A Case of the Mondays: How Zionism Broke With the Left

The progressive left has always been based on a coalition of the oppressed or marginalized; in the West, this is now taken to include the poor, women, racial minorities, and sometimes gays and lesbians. But the actual constituents of the coalition evidently change over time, as after all, originally the coalition only included the working poor and, specifically to the US, racial minorities. More importantly, the groups that are considered working poor or oppressed racial minorities change over time. A good case study for this is the experience of Jews, who the left considered a racial minority on a par with black Americans throughout the West until about the 1960s. Although at least in the US Jews still tend left, the association between them and movement progressivism is weaker for reasons that are indicative of how the left operates as a whole.

The reflexive reason is that Israeli actions became increasingly consistent with right-wing politics. In 1967, Israel turned from a perpetually threatened country to a country so strong that it could destroy its neighbors’ air forces while their planes were still on the ground. Later it also became an explicitly occupying force that funded settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which from a left-wing perspective changed Zionism from an anti-colonialist or anti-racist ideology to an imperialist one. That is certainly the underlying concern of modern left-wing opposition to Israel.

But in fact, something else had to be at stake. When two countries billed as post- or anti-colonialist fight, the left tends to blame historical imperialism. When the Second Congo War tore Congo-Kinshasa apart, the left-wing response was not to blame the Rwandan Tutsis, who invaded the Congo and plundered its natural resources, or the Hutus, who were responsible to the greatest atrocities. Rather, it was to blame Western colonialism for Africa’s problems and to cast the war as a scramble for resources demanded by the capitalist system. Although it was possible to narrate the Arab-Israeli conflict from a pro-Israel, anti-colonialist view, emphasizing Britain’s divide and rule tactics, the left chose not to. Such a narrative would later become impossible to make because of the settlements and the brutality of the occupation, but the Western left broke with Jewish groups in the 1960s and early 1970s, before the first settlements were built.

Therefore, a better explanation for the expulsion of Jewish groups from the coalition of the oppressed has to lie in domestic trends in the United States, which held a plurality of the world’s Jews. The most obvious explanation given that constraint—namely, that discrimination against Jews abated after World War Two to the point that in the US Jews were more like Italians and Poles and less like blacks and Hispanics—is helpful, but it still seems like only part of the reason.

A different part likely comes, ultimately, from different experiences with oppression. In the last six or seven hundred years, anti-Semitism has taken predominantly legal and cultural forms, reinforced by the occasional pogrom. Earlier than that it had an economic dimension—Jews were forbidden to own land—but once Europe recovered from the Dark Ages, the professions that Jews dominated, such as banking, turned them into a prosperous minority. This trend has existed since then almost continuously, with a brief break among Jewish immigrants to the United States around the turn of the 19th century. But even then, many of the poverty-based experiences that shaped black civil rights activism just didn’t exist among Jews.

Equipped with an intellectual culture closer in its emphasis on book learning to this of China than to this of the West and a skin color that made it possible for Jews to pass as gentiles in certain cases, Jews came to dominate such skilled professions as the law, medicine, and the academia. Discrimination against Jews was therefore more about explicit restrictions than about the economic impoverishment that typified anti-black racism. For example, in the 1920s Harvard moved from a purely meritocratic admission system to its current system in order to reduce the percentage of Jewish students from 25 to 15; at the time, Jews consisted of 2% of the American population. In contrast, only recently have blacks stopped to be underrepresented in American universities in general, to say nothing of elite universities.

As such, Jewish civil rights activism was predominantly legal, consisting of fights against discriminatory laws. Since most Jews at the time also came from a socialist or sometimes liberal political tradition, they naturally lent their groups—the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League—to supporting similar equal rights struggles, primarily those of black people but sometimes also those of labor. As long as that was how left-wing activism worked, the ACLU and the ADL were natural allies of the black civil rights movement. More importantly, once black civil rights activism changed its focus to economic issues, the natural link was severed.

Although in the 1920s and 30s there was a strong socialist element to Jewish thought, by the 1950s and 60s it was replaced with straight liberalism. The most committed socialists were Zionist enough to immigrate to Israel and merge into city or kibbutz life. Anti-communist witchhunts exercised pressure to repudiate socialism. Several decades of life in the United States exercised pressure to adopt one of the two acceptable ideologies in the country, liberalism and conservatism, abetted by the fact that upward mobility plunged most Jews into the middle class. Those trends most visibly affected the ACLU, separating it from the unions.

And perhaps most importantly, after the early 60s, the most pressing legal battles were no longer racial. There was a growing realization in parts of the left, especially but not only the liberal ones, that there were marginalized groups not defined by class or race. Second wave feminism drained many Jewish liberals away from racial civil rights struggles; while within anti-racist activist groups Jews could define themselves as another racial minority, once Jewish liberals diverted their energies to other civil rights struggles the blacks who dominated the civil rights movement could now define Jews as whites. The animosity between feminists and anti-racists over who was more oppressed and therefore had a greater priority certainly didn’t help.

Those blacks were certainly within reason. Jews could change their names and pass for white gentiles while blacks and the new minority in search of civil rights, Hispanics, couldn’t. The Holocaust made racism generally unfashionable, but especially affected anti-Semitism. Especially after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the black civil rights movement had shifted its focus to poverty-related issues, while the ACLU’s civil liberties battles were increasingly class-neutral. Lacking any domestic discrimination to focus on, Jews who wanted to focus on specifically Jewish issues gravitated to support for Israel, which would’ve separated them from the mainstream American left, whose only involvement in foreign policy was anti-war activism, even if it hadn’t entailed support for Republican hawks.

Thence by 1970s the relationship between Jews and blacks had strained to the point that the American left stopped considering Zionism an ally. American Jews have still leaned left since then, but Zionism, which historically was a left-wing movement, was tagged as right-wing.

It’s important to note that it was only after domestic trends within the United States had separated Jews from the anti-racist left that the left started to view Zionism as right-wing. The Six-Day War could provide a suitable pretext for viewing Israel as an oppressor state rather than as an oppressed state, but the right-wing characteristics of Zionism, namely a singular emphasis on military service and discrimination against Arabs, date back to Israel’s independence. Today’s anti-Israeli leftists even trace right-wing Zionism further back than that—for example, Noam Chomsky blames Zionists for the initial friction between Jews and Arabs in the 1920s—but those interpretations only arose after the fact. As long as Zionism was considered left-wing, the left would forgive its transgressions just like it did those of other socialist or post-colonial states.

The significance of this to the left in general is that the answer to the perennial question of which groups are considered oppressed and therefore get the associated fringe benefits is determined by many things that have little to do with oppression. A group that is no longer oppressed may still receive these benefits if politically it’s still aligned with other left-wing movements; conversely, a group that is still oppressed but fails to side politically with the mainstream left, or a group that is oppressed but cannot convince anyone that it is, will be perceived as not deserving any special recognition.

Below the Fold: Learning about Our Rights, or Lack of Them, on TV

CSI, Law and Order, 24, Cold Case Files, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, The Shield, Crossing Jordan, The Wire. I learn a lot about life. For instance, there is evil, sometimes petty, sometimes monstrous, but always deadly. There is good: the police, the prosecutors, and their beleaguered, but heroic witnesses. Of course, there are the squealers, the snitches, the sleazeballs, or simply the entrapped that help get some portion of evil greater than their own off the street. Defense attorneys have pride of place in the evil paragon. They are sort of the Beelzebubs of the evil operations, scheming, unscrupulous, tricksters that made it so difficult for the do-gooders to defeat evil.

Sebastian Shark of CBS’ Shark, for example, is the most dangerous trickster of all, for he now applies his incomparable skills with the tools of evil to serve the good. He now puts evildoers, sometimes even his ex-clients, in jail. Once evil, he has morphed into someone good. The moral of his story is that the good must learn, or stronger still, must be a little evil to get evil off the streets. Justice is a result, not a process, for Shark. His young and beautiful lawyer posse is often revolted by his tactics, but the lesson they are taught by Shark is that evil must be used to ensure that good will triumph.

I prefer Orson Wells in Touch of Evil. Now there was evil incarnate, three hundred ugly pounds of it. Chomping a wet cigar, unshaven, clearly getting the better of his opponent, the goody-goody cop Charlton Heston whom he transforms into someone evil. Only Marlene Dietrich, the borderlands madam, took pity on Welles’ Hank Quinlan. Dietrich as Tanya was not exactly the hooker with a heart of gold. Instead she was the weary, cynical stable keeper for men like Wells whose peccadillos were her bread and butter. As Wells framed hundreds of suspects throughout his career, he had also hooked up with a sneaky, violent, dark-faced, Spanglish-speaking criminal Mexican gang, that he uses to break the mestizo and obviously uppity Heston, the proud husband of the blond-haired Janet Leigh whom the Mexicans kidnap and torture for good measure. Except for Leigh’s Susie, the damsel in distress, everyone else gets more evil, and some of the worst of them kill, die, or in Heston’s case sober up to the need to do evil in order to do good.

Well, that is the big lie – to do evil in order to do good – that TV tells us is the moral of our version of Crime and Punishment. The good must do evil so that the bad are caught, murdered, jailed, and/or sometimes executed.

What do we learn about our civil rights, good or evil as we are? What does TV tell us about the practice of criminal justice in the United States? More accurately, what does TV portray as everyday practice in our daily battle against crime?

The first lesson is that everyone is a suspect and their rights an impediment to uncovering evil. Your are supposed guilty until you prove yourself innocent, and every attempt you make to clear yourself or help the police out will be turned against you. You can be “liked” for a crime, not a compliment on your character or good looks, and become a suspect without knowing it. If and until you are arrested, they do not need to tell you that their “liking” you makes you a suspect in their book, until they find someone better.

So the second lesson is that it is better to remain silent. Cooperation is a mistake. Request a lawyer. If you have no lawyer (woe betide you if you are poor or like most people in America consider lawyers potential road kill), then ask to go home. Whatever you do, seek to avoid staying at the station house because that is where the tricks often occur.

At home, answer the door cautiously, as guns may be drawn, and never, never invite police into your house. If you do, you have invited them to grab up whatever they need for their case against you.

Suppose you are transformed from witness, to person of interest, to suspect. You are arrested. Take the warning seriously and say nothing once more. Ask immediately for a lawyer. Don’t cop an attitude, or they will clock you. A whack on the head or anywhere else on your body, so long as it leaves no bruises, is practically the duty of a morally outraged cop. It seems that the good cop is never quick enough to restrain the bad cop. Ask for aspirin as soon as you can, as you will bruise more easily, and perhaps shorten the beat down.

The good cop, bad cop routine is still the order of the day, and amazing grace at least on TV, seems to work. The good cop is constantly asking you to help them out, or suggesting you help yourself by getting the evil off your chest. It will go easier if you confess now or if you give up your partner in crime. Beware the prisoner’s dilemma: it works too.

I personally can’t understand how cooperating and confessing makes things easier. The image of the prison with which they threaten the accused is an inferno. Sweet young things, male or female, are threatened with gang rape or being sold as sex slaves for a pack of cigarettes. HIV infection lurks in every sex act. The middle-aged are told they will die miserably in jail.

Most criminal indictments end in plea bargains – 85% of them. You may be surrendering your right to self-defense, but your odds don’t improve through jury trials, which for murder suspects ends 85% of the time in conviction.(If you are African-American, please note that you are three and a half times more likely to be convicted of murder through trial by jury than your white counterparts.) But Law and Order’s “Maximum Sam” Waterson’s .750 batting average does represent reality: crime usually leads to punishment. Much of the success, for better or worse, owes to being incriminated before you are arrested, and according to TV, way before you even know you’re “liked” for the crime.

But who knows about innocence? Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions found in 2001 that of 86 persons wrongfully convicted and exonerated, 53% were convicted on the basis of mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony; 20% were convicted regardless of police and prosecutorial misconduct; another 12% were convicted with jailhouse informant testimony; another 9% on the basis of coerced or false confessions; and finally (take that CSI!), another 11% were convicted with what the center calls false or misleading “junk” science. Illinois in 2003 found so many wrongful murder convictions in their midst that the 17 defendants on death row were exonerated, and then Governor Ryan commuted the death sentences of 160 others. The wrongful conviction movement has spread throughout the country and the convicted in many cases exonerated, but this is seldom seen on TV. Instead, alla Cold Case Files, the past offers up its old murderers for the convicting.

This brings us back to what we learn on TV. It is not the truth of the matter, but a rather well-set and coherent collection of ideas about crime and punishment in America. It is rather like the old westerns with good and evil starkly portrayed, and the Indians vested with few, if any rights. This is no Dirty Harry syndrome any more, as in cops hampered by court decisions, and the guilty escaping because of our fecklessness in the face of evil. No, the cops usually catch the culprit under circumstances of their choosing, rather than those once prescribed by the Constitution. If they get it wrong, there is little recourse. Old Gil Grissom, in the recollection of this CSI-addicted writer, has only once worked to exonerate someone whom his office has wrongly convicted.

Outside of the tube and bumping around the everyday world, people are wrongly convicted through abuse, sloppiness, or the rush to judgment. If you are a person of color, watch out especially. All of you whose income falls beneath that of the well-heeled won’t get a snide, slick, and successful defense lawyer. There is no Shark in your future. Instead, you may get an over-worked and under-paid public defender, or a lawyer whom you cannot pay enough to do a really thorough job, given the endless complications of justice in America. Public advocates can only save the few and the really endangered.

An occasional jury will jump the rails and find for a defendant believed to have been treated badly or wrongly, or who they believe to be innocent. In Boston last year, several juries in a row refused to believe police testimony and found defendants not guilty.

But if the TV is about our beliefs, then it seems that we believe that evil is back big time, and evil criminals are caught and punished, even if by hook or crook, and this is really okay. And most of us, me included when I leave my rational world and head into the realms of American authoritarian fantasies, really enjoy it.

… Did I forget your favorite crime show? I confess. Sometimes during a Thursday night seminar, my mind wanders to the question: Will I get home in time for CSI, the real one in Nevada with Gil Grissom and the rest of the gang? Sometimes, I have to content myself with a killing in Miami or New York.

Invitation To The Dance

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Poetry is a foreign country: they do things differently there. (Apologies to L. P. Hartley.) And for that very reason I sometimes want to get right away from words, the awful girders and trusses of words, to the freedom of an art form where I don’t have to do any oxyacetylene welding or other territorial revisionism. The world of dance and ballet is one place I can escape to where all of that mental sledging falls away, movement and rhythm in poetry being entirely different things. I’ve always been star-struck by dancers whose abilities I envy and whose ease of movement sometimes seems like the most real poetry.

Dancers would have a good laugh over this, knowing that the apparent ease of movement is down to countless hours of practise at the barre, slipped discs, wretched touring, aching feet, stroppy corps de ballet, partners who were once amenable and now aren’t, and so forth. Yes, I know that, but still—here is an art form where the invitation comes with the possibility of joyfulness that other art forms don’t offer so readily or abundantly.

I can’t think this preference of mine is anything special because I note that one of the most viewed videos on YouTube is Judson Laipply’s Evolution of Dance which has been seen over forty million times! We would all like to move like Fred Astaire or Beriosova, but we can’t, and so we settle for dance performances where music, light, decor and flesh transform themselves into intoxicating rhythms, visions of transport, gravity temporarily defeated. Film sometimes captures these rhythms—Black Orpheus, the end of Les Enfant du Paradis—but usually it happens after choreography, the slow accretion of movements that work from inspiration to the moment when the curtain goes up and there are no safety nets left to hold off error. How touching it can be at curtain call when dancers, thrilled with their own efforts, and knowing they have touched the stars that particular evening, have to come back down to earth. You feel their shared pleasure, and perhaps also a little of the sadness that must ensue after an attempt at the ideal has to be replaced with the usual ordinariness. The makeup is removed, day clothes are put back on and the street looks penny plain.

In my youth the Australian Ballet seemed—was—terribly glamorous, and there was always a special theatrical intensity in its performances. Australians have always had an interest in dance and we now have contemporary companies providing every kind of dance style imaginable. Robert Helpmann and Peggy van Praagh were in charge of the Australian Ballet in earlier times and regularly starred great dancers from yonder, Margot and Rudolf for starters. I remember Margot Fonteyn slaying everyone in the aisles in an act from Raymonda. There were unexpected delights too such as Lucette Aldous and Alan Alda dancing a spectacular Spring Waters or the pleasure of seeing an all-Australian The Lyrebird, music Malcolm Williamson, choreography Robert Helpmann, sets Sidney Nolan. The first director of the Australian National Gallery purchased a basketful of one hundred Ballets Russes costumes which, now cleaned and restored, still convey something of the excitement of the Diaghilev era. The same kind of excitement can be seen practically leaking from the screen in the balletomania of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes. Anton Walbrook drives Marius Goring’s composer and Moira Shearer’s dancer to the point of self-destruction. Obviously there is a warning in the film, taken as it is from the Hans Christian Andersen story, of the dangers in dwelling too much in pure aesthetic realms, and of seeking perfection en pointe.

For some, it’s breakdancing, or ballroom dancing, the tango, salsa, Indian or African tribal dancing, that is the spellbinder. The body can be made to move in so many remarkable ways. How awkward and unsatisfactory one feels in the face of the choreographed visions of Cranko, MacMillan and Graham or loose-limbed winging it on the dance floor.

If going from the ballet world to the other one we must usually occupy is a little like going to bed as Margot Fonteyn and waking to find yourself Peggy Hookham, that doesn’t invalidate those ephemeral moments when the visionary gleam catches fire. Sluggish limbs recall great transformative dance experiences, whether Jiri Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater or a distantly-recalled Ballet Folklorico from Mexico, incense engulfing Her Majesty’s Theatre amongst the leaping and the noise.

I’m not qualified to comment on dance technique, but I know technique is needed to contain and convey emotion. I’ve read that some big names in the past didn’t have have the technique of today’s dancers. Perhaps, but how hard it must have been, for example, for Madam, Dame Ninette de Valois, to build a British company of dancers equal to de Bournonville and Fokine, almost from scratch. And dancers then had personality in spades. Our age seems rather anodyne in comparison. The ballet world can be split by factionalism, as any of the arts, and stories abound of carryings-on and put-downs of various leading lights. That is the negativity you always get when anyone aspires to something beyond the status quo.

Think about the sheer variety of dance styles—Sammy Davis, Jr., Yuri Soloviev, Merle Park, Chita Rivera, Maria Tallchief, Michael Jackson, Leonide Massine, Bob Fosse. These heterogeneous dance styles suggest some mysterious energy, a parallel universe, where movement attains a condition of transcendence, however impermanent. Balanchine especially seems to make his dancers move with a gracefulness and fluidity that can raise whole evenings to a level of exaltation. Stravinsky said Nijinsky didn’t understand music and thus made his choreography too complex for the dancers, but Nijinsky must have had some charisma and ability to have captured his historical moment so acutely. Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava, was also a fascinating choreographer. However, Balanchine seems to have worked out the way forward from the classical style of Petipa to the contemporary with a wit and elegance that can encompass Sousa marches and Ravel, the sinew of Agon and the brilliance of Ballet Imperial.

Well, back to poetry country. Silence, exile and indolent strumming may be needed to get along in that place, but there’s always the flight to freedom available over the border in dance land, where words turn into rhythms unavailable to letters, and you can temporarily escape their manacles. 


               Top Hat

   Fred Astaire d. June 23, 1987

Gingering the boredom
Of awkward tribulation,
That near lean on a stick
Spins firecracker variations
With legs in a suave equation.

This is style
Mapping the screen,
Planetary movement
Reducing to top hat, white tie and tails
Stardust of the Milky Way.

It ends with the usual stillness,
Those toe-tapping terrors
Trapped, perfection cracked,
Yet up in the evening sky
A ghostly footprint whizzes figures of eight.

Written 1987 Published 1994 Such Sweet Thunder 69

Maria Bylova and Leonid Nikonov of the Bolshoi Ballet dance Spring Waters here. 2′ 27”

THOUGHT UNDONE: Getting Married-Indian Ishtyle

The great, big, fat, extravagant Indian wedding is back, straight from Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire to the Umaid Bhawan Palace and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. The royalty in nuptial question is none other than an obscure Indian by the name of Arun Nayar (no relative of mine!) and a has-been British actor by the name of Liz Hurley. The seven million pound week long extravaganza has kept the media in India and Britain hooked, even though none but Hello! ,the magazine which paid two million pounds for exclusive rights to cover the wedding, were allowed anywhere near the gates of the Mehrangarh Fort. In fact, in the hurly-burly of it all, some journalists even managed to get beaten up by security (who says that glamour journalists have it easy) as they tried to catch a glimpse of the tamasha, rather foolishly, through the lens of their cameras. Anyhow, it’s all over now as I write, and I have no intention of buying a copy of Hello! to see what it was all about. Suffice to say that it wouldn’t have quite matched up to that other (and earlier) great, big, fat, extravagant, Indian wedding in the Palace of Versailles where the world’s fifth richest man, India’s own Stalin (meant only literally, as in Russian) Laxmi Mittal, married his daughter by spending a mere fifty five million pounds of his vast fortune. After all India’s biggest film stars danced there. And Michelin starred chefs cooked the supper. The only thing in common to the two weddings was that they continued the old Indian tradition of the girl (and her family) funding the festivities. Liz Hurley apparently made up the difference between the actual costs and what Hello! paid. Arun Nayar’s claim to fame is not his riches (he isn’t even in the Forbes list of the richest Indians), but this marriage-Indian Ishtyle! (and my apologies for the Hinglish style, but we Indians are like that only!)    

But that’s just the glitzy side of Indian weddings. There is a side which is darker, but ironically as extravagant. Take the case of Mr. Ram X. (name changed for reasons of privacy). He is a clerk, earning a lowly wage. He married his daughter recently. He spent a lot of money, nowhere near what the Hurley’s and the Mittal’s spent, but in fact much more, disproportionate to his own income. He went to the extent of borrowing money, some from friends, some from exploitative moneylenders. He had to pay for his daughter’s dowry ( a scooter, fridge, microwave amongst other items). And then he spent on the festivities. He would have been happy with the debt had his daughter been happy after marriage. Sadly, her new family harass her, beat her sometimes for more dowry, and constantly demand more money from her father. He can’t afford it. He can’t bear to see his daughter suffer. He will bring her back. Ram X. is just one of millions of fathers-of-the-bride who are arguably more extravagant than the richie-riches (given that they go into debt, compared with the pocket change celebs spend) when it comes to their weddings, but unfortunately don’t get any pleasure out of it. This too is a facet (admittedly negative) of getting married-Indian ishtyle. Incidentally, some believe that dowry is actually an English custom. The British famously received the island of Bombay in dowry from the Portuguese, when an English prince married a Portuguese princess.

And before this gets too teary eyed, let us move to the scenario of Indian marriage where age old tradition marries the new age and all its technology and facility. Yes, I am referring to the ‘Arranged’ marriage now facilitated by the world wide web! It’s now easier than ever for parents (and often young people) to find brides and grooms of their choice on the internet. Shaadi, jeevansathi, bharat matrimony, go4marriage, anmolrishte etc DOT.COM are amongst the innumerable sites where one can find profiles of young people looking to get hitched. There’s big money in it for the web portal owners (as is evident by the number of advertisements they release on prime time television). Everyone who signs up pays a fee. Some of these sites claim up to 700,000 successful matches. Others, in competition, claim 710,000! Whichever way, and whomever you believe, this is a big time activity. These portals are actually quite sophisticated. You can search for a partner by sifting through various categories based on religion, community, caste, region, language etc. The downside of this, of course, is the realization about how parochial we Indians can still be, when it comes to choosing a partner. Marriage across different categories is rare. The other interesting observation is about what is valued as an occupation: H1B US visa, working for a MNC (multinational corporation) in India, and a good job in the elite government services probably top the list.  In a rather ironical twist, it is amazing to see the number of people who want their partner to be ‘fair’ skinned. I thought we were ALL outraged by the racism meted out to poor Shilpa Shetty on Big Brother! Oh, and lest I forget, it’s always better to be a homely girl! Like it or not, all a part of getting married-Indian Ishtyle. Did I hear someone say arranged marriage is outdated?!

So there you are, a very brief journey through the great Indian wedding: that almost impossible blend of tradition, modernity, extravagance, happiness and sometimes sadness. I have to say, that by observation, most Indian weddings these days tend to be great, big, fat and extravagant. This in part due to the influence of Hindi films which depict weddings in the lavish Punjabi style, with all the song, dance and fun. Other parts of India, often have weddings which my Bengali friend in Chicago says resemble funerals more than a celebration. He, and a lot of others, believe in adopting the Punjabi way. Weddings should be fun after all.

Long live the Indian wedding (free of dowry and other such outdated and abominable practices). Lets only hope (and here is where it gets a little mushy!), that like in the Hindi films, there is always a happily-ever-after sort of ending.

Reasonable Panic

James Surowiecki in The New Yorker:

070312_r16015_p233After last Tuesday’s stock-market rout, which sent the Dow Jones average down more than four hundred points and erased more than half a trillion dollars of market value, Wall Street analysts and reporters quickly found a culprit: China. The Shanghai stock market had plummeted almost nine per cent before the U.S. market opened, supposedly raising concerns about the health of the Chinese economy and spooking U.S. investors. Other explanations were floated as well. Alan Greenspan had given a speech the day before warning of the possibility of recession. The government reported a sharp decline in durable-goods orders, suggesting that U.S. manufacturing was slowing down, and there were discouraging numbers from the housing market. All in all, it was a day with its fair share of bad news. At first glance, however, it didn’t seem like bad news that was worth half a trillion dollars. So was the whole thing just a temporary fit of hypochondria? Did investors sniffle a few times and then all decide they were coming down with avian flu?

More here.

The Lebensborn Children

Steve Rosenberg at the BBC:

Screenhunter_13_mar_11_1614In his tiny flat on the edge of Oslo, Paul Hansen shows me his family album. It doesn’t take long. He only has three photos.

One picture shows Paul as a toddler, the other two – the mother who abandoned him – and the father he never knew.

Paul was the product of a brief encounter between a Norwegian woman and a German soldier: a family history which was to make his life a living hell.

“At the end of World War II, I was locked away in a mental home,” Paul tells me.

“Later I found out it was because I was the son of a German soldier. They called me a ‘Nazi brat’. But it wasn’t my fault I was born this way. Hitler, the war, none of it is my fault. I was just a child.”

It was Adolf Hitler’s henchman, Heinrich Himmler, who had encouraged liaisons between German troops and Norwegian women: part of his plan to breed an Aryan master race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed babies for the 1,000-year Reich.

They were known as the Lebensborn (Fountain of Life) children and – after the war – they became targets for revenge.

More here.  [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

When oil and paint mix…

Having already pumped oil riches into golf courses and hotels, Abu Dhabi is now building space-age monuments to culture while Dubai is eyeing the Western art market. Our critic flew to the first Dubai international art fair and found Arab gold and Western irony intriguingly at odds.

Peter Conrad in The Observer:

Dancingtowers5bzA while ago, lolling on a beach beside the Persian Gulf, the Mayfair gallery-owner John Martin experienced a revelation. ‘What Dubai needs,’ he declared to his fellow sunbathers, ‘is an international art fair.’ I’d say there were other things Dubai needed first: roads perhaps, or traffic regulations for its marauding jeeps. Even a bookshop might be a good idea. But this week Dubai – best known for its golf courses, its opulent hotels and its lack of taxes – acquired an art fair, which, a little presumptuously, is intended to establish this sand-blown outpost as ‘the most important centre in Asia, likely to rival London and New York within a decade’.

Dubai’s neighbour, Abu Dhabi, has more oil, which it is shrewdly trading for culture. An island off the coast is to house a tumbling pile of boxes that will be Frank Gehry’s latest Guggenheim, a pinioned performance centre by Zaha Hadid, a mollusc-shaped Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando, and a hovering disc by Jean Nouvel filled with loans from the Louvre. President Chirac charged Abu Dhabi $1 billion for access to the Louvre brand; the United Arab Emirates further ingratiated by spending $10bn on French armaments. French critics complain that the nation’s heritage is being bartered for petrodollars. What antiquated idealism! We used to think that art enshrined values that were universal. Now all we ask is that it should be global, as instantly convertible as all other currencies.

More here.  [Illustration shows Zaha Hadid’s design for “Dancing Towers” in Dubai.]


A polyglot public letter writer in Ho Chi Minh City bridges different worlds — connecting people across the planet with his fountain pen. His profession may be dying, but in his 60 years on the job, he has created many marriages.

Fiona Ehlers in Spiegel:

NgoDuong Van Ngo, a wiry 77-year-old man, parks his bicycle in the shadow of the sycamore trees, whose trunks are painted white as if they were wearing gaiters. He greets the post card vendors and shuffles through the archway with the station clock. It’s eight o’clock on a muggy February morning, the start of his workday.

Ngo sits down at the end of a long wooden table underneath a mural of Ho Chi Minh. He produces two dictionaries and a directory of French postal codes from his briefcase. Then he slips a red armband over his left sleeve to make sure he’s recognized immediately. He sets up his sign: “Information and Writing Assistance.”

The first person to come to his stand is a man from the Mekong Delta. He’s got a letter with him, addressed to a businessman from Europe. He’s his chauffeur, and he’s been driving him to business meals and meetings for a year. He asks in writing if the man can get him health insurance and asks for a $200 advance. Ngo translates the letter into English. “Dear Sir,” he writes with his fountain pen, “might I politely request, sincerely yours.” Or would it better to say “affectionately”? No, that’s too intimate. The man hands him a bill. Ngo slips it between the pages of his dictionary without ever looking at it.

Ngo is a mediator between worlds — a professional letter writer of the sort that used to exist in the old days. He chooses each word carefully, formulates cautiously, polishes the style of the letter. He knows how important words are and what harm they can do. Ngo doesn’t just translate. He bridges the distance between people, advises and comforts them, discreetly and with perfect attention to form.

More here.

The long way round

V. S. Naipaul in The Guardian:

NaipaulvsI was born in 1932 on the other side of the Atlantic in the British colony of Trinidad, an outcrop of Venezuela and South America. It was a small island, essentially agricultural when I was born (like Venezuela, it had oil, which was beginning to be developed). It had a racially mixed population of perhaps half a million, with my own immigrant Asian Indian community (finely divided by religion, education, money, caste background) of about 150,000.

I had no great love for the place, no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.

So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.

More here.

New York City (also Gotham, Sodom, Gomorrah, The Big Apple, Satan’s Condom)

In New York magazine, Sam Anderson offers his own entry for Conservapedia (the conservative response to the liberal and anti-Christian wikipedia). The entry is on New York City.

New York City (also Gotham, Sodom, Gomorrah, The Big Apple, Satan’s Condom) is the headquarters of the elitist East Coast liberal empire [1] and the world’s largest sustained experiment in secular humanism.

The city’s population is often reported by the mainstream media to be as high as 8 million — but a rigorous count of actual Americans, using the methods of Adjusted Freedom Demography pioneered by Smorgensen in the Patriot Census of 2005 (i.e., excluding immigrants, Jews, ivory-tower communists, and nonrepresentational artists, and counting only three-fifths of descendants of African slaves, as originally intended by the Framers), reveals that New York City’s population of legitimate Americans is actually only 312. (Smorgensen found Cheyenne, Wyo., to be the most populous city in America, with almost ten times as many pure Americans as New York.)

Speech Crimes

Patricia T. O’Conner in the New York Times Book Review:

Ocon190Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists” — those who’d rap your knuckles for using “snuck” versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn’t nearly as great as it’s made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe “slud,” as in “Rizzuto slud into second”).

More here.

American Schemers

From The Washington Post:Jamestown

All memory is selective, for nations as for individuals. The year 1620 is etched into Plymouth Rock and the minds of most Americans as the birth date of this country. We hallow austere Pilgrims with a day of national gluttony. The Mayflower is iconic — the name of a moving company, a luxury Washington hotel and a recent best-seller.

But can you name the three ships that landed English colonists 13 years before the Pilgrims? Identify one person aboard, other than John Smith? Explain why they came and what happened to them? Jamestown’s 400th birthday arrives this year with a fleet of books to stir Americans from their historical amnesia. This awakening should be a snap. The saga of early Virginia has knights, knaves, shipwrecks, naked Indian dancers (cooing to sex-starved Englishmen, “Love you not me?”), and plenty of smoking and drinking. It’s pulp fiction compared to the family-friendly tale of pious Pilgrims dining with gentle Indians.

More here.

Breadth Versus Depth

From Science:Peterfiske2006_160_jpg

When my father was very young, he got a choice piece of career advice from his father: Pick something to do, and be the best in the world at it. My grandfather was a caterer who specialized in elaborate ice cream statues that were the highlight of the finest catered events in Baltimore, Maryland, from the late 1920s through the 1960s. Taking his advice, my father went on to become a leading volcanologist with a specialization in the eruptions and deposits of undersea volcanoes. My grandfather’s advice served my dad very well in his scientific career.

Our scientific community values and esteems expertise. Being the “world’s expert” on something holds a unique cachet, even if that something is extremely narrow. In graduate school, we are encouraged to plunge deep into a subject, to become the world’s expert, and, using that expertise, to advance the progress of science. A colleague once joked that obsessive-compulsive disorder is the hallmark of a good academic.

The drive to make young scientists “specialists” is motivated by an earnest and genuine concern for their success.

More here.


Jeffrey Rosen in the New York Times Magazine:

11neuro600…the influence of what some call neurolaw is clearly growing. Neuroscientific evidence has persuaded jurors to sentence defendants to life imprisonment rather than to death; courts have also admitted brain-imaging evidence during criminal trials to support claims that defendants like John W. Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Reagan, are insane. Carter Snead, a law professor at Notre Dame, drafted a staff working paper on the impact of neuroscientific evidence in criminal law for President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. The report concludes that neuroimaging evidence is of mixed reliability but “the large number of cases in which such evidence is presented is striking.” That number will no doubt increase substantially. Proponents of neurolaw say that neuroscientific evidence will have a large impact not only on questions of guilt and punishment but also on the detection of lies and hidden bias, and on the prediction of future criminal behavior. At the same time, skeptics fear that the use of brain-scanning technology as a kind of super mind-reading device will threaten our privacy and mental freedom, leading some to call for the legal system to respond with a new concept of “cognitive liberty.”

More here.

The game is not over


THERE IS NO REASON for an artist to write about a philosopher, just as there is no reason for a philosopher to write about an artist. As an artist, I do not need philosophy, because I do not use philosophy to make my work—I need philosophy as a man, as a human being.

When, not too long ago, the young inhabitants of the banlieues of Paris and of other large cities in France set cars on fire in front of their homes at night, they set off alarms, burning signals of distress. The young inhabitants of the banlieues in France relit the fires of equality—the fires of equality that had been extinguished or that had died out on their own, without anyone noticing. These fires are set at home—that means there’s a big problem at home! On the outskirts of Paris, a movement of urgent anger reignited the flame of equality and gave it universal visibility. Liberty, equality, fraternity. Liberty—or death! Equality—or death! Fraternity—or death!

more from artforum here.

curious, rational, sceptical, proud, powerful, and so on


In several senses of the word, DH Lawrence is a difficult writer – difficult to follow at times, difficult to like at others. There must be many who agree with the young Samuel Beckett, who read Lawrence’s novella St Mawr in 1930, and afterwards wrote in a journal: “lovely things as usual and plenty of rubbish”. Lawrence’s religious language can sound merely religiose, and his attempts to describe the indescribable can lapse into ponderous, melodramatic floridity, as people wince through their wombs, swoon into helplessness, and feel flames of nausea in their bellies.

more from The Guardian here.

the home job


The history of American poetry, like the history of America itself, is a story of ingenuity, sacrifice, hard work and sticking it to people when they least expect it. Whether it’s Ezra Pound dismissing his benefactor Amy Lowell as a “hippopoetess” or Yvor Winters accusing his friend Hart Crane of possessing flaws akin to a “public catastrophe,” you can count on the occasional bushwhacking in the land of what Horace called “the touchy tribe.”

The most recent such assault — and the most surprising in years — took the form of a 6,500-word article in The New Yorker last month by the poet Dana Goodyear, who is also a New Yorker editor. Goodyear’s subject was the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which received an unexpected (to put it mildly) bequest of roughly $200 million from Ruth Lilly in 2001. The article focuses on the Poetry Foundation’s president, John Barr, but Goodyear also takes on Poetry magazine, its founder Harriet Monroe, the Poetry Foundation Web site, legal proceedings relating to Lilly’s bequest, Ruth Lilly herself, the various objects collected by Ruth Lilly’s father (toy soldiers, gold coins), the price of real estate in Chicago and the stuff rich people wear at parties (a “crisp white shirt” or “coral lipstick,” apparently). It is a very long article.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

An extraordinary marriage

John Sidgwik at Culturekiosque:

Book review:

The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs.Beeton. Kathryn Hughes, Knopf.

Beeton It was only after World War 2 that there began the large-scale publication of cookery books. A small brook at first, this output has become a relentless river and few are the households today which do not contain a large assortment of recipe books containing instructions for the preparation of dishes from all over the world. Prior to the war, housewives depended almost entirely on the recipes included by Mrs. Isabella Beeton in her celebrated Beeton’s Book of Household Management .

As its title suggests, the book is not confined to the preparation of food. Mrs. Beeton looked upon the housewife as the general administrator of the family enterprise. The husband earned, his wife made sure that his income was put to the best possible use for the good of family, children, servants, friends and the deserving public. Meals formed only a part of this. Isabella turned her attention to almost every aspect of the household, including the need to supervise the building’s drainage systems. 

The future Mrs. Beeton was born Isabella Mayson in 1836 and was brought up first in the north of England and subsequently at Epsom, the home of horse-racing. She enjoyed the education of a conventional Victorian young woman and acquired linguistic skills at home and in Germany. She also became an accomplished pianist, well above the average of the conventional daughter of the house. At the age of twenty, she married a successful publisher, Sam Beeton, some five years her senior. Beeton had made his fortune by securing the rights in England of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The pair prospered and the Book of Household Management which they conjured up together appeared first in serial form. Isabella Beeton died at the age of twenty-eight, a few days after giving birth to her one viable child. All the others died in infancy or were still-born.

More here.

About the BBC TV drama: “The Secret Life of Mrs.Beeton” here.