Why I left facebook

Yeah, well, you probably already know most of why i left facebook.  If you’re on facebook, or you know someone on facebook, you know what kind of poison it is.  It’s even likely you’re considering getting off facebook too.  Lots of people are;  NPR did a story about it.  In case you need to be reminded of the reasons, I’ve taken some quotations from that story and made a poem of them. 

In the days after, all I saw was hate.
Untold numbers of gloating, trashtalking, flamethrowing posts.
A summit on a frustrating, drawn-out illness,
all of my friends doctors of their own dogma.
I also realized that I had become a meaner, more cynical person.
Clicking on Facebook in the morning is like blunt trauma to the brain.*

That comes close to summing it up, but I’m still going to spend a minute trying to explain my own reasons.  So. I don’t mind people telling me what I should think.  That’s conversation.  But I do mind when they start telling me that anyone who doesn’t think what they think is an idiot.  There’s a difference between “a is right and b is wrong” and “a is right and anyone who thinks b is an asshole.”  It bothered me when otherwise thoughtful people started expressing contempt in every post.

That’s not what put me over edge, though.  This is:


Now what’s going on here?  Was this in reference to something someone said?  Who?  What?  None of the many people who reposted this gave any context, and I believe it likely that many of them didn’t know the context.  They were reposting in order to position themselves politically.  And not just to position themselves as a democrat or left-winger, or anything simple like that.  This is not the kind of positioning that takes one side against another;  it’s a delicate and sophisticated positioning that marks them as a member of a group, a club of sensibility.

Am I a member of that group?  I’m guessing that if I knew what they were talking about, I would wholeheartedly agree with them.  Probably some old white guy told black Americans they had nothing to fear, and that’s bullshit.  But I’m not sure I can agree with the statement without a context.  It’s pretty sweeping then.  How often do the words “you don’t need to be afraid” just mean, “I am here;  I stand with you”?  Is a father allowed to comfort a daughter with these words?  Is a Jew allowed to comfort a Muslim?  One would like to be able at least to ask these questions.  It might start a discussion.  And here we come to the real problem with this little image.  It doesn’t just tell me what to think, and it goes further than telling me that anyone who doesn’t agree is a jerk.  It tells me what I am allowed to think.  It forbids questions.  And for this reason, no, I don’t think I’m a member of the group that adopts this positioning.

The thing that, oddly, almost redeems the little image is the way it repeats itself—a sign, as a rhetorician will tell you, that it is not all that certain of what it is saying.  Unfortunately it’s an unconscious uncertainty.

Anyway, in the weeks before I left facebook, I saw this kind of thing everywhere.  “Don’t bother coming to our event if you don’t believe x.”  “ You’re not allowed to admire p unless you’re a member of group q.”  Walls were going up, walls based on the finest of distinctions, as in an aristocratic society where one knows by the way someone wears his collar or raises his hand that he isn’t quite one of us.  Rules, all unspoken.  As they have to be because to speak them would allow people to question them. 

I am afraid of these rules, afraid to get on the wrong side of them.  Getting off facebook won’t save me, but allows me a little space and time to think about things with distance, to formulate real critiques of what is happening in the world.

*Robert Sapolsky argues this literally, in an article that a lot of people didn’t like.


First in a series of great album titles courtesy of Donald Trump:  Phoney Stuff that Didn’t Happen.


Has anyone ever tried to make Damien Trench’s recipes?

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

What’s lacking in this world is analyses of second-rate novels.  When I finish a novel I like to figure it out.  What does the title mean?   How do the parts interact?  When he sent the letter, did he know she’d already left town?  Is the game of Russian roulette in chapter 3 explained by the ultimatum in the prologue?   This is why people have book clubs.  But I don’t have a book club, so I look for analyses on the web.  Where all I find is reviews.  And even the best reviews can’t do a full analysis for fear of spoiling the plot.

What follows is an attempt at an analysis of Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.  It will give away every plot point, and it won’t be tremendously intelligible if you haven’t read the book.  But if you have read the book, and are trying to figure it out like me, it might give you something to build on.

The book has five parts, titled “In the Beginning,” “Names,” “In the desert,” etc.  So the novel presents itself as a Torah.  Each of the parts has three chapters treating three different story-strands, so we begin with Moshe’s story, then Shem’s, then Aisling’s, then we have part 2 and turn back to Moshe, etc.  The first strand begins in 1901 when a family of Jews immigrates to Ireland, the second begins in 1958 and gives us an Irish boy who has been placed in a mental hospital because he does not speak, and the third is set entirely in 2013 and deals with an Irishwoman, displaced to London, considering converting to Judaism to marry the man she loves.  So the story spans 112 years and moves to from eastern Europe to Ireland and thence to London, which is to say that in the new Torah that is the novel, eastern Europe is Egypt, Ireland is the desert, and London is, as I suppose, the promised land.  Terrible things happen in the first two story-lines, but the world of the story is gradually on the mend, such that Ireland heals the problems of eastern Europe, and London heals the problems of Ireland.  Still, London cannot do without Ireland.  The promised land relies on the memory of the desert, and Ireland remains the novel’s anchor.

London is not the only promised land in the novel.  There is another place, further off, more sunny and perfect, represented both by Palestine and the utopian “fifth province” of Irish legend.  But while characters do make aliyah, Palestine does not appear in the novel;  it does not, as it were, take the stage—a fact underlined by the fate of Moshe’s play about the “fifth province,” a play that is never published or produced.   But even London in this novel is a bit of a pipe dream.  Ireland is what matters.  We know that Ireland is the desert for many reasons besides its place in Gilligan’s Torah.  We know it because of Lady Gregory’s play, “The Deliverer,” a performance of which features in a notable scene.  We know it because Ireland is the font of meaning, the locus of stories.  And we know it because a Book is given there, an Irish guide to conversion to Judaism, a book that will take people and make them into Jews and thus a Torah within the Torah that is the novel, a book that brings revelation to several of the characters and to us.

A bit of plot is necessary here.  The first strand begins with the immigrants—Moshe, his wife, and their daughters Ruth and Esther—disembarking from the boat at Cork, which they have mistaken for New York.  The father, a playwright and inveterate story-teller, becomes a pedlar.  The family ekes out a living, and eventually hires an Irish servant, who also tells stories.  Ruth grows up, unloved but loving Ireland.  In her late 40s, she falls in love with a man named Alf, but after their first night together a Nazi bomb destroys her apartment, and each thinks the other has been killed.  Alf signs up to fight in WWII, loses his legs, and is eventually institutionalized. 

The second strand features Shem, who suffers from severe OCD that manifests as joyous but obsessive word-play, and an equally severe oedipus complex.  Shem is happy, but has two deep worries.  He has been traumatized by a rabbi’s discourse on the unforgivable sin of loshon ha’ra, and he has been unable to read what he believes is his mother’s diary.  The day before his Bar Mitzvah, he sees his mother holding hands with a man who is not his father.  He is silent at the bimah, and does not speak again, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will reveal his mother’s secret, damning her for adultery and himself for loshon ha’ra.  Institutionalized, he meets Alf, whose story he writes down. 

The third strand treats Aisling, who has moved from Ireland to London, where she has become a writer of obituaries.  She would like to marry Noah, but he cannot marry a non-Jew.  His parents give her a second-hand book on conversion, and, devastated, she leaves to spend Christmas with her family in Ireland where she reads the book. 

What holds the three story-strands together?  Linking the first and second is Ruth:  the daughter of Moshe becomes the lover of Alf, who becomes the friend of Shem.  Linking the second and third is a book:  for the book that Shem thought was his mother’s diary is actually the Irish guide to conversion, bought by Shem’s father for his mother, and rebought by Noah’s parents for Aisling.  On top of this, linking all three strands is a series of stories.  Moshe tells his stories to Ruth, Ruth tells them to Alf, Alf dictates them to Shem, Shem writes them down.  The prologue and epilogue show us Aisling visiting Shem, now living in a benevolent old folks’ home.  Aisling has traced Shem through the marginalia in the book, marginalia written by Shem’s mother.  From the same source Shem learns that the man her mother held hands with was his non-Jewish uncle, and that his silence has been meaningless.  Aisling gives Shem the Book, and in return he gives her all his writing.  Moshe’s stories, retold by Ruth and then by Alf, inscribed by Shem, are now the possession of Aisling.

This transition from word of mouth (Moshe-Ruth-Alf) to writing (Shem-Aisling) is another way the novel reflects a Torah:  what begin as oral stories are eventually written down.  And then there is the fact that the conversion book, the Torah within the Torah, also spawns writing, so that in addition to a transition from oral to written, we make a transition from text to commentary.  (Gilligan hammers this home by presenting us the marginalia as footnotes to her own text.)  Overarchingly we have a story of the failure to communicate which comes right.  Cork is mistaken for New York.  Moshe cannot understand the letter he receives from Lady Gregory.  Alf and Ruth lose one another.  Shem becomes mute because he is not allowed to read a book.  But the Book is read in the end, and the stories are preserved and written and read and retold, and commentary is salvific.  Shem’s silence is based in an untruth, but his OCD tells a truth.  He is right to think that words are the magic that holds everything together.

If word magic is to work, it must involve love, and particularly the love match of two languages or of two sets of stories.  An odd scene in the middle of the second strand is a key to this part of the novel’s meaning.  Ruth, working as a midwife, has become famous in the Jewish community for telling Irish stories to ease the birth process.  She records each birth in an official file, but she also keeps a private list in which she records not only name chosen by the parents but also the name secretly chosen by herself, a name from the story she told during the birth.  When an antisemite sets fire to her files, her secret list can reproduce the information.  The weaving of Jewish names and Irish names allows these births to be recorded again.  As Aisling’s reading of the Book—the Book’s second reading—will bring healing to the story cycle, so Ruth’s second text will bring rebirth to the babies.

Two more things, lightly interconnected.  One is the malignancy of water.  The ship bring Moshe’s family to the wrong country.  Ruth’s sister Esther buys another ticket to America but her ship sinks.  Moshe goes swimming and dies.  Ruth is swimming while the bomb falls on her apartment.  To enter water is to lose or to drown.  At best water promises but does not deliver.  There are baptisms that do not take;  miracle immersions that do not cure.  Water does not belong in God’s desert. 

The second thing is the prevalence of animal stories, notably of rats, bees, and swans.  All of these are binding stories—stories of love—but the rats and bees injure even as they hold things together.  The swans, though, enact a transformation over the years.  They enter in one of Moshe’s story fragments about a man who makes paper animals and one day decides to fold his wife in the same way, breaking every bone in her body.  They continue in a story Ruth invents about a man who digs up a paper swan which comes to life.  They close in the paper swans that Noah makes for Aisling, and in a pair of real swans she sees.  Swans are folded into Gilligan’s novel, and perhaps go some way toward redeeming the water.  But nine?  What are the nine folds?


I said that reviews can’t analyze because analysis has to spoil the plot.  But every single review of the new episode of Sherlock (4.1) revealed the surprise ending and not one of them offered any analysis.


Jonathan Lethem has sold Yale University a great many pictures of vomiting cats for an “undisclosed amount of money.”  This is why the academic enterprise deserves to die.

Un-habeas corpus

This discussion of Sherlock 3.1 is replete with spoilers.

Other reviewers have said the obvious things and said them well.  Last night’s Sherlock was short on plot, but forgivably so, as it was so very long on delightful cleverness and wish-fulfilling moments.  I could go on, but this fellow has done it for me.  Instead I want to say something I haven’t read anywhere else.  I want to describe an irredeemable logical flaw.

Of all the many questions one might have about the way Sherlock fakes his death:  the relative heights of the buildings that stop John from seeing what is going on, the timing of Mycroft’s interception of the sniper and why, if he has the sniper under control, he can’t just halt the other snipers and call it a day, the speed with which it is possible to inflate and deflate an air-bag, the problematic lack of blood under the body — of all these questions and 50 more, one stands out, never raised and inexplicable:  why is there a corpse at all?  Think about it.  Sherlock hits the airbag, rolls off, stands aside while the bag is removed, runs back and lies down:  There is no need for a corpse.

I’ll be interested in explanations, but I don’t think I’ll get one.  It seems clear to me, after a lot of thought, that the whole drama is played out for John’s benefit.  Mycroft must already be at the sniper — the sniper who is to inform the other snipers — who, in any imaginable case, must have seen some of the elaborate set-up, since the only sight-line from which it cannot be seen is John’s.  But John never sees the corpse.

Of course before seeing the show we all thought there would be a corpse, because of the Molly involvement.  But that was only okay because we were all thinking, like Anderson, that it was corpse on the ground, the corpse whose pulse John takes.  In that scenario you need a corpse.  In the one presented, you don’t.

Arendt and Milgram

In today’s Opinionator, Roger Berkowitz describes the most common misreading of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has Arendt attributing Eichmann’s actions to following orders and, by extension, using the phrase “the banality of evil” to mean mindless, order-following bureaucracy.  Berkowitz tells us that this isn’t what Arendt says.  She did not portray Eichmann as a mere “clerk”;  this is not the quality that leads her to speak of his “inability to think.”  Eichmann’s thoughtlessness emerges, on the contrary, from what Berkowitz calls his being a “joiner,” that is, his enthusiastic embrace of an ideology.  And the medium by which his inability to think is sustained is his allegiance to cliches.

Arendt knew well that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi and a creative manager of death.  If Eichmann in Jerusalem makes us look more deeply at ourselves, it is not to ask whether we are all cogs in a bureaucratic machine.  It is rather to ask whether we are all ideologues — an ideologue being, in Berkowitz’s words, “someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the ‘idea’ of the movement that gives life meaning.”  And it is to ask whether we sustain this commitment through a set of commonly accepted and repeated cliches, cliches that ease the realization of the narrative we have bought into and at the same time hide our irresponsibility from ourselves.

I like Berkowitz’s argument, but I’d like to dispute one point.  It’s about Stanley Milgram.

“The widespread misperception,” Berkowitz writes, “that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong.”

Do Milgram’s experiments really show only that people will follow orders against their moral sense?  There is more to it than that.  To erect a situation in which his subjects would follow orders he had to invoke their status as joiners, and since he did not have time to train them in an ideology he had to use one that was already in place:  their utopian faith in the benevolence of science.  The subjects would in general not have recognized themselves as ideologues in the church of scientific progress, but they were believers enough:  enough that the laboratory they found themselves in, the lab coats worn by the experimenters, the clinical monotone the experimenters maintained, and the pseudoscientific sound of lines like “there will be no permanent damage to the tissue” — these things, these cliches, signaled to them their already accepted membership in something larger, something hopeful:  the promise of science.  Without the ideology and the cliches, there could have been no Milgram. Milgram and Arendt are showing aspects of the same problem.

Berkowitz tells us that “Arendt rejected… Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, ‘obedience and support are the same.’”  But Milgram is only claiming that being obedient makes us think we aren’t responsible, not that we should be held less responsible.  And isn’t this also the meaning of the line cited from Arendt?  Obedience and support are the same:  Arendt believes it, and Milgram believes it.  Obedience vs. support is, for both of them, a false opposition:  there is no obedience unless you’ve already invoked an ideology, unless the subject has, as Berkowitz puts it, joined.

So Arendt knows full well that there’s a sense in which Eichmann was indeed only following orders.  Which is not to say the scholars dismissed by Berkowitz aren’t wrong:  they are serious misreaders of Arendt if they think she doesn’t know that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi — really this makes it obvious that they haven’t read Arendt at all.  But the other mistake they make is one that Berkowitz makes too:   to think a clerk is ever merely a clerk.  For when Arendt rejects the obedience/support distinction, she is also rejecting the clerk/perp distinction.  The questions we must ask of our inner-clerk are:  what makes you follow orders?  What makes you ally yourself with those who are giving you orders?  What makes you so involved that you will go beyond those orders into a creative application of the ordering ideology?  The “clerk” is not a cypher;  his autonomy was not taken from him.  The “clerk” has given up his autonomy, given it up to something he believes in.

Magnetic paint: go away

The craze these days for chalkboard walls is getting complicated. The latest thing is to use a metal-based paint under the chalkboard paint so that your kid has a wall that is both chalkable and magnetic.  This post is for parents considering this endeavour.  The gist, for all you busy people, is fairly simple:  NO.  For those of you with some leisure, I’ll lay it out now in point form.

Chalkboard paint is friendly and wants you to be happy.

-It smells good.
-It remains mixed in the tin.
-It applies to the wall like cream.
-It cleans up with soap and water.
-And it does what it promises.

Magnetic paint hates you and wishes you were dead.

-It smells like turpentine on steroids, and continues to smell for days.
-It settles at the bottom of the tin within minutes of an industrial shake-up, and can’t be remixed without 20 minutes of muscular stirring.
-It applies to the wall like a lump of metal, which is, in fact, what it is.
-It cleans up with NOTHING.
-And, the coup de grace: it does not do what it promises.

But, I hear you saying, I’ve come across people on the web singing the praises of magnetic paint!  Yes.  I read those things too;  that’s why I decided to use it.  But I’m here to tell you today those people are lying to you . I know why they’re lying too.  They’re lying because this stuff is so malevolent they’re embarrassed to admit they bought it.  They struggled, they suffered, but now it’s over — and the last thing they want is their friends and neighbours to know how stupid they were to get duped by the other liars on the web and the smiley fellow at the hardware store.  I have no such shame. I was stupid.  Two coats worth of stupid.  Learn from my example.

The one thing people on the web do admit is that the stuff doesn’t really work.  You have to get “rare earth” magnets, they say, by which they mean really strong magnets, and even those have problems sticking if you haven’t put on enough coats of the vile stuff.  They say “rare earth magnets” instead of strong magnets in a desperate attempt to make their bad decision look like a super bougie decision:  not just any magnets for us, no! only rare earth magnets!  Feh!  And the only reason they admit this one, glaring, overwhelming problem with the product at all is because it’s the one they can’t hide.  Anyone who’s come into their house and tried to stick a magnet on the wall already knows.

Grade inflation, and academic incivility (Gill #2)

Earlier this year, I attended a production of 42nd Street at Stratford. It was a satisfactory production, though hardly earth-shaking, but the audience gave it standing ovation. And it was at this point that I realized I had to stop worrying about grade inflation.

What I realized, sitting there in the theatre, was that grade inflation isn’t just an academic problem. It’s a social problem. I don’t want to say that North American society as whole has abdicated its power to judge anything as average or mediocre, but I do want to say that a whole lot of segments of society have: we (whoever “we” are, but bear with me) just don’t ever give anything a B anymore, whether it’s a theatre piece (yay! Bravo! Bravissimo! the best!) or a student essay (good work! A!). It isn’t as if we’re deceived either. I mean, the Stratford audience knew that that production was just pretty good; their ovation was half-hearted and it didn’t last long. And academics know that some of our A’s are, shall we say, A’s of lesser quality. But we can’t not stand up for the show, and we can’t say B.

There are good reasons for this, and they are well known. The push toward critical reflection has made us unsure of our standards. The drive to listen, to be changed by others, to consider different points of view — this makes it awfully hard to pinpoint some views as inferior. In short, it’s hard to be nonjudgmental and to judge at the same time. This is not the place to go on about these matters, though, because I want to say something else.

Taking up one of the themes from my last post, I’m thinking that this nonjudgmental quality, this restraint, might provide another reason academics are so uncivil about one another’s work when sheltered by anonymity. Maybe what’s coming out when we blind review each other with comments like “this is a piece of crap” is the suppressed desire to judge something, anything: we can’t give our students the B’s they deserve but we can damn well give our colleagues a D- or an F. “This is a piece of crap,” should therefore be read as saying: “it’s true I don’t apply any real standards in the classroom, but god dammit I still have them, so my field of study continues to have integrity!”

Of course academics have always exaggerated their petty disputes: the narcissism of small differences has characterized the academy for centuries. We’re all used to back-stabbing and we’ve all been back-stabbed. But still, the nastiness of the new style of peer-review might well be a backlash against our own uncertainty.

And so our internecine hostility grows — so much so that we will never come together against today’s real threat: anti-intellectualism. It is anti-intellectualism, rapidly spreading and intensifying in bitterness, that is behind the accountability culture that seeks to drown us in overwork. We all resent it. We all know that it is we who ought to be in a position to judge: we are the thinkers, we are the judges, we are the people who reflect and compare, we invented the goddam standards! — and it drives us crazy that we are being subjected to treatment we should be meting out. But we collaborate: because our ability to reflect has taken us to a point where we are no longer sure of our own standards and therefore in no position to judge others, and, even more, because we can use the accountability culture to fuel our petty grudges against one another and further our struggle for tiny gains in hallucinatory power.

Internalized oppression in the academy (Gill#1)

I’ve just read a piece by Rosalind Gill of King’s College, London trying to describe something I’ve also been trying to describe for years: the pressures of contemporary academic existence. When I talk about it I usually start by laughing at how we continue to speak of the tension between research and teaching while our daily practice has increasingly nothing to do with either, but instead involves us in middle management roles that come sometimes under the heading of “faculty governance” and sometimes under the heading of “accountability” and mostly in any case just involve writing emails, and answering emails, and filling out surveys, and building websites, and making excel files, and checking other people’s excel files, and attending meetings from which we emerge with more emails to write. My personal approach to email has become almost entirely whack-a-mole. If I see it when I have a minute I’ll bang off an answer, but if it slips away it might as well be gone forever, since every time I sit down at my screen there are 30 more waiting to be dealt with. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my situation with the words “a punishing intensification of work,” or “a profession overloaded to breaking point,” I know what Gill is talking about. I rarely read any more, let alone think.

Where Gill is particularly good is in the sense she provides of our acceptance of the new normal, acceptance and collaboration. We recognize that we’re overworked, sure, but we don’t question the sources of the pressure, for instance the bizarrely augmented demand for accountability (or what they call in Britain “audit culture”) which, there as here, was “once treated with scepticism,” but “has now been almost perfectly internalized.” Nor do we raise questions about whether the “’freedom’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of [the academic job] has proved far more effective for extracting ‘surplus value’ or at least vastly more time spent working, than any older modalities of power.” These are just two of several directions that could be followed up if one wanted seriously to consider how and why we work ourselves to bone, putting up so little resistance to these new demands.

There are a couple of other things Gill doesn’t mention that might augment an account of why we don’t resist. One, not just an academic problem, is the proliferation of distractions, for instance what are technically known as “stupid games” (on which subject see this excellent article). Academics don’t play Angry Birds more than anyone else, but they do play, and they play for the same reasons the rest of the world plays: not to avoid work, but to avoid the guilt that would otherwise fill the hours in which they find themselves unable to work, guilt which, if indulged in, reflected on, and criticized, might lead eventually a desire to change our conditions and those of others. Distraction can’t help but dampen resistance.

Also relevant to the question of collaboration is Gill’s discussion of how peer reviewing has become so much less civil in recent years. “When,” she wonders “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’ — both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work.” She suggests two analyses: “repressed rage bursting out as an attack against someone who is not the cause of it” and “[peer reviewing] as one of the few sites where academics may feel that they can exercise some power — thus they ‘let rip,’ occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity.”

It’s related to the question of collaboration because for sure we’re never going to gang up on the masters if we keep tearing away at each other. But it’s still unclear why we’ve taken to doing so. I’m going to take a stab at this in the next post.

Words and other languages

A few weeks ago my class had an extensive discussion of the “slutwalk,” in which female students put on provocative clothing (or whatever clothing they like) and parade the campus in order radically to challenge the idea that anyone, however she dresses, is ever “asking for it.”  I had a few thoughts in the course of the discussion, and here is one of them.

My students tend to believe that there are codes inscribed in facial expression, bodily gestures, and clothing — that these form a discourse, beyond words, one that we use to communicate, one that must be understood within a given cultural frame.  And yet they also believe that they may, if they so desire, mute this discourse, un-speak and un-hear it, such that one would no longer be expressing with the body and the face and the clothing, such that not even one’s tone of voice would count, but only words:  no means no, however you say it, and whatever gestures accompany it.

I am interested in this resurgence of the logos, this notion that the word, flat and dead, without accompaniment, without ornament or subtext, and above all disembodied, is the top dog of communication.  It seems obvious to so many people, but to me it seems only legally obvious.  By this I mean that in the kind of legal cases that prompted activities like the slutwalk, it was necessary to draw a line between operative signals and inoperative signals, and the only place where such a line can be drawn with clarity — and thus the correct place to draw it — is between words and everything else.  But leaving aside the legality and speaking philosophically, the decision to draw the line there seems arbitrary.

Talking to Americans

Jonathan Lethem writes:

‘I lived for a time in Canada, and found myself fascinated by the slavish pride of a culture basking in a self-recriminating joke. “A lobsterman turned his back on three catches in an uncovered bucket. A bystander worried the lobsters would escape, but the lobsterman waved him off, saying, ‘No problem, these are Canadian lobsters. If one reaches the top the others will pull him back in.’” Yet who, lately, seeing how transparent the Internet-comments culture has made our vast leveling rage, our chortling conformism and anti-intellectualism, our scapegoat-readiness, could keep from thinking: “We’re all Canadian lobsters on this bus.”’

Are you having trouble understanding him?  That is probably because the internet has made you as stupid as a Canadian.  Let me summarize.  Canada is a slavish culture.  This means that when Canadians see someone striving for excellence, they drag him down.  In fact Canadians are so vulgar they tell a joke about their slavishness, making it a virtue.  America is getting slavish too because the internet gives a platform to hoi polloi, allowing the base to demand that the excellent conform to their standards.  Like Canadians, they now laugh — they chortle, to be precise — while they sacrifice virtue on the altar of vulgarity.  They are, as the line about the bus suggests, “bozos“– as Canadians always were.

But possibly you are still having trouble understanding.  Possibly you have heard this joke before, but told about crabs not lobsters, and about management not Canadians.  I’ve heard a dozen versions myself, none of which mentions lobsters, and none of which mentions Canada.  Which is not to say, of course, that Lethem wasn’t told the joke in Canada, by a Canadian, about other Canadians.  Anyone can say anything, and anyone else can believe it — and not just on the internet.  But the implication that it’s the national joke is simply wrong, and the implication that it represents Canadian culture is  both wrong and rude.  Lethem panders to the most vulgar American expectations of Caunckstan, of the socialists to the north who are forced, as a political principle, to deny excellence.

There is a relatively well-known Canadian joke about lobsters.  It goes like this.

In a small fishing village, a Newfoundlander was walking up the wharf carrying two three-pound live lobsters, one in each hand.  Whom should he meet at the end of the wharf but the Federal Fisheries Officer who, on viewing the wiggling lobsters, says: “Well me laddie I got you this time — with two live lobsters three weeks after the season closed!”  The Newfie says, “No, my son, you are wrong. These are two trained lobsters that I caught two weeks before the season ended.”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” Trained like how?”  “Well my son, each day I takes these two from my house down to the wharf and puts them in the water for a swim. While they swim I sits on the wharf and has me a smoke, or two. After about fifteen minutes I whistles and up comes me two lobsters, and I takes them home.”  “Likely story”, the Fisheries Officer says. “Lets take them on down the wharf and see if it’s true.”  So, the Newfie goes ahead of the Fisheries Officer to the end of the wharf where, under supervision, he gently lowers both lobsters into the water.  The Newfie sits on a wharf piling and lights up a smoke, then another.  After about fifteen minutes the Fisheries Officer says to the Newfie, “How about whistling?”  The Newfie says ” What for?”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” To call in the lobsters.”  The Newfie says, ” What lobsters?”

If this joke doesn’t say anything about the Canadian ethos, it probably does say something about the Newfies:  about their pluck, about their wiliness, and about their willingness, on a small scale, to defy authority.  It’s not, I admit, a paean to excellence.  But then that wouldn’t be funny.

Lethem’s comments aren’t funny either. This is, though.  At least, if you’re a Canadian.


(Lethem’s piece is here, and I took the pre-edited version of the real Canadian lobster joke from here.)

Post-Rosh Rash

Another Rosh has come and gone, and another rash of young Jews is complaining on the interwebs about the fact that Synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets.  How dare they charge people to pray, they ask?  How dare they turn away those with no tickets?  What happened to the Jewish concern for the poor?  Isn’t the tradition full of stories in which a Jew welcomes a beggar into his home who turns out to be Elijah?  And the argument goes on.  Churches, they say, would never charge people to come and pray, so how must this practice look to the goyim?  Isn’t it giving Jews a bad name?

But such analyses are not complete.  Synagogues have special funds for the poor:  funds for broad charities, of course, but also special funds for the poor who pray with and identify with the congregation.  Try attending a Shul faithfully for a year and then going to the rabbi and explaining you can’t afford HHD tickets.  It’s not very many rabbis that under such circumstances will turn you away from from Rosh and YK services.  That is, if you really can’t pay.  If the reason you can’t buy Synagogue tickets is that you blew all your money on Arcade Fire tickets, that’s another story.

In the city I grew up, a poor family would have their butcher bill paid every month from the fund.  This happened discretely, without any exchange of words, so as not to cause embarrassment, or what we call verbal ona’ah.  Someone from the Shul would go into the butcher shop and inquire.  If the family had been able to take care of the bill that month, great;  if they hadn’t, it would be taken care of from the fund.  Where did that money come from?  It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it came from the ticket revenue for Rosh services attended by Jews well able to pay.

So if you’re too broke to pay for your HHD tickets, maybe it’s worth asking yourself if you’re really, really too broke.  One thing I’m pretty sure about:  no one is getting rich off your money.