaging, computer chips, and life-saving medical advances (the latter of which are made available even to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, for free).  And those who criticize Israel’s politics seem astonishingly forgiving of the violently racist, sexist, and human rights-violating policies of the other nations in this region which don’t draw nearly the same fire from the West as Israel.

No, it’s really more the abandonment of intellectual honesty, search for truth, and acceptance of complexity in favor of one-sidedness, double standards, and oversimplification in the service of political bias that has really gotten my goat about American academia.  When I was in graduate school in English, my professor had us read the late Edward Said’s theories on “Orientalism” (basically an historically bankrupt accusation of imperialism by the West in its view of the rest of the world).  I told her I failed to see how this work bore any relation to reality, much less the literary theory we were supposed to be studying.  She asked if I had a text she could substitute for this one, and I said no.  How could I possibly justify replacing one profoundly flawed text for another?  A few months later, I sat in on a social studies class at Boston Latin school in which the teacher assigned the students an essay on capital punishment.  The students were given the choice at the beginning of class of which side to take, but then the teacher launched into a 30-minute tirade about the evils of capital punishment, its racial inequality, its brutality against the innocent, and the fact that Black men are disproportionately put to death because of it.  No information or perspective was provided about the views of those who support it, and by the end of the class period, there was little doubt in the students’ minds about which side they would be expected to take in their essays.  And when I neared the end of my teacher training and was applying for teaching jobs, I was grilled by a very irritable English department at a local public high school not about my teaching methods, my mastery of English and American poetry, prose, and drama, how I might implement the department’s curriculum, or how to deal with a class of students of different levels of ability, but which non-Western texts I would be prepared to teach in my classroom.

Not long ago, I read a very interesting article by Bernie Reeves (“Can Niall Ferguson Save Civilization?”) about the current state of higher education in America.  I was surprised at how sharply it homed in on exactly what has made me uncomfortable about so much of contemporary American educational culture.  The shift from being stuffy, stodgy places where the ancients (Greek and Latin) were read, memorized, translated, and sometimes even (gulp!) critiqued, to the current climate of anti-Western, anti-classical, anti-religion, anti-American, anti-anything-that-dead-white-men-would-have-done is documented, along with the accompanying abandonment of much of what used to constitute academic rigor and discipline.

I’m not saying that the good old days (long before I was ever in college) were the gold standard by which all education should be judged.  I recently read Yankee From Olympus, a delightful biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in which the author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, is positively withering in her description of Harvard College’s curriculum and teaching methods during Holmes’s era, which included rote memorization, discouraged debate, and shunned modern languages, sciences, and philosophy newer than the Romans.  In contemporary education, there must be a balance between the study of where we’ve been and the possible directions we may be going.  History must not hide the flaws of the past, but must focus on motivation and intention, not just misdeeds, and English must include the acquisition of skills such as close reading, vocabulary, structure and mechanics of prose and poetry, as well as a breadth of content which reflects the history, development of ideas, and experience of the English-speaking world.  I think non-Western works should not be avoided altogether, but must be chosen carefully and taught in appropriate context at the high school level, and explored in greater breadth and depth at the college level to show students with (by then) a strong background in Western civilization the ways in which non-Western though and experience differ.

One example of how not to teach non-Western experience was provided by a commenter on Reeves’s article, who reported how a child came home having studied a story about a Japanese child sick from nuclear poisoning following the US bombing of Hiroshima.  The teacher, it turned out, had not explained why America had dropped the bomb, or what would have happened if they had chosen not to.  Such incidents sow the seeds of anti-Americanism by erasing all context for the nation’s actions and focusing instead on the oppression of the powerless (civilians, children, foreigners, people of color) by the brutal, powerful West (America, Europe, and later on, perhaps Israel).  For people who teach this way (many of them, according to Reeves, 1960s campus radicals who later became college professors), history is about reading heart-rending accounts of racist atrocities, the evils of religion, the sins of the powerful against the weak, and the general revision of the way things have been taught in the past, as though everything our parents and grandparents learned were lies and whitewashes of the truth.  The belief seems to be that the side of the victors (i.e. those who write history) has already been told, and it’s time to hear the other side, but the fact is that the victors’ version has been pushed aside in recent decades, and the losers’ version is all too often the only version taught.  Those who teach this way seem more interested in dividing the world between good and bad, right and wrong, celebrated and vilified, than in understanding the sometimes complex truths behind what they see.  After all, it’s harder to feel strongly about one side or another if it’s gray rather than black or white.  It can be unsettling when things in the world don’t line up according to a binary system of good and bad.  It’s s embarrassing to discover that you know less than you thought on a subject.  It’s easier to discredit the side you don’t agree with than to suspend judgment pending understanding.  Reeves writes,

Since the new radical doctrine was incubated in socialist realism, the first objective was to manufacture equality via a perverse affirmative action initiative by elevating underdeveloped nations to equal status with the world’s greatest cultures. It was sold as ‘multiculturalism,’ and, consistent with leftist screeds, hid behind the skirts of a noble outcome – ‘inclusiveness’ – i.e. it is good to study and respect all cultures rather than emphasis on the big achievers. 

In this disguise, the real dirty work was undertaken: dismantling and de-emphasizing the achievements of the western world by dramatizing its sins in order to ‘apologize’ to the victims of imperialist exploitation and racism. To enforce the new credo on campus, the ‘politically correct’ police attacked and discredited those that dared defy the party line, labeling offenders as racist, chauvinistic, homophobic, or, of course, imperialistic. In the cloister of academic freedom, free speech was extinguished.

One need look no further than the intimidation of pro-Israel students in university classrooms, Israel Apartheid Week activities, and the booing offstage of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (himself a historian with an illustrious academic career) at UC Irvine to see the evidence for Reeves’s assessment.

It’s distressing to see so many intelligent, well-meaning people with their brains turned off.  Such people are unable to view the world the way it really is, and this leads to such far-fetched beliefs as Secretary of State Clinton’s that Bashar Assad is a reformer, that Muammar Qaddafi was a reformer (in between the Lockerbie plane bombing and the current civil war in Libya, long enough to put Libya in the chair of the UN Human Rights Council), and Israel is an apartheid state.  Reeves believes that “college graduates since the mid-80s are hopelessly clueless when it comes to comprehending current events . . .  see themselves as the cause of society’s and the world’s problems . . . and have no information or skills to frame or interpret, even as the information society serves up instantly accessible information.”  A year ago, I had an exchange with a reader following a post in which I commemorated the 90th anniversary of the San Remo Convention which established boundaries for a Jewish state to include all of what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Kingdom of Jordan.  (Jordan and its British-fabricated monarchy was set aside for the Arabs at a later date, reneging on the internationally recognized San Remo agreement.)  This can be found in multiple histories, and the map I posted was an accurate reflection of the outcome of the conference, but the reader couldn’t accept these facts as true 1) because the map was published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (an instrument of oppression and disinformation, it seems) and 2) the reader apparently couldn’t grasp that anyone would really offer the Jews that much territory (a fair assessment in light of Britain’s perfidy in reneging on this and all subsequent agreements with the Jews, and the world’s acceptance of Arab aggression and numerous attempts to annihilate the Jews).

I would like to think that Reeves’s article (like many on the American Thinker site) is alarmist and an overreaction.  While I don’t necessarily share his belief that current anti-Western thinking in American academia is the result of Soviet-era, KGB-implemented “active measures,” my own experience—as well as what I continue to read in the press about America—seems to support his bleak prognosis.  (And I’m not even counting here the kind of talkbacks one reads at the end of online articles.)  It can be discouraging to someone who enters college hoping at last to gain a handle on the world and its workings to discover that it’s far more complicated and slippery than he or she had ever imagined.  But what’s the alternative?

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