Monday, June 29, 2009

Everybody Wants to Be America

Here is a discussion I have been having with somebody at Opinion Forum:

Larry: 'There is no other place like this country.The dream of every foreign country I’ve visited is to be America."

Clarissa: "You couldn’t be more wrong, Larry. It is a myth that most people around the world want to have a life that’s all work, work, work, saddled with a 30-year mortgage, where you feel you have to kill yourself working to buy that new plasma screen TV, where there is little sex and even less fun, where people feel enormous guilt for relaxing even for a while, where neither healthcare or higher education are guaranteed to everyone, where you have to be pretty rich to go to college (or saddle yourself with enormous debt.)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderful country, but the idea that people of all cultures would see this life as perfect and actually want it is truly wrong. I am an immigrant and people from my old country don’t envy me in the least. They think I’m an idiot for wanting to live here. Both my friends and I are right in our own way. Different cultures have different priorities. The very doubtful American prosperity that comes at such a steep price is hardly the envy of everyone."

I want to add: I consciously chose to emigrate to North America. I chose to live here and I love it. This doesn't, however, make me think that everybody in the world would want the same. people are different, their needs are different, what's good for me, might be intolerable for somebody else. I know many, many immigrants who bought into the myth of America while knowing nothing about the reality of America and are now truly miserable. I know immigrants who went back home and those who are saving money to go back home.

There is no way of life that's perfect for everyone. The idea that "everybody is jealous of the American lifestyle" is promoted by the likes of George W. Bush in order to justify American intrusion into world affairs and promote the kind of hysterical patriotism he needs to sustain its military adventures.

Unhappy Women

Just as I was celebrating Ross Douthat's intellectual progress and his departure (at least this week) from chauvinism, I encountered a truly weird article in the UK's Daily Mail (as some of my readers might have guessed, Monday is my press overview day). Lucy Cavendish's "They have it why is it so hard for some women to be happy?" is an example of gender chauvinism that sets out to belittle men in a very casual way, while apparently looking for the reasons why many women feel unhappy, bored, and unfulfilled.***

Cavendish's article is hard to understands because the terms she uses are extremely fuzzy. First of all, it's impossible to deduce whether she talks about women who are fulfilled professionally or not. In the intro to the article we read the following: "Loving husband? Tick. Gorgeous children? Tick. Exciting career? Tick. Yet still millions of harassed modern women feel there's a gaping hole in the middle of their life...." Then, however, the author proceeds to describe the women she has in mind, the "yummy mummies", who married rich and now spend their days between ordering around the nannies, playing tennis, and going to yoga classes. They have pretty cars and huge diamonds, Cavendish muses, so how come they are still miserable?

The answer, of course, is that being a coat rack that shows off the expensive furs or a Barbie doll in a cute car cannot make anybody happy. Cavendish, however, finds her answer in the tried and true favorite response of all journalists: the gender differences. While men, these boring, pedestrian creatures "are pretty happy to muddle along", women are people with "restless desires and dreams" who "are on an endless search to find fulfilment." Why don't men search for fulfillment on a similar scale? Cavendish's answer: "I don't think men are programmed this way. If their needs are met and life doesn't get too complicated, they are happy." You know, like dogs. You give them their chow, they are plenty happy. They are programmed (another idiotic expression journalists seem to adore) to be content with the most basic things.

Women, on the other hand, have higher aspirations and loftier goals in life: "I think women search all their lives, as if we are only ever fulfilled on a temporary basis. In a positive light, it is a search for continual betterment. We have only one life, the theory goes, so why not pack in as much as possible while you can? Why settle for 'all right' or 'OK' when something is gnawing away at your insides, urging you to try a different way of living." This kind of existential angst, this desire to find more meaning to life, this search for constant betterment is unknown to men. They are such simple and uncomplicated souls, they work, go home, and feel content with everything: "Maybe this is why the sexes will always be different. The type of routine that dominates men's lives doesn't seem to bother them. They get up, go to work, work hard, maybe socialise and then go home. They may grumble a bit, but they accept it. In fact, they seem to like it." Based on this description, nobody could expect such facile creatures to have any hopes and dreams that come outside the boring circle of work and home.

The author confesses that she also feels bored with her "perfect" marriage and family. One has to ask, however, how perfect can a marriage be where a woman sees men - and by extension her own partner - in such deeply chauvinistic terms.

*** I know the article was written in March, but I only ran across it today by following a link from the NYTimes. Besides, I didn't have a blog yet in March.

Douthat Comes up with Something Half Decent

I'm very glad that I didn't give up on Ross Douthat after his series of silly and chauvinistic articles. Because today he finally came up with a piece that isn't half bad (If it came from anybody else, I would say the article is pretty much intellectually impotent. Coming from Douthat, however, it's almost a revelation). In his NYTimes article "The Way We Love Now," Douthat talks about how romantic and sexual experiences vary across class lines.

Clyde Griffiths, the protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's amazing novel An American Tragedy, realizes that what distinguishes him from the class of rich and powerful men he desperately wants to join is their seeming indifference to sex. In order to succeed in America, you have to tame your sex drive to the point where it will only exist within the strict patriarchal norms of a Puritanical society. Clyde doesn't manage to do that and sees his dreams of social ascension crumble.

Almost 90 years later, Ross Douthat arrives at the same idea: "The difficult scramble up the meritocratic ladder tends to discourage wild passions and death-defying flings. For bright young overachievers, there’s often a definite tameness to the way that collegiate “safe sex” segues into the upwardly-mobile security of “companionate marriages” — or, if you’re feeling more cynical, “consumption partnerships.” This tameness has beneficial social consequences." Of course, if Douthat had read Dreiser in college, he wouldn't have to struggle so much to come up with this analysis. At this point, however, I'll take whatever I can get.

Of course, Douthat's solution is, as usual, shocking in its blatant contempt towards the lowly proles. The poor should give up on sexual excesses, which in turn should be reserved for the Douthats of the world: "Better, perhaps, if this dynamic were reversed. Our meritocrats could stand to leaven their careerism with a little more romantic excess. (Though such excess is more appropriate in the young, it should be emphasized, than in middle-aged essayists and parents.) But most Americans, particularly those of modest means, would benefit from greater caution and stability in their romantic entanglements."In spite of the parenthetical disclaimer, Douthat's entire piece is obviously motivated with envy towards those who are either too high up or too low down on the social scale to care about the repercussions of their "romantic excess." It's great to see, however, that - whatever the cause - Douthat finally manages to arrive at a thought that can be turned into something productive.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Daily Kos and the Future of the Media

I was thinking to subscribing to the New York Times on my Kindle. But then I discovered that for a fraction of the cost I can instead subscribe to a news outlet that is so much richer, informative, and definitely more fun. In short, I discovered Daily Kos. This is, without a doubt, the future of the media. This wonderful blog has updates several times a day. It's not just a collection of articles where every author pushes their own agenda. Instead, they provide you with links to interesting articles, videos and posts, so you can choose what you want to read for yourself.

In terms of fun, there is this wonderful thing called "hate mail-apalooza." Kos publishes the most ridiculous pieces of hate mail that the site receives. Here are the most fun parts of the recent sample that had me roaring with laughter:

dear socialist fuckstick,

i am well awear of the fact that liberals are immune to logic and reason, but allow me to try to prove to you that you are communist scum thrugh something called the scientific method:

1 a) FACT: you suck obamas cock every chance youget. you defend everythign he does and says and you are nothing more than an apologist. this makes you complicit in obamas actions.

1 b) FACT: obama is a well known socialist. this is evident his policies and his love of SELFDESCRIBED COMMUNISTS LIKE BILL AYERS!!!! so dont thinkthat he can hide his true nature for much longer. he will eventully be exposed and impeached. SOCIALISM CANNOT WORK OR RUSSIA WOULD STILL EXIST AND THEY WOULD NEVER HAVE LOST THE COLD WAR TO REAGAN!!! retard.

1 c) you are thusly a pro forma socialist; whether you like it or not. logic dictates this.

(2) FACT: you, sir, are a illegal immigrant. i dont give two shits whether you are an american citizen or not: you came here on taxpayer expense and you continue to drain our limited resources. you should be ashamed and go back to guatemala or whatever fucking middleeastern asshole you came from and try to sell yor leftwing bullshit there. [. . .]

sincerely yoursglenn

Even if this is a parody, it's a brilliant one. The Daily Kos site has the entire letter and a very fun poll to go with it.

As I said before, blogging is the future of the news media and of the entertainment industry as well.

Palin's Feminist Supporters

Yes, it turns out there are "feminists" who support Sarah Palin. Which makes as much sense as if the Civil Rights movement drew its inspiration from the image of Uncle Tom. There are even questions about whether they have inflitrated the leadership of NOW (National Organization for Women).
I can't even begin to describe the horror my friends and I experienced when first presented with this eyelash-batting, winking, giggly, profoundly patriarchal excuse for a female politician. Now every chauvinist in the country had the perfect justification for why women have no place in politics.
When the Republicans tried to sell her as some kind of a conservative embodiment of feminism, I just laughed. After her disgusting anti-choice speeches, her insistence on abstinence-only sex ed, and her blatant use of her own daughter for political advancement, who would believe it? Turns out some "feminists" would.
How anybody can be anti-choice and still call themselves a feminist is beyond me. If you believe that a woman's body belongs to the state and can be policed and legislated as if it were some kind of a reproductive machine, just be honest about it and don't call yourself a feminist. How anybody can look at Palin and not cringe with shame that somebody this silly, ignorant and pathetic would even be in politics, is incomprehensible.
The discussion of whether the leadership of NOW has been hijacked by Palin supporters is irrelevant to me. If there is even one Palin supporter in NOW, then it's not an organization that can represent me or do anything for me.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The way I thought academic life worked was the following: first, you suffer a little as an undergrad, then you go through real suffering as a graduate student, then you get your PhD, find a job, become a real professor, and do anything you want and enjoy yourself for the rest of your life. People might call this vision of academia naive. I prefer to think of it as idealistic.
Now, however, I'm discovering that my long-expected "now-I-can-finally-do-whatever-the-hell-I-please" moment is not supposed to start right now. Or even for a very long time. Or maybe never.
Since I have found a tenure-track job, people are going out of their way to enumerate for me all of the ways I will have to punish myself for six years more to get tenure.
An older, esteemed colleague went on for 30 minutes describing, with a passionate glow of a fellow-martyr in his eyes, all of the humiliations and all of the struggle I will have to undergo on my way to tenure. "And then I will be able to just enjoy myself?" I asked hopefully. "No!" he responded with an ecstatic expression that reminded me of Bernini's St.Theresa. "Then you will want to get the title of Full Professor. And that's really painful."
I didn't ask my kind colleague what is the next coveted goal after that. Simply because even the first two don't convince me. The reason why I chose this profession is because it can give me a lot of free time to think, read, generate ideas, and disseminate them. That's really all I ever wanted to do. "Tenure" and "Full Professor", these words sound nice. But the good thing about academia (maybe the only good thing about it at this point) is that you can avoid the life of somebody who sits boxed in in her cubicle 8 hours a day 5 days a week 50 weeks a year. You can have space and time to grow intellectually at the pace that suits you best. You can have access to that commodity which is most difficult to acquire: leisure.
And now I am being told thatI have to waste that precious time trying to meet "the right people" and getting them to like me, creating technologically sophisticated presentations with Powerpoint or some such shit, when I know that the best things I can bring into the classroom and to a conference are my knowledge and my personality, and doing a myriad of silly little things to impress some people "on the tenure committee" that I don't know and most definitely don't care to know. I might have just decided to work selling insurance and saved myself all this trouble.
What bothers me, I guess, is that people automatically assume that wanting tenure is the next big goal. Why should it be, though? Maybe a scholar's goal is to make a significant contribution to her field, create her own theory, come up with a new way of teaching literary theory that will make the students love it. I worry that, for some reason, I never get to discuss these things with my colleagues. We talk about serving on committees, what the dean likes or doesn't like, how to please the chair, how to avoid antagonizing the secretary, where to get travel money, what will impress the tenure committee, like these things matter. But do they?

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is dead. Everybody is writing very touching tributes but they make me feel profoundly uncomfortable.
When I was a teenager I loved Jackson's music. It's true that he defined an entire generation. It's true that his music is great. But since I heard him confess that he sleeps in the same bed with boys, there is no Michael Jackson for me.
If there is anything I hate in the world, it's pedophilia. I know that people will now come here to tell me that nothing has been proven in court. It hasn't, that's true. But I know that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for a grown man to sleep in the same bed with 12-year-old children. Doing that is pedophilia.
Of course, we are ready to forgive many things to the famous and the talented. But there should be a limit. I think that any discussion about Michael Jackson should not leave out his victims. I think that every time we say how much the world lost because of his death (which it has) we should remember how much these children lost because of his life.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good News

I've just received a publishing agreement for my book. This is all happening unexpectedly fast. I'm very happy, people!
I can't believe I might have a book of my own soon. It will have a color picture of me on the back cover (which is extremely important.)


An article by Dr. Robert Allan suggests that it's not a good idea to vent your anger. People who express their rage are more likely to die of a heart attack, according to this doctor.

So many people are very very angry today. They are angry because of the loss of their savings, because they have suddenly found themselves unemployed, because their house has been taken away from them, because they've been on the job market with no results for months and there is still no prospect of a job in the foreseeable future.

I have no doubt that Dr. Allan, whose main point is to teach people that directing their rage at those who have harmed them is dangerous and wrong, will never have any problem with getting funding for his research. His strategy is great: scare people with the possibility of disease. Since those people who are the angriest right now are also the ones with no medical insurance, it might really work.

I'm not saying that the good doctor is doing this on purpose. It's just that, somehow, he found the right spin he can put on the results of his research. The social (as opposed to medical) value of his data soared.

I'm not a doctor but I disagree with Dr. Allan. Anger is good, it can lead us to very productive things. It can lead us to look at our lives critically and change what we don't like. Behind every movement for social justice there's been a lot of anger. My favorite feminist sticker says "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention." So, to hell with this doctor's advice. Let's be angry.

Breastfeeding Gone Nuts

Somebody just sent me the following review from Amazon:

"Stop feeding your baby after 10-15 minutes a side? My baby is a slow eater. Why would I deprive him of food? And what's the problem with allowing him some non-nutritive sucking after he's done eating? Breastfeeding is about more than just calories. You have to meet their emotional needs too."

Their emotional needs? Really? Or the sexual needs of an unfulfilled mother who can't get a grown man to suck on her nipples, so she utilizes a poor baby for this purpose? Of course, it's all presented like it's about the baby's needs. It's the baby who enjoys on an emotional level sucking on her nipples. Because the baby told her so.

It's scary to see how people would do anything they please to their children and then justify it all by saying that it's for the children's good.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I've been trying very hard to avoid knowing anything about Mark Sanford and his affair. I find this public gasping about adulterous politicians to be very distasteful. Haven't we had enough with the whole Clinton idiocy? But the story is everywhere. And some things that are being written are impossible to not want to respond.
Michelle Malkin wrote an article called "Bastard" that is just too weird to pass by. Here is the opening sentence of Malkin's piece: "It’s the only fitting word for a man who abandons his wife and four sons on Father’s Day weekend to indulge his “overdrive” on an Argentinian fling." It sounds like cheating on any other day would be somehow better. Obviously, if he stayed home on Father's Day, we could start screaming: "What a hypocrite! Spending the day wiith his family, like nothing is going on. How could he look his children in the eye. And all this, on Father's Day!"
Another reason why Malkin feels disgusted with Sanford: "He had a hell of a lot more passion and pathos for his mistress than his own wife." Well, that wasn't very unexpected, since she is his mistress. A newsflash: being somebody's wife or husband doesn't necessarily guarantee that this person will feel passionate towards you forever. Sad, I know. But hardly very unexpected.
The next outraged statement: "He referred wistfully to the “great friendship” and “that sparking thing” he had with the mistress for eight years — during which his wife was raising his four children." Now, I don't know the Sanfords' entire family history, but this surely sounds like the wife was raising the kids he had with another woman. Or are these her children, too? If so, then I fail to see the point of this statement. Would she have not raised them if she had known about the affair?
The concluding sentence of the piece is, of course, the best: "If you can't honor your marriage vows, how can you expect voters to trust you to honor your damned oath of office?" I mean, seriously? We are going to decide how good one's performance is as a politician based on his loyalty to his wife? I haven't heard about any cheating on George W.'s part. And he was still a pretty lousy president.
Believe me, I have no love for the Republicans (to put it mildly). But this righteous indignation is way too silly. Let's judge public officials on how they perform their public duties and not on how, when, or why they perform in their own or anybody else's bedroom.

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part III

To conclude my review of Levy's book, I want to address the issue of how the younger generation (or "pigs in training", as Levy refers to the teenagers) sees and relates to sexuality. I mostly teach college students but I have also had an opportunity to teach kids between the ages of 13 and 17 in a year-long course on Hispanic literature a couple of years ago. My experiences are extremely different from what Levy and the media tell us about the young people's vision of sex.

Every time you turn on Dr. Phil, Oprah, Law and Order, etc. you see suburban parents flapping their hands and clucking about how profoundly sexualized the younger generation is. They discuss the supposed orgies that their children (or somebody's children) participate in with such gusto that you can't fail to wonder whether they are verbalizing their own secret desires. Take, for example, the ridiculous invention of the so-called rainbow parties (Levy, at least, recognizes that it's a myth but doesn't try to identify why and where this myth originated.)

I'm just going to give a couple of examples of how my students see sexuality, so that my readers would understand why I view this massive hysteria about the intense sex lives of American teenagers with the deepest suspicion.

The following story took place in a class I was teaching to high school students. A female student, whose outfit, hairdo, and makeup are of the kind that make people like Levy imagine sex orgies of all kinds, talks about the main character of a short story:

Student: The main character is a prostitute.

Me: ???????

Student: She had sex with a guy without being married to him.

Me: But did she take money or anything for sex?

Student: No, it doesn't actually say that but it's obvious she did.

Me: How is that obvious?

Student (triumphant): Why else would she have sex with him??

The next story is one of my pedagogical failures. I never expected the response I got from the students, so I hadn't prepared any arguments for a debate on the subject. We were reading a novel where a woman in her mid-twenties is forced to marry a much older, impotent guy she barely knows in order to avoid dying of starvation. I suggested that this is not a happy ending. Unexpectedly, my undergrads disagreed.

Student: I think it's a pretty happy ending. She has a house now, and food, and she can afford to buy things for herself and her children.

Me: What kind of an existence is this for a young person? No love, no sex, no profession, no social life. Would you be content with this?

Student: But she has a nice man in her life.

Me: A man she doesn't love. A man who can't give her sexual fulfillment.

Student: But he takes care of her!

Me: Like she is a puppy?

Several students at once: It's important to have someone take care of you.

Me: More important than having a happy sexual and emotional life?

Students: Of course!

And to conclude, a sentence from a male student's essay (I'm translating from Spanish but I swear I didn't change a word): "The main character wouldn't have had to have wild sex with his mistress if his wife had gone to the opera with him more often and shown more interest in his hobbies."

A wildly sexual generation. Yeah, right.

Jean Rhys's After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie

Jean Rhys is best known for her amazing novel Wide Sargasso Sea. I can't even give a little hint at the theme of this novel because that will destroy much of the reading pleasure. (If you decide to read it, don't look at the back cover or any reviews, they will kill it for you. Just go to the text straightaway.)

Unfortunately, many people don't pay as much attention to other novels by this great wriiter. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930) is very different from but in no way inferior to Wide Sargasso Sea.

The best thing about the novel is the economy of words and emotions in the description of the main character's experiences. Julia Martin's tragedy is very mundane and ordinary. Her story is narrated in simple phrases, stripped of any kind of flourish. This type of narrative voice underscores just how bereft Julia's existence is and just how naked she feels in her confrontation with the world.

Julia Martin only knows one way to survive in a hostile universe. She enters into relationships with men who maintain her. When these men, such as Mr. Mackenzie, for example, get tired of her and dump her, Julia has no way of leaving the relationship with at least a shred of self-respect. Of course, what Julia does is prostitution. She wants, however, to preserve a semblance of respectability by pretending that there is some sort of an emotional connection between her and the men who pay her for sex. Soon, Julia starts to disintegrate, torn between the need to secure at least a modest sum of money to survive and the desire to maintain some last shred of dignity.
Even though the events in the novel take place between the two Great Wars, Julia's experiences still ring true today. This is what makes this novel so incredibly sad. Decades of women's liberation movement lie between us and Julia. But there are still so many Julias around.

Statistics and Obama

Statistics is great. You can take a couple of numbers and use them to prove pretty much any point you want.
Opinion Forum's Harvey just wrote a post called “The Waning of Obama” based on a recent Rasmussen poll. The point of the article is to prove that "the majority of Americans are starting to wise up to the fact that Obama is chasing some personal dream of some imagined Utopia and practicing the worst kind of mule-headed partisan politics to push us over the brink." Now, I don't want to argue with the conclusion itself (which is too bizarre for analysis). I just want to look at some of the statistics.
My favorite piece of data is the following:
"51% of voters want to see an across-the-board tax decrease for all Americans."
What does this number tell us in itself? That many people want lower taxes? Really? Interesting news. Whocould have imagined this? It's sad, of course, that there are so many people who don't realize that a tax decrease for everybody is not very viable at this particular point. But we can hardly blame Obama for the failings in the education of these grown-ups.
Another sentimental favorite:
"Earlier this month, when Obama announced his intention to speed up the stimulus spending, Rasmussen polls showed that 45% of voters thought the rest of the stimulus spending should be cancelled."
In all honesty, bailouts have everybody so pissed off that I would also say that the stimulus spending should be cancelled. As mush as I might understand on the reasonable level that it's needed, on the emotional level it makes me too angry to think that anybody should be helped at this point where nobody is helping me out much.
The last but not the least:
"In early February, 39% of voters trusted the president’s economic judgement more than their own; now that percentage is down to 30%)."
This is definitely good news, no matter how you look at it. It's stupid to trust anybody's judgement more than your own. And as for trusting the Presidents's economic judgement, look where trusting George W. Bush and his proposition that accumulating credit card debt is the best way to fight terrorists got us.
It would be pretty easy for me to write an article based on the same statistics showing how these numbers mean all kinds of good things about Obama. We are becoming more self-reliant, we trust our intellectual capacities more than before, we are more charitable to other people and want tax cuts for everyone. We are also becoming more socially conscious and see how bailing out huge companies is the same as feeding the beast that devoured us in the first place.
As I said, statistics is a great thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Strong Women: The Jon and Kate Debacle

I knew something was going on with Jon and Kate these days. My blog's statistics tell me that over the past couple of days my post containing their picture has been drawing literally hundreds of people from all over the world to my blog. So I talked to my mother who is profoundly emotionally invested in their story. Turns out that Jon and Kate are getting divorced.
Lots of online and tabloid commentary about the divorce can be summarized as harping on the idea that Kate is "too strong" amd "domineering" while Jon is "too passive." I have no interest whatsoever in why these people decided to get divorced. I could never understand why aanybody would be interested in the personal lives of people they don't know. What bothers me, however, is this rhetoric of "no-wonder-he-dumped-her-since-she-is-so-powerful."
Some people are more forceful by nature than others. Sometimes, these people are women. And that's perfectly fine. Believe it ir not, there are many men who love this kind of women. Also, people sometimes (or even often) get divorced. Thee reasons for a divorce are always complex and can't be summarized in a couple of cliched statements about who's more in charge. I somehow doubt, however, that it would occur to many people to suggest that somebody's marriage ended because the man had a strong personality.
As I have said before, I come from a long line of very powerful, strong women with great careers. My great-grandmother, my grand-mother, my mother, my aunts, my sister, and I are all extremely opinionated and sometimes very loud women. This has not prevented us from having full and rewarding personal lives. So this view that you have to be a silent and modest wall-flower in order to be popular with men is completely misguided. (Not that any one of us became outspoken and strong in order to attract people. It just happened.)
So my suggestion is: let's lay off Kate and concentrate on our inherent chauvinism that forces us to criticize a mother of 8 (as well as any woman or man) for having a personality.

Russians in Red Emma's

So I was sitting in my favorite anarchist bookstore/coffee shop (with free Wi-Fi, which is a life-saver at the moment in my life where we don't have any electricity in the apartment). A group of very elegant Russian women comes in. They look at the eclectic group of patrons and owners and literally run out.

"Oh, the first Russians this season!" says one of the regulars. "They always come in and run out immediately."

This is funny because my boyfriend (who is Russian) and I (who look very Russian without being it) have been here quite a few times. I wonder why we haven't been identified as such in spite of speaking only Russian to each other.

So in order to prove that not all "Russians" are afraid of an anarchist environment, I started speaking very loudly in Russian on my cell phone.

"Communism = Soviet Power + Electrification"

In the past 18 hours, I've had the chance to get in touch with my Ukrainian identity. The electricity suddenly went off in my apartment and we haven't been able to resolve this problem in spite of numerous efforts.
As a post-Soviet Ukrainian, I can't say I'm all that unaccastomed to living with no electricity (which means no air conditioning and no refrigerator in this sweltering heat). However, I'm not enjoying it any more than I did in my country.
To make the nostalgic experience complete, we should also have our water disconnected. Then, it would definitely feel like home.
P.S. For those who don't know, the title of this post comes from a famous quote by Lenin.
P.P.S. The electricity mysteriously went back on. This experience taught me two important things. First, overconsumption is the devil. Second, I don't miss Ukraine. I miss my real homeland, Canada, though. And not because there are no power outages there (sometimes, there are) but because it's an amazing place.

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part II

Levy attempts to explain the view of sexuality that currently exists in the US by the "unfinished business of feminism." The conflict between "sex-positive" feminists and anti-pornography feminists left us without a coherent stance on sex and female sexuality. As a result, the raunch culture emerged, where objectification of women hid undeer the guise of female sexual liberation.

I believe that it's here that Levy's argument fails. Her views become parochial and limited at the point where she sees the current attitude to sexuality almost exclusively as a result of what the 2nd generation feminists did or failed to do. As important as the ideological differences between Jong and Dworkin are for the history of the movement, it doesn't seem like the whole country was sitting there, waiting with bated breath for the resolution of their conflict. I propose that in order to understand the way sexuality is viewed, lived, and enacted in America today, it would be useful to look at the issue from the outside. Not only outside feminist debates, but also from outside the continent itself.

When we were talking about cultural stereotypes with my students, they asked me about the way I had imagined the Americans before moving to the US. I told them that the main stereotypes I had held were that Americans were friendly and sexually repressed. The students were very surprised. They were even more surprised to hear that after living in North America for 11 years, I hadn't found much to contradict these assumptions. My undergrads talked about the American culture as being overly sexually permissive, and even "too sexually liberated" for its own good. I reminded them of abstinence-only sex ed, virginity pledges, purity balls, the fact that Roe v Wade was still not safe (and this conversation took place even before Dr. Tiller's murder), and about all the times when I had to stop them from characterizing women as "slutty" for having more than one sexual partner. When I asked why they thought Americans were "too sexually liberated", my students echoed Ricci Levy by answering that "sex was everywhere" in the form of magazine articles, TV shows, movies, etc.

This is precisely the phenomenon that Levy addresses in Female Chauvinist Pigs. And she makes the same mistake as my students, equating obssessive sex talk with actual sexual liberation. There is a very telling moment in her book when she talks about the Girls Gone Wild series, the favorite whipping horse of those who believe in the "pornification of America." One of the young women who takes part in the show by stripping for the camera "declared proudly" that she was a virgin. Here is the answer to the entire problem. This young woman lives in a society where, instead of a mere physiological fact, virginity is an issue that merits emotional attachment and is something to be proud of. So she goes on the show to enact sexuality, since practicing it is forbidden to her by a repressive society. Girls Gone Wild comes not out of a sexually permissive society, but rather out of a sexually repressive one.

(To be continued).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Buffy and Twilight

The difference between my generation and that of today's teenagers is like the one between Buffy and Twilight. :-)

Sexy Brides

I was about to start writing the second part of my review of Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs, when I came across an article proving that Levy is not alone in her vision of American society as more and more sexualized in a very negative way.

In her article "Like a Virgin No More," the Newsweek's Kayleen Schaefer takes on modern brides who, instead of being "blushing, virginal and wrapped from head to toe in tulle and lace", are "more vamp than virgin" and "more bold than blushing." In her scandalized observation that on their wedding day most women today are not virgins and have nothing to blush about, Schaefer is several decades too late, so I won't even address her strangely outdated views on brides.

What interests me much more is the refrain that characterizes most of the publications on sex in America. "Our entire culture is loosening up and becoming more sexualized" says Schaefer, echoing Levy, Valenti, and many others. Here is yet again, this peculiarly American belief that talking about sex and performing it equals being sexually liberated. In fact, of course, it's just the opposite. People who create endless variations on the word porn (porny, pornified, porned, pornification, etc.) and people who talk sexuality to death are equally afraid of sex. The strong desire to have sex and the enormous fear of sexuality (Puritanical heritage) produce both the phenomenon Schaefer describes and her response to it.

In order to justify her discomfort with more revealing bridal gowns and "racy bachelorette parties", Schaefer comes up with an extremely belabored explanation for her fears: "While most sociologists agree that women admitting to lust and wanting to be sexually empowered is a good thing, they see a problem with making exhibitionism the centerpiece of the wedding ceremony: it might crowd out other aspects of the marriage." This article is far from being an only attempt to ascribe some social message and meaning to what is simply the author's discomfort with the idea of sex. Schaefer need not worry, however. Everything she describes in her article has as little to do with sexual liberation as her article itself.

Norms of Publication

Can anybody tell me why every single academic journal (at least, in my discipline) comes up with a list of very peculiar norms of publication? We have our MLA Handbook, why can't we just follow the norms for quoting and bibliography that it suggests? We all know the MLA requirements very well and feel conmofrtable with them. But no, that would make our academic lives way too easy.

When you are used to quoting in a certain format, it's incredibly time-consuming to have to go through an article and redo it according to some weird and inexplicable requirements of a specific journal. And the most upsetting thing is that if they reject your article, you'll have to redo the entire bibliography and all of your quotes for another journal.

A journal where I submitted my most recent article (on Rosa Montero's Temblor as a Neo-Baroque Bildungsroman) wrote to say that it successfully passed the first round of evaluation (whatever that means) but now I have to change the bibliography according to their norms as soon as possible. Why couldn't they first decide whether they accept it and then ask me to do all this work changing it?

So, on this beautiful sunny day I have to be sitting here trying to grasp the intricacies of their unusual system of quoting. I hope it's not for nothing.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part I

I just finished reading Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. I always wanted to read it but never had the time, so now I could finally catch up. The book made a very complex impression on me : it's both very good and really bad.
Levy sets out to denounce the new trend among women of all ages and professions that she considers to be very dangerous for the cause of feminism. In order to be more acceptable to men, to seem cool, hip and "in", women participate - according to Levy - in a culture that objectifies women and revolves around a cartoonish, exaggerated, and unrealistic portrayals of female sexuality. These women wear revealing clothes (because that's what men like), are ready to strip for any one, frequent strip bars, are obssessed with strippers and porn stars, and provide sexual favors to men (stripping, oral sex) with no view to their own gratification. As a result, the images of women we see everywhere around us - from the schoolyard to the television - are those of half-naked, wriggling, heavily made up women with breast implants desperate to be seen as sexual objects and nothing else.
Our attitudes to sex, says Levy, have also changed and not in a good way. Sex is everywhere but it's not a liberating, feminist version of sex. It's the kind where women kill themselves to please and men sit back and decide whether to grant their approval. People have become indiscriminate about sex because of "our baseline assumption that sex is something you should always automatically take when you can get it". This happens because a large number of sexual partners brings us prestige.
This does sound like a nightmarish kind of world. The picture Levy presents in the book is, indeed, scary. The only problem is: where does she see all of this? I believe I have a pretty varied acquaintance among women of all kinds of age groups and professions. And, for the life of me, I can't remenber observing anything like what this book claims is happening all over the place. I don't know any women who frequent female strip bars. Some of my friends have been to male strip clubs, which makes more sense for heterosexual women, but going to look at female strippers? What on earth for? My friends and I do wear low-cut shirts and short dresses when we go out but none of us have ever stripped for men in public, or kissed each other to attract male attention, or even been asked to do any such thing. Neither do we ever discuss strippers and porn starts, either to admire them or to criticize them. It's just not a topic. As to women accumulating sexual experiences because it's considered prestigious, that doesn't happen either. I do, however, know women who conceal the number of their sexual partners for fear of appearing slutty.
As to men, I fail to see those men who have such a free and easy access to sex from any woman they want any time they want. The men who surround me are wonderful, intelligent, attractive, successful people. I can't say, however, that it's in any way easier for them to find girlfriends or sexual partners than it is for my female friends. When we go out together, I never see any women running up to them and trying to attract their attention to stripping. Just the opposite, my close male friends have shared with me how difficult it is to try and approach a woman you like in a bar or a club, how sometimes you feel rejected or even humiliated, how these experiences accumulate and leave you fearful of dating.
I belong precisely to the group of people in their early thirties, well-educated and professionally successful that Levy sees as the most avid participants in this "raunch culture." I have lived in many different places in North America, big cities and small towns, I know the East Coast and the Midwest. How come all of this has passed me by?
It is, of course, possible that I'm personally so out of touch that I managed to snooze through a major cultural phenomenon that is happening everywhere except within my circle of equally frumpy friends. In that case, I would have certainly seen manifestations of the "raunch culture" on television. Levy talks at length about the numerous TV shows where women strip, make a spectacle of themselves, are criticized if their appearance is not up to the mark, and behave in highly sexualized way. Yet again, among all the shows she mentions in her book, the only one I ever watched or even heard about is Sex and the City.
So, the question remains: does the "raunch culture" exist? And if not, then why are so many feminists (Levy is far from being the only one) wiritng about it as if it were the next big menace to the cause of feminism?
(To be coninued)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The place that always sucks...

… can be called a number of names: BMV, DMV, or, like in Baltimore, MVA. That’s where you obtain a coveted piece of plastic to get your hands on all kinds of booze, red wines being my favorite (if under 21, you can only use it for the dull task of operating a so-called vehicle).

Naturally, great things do not come easy. Brace yourselves for an exercise in frustration ye who enter this house of misery. Today, on a heavily rainy Saturday morning, I had to make an extra trip home from Gwynn Falls MVA because the real list of required documents turned out to be different from its online version. I’m definitely getting good at it: the last encounter with Indiana’s BMV resulted in two or three extra trips, not one. Yesterday my newly acquired co-workers served me with a few similar “license & registration hunting” stories. What I can’t understand is: USA is the most driving country in the world. All the relevant procedures here must be the least painful, so why aren’t they?***

***This post is brought to you courtesy of a guest reader who wished to remain anonymous.

Working Parents

It's so much easier for government officials to thump their chests about how much they worry about the welfare of the working parents' children than to actually do something about it. There is a series of very obvious measures that the government and companies or universities could undertake that would be helpful and beneficial to everybody.

For example: why not establish on-site daycare facilities in workplaces? The expense would be minimal and the benefits huge. Parents could spend more time with their children, they will concentrate all the better on their work if they can go see that the kid is ok at any point. Employees with children would not try to leave the workplace at 5 p.m. on the dot because they have to get to daycare before it closes. And the government could offer significant tax breaks to companies who do this. If it's true that, as Alberta's Finance Minister claims, children benefit so much from being close to their parents, why isn't she doing anything to promote such measures?

Another set of important measures (also pretty cheap and easy to introduce into the workplace) as proposed by my reader mom of seven: "Better working conditions for nursing mothers, including pumping breaks and pumping rooms. Better maternity leaves to allow them to get breastfeeding well established before they have to return to work. Getting insurance companies to cover things like good quality breastpumps that would allow moms to work AND BREASTFEED." Sounds great, so why isn't anyhting being done about this? Why is it accepted as gospel truth that the only way to rear children is to stick women in the home? The government could reward companies who adopt such measures with tax breaks if it wanted to do something productive for a change..


According to an article in the Associated Press, the French government is considering banning the burqas in public. A parliamentary commission will be set to investigate whether such a measure would make sense.
I know that it's considered very illiberal to support anything like this, but I can't help but feel that I understand what this is about. I wouldn't dream of going to Mianwali, for example, and run around in a mini-skirt and a deep cleavage. I would respect the sensibilities of the population that practices exclusive burqa-observance and so I would most definitely wear one myself.
In Montreal, I saw men who were leading women around on leashes. This offends my sensibilities. Why should my feelings not be respected? How is what a woman in Mianwali feels more respectable than what a woman from Montreal feels?
For those who after reading this post will feel the overwhelming desire to scream "intolerance", please read my opinions on the concept of tolerance first:
P.S. For those who read Portuguese, here is an interesting post on the same topic:
The main idea is: let's not tolerate ourselves into self-destruction.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I just read a very good post on prostitution. It demonstrates that all arguments against legalizing prostitution are either religious or paternalistic in nature and thus should not be taken into consideration. It's hard to disagree with such a logical and well-presented argument.

Still, the idea of legalizing prostitution makes me feel uneasy. If, as this post argues, prostitution could always remain as "merely the exchange of money for sex between two willing individuals" there would be no problem. This is, however, often not the case. Many women are trapped into prostitution by pimps and find it next to impossible to leave the industry when they want. While prostitution is still a crime, they can at least have the hope of denouncing their pimps to the authorities in order to free themselves from exploitation.

Another problem is that I don't see how it will be possible to untie prostitution and drug business in order to legalize the one while considering the other criminal.

More Sexist Advertisement

Diamonds and buying a woman's body for the price of a diamond seems to be a favorite theme with the chauvinists. I already wrote about a sexist billboard I have seen recently. Now, courtesy of the people at Feministing, I have discovered this gem.
The ad, of course, is silly in the extreme. If you are rich enough to settle each fight with a rock of this size (and can call buying a diamond "one easy step"), then surely you have more than one bedroom in the house and don't have to sleep on the couch.
I know I'm repeating myself, but this way of seeing gender relations is as offensive to men as it is to women. Women are bought but men have to buy (forgiveness, sex, companionship). Sadly, any one too stupid to be taken in by such silly advertising will not have enough brainpower to even think about this.

Let's Stop Working

Alberta Finance Minister Iris Evans proclaimed that in order to raise children properly one parent has to stay at home with them. This doesn't seem good enough for me, though. If stay-at-home parents are such a great asset for their children, why stop at one? Let's have both parents quit work and stay with their children. It will be the Finance Minister's job, of course, to create the kind of economic reality where all parents can stop working and stay at home indefinitely.

What bothers me in the varied reactions to Evans's statement, is not so much that "socially conservative groups such as the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada applauded Evans for speaking out." They are conservatives, it's their job to ensure that women are subjected and tied to the private sphere for good. What is more annoying is the reaction of progressive groups. For some reason, they decided that the only reason why people have careers is the economy: "Parents are going out to work because they need to afford the fundamentals of life - the basics of food, clothing and shelter." Apparently, the moment we can afford the fundamentals, we will have no reason to keep working. This way of putting it in reality supports the conservative agenda that pushes the image of women as working only out of desperation because there is no big strong man to support them.

Of course, Evans didn't specify the gender of the parent who should be left at home with no professional realization. But with the existing pay gap and within the patriarchal cultural tradition, we all know who those stay-at-home parents would be.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Men in Decline

Following a reader's advice, I decided to forget the New York Times and read something different for a change. In USA Today, I discovered an article by David Zincenko titled "Decline of the Americal Male." The tone of the piece made me feel sorry I ever abandonedthe NY Times. Zincenko's article speaks more to the decline of journalism than to anything else.

The really sad part is that the piece provides very interesting and, in my view, important information on the difference between the way the recession treats men and women. There is a lot of data that I was glad to find out. Unfortunately, these facts are accompanied by the journalist's comments and are used to support his blatantly anti-feminist agenda. As a result, it's difficult to take aanything Zincenko says seriously.

This is how Zincenko introduces himself at the beginning of the piece: "someone who has spent his career working to save an endangered species men". Grammatically, the sentence makes very little sense but ideologically it is even harder to comprehend. Men are not separate species, they can't be endangered by themselves. If men are extinct, so will be women.

Zincenko continues to whine about "the endangered male" for a while until he comes to the real root of the problem: women's liberation. Over the past century, he claims, women have gained a lot, while men have lost. The data he provides actually contradicts this statement but who cares about a little thing like facts when you need to promote your ideology. Since most families now have two working adults, Zincenko recognizes, men have a sefety-net in the form of their spouses' salaries and benefits in case they find themselved unemployed. That should be a good thing, right? But, somehow, Zincenko sees this as evidence of male decline.

Next, the journalist proceeds to analyze the reasons for generally lower life-spans for men. This is an incredibly important topic that, in my opinion, should be discussed and researched. Unfortunately, Zincenko comes up with a way to spoil his argument yet again. The reason why there isn't enough research into male health issues, he claims, is that now it's the "payback time" for women. Apparently, the implication is that women are preventing this research from being conducted in order to take revenge on men for centuries of exploitation. Of course, it's hard to take any part of Zincenko's analysis seriously after such paranoid (and extremely badly written) statements.

Another annoying feature of this piece is Zincenko's eagerness to manipulate the facts to boost his conclusions. Men live shorter lives than women, we all know that. There is no need, however, to compare an average lifespan of an African-American man to that of a white woman in an attempt to pretend that race doesn't matter. Black men are likely to live 11 years less than white women not just because they are men but because of racial discrimination they are subjected to their entire lives. Let's not pretend that we don't realize this.

Of course, I'd take an open chauvinist like Zincenko over a fake liberal like Douthat any day of the week. It's sad, however, that wherever one goes for information a little dose of fact is garnished with such an amount of ideology that even hard data become impossible to swallow.

Restoring Vision

When I was 23, my vision started to fail. Not surprising, according to my ophthalmologist, since I was reading for 10+ hours every day. It kept getting worse, and every year I would get a stronger prescription for my glasses. I couldn't read without them and seeing anything at a distance was becoming more and more difficult. Eventually, I decided to do something about it and it worked. A couple of years ago I threw away my glasses and haven't missed them since. Now I want to share my method. I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and don't claim to know anything about medicine or ophthalmology. But this worked for me, so maybe someone else will find it useful. In any case, I don't think that this method can possibly harm any one (except people who are allergic to blueberries, but they will know at once that this is not for them).
I believe that verything is influenced by the physical and the psychological factors at once. So in my struggle foor a better vision I addressed both.
Psychological: I believe that psychologically loss of vision indicates that there are things in our lives we refuse to see. At the point in my life when I started to lose vision, there were parts of my reality that I didn't want to recognize or see for what they are. I analyzed them, wrote them down, and did all I could to acknowledge the unpleasant reality.
Physical: At the same time, I ate blueberries. I had read in an article someplace that blueberries are good for your vision. So I ate industrial-sized portions every day. It was summer, and blueberries were very cheap.
I don't know whether it was the method or my belief in the method but it worked. My vision is now back to perfect.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Dear Readers!

I have received complaints claiming that I deleted people's comments. This is not true. I have not taken down a single comment. What sometimes happens (especially in busy threads where several people try to participate at once) is that the comment doesn't appear on the first try. Wait for the message "Your comment has been posted" and if it doesn't appear, scroll down to comment form and press "Post comment" again (Your text is usually saved in the comment box, so you won't have to retype it). Once, I had to repeat this operation 6 times before the comment was posted.

If for some reason this doesn't work, send me your comment and I will post it for you. Censorship is not and has never been my goal, so everybody who wants to participate will get a chance.

Thank you!


Why does it happen that every time I attempt to read the New York Times I immediately encounter some truly outrageous piece that makes me angry? I keep asking myself why on Earth people keep insisting that it is a liberal newspaper?

Today, Maureen Dowd decided to repair her destroyed reputation and came out with a really snarky article that epitomizes fat-shaming. In her op-ed piece "Hold the Fries," she analyzes President Obama's eating habits in order to slip in her tired fat-is-bad message. The main idea of the article: when alone, Obama eats healthy, but when cameras are present he sometimes - oh, the horror, the horror! - consumes hamburgers to cater to the tastes of us, lowly fat people. She writes with reverence about how once "over a three-hour meal, he managed the impossible feat of nibbling only one French fry." The language of the quote is very telling. "Nibbling" is obviously a good thing for this journalist. You can just feel Dowd's admiration flowing. Forget about being elected as a first African-American president in history. The real feat is managing to avoid the fries.

The conclusion of Dowd's article is equally condescending: "Maybe when Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer come next week to broadcast a special on health care from inside the White House, the president should forgo the photo-op of the grease-stained bovine bag and take the TV stars out for what he really wants and America really needs: some steamed fish with a side of snap peas." See how this journalist knows exactly what we need to eat? Her disgust with "grease-stained bovine bags" is palpable. Actually, the word "grease" seems to be an important part of Dowd's vocabulary. A fast-food place for her is necessarily a "greasy spoon."

In short, the message is clear: nibbling good, eating bad. When the President "nibbles" he gets approval, when he eats more than one fry he's a self-promoting hypocrite.

Dowd must believe that without her valuable contribution there isn't enough fat-shaming in the media already. Not enough people suffer from anorexia and bulimia, not enough people hate their bodies and spend their lives looking for the next miracle diet. Let's help the dieting industry grow some more by promoting the image of a popular President as someone who "wants to stay skinny." Dowd has no interest in analyzing how and why the word "skinny" has come to be perceived as invariably positive. Obama wants to be skinny (which might not even be true), so we all should.

As we all know, there has been absolutely no proof that being "skinny" is beneficial to anybody's health. There is, however, more than enough data about the physical and psychological damage fat-shaming causes. Under the false pretense of worrying about the nation's health, Dowd's article (among many many others) causes a lot of harm and benefits no one. Except the companies that push diet pills, of course. I wonder if they thought of sending Dowd flowers. She's trying to boost their profits so hard that she definitely deserves some recognition.


It's summer, so it's time to read for fun. I mean, if not now, when? For me, fun relaxing reading invariably means mystery novels. So I want to share my love for somebody who in my opinion is the best living mystery writer in the world: Ruth Rendell (she also sometimes writes as Barbara Vine.)

Rendell has a regular smart-detective-obtuse-sidekick series (Inspector Wexford Series). Those who like traditional mysteries with a murder, a police investigation, and a revelation at the end, would certainly enjoy them. I, however, prefer other books by Rendell.

Her main strength, in my view, is the way she writes about characters who are initially slightly eccentric but who gradually experience a descent into insanity. The writing is really good, the plots are gripping. She achieves that, however, not so much through action as through atteention to character development. Rendell doesn't write about car chases or the mafia. She doesn't pile on bodies or go for gory details. The tension in her novels mounts slowly but inexorably. The characters she creates are among the most memorable you will ever encounter. Rendell's books are not about shocking the readers, they are about showing us the horrors that often hide behind the mundane, the ordinary, the seemingly insignificant.
Here are some of my favorite novels by her:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Force Feeding Breastfeeding

In one of my previous posts, I have discussed the patronizing tone most books on pregnancy employ towards pregnant women. One of the favorite topics of such books is breastfeeding. Instead of offering women information and letting them decide for themselves, they introduce a variety of scary stories aimed at shaming women into breastfeeding at all costs.

Pregnancy books are not the only source striving to bully women into breastfeeding. Recently, a new study has appeared linking breastfeeding with academic success. These studies crop up every two seconds, and each one sounds more hilarious than the previous one. Here is the main conclusion of this particular study:

"The study, published in the Journal of Human Capital, found that an additional month of breastfeeding was associated with an increase in high school grade point averages of 0.019 points and an increase in the probability of college attendance of 0.014."

Wow, if only my mother managed to breastfeed me, imagine what heights of academic achievement I might have accomplished. I mean, 0.019 and 0.014 points, that's some serious shit, people. Don't even think of depriving your child of these precious 0.014 points.

I have absolutely nothing whatsoever against breastfeeding. What annoys me, though, is seeing how difficult it is for everybody to just let women decide for themselves. The study I'm quoting based its conclusions on 126 children and arrived at 0.019 and 0.014 points. Doesn't this sound like a statistically negligible result? Is this kind of data really so conclusive and definitive that it needs to be published everywhere? It basically tells us nothing. But how on earth can we forego one more chance to tell women what to do?

Collective Identities, Part II

As we have discussed in Part I of this post, part of the price we have to pay for collective identification is the renunciation of reason in favor of emotion. But, of course, this isn't all. Violence against ourselves or others is the most wide-spread way of marking our belonging to a group. Those who feel the most difficulty integrating themselves into their group will need to engage in the loudest, the strongest, and the most painful ways of proving their allegiance to the group. Verbal violence, physical violence, as well as emotional, intellectual, and physical self-mutilation serve as means to declare one's belonging. The apotheosis of collective identification is, of course, one's willingness to die for the imagined community, for a piece of painted fabric, for the sound of a song, for a line drawn on a sheet of paper.

So, why do we agree to pay the ultimate price for the illusion of identity? Obviously, nobody would engage in all these violent and self-mutilating practices for nothing. The most evident reason is that collective identity frees us - at least momentarily - from our cosmic loneliness. The illusion of not being alone in the universe is so precious that giving up reason does not seem such a huge price to pay.

However, this isn't all. I believe that the strongest lure of collective identity resides in the fact that it liberates it from the painful burden of our individuality. Subscribe to a group agenda and - voilà, no need to think, elaborate your own position, struggle with contradictions, etc. At the same time, the group will shoulder the responsibility for everything. You can have a point of view, a discourse, an agenda, and a ready-made enemy. And you will not even have to bear responsibility for any of it. No wonder that people would defend their collective identifications hysterically.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Life as Art

Michel Foucault offers the following definition of the "aesthetics of existence": "Those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria." Practice of life as an artistic endeavor is a very engaging concept. Every day in our lives consists of a multitude of little mundane actions and events. Turning them into tiny pieces of art, probably indiscernible to any one other than yourself, but nonetheless beautiful, is a great idea.

In her novel Temblor, Rosa Montero proposes the vision of life as a cruel interplay of blind unpredictable forces of pure chance. This Spanish writer is, of course, far from being the only thinker terrified by the seeming lack of control we as human beings have over our universe. Why else would Taleb's The Black Swan sell as well as it does even years after its original publication?

Foucault's idea of life as an oeuvre where we can choose the artistic style of our creation is one way to combat the feeling of impotence one might experience in view of life's apparent unpredictability.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure.

Montero, Rosa. Temblor.

Taleb, Nassim. The Black Swan.

Red Emma's

I always wanted to visit this place, which has become a bit of a legend over the years. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I will be living around the corner from it.
Red Emma's is a neighborhood coffee-shop, a bookstore, and a community center rolled into one. It offers free Wi-Fi, really good coffee, and a wonderful atmosphere. The selection of books is perfect for me because it has every theoretical volume I could ever need or want to read. For the past 6 weeks I had to blog from a Starbucks and it's a relief to be able to go online in a great environment like this one.
Here you can find the biography of the Lithuanian Emma Goldman who inspired the coffee-shop's name.


We just moved from Indiana to Baltimore. It's great to be in a big city again, especially one as beautiful as this.

When I first started living in New Haven, I had to get used to the sensory deprivation that awaits everyone coming from a large city to a small town. The absence of noise, colors, variety of people, places, impressions were very traumatic. Today, in Baltimore, I've had a chance to remember everything that I lost years ago when I started living in small towns.

One thing, however, that Baltimore shares with small towns is how nice everybody is. It's rare to experience such level of warmth and hospitality among city dwellers.

There's also been a really great surprise for me: it turns out that I will be living right around the corner from Red Emma's. Life is beautiful!

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Spousal Hires

Among the many things that bug me in the academia, nepotism is one of the most upsetting. Spousal hiring (which means that somebody gets an academic position for being somebody's spouse) is particularly distressing.

The candidate selection process in the academia is very arduous. Often, however, candidates don't know that they are invited to campus interviews purely for show. The decision to give the job to a spouse has been made already and - after putting the candidates through several circles of hell - they are just simply rejected. The candidates think that something is wrong with their job talk or maybe that they are not good enough and don't know that the only reason for the rejection is that the job was needed for someone else. Often, for someone who has few (if any) qualifications for the position.

The saddest part is that the students (who pay a lot of money for their education) have no idea about who is teaching them. I've often had students come up to me saying: "You told us this and that while Professor X is teaching us otherwise." And I can't even tell them that Professor X is not really a professor and is simply not qualified to teach this subject.

As an academic, I can understand as well as the next person the desire to have your partner close to you. I don't think, however, that either my colleagues or my students should pay the price for my personal happiness.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quashing Dissent

One of my favorite teachers (who is a great scholar and who influenced me a lot) often said: "If your class participation and your final essay are reduced to repeating my ideas, you will never get a good grade. Tell me something new, disagree with me, argue against my ideas. That's the only thing I want from you." I always argued with him a lot, about almost everything, always very passionately. And my teacher always appreciated me all the more for that.

Now that I am a teacher myself, I know that nothing makes me happier than to hear one of my students say: "You know, I've been thinking, and what you said is completely wrong." My goal as an educator is not to create acquiescent little clones who bow their heads to my authority and repeat: "Whatever you say, Professor."
Dissent and discussion are crucial to promoting knowledge. They are also lots of fun. If everyone agrees about everything, then what is the point of talking? Somebody I love even prepares a list of controversial topics before she goes out to meet friends. She doesn't want to sit there, exchanging platitudes for hours. Instead, she hopes to promote engaging conversations where everyone expresses themselves freely and leaves thinking about important issues.

When I was 12, my father once heard me listen to something an important writer said on TV and saying "I agree with him completely." My father gave me a 4-hour speech on how wrong it is to agree with even the biggest authority before you've taken the time to reflect and form your own opinion. This is what it means to have your own worldview: you don't subscibe to the point of view of any authority figure, political party, or reference group. You reflect, form your point of view, exchange it with people, argue, debate, modify your opinion. I admire President Obama and I cried for joy when he was elected, but I disagree with about half of his decisions. I think Juan Goytisolo is the greatest writer of the XXth century, but I dislike his ideology in many ways. I admire Terry Eagleton as a critic but I keep talking about his profound theoretical and personal limitations.

When everybody agrees, intellectual life, thinking and generating new ideas simply die. When people start to self-censor for fear of appearing "intolerant," we find ourselves in a really sad situation where nobody dares to express themselves for fear of offending somebody's sensibilities. What is truly offensive, though, is not dissent, but rather faked agreement that's forced and, by its very nature, dishonest.

I'm very thankful to my readers who come here to express their opinions. Especially those who disagree and give me food for thought. V. who is a regular participant and also a friend - you always make me think, thank you for that. Three anonymous participants (you guys know who you are and I love you to bits). NancyP who is a very interesting person, I have never met you but I respect you deeply. My reader, the Brandeisian, thank you so much for giving me information I wouldn't otherwise get. Pretzelboy and Allison, you guys are interesting people, who are always informative and polite, I'm glad I got to talk to you. Thank you, my friends!

It is, however, deeply saddening to see how many people there are that dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to quashing any kind of dissent. I follow a number of progressive blogs that keep me informed on important issues so much better than TV news and print media (DailyKos, BitchPhD, and Femenisting are my favorite at this point).

However, engaging in a discussion on these sites is often difficult. There is always a group of well-meaning fanatics, who strive to promote what they see as the "party line." Anything they perceive as dissent is swiftly castigated. As I have recently discovered, they would even follow you to your own blog to scream insults at you. They wouldn't even attempt to read what you are actually saying before they start accusing you of every abomination under the sun. The saddest part is that they hide their censorship itch underneath the mantle of tolerance, acceptance, and political correctness.
In the discussion about Asexuality, I learned important things from smart, interesting, well-informed, and reasonable people. I have also learned that anger, censorhip, and the desire to quash dissent come in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, they often come from those who see themselves as liberal and feminist and who unfortunately fail to see how similar they are in their hatred of dissent and difference of opinion from the ostensibly (but in truth not really) dwindling McCain/Palin camp.
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Gender and Baby Clothes

I have only just noticed how strongly a binary vision of gender is codified in baby clothes. Of course, this profoundly limiting view of gender is still everywhere around us. But in baby clothes it's particularly strong and incredibly jarring.

When I enter a baby clothes store, I always intuitively feel that something is wrong. On closer inspection, I realize that it's the nearly total absence of any space between the pink for girls and the blue for boys (plus matching gender-codified paraphernalia). Among the inundation of pink and blue outfits, you can find things in different colors. These clothes, however, go out of their way to signal gender in some other way.

This is sad because we are talking about very little kids. Why do we have to tell them from the very day they are born that there is no space we are willing to allow for anybody but girly girls in pink with frills and pictures of fluffy kittens and manly boys with pictures of racecars, footballs, and bikes on their shirts?

Enlightened parents (such as the couple for whom I was trying to buy baby clothes), who cringe at the idea of moving exclusively within the blue/pink dichotomy, have real trouble finding decent clothes for their baby that don't scream gender.
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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ross Douthat's Hatred of Women

On the pages of the New York Times, a newspaper that some people mysteriously claim is liberal, Ross Douthat continues to regale us with the sputum he produced as a result of his latest anti-women fit of hysteria. This time, Douthat uses the murder of Dr.Tiller, an incredibly tragic event for any decent human being, in order to bring to light his contempt of women. Of course, he tries to hide his chauvinism behind a tide of empty verbiage but this kind of hatred is too noticeable to be concealed.

Unlike reasonable, enlightened, healthy men with satisfying personal lives (such as President Obama obviously is), Douthat can't concede that women are capable of deciding what happens within their bodies for themselves. He feels that, in spite of not being likely to get pregnant any time soon, he needs to have an opinion on pregnancies. He speaks at length of the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy pregnancy in an attempt to convince his readers that he, Douthat, and not the actual pregnant women and their doctors are better qualified to make that distinction.

He also joins the group of those who try to justify Dr. Tiller's assassination by suggesting that Dr. Tiller performed abortions "on healthy mothers and healthy fetuses." Yet again, I highly doubt thaat Douthat saw these women or these fetuses. He does, however, consider himself qualified to diagnose a group of people he has never seen. And all this just in order to suggest that Dr. Tiller has actually deserved being murdered.

The goal of this piece is to suggest that abortion be "returned to the democratic process." What that means for a virulent chauvinist like Douthat is that we should stop the discussion of third-trimester medical exemptions and move on to the attempt to prohibit second-trimester abortions. Can anybody guess what the next step would be?

Of course, a possibility of stopping any discussion of third, second or first term abortions in order to leave this decision to women and their doctors is too painful for Douthat to contemplate. Women, deciding what to do with their bodies??? Never! Mr. Douthat can make that decision so much better.

Why is Douthat incapable of accepting that women can make reasonable, intelligent, well-informed decisions about their own bodies? I can't help suspecting that the reason lies in this individual's personal history with women. If he accepts this, he will also have to accept that all the women who denied access to their bodies to him (many, many women, judging from his level of hatred) did this because they are unreasonable, stupid, and don't know what's best for them.

P.S. Here is a link to an article by the talented Jodi Jacobson exposing Douthat's lies and distorions.

Collective Identities, Part I

As some people might already know, collective identities represent one of my main research interests. After I manage to get my book on the Bildungsroman genre published, I hope to finish my project on collective identities. So here are some of my thoughts.

In its capacity of an imagined community (Benedict Anderson's definition), collective identities need to create feelings of common interests and solidarity between people who have never met. This is, of course, a project that cannot be carried out through reason and logic. Applying the light of reason to identity will lead to its destruction. So, what's left? Emotions, feelings, passions. You manage to make people emotionally attached to their identity, and they will never stop to analyze its failings.

One of the easiest ways of creating emotional attachment to an imagined community is by fostering a sense of a common grievance. If the persecuting Other does not exist you need to create it. There cannot possibly be a collective identity without an Other (both external and internal).

After the Other is created (or chosen), you need to ascribe a certain set of characteristics and a certain discourse to it. Usually, the Other serves as a site onto which you can project the desires, the beliefs, the actions that are your own but that you don't wish to recognize in yourself. Think about the whole "Jews are greedy" stereotype. This characterization has nothing to do with the Jews. It has to do with non-Jewish people wanting to distance themselves from being perceived as greedy.

After the Other is located (or, rather, appointed) and endowed with a set of characteristics, you need to create the narrative of oppression. It doesn't matter how much grounding in reality it has (it can have a lot or none at all). What matters is that it should be as incendiary as possible. In view of a common grievance, people will put aside their differences and unite around what they perceive as a shared slight.

But what's wrong with this? one might ask. People will unite and defend their collective interests. That certainly sounds as a good thing.

Well, first of all, who's going to say if they have common interests and what those might be? And then, what do we do with the Other that we created and turned into the sum of all evils? And that our group now hates so deeply? Remember, we had to abandon reason and logic in order to create our group identity in the first place. How can we now hope to turn reason back on in order to promote a political agenda that will be REASONABLY satisfying to all of us?

(To be continued).

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