To follow up on Afrah’s excellent post on Gabby Douglas, I thought I would reflect a little bit on another American gymnast who won gold in London, Aly Raisman. The 18-year-old Raisman, an American Jew, proudly celebrated her heritage by performing her gold-medal winning floor routine to “Hava Nagilah.”
In winning the gold medal, Raisman also did her part in undermining certain stereotypes about Jewish women. Particularly in the post-WW2 period, two comic images of Jewish women emerged, both with a decidedly negative edge. The first was the overbearing Jewish mother, the second the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, personified in either the nagging wife or the spoiled daughter. These images were on display in American Jewish fiction, but they also caused real harm in gender relations between American Jewish men and women.
In her 1996 essay “Why Jewish Princesses Don’t Sweat,” anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell argues that the archetypical JAP is allergic to work. As an example, she points Brenda Patimkin, the leading lady of the 1959 Philip Roth novella Goodbye, Columbus. In both the book and the 1969 movie, Patimkin (as portrayed by Ali MacGraw) is seen playing tennis. To Prell, the message is that JAPs can sweat, provided that the sweat is not productive, i.e. that it comes from exercise or a leisurely activity like tennis. The Jewish woman is thereby denigrated as unproductive, lazy, and spoiled.
Of course, this stereotype is far from true: Jewish women work, and certainly sweat while working. This is where Raisman comes in. Here we have a wonderful real-life example of a Jewish woman whose work is athletic, sweat-producing, and medal-winning. Mazel tov Aly!
Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl. The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.
Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family. She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world. She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.” The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal. Read the rest of this entry »
In the latest round of “Historians Who Hate Each Other” I give you Michael Kazin and Sean Wilentz. Ok, so I don’t know if these guys actually hate each other. But it sure seems like they do. I’m talking about Georgetown US historian Michael Kazin (son of old Jewish left royalty Alfred Kazin) and Princeton US historian Sean Wilentz. The dispute goes back at least to the 2008 American presidential election. Wilentz backed Hillary Clinton, Kazin sided with Obama. They argued in The New Republic, ostensibly about Lincoln but in fact about Obama.
Wilentz’s review, titled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” runs like this: Kazin says the radicals did X, but actually it was liberals, or at least, mostly liberals. X could be emancipation of the slaves, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, you name it. I haven’t read Kazin’s book, but Wilentz’s attacks seem pretty devastating.
The debate here is not just about liberals vs. radicals, but about top-down political vs bottom-up social history, Wilentz preferring the former, Kazin the latter. So who’s right?
The answer, as any good grad student should know, is both. There is no question that both radicals and liberals, both elites and the disadvantaged helped bring about progressive social change.
I’m sure these two historians would agree on that. The difference is one of emphasis, but that distinction is, well, academic. In any case, I’m in no position to declare a winner here, but I would like to lament the fact that the dispute has gotten nasty and perhaps personal. Wilentz refers to Kazin’s discussion of the Civl War as a “skimpy caricature” and later writes that Kazin’s analysis of the post-Civil Rights era “begins to go haywire.” (the New Republic exchange is even nastier). I hope that whatever animosity these two historians feel towards each other does not cloud their scholarship. Still, I can’t wait for the exchange of letters in The New Review of Books that is sure to follow.
Thinking about this dispute brings me to an interesting quandary for the grad student: what do we do when we are required to interact with scholars who intensely dislike each other? Should we pick sides? Try to stay above the fray? Deceptively placate both? What if we feel a greater affinity for one scholar’s position on a given topic, but we are working closely with another professor who takes the opposing view? Basically, in scholarly disputes, do grad students get caught in the academic crossfire?
Tommy Boy, starring the late Chris Farley, is one of the funniest movies of all time. But it also provides us with lessons that are useful in understanding the 2012 American presidential election, particularly the question of Mitt Romney’s role as a “vulture capitalist” for Bain Capital.
In Tommy Boy, Farley plays Tommy Callahan III, a hard-partying recent college graduate (after 7 years) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s brake-pad company. The business is on the verge of bankruptcy, so Tommy has to travel across the country (with his sidekick, portrayed brilliantly by David Spade) to drum up sales for the company, which is the economic foundation of the small town in which it is located.
The point is that Tommy Boy is all about saving the American auto industry, the same industry that Romney effectively told to drop dead. And of course, Romney has had lots of experience dismembering businesses for his own profit at Bain Capital. Free marketeers will argue that Romney was just making the market more efficient by shutting down failing corporations. But, as we well know, presidents aren’t just interested in making the market more efficient, especially when that efficiency translates into big profits for the few, job losses for many, and without any noticeable improvement in productivity, reduction in consumer prices, or innovations that better our quality of life.
Beyond that, Tommy Callahan III could relate to the workers at his plant, whereas Mitt Romney cannot relate to anyone, least of all the vast majority of Americans who aren’t as wealthy as he is. Indeed, Chris Farley, perhaps America’s greatest slapstick comedian, could make everyone laugh, regardless of class or social background. President Obama has his flaws, and he’s more David Spade than Chris Farley, but at the end of the day, he’s a president who at the very least can relate to people across America’s socio-economic spectrum. So if you love Tommy Boy, you should vote for Barack Obama.
Back when I was studying Liberal Arts at Dawson College, I learned about a Scotsman who proved that you couldn’t prove anything. His name was David Hume, he lived in the 1700s, and he argued that all knowledge is inductive and empirical, that is to say, we only know anything from experience: if we see a hundred zebras with stripes, we can only make an educated guess that the next one we see will have stripes too. I remember reading Bertrand Russell’s 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy, where he said that nobody has ever disproved Hume’s epistemology, and I’m pretty sure that assessment has held up.
I didn’t really know it until recently, but I am a Humean. And apparently, I’m in good company. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has listed Hume’s An Enquiry into Human Understanding as one of his major inspirations, which he read in college:
Then I read Hume’s Enquiry, this wonderful, humane book saying that nobody has all the answers. What we know is what we have evidence for. We do the best we can, but anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. It doesn’t work that way. The only reasonable way to approach life is with an attitude of humane scepticism. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I read that book…. You look at people who are very certain, and have these beliefs of one form or another and you think, “Maybe they really know something!” And what Hume says is, “Actually, no. They don’t.”
Krugman argues forcefully for various economic policies in his columns, but I think that he would admit that his knowledge is provisional, and based on experience, rather than immutable truths. In this way, he’s like the man who inspired him, John Maynard Keynes. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote of Keynes:
At the heart of his vision, however, there is an elusive combination of boldness and humility. It calls not merely for the management of risk but for something politically and intellectually far more demanding: the acknowledgment of uncertainty.
And where did Keynes find his inspiration? Not from Karl Marx: Keynes (correctly) called Marxism “complicated hocus pocus.” No, Keynes built on the economic thought of another British empiricist, Adam Smith. And from where did Smith derive his empiricism? From his good friend and fellow Scotsman David Hume.
It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to overread the importance of firsts: Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who is best known to a wide audience for singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” and member of Odd Future collective, wrote a poignant story on tumblr about falling in love with a man. By virtue of his post, he accomplished a first for mainstream black music in openly discussing his relationship with a man. The actual story is powerful because in many ways because it is universal. Ocean recounts the longing, unrequited feelings, and finding closure from a transformative love. The posting is a pivotal one in his personal journey and feels like a great moment for black music writ large. The expression of Ocean’s group member, Tyler, the Creator sums up the exuberance of this moment by stating on Formspring, “yeah thats my n***a tho, shit is hard for him but he did that.”
The African American community has expanded immeasurably by the figure of Frank Ocean. Black music in general and hip hop in particular is supposed to reflect the vast expanse of human existence and the reality of life in urban America. It has often been summed up by shorthand to keep it real. Authenticity is a preoccupation of hip hop and its marching orders. It is a medium that possesses a youthful swagger that has become a dominant force in popular culture. Like all art, hip hop both transcends and remains frustratingly bound by material limitations of sexism and consumerism. In other words, it encompasses the contradictions, myopias, strivings and beauty of life. At this moment, black music also has the power to become more accepting of the range of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »
Watching reality tv shows such as Vh1′s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta leads to existential questioning such as: Why do we watch? Do shows like this fuel the poor representation of black people in popular culture writ large? And can 3.6 million people who watched the show’s debut possibly be misguided?
I am of two minds. I am shocked, shocked to see black folks embodying the racial stereotype that predicts loud and uncouth behavior. As of this posting, over two thousand people have dutifully signed the change.org petition to boycott the show. Yet the conventions of reality tv rewards bad behavior and highlights extreme personalities. Given the platform, their actions are unsurprising.
The clear anti-heroes of the show are Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez. The audience can easily root against them and are riveted by the pure unabashedness of their characters. Stevie J is a former Bad Boy producer of classic 90s hits with Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy who has won three Grammy awards. He is the resident cad who is juggling a relationship with Joseline and Mimi, who is the mother of his young daughter. Joseline is a stripper turned recording artist for Stevie J who unironically states that her purpose on the show is to inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps.
Their motives are clear: to get paid and get into as much drama as possible. Read the rest of this entry »