Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dispatch from Beckistan

Oh, Glenn. You're just so adorable. Like a toddler who throws a fit upon being asked to come to the table for dinner, you can't take legitimate criticism without flipping out. I think you need to sit in time-out for a little bit, and then you need a hug.

Some rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum got mad at Beck - legitimately - for using anti-Semitic tropes in his criticism of George Soros. In response, Beck did this:
“When you talk about rabbis, understand that most -- most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just -- radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics.”

He then added: "It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single Orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.”
Let's put aside the fact that he's wrong about there not being Orthodox rabbis on that list - rabbis from all four major branches of Judaism signed that letter. He just compared Jews who are unhappy about the way he addresses Judaism on his show to radical Muslims who like to blow shit up. I don't care why you make that comparison, that's just insane.

But let's even put that aside for a minute and look at the substance of his claim: that Reform Judaism - the largest branch of Judaism in America - is a political movement and not a religious one. The claim is absurd on its face, but so is the idea that political beliefs can't emanate from religious ones. Connecticut-based rabbi Rachel Gurevitz explains this:
What Judaism and Islam both have in common as faith traditions is that their codes of law and practices were never confined to ritual practice and belief. Both were conceived of, in their origins, as entire social systems. Jewish law from the earliest centuries speak of the obligations of a community providing a particular minimum of teacher/student ratio in the classroom. It speaks of the obligation of a communal pot to ensure that doctors are paid for their medical services even when an individual cannot themselves afford the medical care they need to keep them alive. It speaks of ethical business practices, ethical ways of collecting charitable funds, and how to figure out ways of distributing those funds when the community's need is greater than the contents of the fund.

While, as American Jews, we live in a country where there is a constitutional separation of church and State, Judaism as a faith tradition was not originally conceived with such a separation as part of the cultural context in which it operated. This means that when Jews talk about practicing Judaism, they might be talking about their Sabbath observance or their Passover Seder, but they might just as equally be talking about their social activism on behalf of the needy.
What's interesting, though, is that Christianity is often discussed in those very same terms, so much so that there's an eHow page on how to live the Christian lifestyle. There is no religion in the world that does not carry an ethical system with it, and those ethics always influence one's political system. Beck, who routinely uses Christian language and theology to illustrate his political views on his show, ought to know that better than anyone. So why don't Judaism and Islam look like "religions" to him?

The less charitable answer is that he just doesn't like Jews and Muslims (the latter of these, of course, is demonstrably true). But there's an alternative reason, and it's best illustrated by a story. When my father was converting to Judaism, he told the rabbi that, while he loved the Jewish traditions and system of ethics, he didn't really think that he believed in God.

"Well," the rabbi said, "do you believe in Jesus?"

"No," my father replied.

"You'll be fine," said the rabbi.

To a Jew, faith is secondary. When we talk about what it means to be Jewish, we talk about doing Jewish things, not believing Jewish things. Certainly for me, I'd probably go a good ten minutes listing things about Judaism before I got to faith in God - and I might not even list that. But in Christianity, faith is one of the most central - if not the most central - defining characteristic of the religion. So if you, like Beck, are used to the idea that having religion means having faith, Judaism and Islam, with their emphasis on ethical systems and traditions and accompanying lack of emphasis on faith, can be confusing. So when Beck says that Judaism doesn't look like a religion to him, it's because he has failed to expand his conceptualization of religion beyond Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Raising Concern Trolling To An Art Form

So there I am, minding my own business, idly checking my Twitter feed, when I should see this article pop into it:
Where Have The Good Men Gone?
Kay S. Hymowitz argues that too many men in their 20s are living in a new kind of extended adolescence.
Oh, this is gonna be awesome. I can hardly wait. Please, Ms. Hymowitz, tell me what is wrong with my gender.

So it begins:
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn't bring out the best in men.
Okay, so men - like women - are settling down with a family later as their career choices firm up. But pray tell, why does this not "bring out the best in men"? Do you have any evidence to back that assertion up?
"We are sick of hooking up with guys," writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, "I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I've Dated." What Ms. Klausner means by "guys" is males who are not boys or men but something in between. "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends.... They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner's book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?"
So your proof for your assertion that men who don't get married straight out of college are generally jerks is... a few guys that a snooty comedian dated once? I think SMBC has a few words for you. And also, why the Playstation, "Star Wars," and vacation hate? So you dated men who - GASP - liked things that you don't like? Oh God, sound the alarm, some men don't have Julie Klausner's exact array of interests! They may - my God, how can you stand even reading this - like video games! And science fiction! And you know who invented video games and sci-fi? THE DEVIL, that's who.

Anyway, maybe this gets better. Let's see. After citing the obvious about demographic trends, Hymowitz goes here:
Still, for these women, one key question won't go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie "Knocked Up." The story's hero is 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who has a drunken fling with Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing videogames, smoking pot and unsuccessfully planning to launch a porn website. Allison, by contrast, is on her way up as a television reporter and lives in a neatly kept apartment with what appear to be clean sheets and towels. Once she decides to have the baby, she figures out what needs to be done and does it. Ben can only stumble his way toward being a responsible grownup.
Yeah, that Ben Stone seems like a real immature douche. Fortunately, he's... what's the word I'm looking for... oh, yeah, FICTIONAL. So in sum, Hymowitz's proof that 20-something single men are immature losers is a) a bunch of men a friend of hers dated and b) a man who doesn't, technically, exist.

Then she talks about career mobility, the time and money required to get the necessary education for said career, and how that affects life decisions - all interesting points. But that's not what she's trying to argue. She's trying to argue that our society has turned men in their 20s into immature jerks. So she takes a crack at pop culture:
In his disregard for domestic life, the [early 20th century era] playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular "lad" magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.

At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks.
Entertainment filled with dick jokes? Fart jokes? Sex jokes? Drinking and fighting? This is supposedly new? Dude, have you ever read Chaucer? Or Aristophanes? You can't honestly tell me that the latest Will Ferrell movie is any more licentious than "The Miller's Tale" or "Lysistrata." We've found sex, drinking, and bodily functions highly entertaining for, like, the entirety of human history.

And then there's the obvious problem of trying to demonstrate the actual experience of young men from a bunch of art about young men. See, art is quite often allegorical, fantastical, or both. Comedies, especially, are exaggerated beyond any resemblance with reality. So, sorry, not buying this argument either. From there it's on to the conclusion, leaving us with the uncomfortable truth that we just read an article that purported to be about society creating immature men but utterly failing to prove that these immature men even exist in great numbers.

And there, of course, lie the problems with this article. One is the reductionism. Perhaps there are men out there who, like Rogen's character in "Knocked Up," prefer to live out their adolescent fantasies instead of growing up and taking responsibility for their own lives. But Hymowitz assumes that if you're over 25, male, and unmarried, you're "aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers." If you're a responsible young man who just hasn't met the right person yet, or who would rather focus on a career than a family, you don't exist. Hymowitz may have just rendered invisible the vast majority of young, single men. We can't know, since she didn't bother to prove anything.

The second problem is the loose definition of "immaturity." Let's look at some of those pejoratives Hymowitz uses here. "Aging frat boys, maladroit geeks, grubby slackers." What defines any of these categories? Are aging frat boys "immature" because they like to drink beer, hang out at bars, and hit on women? What makes that immature? And what about the geeks - are social awkwardness and technical knowledge signs of immaturity now? I'll concede the slackers - active avoidance of responsibility is a hallmark of immaturity - but even that's a stretch (to quote Michael Stipe quoting "Richard": "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy").

Hymowitz's friend Julie Krausner's definition is even worse: "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends." So she doesn't like sci-fi, video games, or Vegas? Fine. But why is all of that stuff immature? Is there a reason why you're labeling it as such, or is it just that you don't find it appealing? Hymowitz and Krausner use "immature," it seems, as a shorthand for "people who do things the author doesn't like." Guess what - society isn't going to fall apart because some men have a different idea of fun than Kay Hymowitz and Julie Krausner. So can we quit with the self-absorbed concern trolling now?

Update: Also read Jill Filipovic's take, which goes more in-depth about social trends and points out a few things about Hymowitz's history as a conservative traditionalist that I didn't know.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Halftime: Plebes 21, Pharaohs 14

This season, my local Division 2 soccer team, the Carolina Railhawks, started out awful at home. I think we lost or tied five out of our first seven home games. Of course, the only two games that we won were the games I didn't go to. This, naturally, got me paranoid. Maybe I was the cause of the Hawks' home troubles? Maybe if I stayed away from the games, the Hawks would win? This is, of course, absurd. I had no more an effect on the outcome of the game than I did on the weather - the game was decided by the players on the field (and occasionally the $#@*!% referee). But I wanted the team to win, so I searched for anything at all that I could do to help out, refusing to accept that I was incapable of helping beyond the standard soccer fan's role of shouting obscenities in the opposing goalkeeper's ears.

And in such superstitious tendencies I am not alone. Baseball is famous for the superstitions of its fans and its players alike - one baseball manager, the story goes, refused to move even a millimeter while his team was getting hits (this caused quite the problem when his team got a hit while he was reaching down to pick up a hot dog - and then got eight more in a row). Witness Bill Simmons after Super Bowl XLII blaming his jersey, his pre-game column, and other assorted things for the Patriots' loss to the Giants. We want control. We crave control. But we don't have it.

For the past two weeks, we've been watching something far, far more consequential than a sporting event on television. We've been watching Egyptians rise up against their repressive dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who has been running the place since I was born (almost to the day). We watched as the protestors took over the main square in Cairo calling for Mubarak to resign and democracy to take hold. We watched as Mubarak struck back with goons on horses and camels carrying Molotov cocktails. We watched as the army intervened, keeping the protestors and the pro-Mubarak goons apart. We watched as the goons tried desperately to keep the media at bay, intimidating and attacking reporters. We watched Anderson Cooper get punched in the face. And now, we watch as the protestors set up camp in Tahrir Square while Mubarak tries desperately to cling to power for himself and his family. We feel for the oppressed Egyptians, and wish that they could enjoy the freedom we cherish here in America.

And we ask ourselves what we can do, what America can do. We wonder if Obama can put pressure on Mubarak, or if Hillary Clinton can talk him down. We wonder if we can withdraw aid, as if the thirty years worth of foreign aid we've given Mubarak already would just disappear overnight if we withdrew future gifts. Some on the right fret about the result of giving Egyptians democracy.

But at the end of the day, watching and wishing is all we can do. Because this isn't about us, this is about Egyptians wanting freedom, and Mubarak really not wanting to give it to them. This is a struggle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and the only thing we'd be capable of doing is getting in the way.

It's not every day that we can see a revolution unfold in real time, and most of us who were raised on the principle that everyone deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness want to see it succeed. Moreover, we want to be a part of history as it unfolds before our eyes. But all our cheering and banner waving does nothing from this side of the Atlantic. So we have to be content with simply watching Egyptians write their own chapter in our history books. Meanwhile, we'll hope that when the final whistle blows on this revolution, Team Freedom will have won a famous victory.