The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Articles filed under Culture

Recent Reviews: Lost and Found

I’m now in Canada for the rest of the month, taking in the delights of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I’ve seen six plays so far, and written about none of them, but I can say that this is a very strong season overall, and I encourage everyone to make the trip up.

In the meantime, I’ve finally written up three productions from New York that you can’t see anymore, but perhaps can get some flavor of from my writing:

- All’s Well That Ends Well at the Delacorte in Central Park, and

- Measure For Measure at the same venue, followed by

- The Winter’s Tale at the New York Armory, a transplant of the London production by the RSC.

Check ‘em out, and I’ll let everyone know when I’ve written up the Stratford shows as soon as I’ve done so.

Re: Goodbye H&H

The store (H&H Bagels) was probably undone by finally giving in to the excessive wage demands of the staff. Or maybe the rent was just too damn high.

And forget Zabar’s – fine dining on the Upper West Side is all about Gray’s Papaya. Just don’t ever drink that juice.

(Cross-posted at The Corner)

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes.

This year’s Bloomsday discovery is a doozy. I have a feeling Joyce would be tickled, but I’m going to reserve any pronouncement until the day is done, and I’ve had time to reflect. Not, probably, the right way to participate in this particular experiment, but what can you do.

Anyway, here’s to a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy for lunch.

And It Must Follow As The Night The Day, Thou Canst Not Then Be False To Any Man

I’ve been trying to figure out something interesting to say about the two weird scandals of the moment. I will admit, as a blogger, the second story – one man pretending online to be a lesbian and running a lesbian news site outs another man pretending online to be a lesbian and to have been arrested by the Syrian regime – has proved a lot more fascinating than Antony Weiner’s twitpix. But I feel like there’s a connection between the two stories.

Both are stories about fantasy, and about how the tools of the online world facilitate the decision to fully embrace and enter into a compelling fantasy – and temporarily forestall the consequences of the embrace.

Weiner always struck me before the recent revelations as an exceptionally annoying Congressman. That’s not a comment on where he stood on the issues – sometimes I agreed with him, sometimes not – nor about his performance in his duties – he was, by all reports, somebody who took his job seriously, and is highly regarded by his constituents. I just mean his personality: his voice, his speaking style, his body habitus. The news that he obsessively sent a variety of women photos of himself in the nude or seminude makes me feel pity toward him for the first time. Not pity that he had such a pitiful hobby, but pity that this was the fantasy that he desperately wanted to enter into. He was the guy with the pecs, the guy women would get all hot and bothered by pictures of, the guy who didn’t just follow porn stars – but who counted porn stars among his followers. Because you don’t fantasize about being someone you already think you are.

(That’s one explanation for why Weiner didn’t take such elementary precautions as, I dunno, not including his head in the pictures. Maybe that’s just arrogance; maybe that’s a subterranean desire to get caught. But I suspect it’s really because, if this is a fantasy about “being known as the guy who” – well, you can’t really enter into that fantasy while keeping yourself anonymous.)

Andrew Sullivan has been calling the Weiner situation a case of “texting while male” which suggests that most men would do – or do do – pretty much what Weiner did. But there’s a difference between having a fantasy and taking the plunge to enter into the fantasy. And most guys wouldn’t do the latter. Is that because they don’t have the guts? Because they have cooler heads? Because they aren’t intoxicated by power into believing they were immune to social consequences? Or because the fantasy just isn’t as important to them as it was to Representative Weiner?

The two pseudo-lesbian bloggers were also entering into a fantasy. I don’t know whether that fantasy was particularly sexual in nature – I don’t know whether an important part of the thrill had anything to do with typical heterosexual male fantasies about lesbians. It’s entirely plausible to me that the fantasy had more to do with voice, with being heard. In any event, what these two men did was an extreme version of what, to one degree or another, everybody who presents themselves to the world in a mediated format, from bloggers to news anchors, does. They created personae that were not really them, and that represented who they wanted other people to see them as when they spoke.

I remember what that felt like when I started blogging. The sense that I was creating a self without the baggage of my actual self, a self that could actually be who I wanted people to think I was. I blogged under my real name, but I’d have to say, in all honesty, I wasn’t blogging as me but as some notion of myself – as a persona.

What’s most interesting to me is the way in which I changed as a result of blogging. Far from walling off my fantasy blogger persona from my actual self, I was confronted almost immediately by ways in which the two were in conflict, faced with the need to reconcile that conflict. When you don’t put yourself on the record, in front of other people, you can finesse in your own mind what you think, what you’ve said, how you felt about x or y or z. When you do, the record is there to confront you. To pick a silly example, I can’t deny that for about 15 minutes (okay, maybe as much as a day and a half), I thought Sarah Palin was a great idea. I can’t revise the narrative of my life so that that judgment is expunged – whereas if I hadn’t blogged, doing so would be trivial.

We all walk around with fantasies in our heads, and many of them probably don’t matter, but some of them do. We spend, when you add it up, thousands of hours living inside our heads in those fantasies. When they stay there, we don’t have to confront them – and neither does anybody else. We can say that that’s a success: we don’t want anybody to know what’s hiding in there, whether it’s banal fantasies of cheating on our wives and husbands, or something with a higher “smirk” factor like standing naked in Times Square and being adored by throngs, or something really terrible and dark like drowning our children. But I think these things, if they really do matter and aren’t something fleeting, gnaw at you when you don’t confront them. They only grow more powerful in the dark.

I started blogging at the high-point of my doctrinaire right-wingery. Before the real world began to push back in the form of the fiasco of Iraq and other catastrophes, the simple fact of having to put words on (virtual) paper pushed back. I’m too good a reader not to be able to tell when I’ve written something that isn’t grounded in truth – or, let’s say, in a justified belief. Putting it down in words – and, much more important, putting it out there for other people to see – forced me to ask myself: what do I really know? What do I really believe? And I learned some things about myself in the process.

Anthony Weiner probably did, too. There’s an “oh brave new world that has such people in it” quality to some of his language that’s almost touching. Clearly he was having too much fun indulging in the fantasy to ask himself what he was learning. But learn something he did.

That’s why I’m very resistant to both the moral and medical responses to these kinds of stories. The moral response (“you mustn’t do that!”) amounts to a call for repression the medical (“he must be sick to want to do that!”) feels almost like a pathologization of the inner life itself. There are a lot of pieces to the impulse involved in these cases, but a big piece is the simple desire to know oneself, to find out who we really are.

That impulse is an admirable one. Obviously, the idea is to find out who you are without humiliating your wife or enraging the lesbians who you clearly want to treat you as a fellow sister. But the key to avoiding winding up in the paper, it seems to me, isn’t repressing the fantasy, but acknowledging it – before you actually take the plunge of trying to live it out.

If I were Anthony Weiner’s wife, I’d feel betrayed by his behavior. If I loved him, I’d want him to understand that – and feel it. But I’d also want to understand why he did it. Because he did it for a reason, and that reason, I don’t think, should be reduced to a condition. And if I loved him, I’d want to understand the reason and figure out whether there might not be a better way to satisfy it.

If I were any of the women who thought Amina Arraf was real, I’d feel betrayed. I’d also feel betrayed when I discovered that the editor of “Lez Get Real” was just as fake. I’d want Tom MacMaster and Bill Graber to understand that. But I would like to think that someone who really connected with one of them through their personae, if I believed that they believed in what they were saying and doing, if I believed that their personae, while false representations to the world, were also true representations of something about them – I would like to think recognition of that fact would also shape the way I felt about them, that my response wouldn’t be limited to rage and condemnation.

The online world has made it easier than ever before to fully commit to one’s fantasy life. That’s a fact that has consequences both good and bad. Because our fantasies can be important, having a space to explore them can be a very good thing – an opening to greater self-understanding. But because we can pretend our online selves are separate from our real selves, we can, instead of pursuing self-understanding, simply build a shadow fantasy life and live there in secret. And, whether or not we realize it when we first start playing this game, these days it’s harder than ever to keep people on the internet from finding out you’re a dog.

Recent Reviews: Big Talk, No Sleep

- The verbal gymnastics on display in David Ives’s School For Lies are an absolute delight.

- Those on display in Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, not so much.

- Derek Jacobi plays the fool in King Lear.

- And a three-fer! Reviews of three recent productions of Macbeth, done straight by Theatre For a New Audience, expectations-confoundingly by Cheek by Jowl, and as an audience-participatory site-specific noir fantasia by Punchdrunk. (And that last one you can still go see – and should!)

As well, some more ruminations on adapting Shakespeare for the screen and idle speculation on possibilities for the next Artistic Director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (not really speculation actually; I’m talking more about what I’d like to see than about who).

Come on by and check it all out!

A Brief Endorsement

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in the New York metropolitan area, I’d be all over these mariner’s workshops offered by boatbuilder, sailor, and Friend of the Scene David Ryan.

Curse God and Die

Kevin Drum admirably – in my view – gets personal in his back-and-forth debate with Ross Douthat over assisted suicide:

I suspect that one big difference between Douthat and me is that I’ve suffered from chronic depression nearly my entire life and he hasn’t. Luckily, my case is moderate, and I’ve never felt like drowning myself in a bathtub. Still, I understand keenly what it feels like, which makes it easy for me to have a pretty good sense of what it would feel like if it were more serious. And that deep-seated understanding of what serious, long-lasting, incurable depression probably feels like is part of what drives my policy preferences here. I can actually imagine myself being in a situation where I’d want that prescription available to me, so reasons of self-interest dictate that I’d prefer it to be legally available. If you can’t even conceive of such a situation in your own life, you’ll probably feel differently.

I suspect he’s right, but, at the risk of treading on Drum’s personal toes, I also suspect Douthat would say that Drum’s evidence cuts both ways.

To step back a bit first, it should be acknowledged that there are perfectly strong ethical systems that not only permit suicide but encourage it. In some, suicide is the right and proper response to severe shame and dishonor; indeed, in these ethical systems, the only way to redeem one’s honor in certain shameful circumstances is to kill oneself, and honor is valued more highly than life. Less stringently, other ethical systems view suicide as the ultimate exercise of personal freedom – the determination to fully shape one’s life narrative, including its conclusion. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” is the saying; a properly timed suicide could make sure that one, indeed, died happy.

Neither Drum nor Douthat is engaging with these ethical systems. Drum is not arguing that it’s a right and good choice to kill oneself because one always planned to die at eighty. Indeed, he thinks that suicide is “tragic” even in circumstances where he can accept it as someone’s legitimate decision. Douthat, also, is not arguing against these alternative systems of ethics. He simply presumes that, as such, suicide is wrong, and is engaging with the question of whether there are exceptions to that rule.

The grounds of their dispute, therefore, is over the traditional liberal terrain of prevention of harm versus preservation of personal autonomy.

Now, to return to Drum’s claim. He says that he values a right to suicide because he can imagine wanting to exercise it in a circumstance where he had a serious, longstanding, incurable depression. He can imagine what such a state feels like because he’s experienced, over the course of his life, milder but still terrible forms of organic depression.

The problem for his argument is that the very facts that strengthen his case – I know what it would feel like, because I’ve experienced something similar, and if I were in that circumstance I know I would want to die – are the very same facts that Douthat might say strengthen his case: you know what it would feel like, and you know that, in the worst moments of depression, those feelings would overwhelm any ability to see beyond that moment, to maintain hope. And so, you know you would be susceptible to the counsel of despair. Precisely because you know that’s how vulnerable you would be, you know that you would need external restraint to resist that counsel.

The stronger-minded you assume your depressive is, and the more sure you are that he is right about the salient facts – that the depression really is incurable, really will never abate – the more inclined, I would think, you would be to take Drum’s view: it’s terrible that he’s got to choose between death and that kind of life, but I respect his choice for death. Nobody has the right to tell him what constitutes the worse choice. The weaker-minded you assume your depressive is, though, and the less sure you are that he is right about the salient facts – how can he possibly know that the depression will remain incurable? last month he really seemed not too bad; how does he know that next month won’t be another period of relative respite? – the less comfortable I would think you would be taking that perspective, and the more inclined to conclude that the call to die was a siren’s song that the depressed person must be restrained from hearing, for his own good.

Where you’re dealing with people in the late stages of terminal disease, the question “is this decision one that the person would regret in a different frame of mind” kind of goes away. There isn’t much more life to theoretically regret the loss of, and the confidence interval about what that life would be like should be very high. But once you push natural death well off into the future, I don’t see how that question can be avoided. It’s precisely this question that is waved away by sweeping statements about the actor being of “sound mind.” “Soundness” of mind, after all, isn’t binary. A personal can be of perfectly sound mind to sign a second mortgage and also be a gambling addict who plans to blow all the money he borrows on a trip to Vegas. (I’m not suggesting that people with gambling problems should be prevented from taking out second mortgages; I’m pointing out that, from the outside, most of us would say that the gambling addict needed help, and that the availability of the second mortgage made his situation objectively worse.)

Douthat has religious reasons for taking an absolute position on this. A less-religiously-minded person, though, might simply say: I care more about protecting vulnerable depressed people who might feel like there is no hope from taking an irrevocable action that, in a different frame of mind, they would deeply regret. And I care less about relieving the suffering of those who are strong-minded enough for me to be sure that they would not regret their choice in a different frame of mind. And someone else might take a different view of the same question, preferring to protect the autonomy of the strong-minded even at the cost of some weaker-minded people making the “wrong” decision.

(An opponent of assisted suicide might also say that if the state permits assisted suicide, then a variety of financial and other incentives might lead to the encouragement of suicide, effectively the corruption of the profession of the counselor. The counter-argument might be that a formal structure for assisted suicide might actually bring people who would otherwise kill themselves on their own into the counselor’s orbit, where they might actually be convinced to live – and from a consequentialist’s perspective, suicides prevented would directly offset suicides “incorrectly” encouraged, and the balance could be evaluated empirically after small-scale experiments. This kind of dispute mostly reveals what one thinks of the social work and psychiatric professions – if your level of trust in these professions is low, you lean one way; if high, you lean the other. To a non-consequentialist, of course, this whole way of framing the dispute would be inadequate.)

I don’t think there’s any categorical way to resolve these kinds of disputes. Neither Douthat nor Drum is a dogmatic libertarian who believes that nobody should ever by prevented from making a decision they would later regret, and neither is a totalitarian who believes that nobody should have any autonomy at all. In general, the more irrevocable and serious the consequences of a personal decision, the more inclined we are to try to protect people from making a decision they would later deeply regret. On the other hand, the more deeply personal a decision, the more inclined we are to try to protect a zone of autonomy within which an individual is free to make whatever mistakes they make. And as these change, our views change. For example, as we have come to understand sexual choice and expression as deeply personal, and as technological and economic changes have reduced the consequences of female sexual activity to a level far lower than was historically the case, the sphere of female sexual autonomy has expanded to historically unheard-of levels.

Suicide hasn’t changed, though. It has always been, and always will be, about as personal a question as can be imagined. And it has always been, and always will be, utterly irrevocable. I suspect that it will always, therefore, be a topic around which dispassion, on either side, is difficult.

"The Internet Is My Religion"

At Personal Democracy Forum this year (PDF is a yearly conference about the intersection of the internet and politics—I attended in ’07 and it was awesome), a man named Jim Gilliam gave an amazing talk called “The Internet is my religion”, which is very much worth watching:

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at

Again, you really should watch it but if you haven’t the gist is that Jim was brought up as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian (creationism and all) and gave up on that faith after first discovering alternative points of view through the internet and then when internet activism helped cure his cancer. It’s a truly touching story.

It was obviously fascinating to watch as both a Christian and an Internet-lover. I have to admit that I began watching with an eye out for theological nits to pick, but I finished convinced that Jim understands the heart of Christianity as well as perhaps any Christian.

Perhaps the best and most significant part of the talk is this quote: “God is just what happens when humanity is connected.” And indeed the unique feature of Christianity is that it is based on a personal relationship with God—indeed, a god who is both fully human and fully divine. I do believe that God “happens” when humanity is connected. I also believe that God is more and not “just” that, but I also think it’s as important to get the first part as it is to get the second part.

Talking about how the internet helped him beat cancer, Jim says: “I could never repay this debt. … We all have this same cross to bear. We all owe our lives to countless people we’ll never meet.” And indeed it is this feeling of gratitude that is the impetus for following the Commandment of Love. The most important word in “Love each other as I love you” may be “as”, because it doesn’t just mean “in the same amount” (impossible) or “in the same way” (almost impossible) but for the same reasons. We should love each other because God loves us, and God loves us because we are made for love.

If it’s possible to glance at the face of God through a song or a beautiful vista, it’s equally possible to see Him through the Internet.

(Oh, and by the way, religious/conservative parents: the story of Jim as countless other stories shows that you should educate your children about the world instead of trying to shield them from it. And that if you teach Creationism to a child with an IQ over 90, you’re just begging to turn him into an atheist.)

sentiment and sentimentality

James Lundberg complains — and with good reason — about the vast influence of Ken Burns’s Civil War series on students, and on the general American understanding of what in Alabama we call the Late Unpleasantness. I sympathize with the grumpiness sufficiently not to question too much of this piece, but . . . there’s this, among his list of annoyances: “Union Major Sullivan Ballou’s never-delivered letter to his wife Jenny demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.”

Do we really want to be that belittling towards Ballou’s now famous and much-reposted letter? I don’t think I do, at any rate. True, it’s unlikely that a soldier today, facing imminent death, would write in so elevated, so elaborate a style to his beloved. Almost certainly he would not write at such length. But is that wholly to our credit? Do we want to look at a culture that had a strong sense of rhetorical occasion, and embraced a far greater range of linguistic registers than we now can handle, and dismiss its products as mere “sentimentality”?

Yes, people get all gooey about Ballou’s letter, but there are far worse things to get all gooey about. And you could make the argument that the situation actually called for a higher style than most of us, in our linguistically narrow age, can muster. Maybe we could learn something from Major Ballou.

The Generally Sensible Parisian reaction to DSK

The DSK drama has pretty much replaced the weather as the default topic of conversation in Paris this week. It’s very easy to find self-parodic essays in various French journals that try to justify DSK’s alleged crimes, or turn this into an indictment of American “frontier justice.” But among the people I know here, the reaction to the whole event has been completely recognizable. While the tone and weight of various strands of reaction vary from person to person, in general, people have reacted with a mix of shock, disgust and introspection.

These are obviously informal impressions collected from a small, extremely non-random sample of people who might be censoring their real views when speaking with me. My only point is that contrary to how it might seem just from reading media analysis, the French and American public reactions to this event seem vastly more alike than different.

There are some differences between how the legal process is handled in America and how it would be handled in France.

The biggest complaint about the process thus far is the objection to the “perp walk” of a man accused of, but not yet tried for, a crime. There are sensible arguments on both sides of this question. On one hand, the freedom of the press to report, and principle that all accused, regardless of social station, should be treated alike are important values. On the other hand, this practice is rife with the potential for abuse, as the state can use it to try to influence the potential jury pool, and has done so in the past. Neither argument is seen as without merit on either side of the Atlantic, but the balance between these competing goods is struck differently in each place.

Second, while it is illegal in France for the media to show pictures of the accused in restraint prior to the trial for the reasons just indicated, major media outlets here have named the rape accuser. Laws around this were struck down in the U.S. starting in the 1970s / 80s, but major American media outlets will generally not do it before or during a trial.

Third, how sex crimes are defined, and the severity of the punishment, is not identical between the two countries. However, this difference in attitudes toward sex, marriage and the workplace can easily be exaggerated. I don’t advise you to explain to your French spouse that you have commenced an affair with your co-worker because “il est normal.” You’re very likely to find yourself and your clothes on the sidewalk, while getting an impromptu lesson on the creative use of the French language delivered form a third-floor balcony. And before people start building grand theories about what the sex lives of French politicians say about French society, they ought to figure out what the sex lives of Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, the “hiking the Appalachian Trail” guy and so on (and on and on) say about American society in general. I suspect what they really say is that narcissistic personalities in any society are disproportionately drawn to, and enabled by, careers that provide fame and power.

I’d say that a summary of French take on the differences between how this has been handled in America and how it would have been handled in France, is that (1) American justice is viewed as somewhat rougher than it should be toward the accused, but this is combined with (2) a simultaneous admiration that an immigrant chambermaid can trigger the machinery of the state to bring action against an extremely powerful, well-connected person without it being hushed up. Both sides of this contain elements of truth, and play to pre-existing stereotypes, so therefore get lots of traction with public opinion.

But the similarities in attitude are dominant. The differences in what can be shown or who can be named in the media are not some kind of ancient common law differences. The French legal prohibition on pictures of the accused in restraint is only about ten years old, and the non-binding practice of not naming rape accusers in the U.S. has also only evolved in recent decades. There are good faith arguments on both sides of these questions, and both are variations on a theme of trying to provide due process that is fair to all sides. I could easily imagine the French prohibition migrating to the U.S., and the U.S. prohibition migrating to France (or new media breaking down this practice in the U.S.). And for all the talk of French “aristocratic” attitudes or whatever, most people here hate the idea of the powerful abusing privileges – and specifically of a powerful man trying to rape a hotel chambermaid – and like seeing arrogant, privileged people being brought down a peg. As in America, most people recognize that so far we’ve only heard one side of the story, and that the guy should be fairly tried in court rather than in the media; but that if he did what is alleged, he deserves to go to prison.

(Cross-posted to The Corner)

Recent Reviews: Secrets and Lies

Over at Millman’s Shakesblog:

- The Book of Mormon brings the real, then won’t finish the dance with her.

- Peter and the Starcatcher proves Dave Barry is no J.M. Barrie.

- Double Falsehood should be a reference to the advertising calling this a play by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

And every now and again I just write something that isn’t a review of anything, like here or here or here.

So come on by.

a report from Alabama

My sister Carla and her husband Carl live in the countryside in northeastern Alabama, in a valley bounded by long low ridges. This is near the southern terminus of the Appalachians: the ridges run northeast to southwest. And in that part of the world tornados run southwest to northeast.

On Wednesday evening Carla had gotten home from work, and was watching the weather on TV. She picked up the phone and called my mother, who lives ten miles away, because it looked like a tornado was headed for Mom’s house, and Mom needed to take cover in her laundry room. Carla hung up, and then noticed something strange: though it was very quiet all around, debris started falling out of the sky: pieces of wood and plastic, big clumps of earth. The tornado had shifted direction and was headed straight up their valley.

Soon everything began shaking. They put on motorcycle helmets and huddled in the center of the house. The terrified dog started to bolt for the door; Carl grabbed him and held on tight. The house shook harder. Windows burst. One floor above them, the roof came off in large pieces. Carla prayed for the house to hold together, though oddly, she says, she didn’t think about the likelihood that she could soon be dead.

And then, two or three minutes later, it was over.

Eventually they ventured outside into the dusk. The old oaks in their yard had been uprooted. Their garage still stood, but no longer had a door, and the door it had once had was nowhere to be seen. Almost every house and tree in the whole value had been reduced to sticks. Carla and Carl will have to replace their roof and some windows, and pull up some soaked carpets, and rebuild their fences, but their neighbors all lost pretty much everything.

Thursday morning they took the pickup truck and drove as far as they could up the valley, weaving around fallen trees, trying to find friends and acquaintances. Their best estimate is that eleven of their neighbors were killed. They had driven only a couple of miles from home, on a road both of them drive every day, when they looked around at a completely unrecognizable landscape. No houses, no trees, no signs. “Where are we?” they asked each other.

A (Very Qualified) Defense of Some Corporate Jargon

There is a cottage industry of writers moaning about the stupidity of corporate jargon, and there certainly are some egregious examples of it to be found. But most paint with far too broad a brush (to use some jargon).

Andrew Sullivan excerpts a New Yorker article about a “Corporate-Jargon-to-English Dictionary”:

You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—“incentivize,” say—and “Unsuck It” spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context. (“Incentivize” means “encourage” or “persuade,” as in “In order to meet our phase 1 deliverable, we must incentivize the workforce with monetary rewards.”) One feels a certain cathartic glee as well-worn meeting-room clichés are dismantled one by one: an “action item” is a “goal”; “on the same page” means “in agreement”; to “circle the wagons” is to “defend an idea or decision as a group”.

At least two of these three examples are misleading translations.

“Action item” is much more specific than ”goal.” It is much closer to “a specific task that will be assigned to one person or one identified organizational unit before the conclusion of the meeting”. “Incentivize” also has a much more specific meaning than “encourage” or “persuade”. As per the contextual sentence, it normally refers to setting up comp schedules, feedback forms, promotion guidelines and the other economically-linked HR details that are required to, well, incentivize people. If you substitute “persuade” for “incentivize” in a meeting, you will lose this meaning.

Plain speaking is in short supply everywhere, but too often, people who don’t seem to have ever had the experience of trying to accomplish a series of tasks at scale in a large for-profit corporation expose their inexperience in making these kinds of criticisms. Jargon develops inside organizations, in part, to help coordinate activities efficiently. It should lead the author of the criticisms to question her premises when at least some of these terms are widely used not only in unsuccessful, but also highly successful, corporations.

(Cross-posted at The Corner)

It’s a Jersey Thing

So, the following posters are pretty much blanketing the metro and train stations of Paris this week:

Read the full article

Recent Reviews: Jews and Money

Four new reviews over at Millman’s Shakesblog:

- Treasure Island in Brooklyn;

- The Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham at Theatre for a New Audience (further thoughts on Merchant here);

- Timon of Athens at the Public (further thoughts on Timon here);

- Compulsion, also at the Public.

Whew! That almost catches me up.

Come on over and check it all out.

Art of living and cooking

I’ve started an erratic series on art of living and cooking on my personal blog, which might interest a few of the people here.

The first two items are:

- How To Cook A Steak

- When To Use Lemon With Fish And Seafood

There are a few things I’m trying to accomplish with this that I haven’t seen in most cooking media:

- How to cook everything. Most cooking media focuses on recipes, but what matters for cooking, especially day-to-day, is not the knowledge of recipes but the knowledge of the principles, techniques and ingredients that allows a chef to perform her art. Learning cooking via recipes is like learning a language by memorizing sentences phonetically and not touching grammar and vocabulary. I intend to focus on the grammar and vocabulary of cuisine.

- The intersection between cooking and other disciplines. Cooking is really physics and chemistry. It’s also an amazing window into history, culture, geography and art. Too few people are aware of it but it’s true. It’s also a big part of what makes it so great. I intend to show some of that.

Cooking is a part of the art of living but there are many more disciplines which I may tackle in the future.

Perhaps the greatest contribution France has given the world (aside from, you know, things like the separation of powers and human rights) is the notion of an art of living, a way of contemplating and enjoying the world which, like all art, requires both discipline and technique and the prudent disregarding thereof.

Watch this space!

Recent Reviews: From the Cage to the Asylum

Three new theatre reviews at Millman’s Shakesblog:

- La Cage Aux Folles at the Longacre on Broadway;

- The Importance of Being Earnest at the Roundabout, also on Broadway; and

- Diary of a Madman at BAM, in Brooklyn.

And a question:

I’ve been writing reviews there, and posting links here. Folks who used to like the reviews here: are you following me there? Waiting until I post the links here and then following me there? (Because I haven’t been linking to everything, only the longer posts.)

Should I be cross-posting everything?

Just want to get a sense of what my limited audience would like. I’m really enjoying writing more theatre stuff, hope other people are enjoying reading it, and hate to think that some who have enjoyed it in the past aren’t following it because of the change in venue (particularly since the change in venue was intended to attract an audience specifically interested in this type of writing of mine).


I admire your restraint and equanimity, Noah. The Atlantic anti-foodie screed you reference elicits in me not discomfort, but mostly this:

It’s hard to know where to even begin. The piece would deserve a thorough fisking but I’m not sure I have the time.

The piece staggers to and fro like a drunk, with no purpose, rhyme or reason, violently hurling at whatever comes near. There is no there there, only inexplicable, intense contempt for a vague class of people who have a hobby the author doesn’t understand.

Let’s try to summarize what the author hates about foodies: they really, really like food. They spend a lot of time and money on it. And they feel morally superior to non-foodies (he does have a bit of a point here).

People who have hobbies tend to be overly enthusiastic about them, care passionately about minutiae, and spend what is to an outsider lots of money and time on it. That’s what hobbies are. I don’t really “get” making and owning and playing with plenty of model trains as an adult. I don’t, however, see myself dedicating several pages in a prominent publication to virulently mocking and insulting people who have that hobby, and publicly defecating all over their subculture. Whatever floats their boat, man.

Foodies (a group never defined, by the way), we learn, are “barbari[ c]”, “quickly lose interest in any kind of abstract discussion”, and have no “interest in literature or the arts—the real arts”, a bigoted litany so self-evidently ridiculous that one is left with no recourse but the repeated banging of head against desk.

It is endlessly hinted at, but never actually explicitly said, that the author’s real beef (ahem) with foodies is that they eat meat from animals, and that the author regards this as immoral. Which, well, let’s set aside the merits of that proposition for now, but if he wants to make that argument, perhaps he should make that argument, instead of rambling incoherently and hatefully for five pages.

I originally intended to write here a ringing defense of foodism, but this loony logorrhea requires none. It’s only a helpful reminder of Chateaubriand’s remark that “the world is full of the needy, so I must be sparing with my contempt.”

We Are What We . . .

ME: So, how did you enjoy the evening, mother?
MOTHER: I don’t know – your friends are kind of strange. All they want to talk about is food.
ME: That’s because if we talked politics we wouldn’t stay friends.

I read B. R. Meyers’ anti-foodie screed with a bit of discomfort. I am, after all, someone vain enough about his cooking to have posted annual menus of an eight-course dinner party I throw every Hanukkah.

On the other hand, I’m someone with an inherent suspicion of maven-hood, and the “foodie” is really a species of maven.

And on yet a third hand, I’m someone who has struggled (more correctly, who has lost the struggle) with the Jewish dietary laws, yet another angle on food-obsession that Meyers kind of breezes past in his rather Christian take on the whole food business.

So what does food mean to me?

* * *

To take my third perspective first: Nahmanides and Maimonides, two medieval rabbinical giants, disagreed on the essence of the dietary laws.

Nahmanides argued that there is an obscure spiritual meaning behind the dietary laws. The foods and food mixtures that are prohibited are, in some way, fundamentally displeasing to the Almighty – they are inherently impure. If one wishes to approach the divine, one should not only refuse to partake of these foods, but one should actively cultivate a disgust for them, as one would for any sinful act – to train one’s appetites so one desires the pure and abhors the impure, and thus bring one’s kavanah – one’s intentions or spiritual orientation – into line with one’s actions, infusing those actions with a truly God-oriented spirit.

Maimonides, on the other hand, argued that the dietary laws were the paradigm case of laws that you obey for the sake of obedience, that have rational basis at all – obedience is an act of pure faith. The meaning of the act is simply the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of obedience to the divine word – and, as such, the merit of the act is in proportion to the greatness of the sacrifice. So, since there is nothing inherently wrong with a B.L.T. or a fried oyster po-boy or a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, and one is merely sacrificing these delights in order to demonstrate one’s devotion to God, not only is there no reason to cultivate a disgust for these forbidden foods, but in fact cultivating such a disgust reduces the value of the act of obedience, for where is the glory in rejecting that which one finds disgusting? Rather, one should cultivate a desire for the forbidden, precisely so that one may earn more merit in the eyes of heaven for abstaining for the heaven’s sake.

There are shades of Euthyphro in this dispute. Is pork by nature impure, and therefore God forbids it, or is it impure only because God forbids it, and not because of anything to do with its own qualities. And, as with Plato’s dialogue, I don’t think there’s any actual resolution. There is something about the categories of “pure” and “impure” – on one level obviously arbitrary, and yet admitting to that arbitrariness dissolves the categories, and so one searches for something inherent to justify the categorization, knowing that, if one could be found, this would also, in a sense, dissolve the categories – “impure” would no longer be a spiritual category at all, since any material basis could in principle be extirpated.

And I can attest to having personally experienced both sides of the debate within my own psyche. I did not grow up adhering to the dietary laws at all, adopted them, bit by bit, in my adulthood, and then, much more recently, essentially abandoned them outside of the home. There were times when I felt intense desire for particular foods – and not necessarily when they were before me – and clung to the sense that I was earning merit by abstaining to compensate for the experience I was not having. But there were other times when I had internalized the system sufficiently to feel a genuine disgust for the idea of transgressing – particularly when I came face-to-face with the limits of my observance, and recognized the absurdity of the lines I had drawn. (I never limited myself to kosher establishments, for example, but I knew that if I ordered eggs over easy in a diner they would be fried on the same griddle as the bacon, and that knowledge didn’t just trouble me – there was a period when it actually made my gorge rise.)

Food rules have power. They are a way of delineating and enforcing ethnic and class boundaries. They are also a way of establishing dominance – or establishing a sphere of autonomy – in social situations. Meyers is appalled that the foodies he reviews look down their noses at guests who refuse to eat certain foods as being exceptionally rude, arguing that the host is the one with the responsibility to be hospitable, not the guest. But surely he’s aware that we live in an age of exceptional sensitivity on this point, with a proliferation of dietary requirements on the part of guests that can drive hosts to distraction. But what is the reason for this proliferation? To some extent, it’s based on genuine advances in medical knowledge; to some extent, it’s based on medical fads. But to some extent, I think, it is precisely about establishing that zone of personal autonomy onto which social pressures cannot impinge. Do most vegetarians really think they are going to change the world one person at a time? Or are they, more likely, saying: I am defining myself by this act. I make the rules that govern my life, starting with one of the most basic acts of all: what I eat.

I lost my own battle with the Jewish dietary laws in Iceland, of all places. I was with my wife and son, on vacation, and we were in a restaurant that served puffin and whale. And my son asked: could I try puffin? And in a moment, I had to decide. Would I say, “no, you may not, even though this is likely going to be your only opportunity, because God doesn’t want you to”? Or would I say, “sure – if you’re curious, give it a try, and if God has a problem with that it’ll be on my head.”

I chose the latter, chose the liberal virtues of curiosity and openness to experience over the conservative virtues of fidelity and restraint. But, as I understood at the time I said it, that wasn’t the end. “One little time you pull out a thread, and where has it led? Where has it led?” It led to an awakening to the way in which my food rules were, indeed, about power, and not about either Maimonides’ or Nahmanides’ approaches to the divine. I wasn’t glorying in the sacrifice I was making – in the absence of any concrete reward, I resented it. And I wasn’t living a blissful and harmonious pure life – I was acting like a tyrant towards my own family to try to shore up my own sense of self. Well, I decided that that sense of self needed firmer foundations.

I haven’t thrown over the rules entirely. We keep a kosher home. On Passover, we observe outside the home as well. But with exceptions that large, they aren’t really rules that define the self – they are rules that define membership in a community, awareness of and respect for a tradition to which we are no longer truly faithful adherents. But so be it.

* * *

Meyers doesn’t talk much about the “food rules” people, because he’s busy taking on the “food mavens.” But mavens have always been with us, and I find it very difficult to care that foodie-ism happens to be a socially-acceptable mavenhood of our age, or what that happens to mean. Think about the music mavens you know. Is there really any difference between the food maven who knows precisely where the best o-toro in New York is to be found, and the opera maniac who wouldn’t dream of listening to a less-than-sublime recording of Maria Callas singing Norma? Does that fact that music is a “real” art (in Meyers’ opinion) make the music maven any less insufferable than the chow hound?

I think it takes the foodies down a sufficient peg simply to point out that this is what they are: mavens. Maniacs who take an interest in a particular experience or branch of knowledge to an extreme, without actually necessarily becoming masters themselves. It’s worth underlining this difference. Anthony Bourdain, one of Meyers’ prime targets, is not famous for being one of the truly great chefs of our age. He’s famous for being one of the most popular food writers – for being, really, little more than an afficionado. I have read very little of Bourdain’s writing, I’ll admit, and one reason I had little interest in him is that he didn’t seem terribly interested in cooking so much as he had interest in showing off how awesome he was for knowing so much about food.

But cooking is a great deal of fun. Learning how a particular culinary trick is done, and then doing it, and then figuring out how to do it more efficiently and/or more idiosyncratically – that’s a great deal of fun. And it’s got virtually nothing to do with what the foodies typically write about. It’s craft, not mavenhood.

And cooking is a wonderful craft because it is really easy to share. Most people enjoy eating. Even if they don’t care about how to cook, and especially if they aren’t mavens – so long as they have a basic appreciation of the difference between good food and bad food, you can cook for them and they will show you appreciation. And you will be gratified.

Meyers, in his scathing attack on the foodies, comes off as something of a latter-day puritan. We shouldn’t care about food – we should be above that, focused on things that really matter, like our souls. It doesn’t matter what we put in our mouths – what matters is what comes out of them. But I don’t trust puritanism. Perhaps that’s the residue of my struggle with kashrut, but I think it runs deeper – at my most frum, I appreciated Jewish legalism precisely because it left you free to say: I’m going to see how far I can get within the rules. Can I make a delicious parve chocolate mousse, using egg whites and olive oil instead of cream. I can!

No, I think I don’t trust puritanism because I recognize the reverse snobbery involved. One can get into just as furious a competition over who lives more “simply” as one can over who is the bigger maven. But at least the mavens might be driving their particular chosen field – whether it’s food or music or hang gliding or whatever – forward, to greater achievement. What the puritans most often get to claim is sheer accumulation of wealth – disdain for the pleasures of life leaves lots of time and energy for working and piling up money. Which is all well and good – but I rather doubt Meyers wants to make his stand against Anthony Bourdain armed only with Max Weber.

I choose, in the end, to stand with the impassioned amateurs. I’m not a foodie. I’m not an anti-foodie. I just like to cook, and, for that matter, I like to eat. So sue me.

Recent Reviews: Sisters, Witches

Speaking of “over there,” two new theatre reviews at Millman’s Shakesblog:

- Three Sisters at Classic Stage, in New York, and

- The Witch of Edmonton, at Red Bull, also in New York.

Check ‘em out. Then (assuming you’re in New York), go see the shows; they are both excellent.

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