7.30.2003


politics | Conservatives suck...

...and I've finally figured out why, exactly. Salon recently sent their intrepid Michelle Goldberg to the College Republicans' convention in our nation's capital. What she found was, to say the least, frighteningly disturbing. For those who don't have the pleasure of a Salon premium access account, allow me to excerpt:

"On the Hilton's second floor they organized, plotted strategy for the 2004 election, and generally paid homage to President George W. Bush, whose grinning visage appeared on everything from T-shirts to handbags," [note: That's enough of a nightmare in and of itself.] "Even more, they gloried in Americanness, a state that many seem to regard as both quasi-religious and the exclusive provenance of their party."

"'As conservatives, we don't hate America,' Erickson told his young audience. 'The life of a liberal is hell. It is not possible to have a debate, a discussion, with someone who at their root, at their core, hates everything this country stands for but doesn't hate it enough to leave.'" [note: Erickson being, Paul Erickson, an operative who runs the Daschle Accountability Project.]

"Gene McDonald, who sold 'No Muslims = No Terrorists' bumper stickers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in January, was doing a brisk trade in 'Bring Back the Blacklist' T-shirts, mugs and mouse pads." [note: BRING BACK THE BLACKLIST!?]

It gets worse when Goldberg finds a few College Republicans to lounge around with for an evening. "Chris Sibeni, chairman of Hofstra College Republicans ... denounced assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. for 'dividing the country' and trying to help African-Americans advance over the white society' ... declared that Bill Clinton had been more dangerous to America than Osama bin Laden ... [and proclaimed] 'The number one reason there's racial inequality is because of hip-hop.'"

The truly telling remark came courtesy of "Jeffrey Chen, a recent Johns Hopkins graduate ... [who] says he's less bothered about paying tax dollars to faith-based programs than to 'crack whores who have eight kids because it's easier than working.'"

Where G-d, oh where, do I begin? I'll start with Mr. Chen's remark, because it is telling of why I find conservative ideology distasteful and hypocritical for the most part. "I'm tired of people whining that I'm taking away from them," lamented another College Republican uber-nutso. So am I, except the people I see whining are Republicans. Listen to Chen again. He's not espousing a simple belief in limited government and maximalist freedom, he's blaming the state of our economy on a fictitious crack whore, a stereotypical stick figure propped up by conservatives who want to eradicate any semblance of welfare for impoverished Americans. Sibeni is blaming racial discord on black culture, for how dare they assert themselves in a distinct cultural form?

In short, conservative ideology, and by extension a sizeable number of conservative diehards, refuse to take responsibility for virtually anything. If our country is falling on hard times, it has to be the fault of blacks and other minorities, lazy crack whores who drain our economy by way of welfare, and evil liberals who betray America and seek to annihilate G-d's Country from within. It's a perspective that delegitimizes opposition, cuts off any possibility of introspection and political evolution, and reduces the most complex of topics into a cavern between black and white. Meanwhile, the rest of us are the ones falling into the abyss.

Now do I believe every Republican or self-identified conservative espouses this kind of rhetoric or even harbors these types of opinions? I do not. But just as Christians, Jews and Muslims must from time to time reckon with their extremists, coming to terms with how much that extremism is simply an unchecked outgrowth of the core theology, conservatives must reckon with the core ideology that drives their movement. I can't think of a better place to come face-to-face with that unchecked outgrowth than the just completed 55th Biennial College Republican convention. It's a scary thing to see, but we need to see it.

7.28.2003


news | On the myth of objectivity?

A rather intriguing undercurrent of discourse is pulsing on the fate of objectivity in American journalism. I suppose it's been prompted by the New York Times and BBC debacles, but I see it also reflecting what many feel is the press' failure vis-a-vis the war in Iraq and the Bush administration statements on the subject. Thus far, I've found it a fascinating sidebar, but now I feel prompted to get in on the act.

Jeff Jarvis, over at Buzzmachine, has summarized his own position by saying, "I've been saying in this space for sometime the success of both FoxNews and weblogs indicate that the audience expects opinion -- and straightforward honesty about that opinion." I don't disagree with Jarvis' conclusion, and I've been advocate for what I call 'open subjectivity' for years now. Indeed, I first made those arguments in regard to documentary filmmaking, in opposition to the purists who argue the director can merely open a window into a world. I argued that directors are framing a picture, even when they attempt to stay out of the way as much as possible, and that to argue otherwise is naive. More to the point, I argued documentary filmmaking is actually better when directors are willing to be brazenly subjective so long as they are honest about their approach and don't withhold key disclosures.

Now translate this into journalism, which is an admittedly different animal. Certainly, journalism has the more pressing concern of conveying the truth of factual events to its readers in a near-immediate fashion. Documentarians have the luxury of some distance and time, allowing them to comment as opposed to merely inform. Nonetheless, journalists who raise objectivity to the level of religion are doing no less a disservice to their own profession and readers. Which is why I was somewhat heartened to see Robert Bartley, editor emeritus of The Wall Street Journal, indicate that it's time for a new, less objective, era in journalism. He's not writing off objectivity entirely, but Bartley does note: "I think ... that opinion journalism, not following consensus group-think, can find a lot of news." Jolly good for Bartley, because he happens to be right.

The problem I have is that Bartley merely alludes to the reasons objectivity actually serves to detract from quality journalism, or at least the popular conceptions of objectivity. He mentions the "astonishing uniformity of viewpoint" in order to deride consensus, but that's probably overstating the case and probably serves only to subtly imply yet another liberal bias argument. Jarvis, for his part, correctly pegs Bartley for writing "about it from the wrong perspective, that of the journalists and their institutions," as opposed to the audience. But then I disagree with Jarvis citing the success of FoxNews to bolster his claim that an audience can handle honest opinion in their journalistic cup of joe, not because the audience can't, but because FoxNews is hardly the best example of honesty when it comes to their opinion bias. After all, they won't shut up about, "We report. You decide."

No, I believe Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review gets it closest to the mark when he gives a detailed breakdown of the detriments of objectivity. His solution: stop over-minimizing our humanity as journalists. Citing Ron Martz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who "defended his battlefield decision to drop his reporter's detachment and take a soldier's place holding an intravenous drip bag and comforting a wounded Iraqi civilian," Cunningham writes, "Martz concluded that he is a human being first and a reporter second, and was comfortable with that. Despite all our important and necessary attempts to minimize our humanity, it can't be any other way." Cunningham's arguments are much more nuanced and significant, so they should be taken on their own merits. I'm doing them a disservice here.

So what's my position in this debate? I take Jarvis' position that the audience is intelligent enough to handle a healthy dose of opinionated analysis and subjectivity in their news diet. Contextualization, putting forward positions, this is the stuff that's really necessary in modern journalism. Indeed, if our audience is dumbed down, it's largely because we as journalists have dumbed them down. Still I raise my hand in protest at citing the likes of FoxNews as exemplars of where we should be going. FoxNews is undoubtedly full of opinion journalism, but they go out of their way to hide that fact even as they wink at their conservative base. I believe we need to go further. Let us raise the standards of fact-checking on those verifiable, objective bits of information, but let us also allow journalists to speak from their own positions. Let us introduce some subjectivity, but let us always admit that up front. Full disclosure must become a norm. In other words, let the news be not just about the facts, ma'am. Let it be about the truth of human experience, including that of the journalists. There's more to say on that front, and indeed an entire book could be written on this argument alone. There's an idea...


culture | Attack of the gay makeover

I admit it. I've tuned in and become a fan of Bravo's new Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which five gay men makeover some hapless straight man in all the categories that matter (hair and grooming, style, food and wine, culture, and interior design). It's all the campy voyeurism of those other oh-so-boring makeover shows mixed with the sexual identity politics of a post-90s gay liberation. But ultimately, it's funny and insightful. Who knew you were supposed to apply hair gel from back to front?

Nevertheless, the culture critics have come calling. Locally (for me, anyways) there is Jay Croft of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who happens to be gay and takes it easy on the show. He points out "the flaming fashionistas perpetuate some clichés about gay men: swishy, caustic, always quick with a bon mot," but quickly swivels to add, "they don't claim to represent all facets of gay life." It's not the world's greatest column, but I suppose it's noteworthy more for its pointing out that gay men don't necessarily have to be fashionable. "I wouldn't know how to throw a dinner party that involved more than baking salmon and boiling corn. And as for applying hair gel properly, I don't use any at all," writes Croft.

That didn't stop Terry Sawyer, who's sexual orientation I'm not privy to, from slamming the show as a portrayal of "gays as moral savages who live their entire lives in pagan adoration of high-end hair product." "How exactly could this representation "improve" the position of gays in mainstream culture," he asks. And he's got a point. The biggest thing we can say about this series is that it makes being gay about more than sex. Now it's also about a great hair style and the worship of Prada. Honestly, I don't even know what Prada is, and of course the whole concept is so two seasons ago. Will & Grace has been doing that since they first graced our screens.

I have a certain sympathy with Sawyer's line, however. Being gay is ultimately about who one desires sexual intercourse with, but it doesn't define the person. Gay men aren't necessarily effeminate or stylish, nor are gay women butch man-haters. It's a sort of reductionism to promote gay culture and celebrate the mainstreaming of gay life by parroting the stereotypes instead of the reality, but then that's what TV does. Even Sawyer nods to the slow evolution in television portrayal of minorities or taboo topics, and if the general trend holds we can expect a more honest delivery of gay life on the boob tube in a few years time. Hence my sympathy with his argument only goes so far.

In the meantime, my gripe has more to do with the new objectification of men. The show is essentially about materialism. How do we make ourselves look the best, what items need we decorate our homes and adorn our bodies with? And ultimately, how much is it going to cost us and on what items are we going to spend that money? The economy of it all has driven female objectification in magazines as myriad as Vogue to Maxim. Social norms and stereotyping largely spared men from the hassle for years, but if anything the fight by women to achieve a sort of social equality has opened up men to the madness rather than end the practice altogether. When queer Carson tells straight Butch on Bravo's new hit, "We're not here to change you, we're here to make you better," he's implying that a hair cut, new outfit, some interior design, and a crash course on how to filet a salmon has anything to do with what makes you better.

That, of course, was never more clear than in episode #3 of the burgeoning series. Viewers were forced to watch, as one watches a train wreck, the makeover of a man intent on getting his girlfriend to move in with him. Fine enough goal, I suppose, but then we meet the girlfriend. It was terribly uncomfortable to watch her subtly insult and berate him, and suddenly his lack of self confidence was apparent. He didn't need a makeover, he needed another girlfriend and the strength to be himself and be loved for that all at the same time. His name is Thomas. He is the manifestation of every woman who looks down on herself for not being beautiful enough and latches onto a man who doesn't see the inner beauty in us all.

Does that sound corny, Capra-esque even? Good. It's all of those things, and it's really what's wrong with Queer Eye. Of course, don't listen to me. I'll be tuning in like the rest of you. I wouldn't mind a little advice on how to best dapper my do.


Quick Update

As you can see, there's a new redesign. It will likely change some, but the new color scheme and flag motif will remain. I may add some cultural bits, because I will be focusing on politics and cultural commentary as much as Jewish subjects in the coming weeks. Hopefully this will work out nicely for everyone. Now on with you... I've got some critique of Bravo's new Queer Eye for the Straight Guy above.

7.18.2003


Break for Boston

Just a quick post to explain the extremely light blogging of late. I've been busy with my mother's eye surgery and some work. I'll be in Boston for the Gralla Fellowship through next week and will be back then with a much heavier schedule of blogging on political, cultural and Jewish topics. See you then.

7.11.2003


religion | A Bible too holy?

A London-based Reform rabbi, Sidney Brichto, has taken it upon himself to publish a new more literary form of the Bible, emphasizing a "easy-to-read fluid narrative" that will help turn the holy Book "back into the popular literary masterpiece it was once considered."

He's put out eight volumes with ten more to follow, and he's even going where no rabbi has gone before -- to the New Testament. "I felt that if I was going to do the Bible I had to do it all," he explains. And if anybody was wondering, "Why another version," he answers that too: "I want people to read [the Bible] as literature. I want them to read the narrative as primarily fiction. They’re good stories. I want to make [the Bible] a good read ... I have sex scenes, for example, in the story of Esther, because I think it requires [detail], not 'He saw her, he asked her to come up to his place and he knew her and she was pregnant.' Something else happened."

I say, good for him. The Bible is, among other things, a wonderful piece of literature. Plays have been written entirely as adaptations of Biblical stories, and the theater was fueled by (admittedly anti-Semitic) passion plays during the Dark Ages.

Of course, there are some things he might get into trouble for. For example: "The Bible has been tainted by holiness," says Brichto. Tainted indeed.


Technical issues

I've removed the comments for the time being, because Enetation was causing some browsers to choke. The problem was not common, but it was bugging some people. If I can get another service instead or fix the flaw with Enetation, then comments shall return. In the meantime, email me... please. No, really. Email me.


Recent writings...

My most recent column for Jewsweek magazine is essentially a lament of the propensity of some Jews to resort to vicious attacks on other Jews with whom they disagree. When Jews call other Jews kikes or question their legitimacy as Jews, a line has been crossed. The impetus for doing the column: A teenage girl who was forced to face ostracism by her fellow Jewish teens when she voiced politically unpopular positions.

As well, I've done a full profile and interview with Danny Goldberg, the politically savvy, cultural activist and music industry executive. His recent book criticizes the left's loss of teen spirit, and he's been in on fighting against the Washington types who like to bash the Hollywood types. Elsewhere in Jewsweek, there's plenty worth reading, so click over and check out the new issue.

7.07.2003


politics | Jewish Democrats point to the poll numbers

The National Jewish Democratic Council, a fine organization, has co-opted the Ispos/Cook survey of Jewish political affiliation to argue that Jews remain staunchly Democratic and all the hub bub about Jews becoming more conservative is just well... hub bub. Now the Washington Post has picked up the NJDC angle as part of a roundup of political tidbits.

I don't want to split hairs, because the Ipsos survey does effectively show that Jews remain staunchly Democrat, but the Washington Post is attributing the survey itself to the NJDC (which is inaccurate) and the NJDC is hyping the findings of the report as putting the kibosh on all this Jewish Republican talk (which is overstating the case). I couldn't care less about the Washington Post getting its reporting just a tad wrong, but I already discussed why the report shouldn't be taken as a definitive answer on the "Jews shifting right" debate in this week's Jewsweek cover story. To put it simply, the only thing the Ipsos survey shows is that Jews remain overwhelmingly Democrat and tend to oppose Bush policy about twenty percent more than average Americans. It has absolutely no comparison data from previous years, and thus cannot tell us whether or not Jews are supporting Republicans in higher numbers than in the past, notably at the level of Congressional elections. The NJDC is playing good politics to hype the report, but they're silly if they think this should be taken as the final conclusion on the discussion.

More importantly, as I discussed in the Jewsweek article, the real impact of Jewish conservatives isn't a seismic shift in voting patterns. Rather the ability for these conservatives to get a seat at the table without recriminations from a traditionally liberal Jewish community represents a shift in the diversity of the Jewish political voice, and that's a positive development any way you slice it. So kudos to the NJDC for reminding us (via Ipsos) that Jews are still Democrats, kudos to the Washington Post for picking up on that, and kudos to Jewsweek (and myself) for scooping both of 'em and laying out the real impact of this report and the overall debate.

7.05.2003


Jewsweek this week

Post-Shabbat, I'm going to shill and recommend you read some features in the new issue of Jewsweek magazine. First up, is the cover story that is part of the ongoing Red, White and Jew series. In this, the second installment, I take a more personal look at the new openness to conservative Jews and how that will have longer lasting effects than any predictions over voting shifts and whether or not more Jews are going to vote Republican in 2004.

I also penned an opinion column in response to Rabbi Avi Shafran's pro-life arguments of last week. In my column, I argue that while Rabbi Shafran gets halacha right, and his middle ground position is a respectable one that could likely be accepted by a plurality of Jews if not Americans, it remains politically naive in the face of a pro-life movement largely bent on the criminalization of abortion without exception. That is something that would trample the religious freedoms of Jewish women to seek abortion when halacha mandates it.

Finally, I reviewed a recent A&E documentary entitled, The Nazi Officer's Wife. The documentary itself is lacking, but the story of a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust by impersonating an Aryan woman and eventually marrying a Nazi officer is riveting, and it's based on that woman's autobiography. If the readings of Julia Ormond in the film are any indication, said autobiography must be riveting reading.

Elsewhere in Jewsweek this week, you might find an article on British anti-Semitism worth reading. There's also an exploration of European funding for Palestinian terrorism and a scathing critique of Comedy Central's upcoming documentary series on Jewish comedians.