Tuesday, December 08, 2009

All wired up

Sarah Palin has taken no shortage of abuse for her inarticulate remarks last year when she first rose to national prominence as McCain's running mate. Everyone who followed the campaign remembers the notorious moments from the Couric interviews, particularly when she tried to explain why being governor of Alaska enhanced her foreign policy credentials:
Well, it certainly does because our -- our next door neighbors are foreign countries. They're in the state that I am the executive of. And there in Russia ... We have trade missions back and forth. We-- we do-- it's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where-- where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is-- from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to-- to our state.
Contrary to popular belief, Palin never said "I can see Russia from my house." That was SNL's parody of a remark she made during an interview with Charlie Gibson for ABC News, when she said, "you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska." The whole argument about her state's proximity to Russia giving her foreign policy experience started as a bit of campaign bluster by McCain, and she unwisely stuck with it through several interviews.

I believe that ultimately candidates should be judged by the smartest things they have said, not the dumbest things. Our political culture obsesses on these gotcha moments, which can happen to anyone. I know I've made stupid remarks in my life, and been in situations where I've done nothing but sputter. I was just lucky never to be in front of a news camera when it happened.

That's why I decided to ask around the Internet for Palin fans to show me smart, eloquent things she has said on public policy. As it turns out, several users were kind enough to provide me with a series of quotes they believe reveal her penetrating insight. Here is one example, from a November interview with Greta Van Susteren:
Fundamentally, America's economy was built on free market enterprise. It was built on these principles that allowed the private sector to grow and to thrive and prosper and for our families to keep more of what we earn. Where we are right now in America in about the last 11 months is seeing this reversal of those principles that were applied to build up our economy.

All of a sudden, we're thinking it's OK to grow debt in our country. It's OK to borrow money from countries that we will soon be so beholden to. It's OK to print money out of thin air and think, again, that everything's just going to magically work out.

Fundamentally, everybody is equal in America. Everyone has equal opportunity to earn and produce and build. And the fundamentals of a strong economy have got to be applied again, as they were, like I just said, back in the '80s, when Reagan faced a worse recession than what we're facing today. Let's learn from that piece of American history and apply the same solutions.
Okay, where do I begin? Her premise--that the U.S. was a bastion of fiscal restraint until the day Obama took office--is quite sensible to anyone with the political literacy of a third-grade hall monitor, but to few else. Reagan added more money to the national debt than any other president in history, until Dubya shattered the record. (See here for the details.) Furthermore, economists of all political stripes agree that the government should spend during a recession.

As for the claim that everyone in America has equal opportunities for success--well, let's just say if I took the time to refute that assertion with data, it would put me in mind of the proverbial machine gun for killing a fly. Instead, I'll go back to the words of Mr. Reagan himself, in a 1985 address on tax reform:
My goal is an America bursting with opportunity, an America that celebrates freedom every day by giving every citizen an equal chance, an America that is once again the youngest nation on Earth--her spirit unleashed and breaking free.
Notice that he identifies equal opportunity as a goal, not a reality. And he argues that limiting government and stimulating business will help us move toward that goal. That's conservatism in a nutshell. Palin, in contrast, is saying everyone already has equal opportunity. If that's the case, why bother changing anything? Her rhetoric may aim for Ronald Reagan, but it ends up at Stephen Colbert.

But let's put all that aside for the moment and consider her verbal abilities. At least she's worlds more coherent than she was during the Couric interview. Whether she's more eloquent, more facile, more persuasive than the average college term paper is another matter. If I had to grade her, I'd give her a C on style and a D on content. And this is supposedly one of her better moments.

On a similar note, consider the following gem:
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being part of this quest in working with us to restore the American dream. The commonsense Republican proposals are the first step in restoring the American dream because Republicans care about America. But there is no greater dream than the dreams parents have for their children to be happy and to share God's blessings.
That last sentence, I must admit, rings nice on the ears. Unfortunately, I was being a little tricky in leading you to think this was a Sarah Palin quote. It's a real quote, but it wasn't uttered by Sarah Palin. It wasn't even uttered by a human being.

Rather, it came from a computer program that produces automatic summaries of text. In 1996, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg punched in the combined texts of the speeches from the first two nights of the Republican Convention, and the quote above is part of what the program returned. He then tried the same thing with the Democratic Convention. "In this case, though," he reports, "the summarizer software returned pure word salad--maybe because Democrats have more trouble staying on message than Republicans do, maybe because they just go on longer." (This anecdote comes from Nunberg's book The Way We Talk Now and is recounted later in his Talking Right.)

Palin is that summarizer software. At her worst, she speaks "word salad." At her best, she speaks at about the level of that last quote, a comfortable summation of stump-speech rhetoric. If this is the model of a rising political star in our age, we seriously ought to rethink our notions of what it takes to reach that position. All you need is the face of Tina Fey and the syntax of a Pentium, and you're good to go. Bill Gates's influence reaches yet new heights.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Arguing with fear

Sometimes movies that don't work are more interesting than those that do. One example that comes to mind is Just Cause (1995), which seemed to draw upon public feelings generated by the contemporaneous O.J. trial, as well as by the earlier Rodney King controversy. The movie is a mess, with a ludicrous ending that leaves the impression that the film supports, or at least condones, police brutality. And yet, the movie got me thinking about this issue in a way that has stayed with me far longer than many better films.

(Warning: What follows will contain plot spoilers.)

In the opening scenes, police detain a black man (Blair Underwood) in an interrogation room. There, they beat him until he confesses to the rape and murder of a little girl in the Everglades. The arresting officer is white, but the sheriff (Laurence Fishburne) is black.

In the next scene, several years have passed, and a Harvard law professor (Sean Connery) is railing against the death penalty at a public debate. He is called in to defend Underwood, who faces execution. His conversations with the charming, intelligent prisoner lead him to talk to another death row convict (Ed Harris, trying a little too hard to channel Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs) who, after some wrangling, takes responsibility for the murder and correctly reveals the location of the murder weapon, which Connery finds in the swamp. A new trial is granted, and Underwood is freed.

Connery discovers, too late, that Underwood really did commit the murder. He persuaded the already condemned Harris to make a false confession. In return, he offered to kill Harris's parents--which Harris wanted--once he was released.

It is at this point that the movie takes its leaping nosedive down the rabbit hole. What Underwood does next is what any newly acquitted killer would do: go after the family of the man who got him acquitted. We learn that Connery's wife was the prosecutor in an earlier trial when Underwood got castrated in jail, and he has plotted his revenge ever since. (Uh, huh.) He kidnaps Connery's young daughter and takes her to the Everglades. Connery and Fishburne confront him, where he is finally devoured by an alligator.

Oh, how I wish I were making this up. Oh, how I wish.

The movie seems to suggest that the police were right to beat a confession out of Underwood, since otherwise a horrible killer would have been let loose. As Fishburne explains earlier in the film, sometime before it jumps the alligator, "This is a case that hangs together by the thinnest of threads.... You come down here, you start pickin' at them threads now, it's liable to fall apart." Because Connery sticks his liberal nose into the cops' business, he ends up freeing a monster who then comes after him--poetic justice. The message is straight from the annals of Willie Horton: If you dare to fight for such radical notions as civil liberties and due process, a black man will come and rape your daughter.

As it stands, Just Cause falls into a long tradition of Hollywood movies stretching back to Dirty Harry and beyond, which show no respect for the legal and constitutional protections on criminal suspects. The attitude of these films is that you do what you gotta do to keep dangerous criminals off the street, even if it means breaking the law yourself. Never do these films stop to consider that these protections do far more to prevent the U.S. from becoming a draconian police state than they do to instigate the contrived, paranoid scenarios these films cook up.

I am not naive about crime in America. I grew up and still live in Baltimore, which has the second-highest homicide rate in the country. I've been a civilian patrol volunteer for the last ten years. I know firsthand how weak and ineffectual the police force and justice system around here usually are. But I have seen nothing to convince me that beating up suspects will make the world safer.

You can't have it both ways. If cops get to railroad a case whenever they're convinced a suspect is guilty, it will greatly increase the chances that innocent people will be framed--and abused. Is that worth the cost of making sure guilty people always get brought to justice?

The way people answer that question often falls on racial lines, because it's a matter of what people fear the most. Both whites and blacks are scared of street crime. But blacks also carry a fear of police brutality and discrimination that many whites fail to understand, because it is not something whites normally experience.

That's why most whites are perplexed by black people's unwillingness to acknowledge O.J. Simpson's obvious guilt. Because frame-ups have been a reality to blacks for so long, many of them simply do not trust our justice system. Once they hear that an investigator to the case once used the term "nigger," that is enough to throw the entire investigation into doubt.

This reaction is not logical. But neither is the perspective of whites who take comfort at the thought of police violating a suspect's civil rights. They aren't afraid they'll ever be that suspect; they're afraid of what the suspect will do to them if he gets set free--an outcome that, in fact, may directly result from such violations. In other words, both sides to this debate are capable of being irrational, and for the same reason: because they cannot argue with fear.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An inconceivable analysis

One of my favorite scenes in any movie is the Battle of Wits from The Princess Bride, in which Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) must decide which of two goblets Westley (Cary Elwes) has poisoned. Almost everyone finds the scene amusing and clever, but it has subtleties that are easy to miss. They concern the following questions: What in the name of mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwiches is Vizzini doing in this scene? How did he arrive at the choice he finally makes? And how come he's so confident in that choice when it's so spectacularly wrong?

Consider his opening argument, which makes more sense than anything else he says: a clever man would be tempted to put the poison in his own goblet, except that Westley would have anticipated Vizzini would think so, and therefore he'd put it in Vizzini's goblet instead. (Game theory deals with reasoning such as this, where you try to anticipate not only what your opponent will think, but how much he will anticipate your anticipations. Many games have this dynamic, where it's a race to determine who will do the most determining. Various webpages and books have examined the role of game theory in this scene.)

He eventually sticks with his initial conclusion (that the poison is in his own cup), but not before rambling for an entire minute about Australia and giants and Spaniards, going back and forth on which glass he thinks was poisoned. What he's trying to do, I suspect, is gauge Westley's reactions. Since Westley already knows the poison's location, he will (Vizzini assumes) fear for his life if he thinks Vizzini is guessing correctly. (That's why Vizzini secretly switches the goblets--he figures Westley will forfeit the game rather than voluntarily commit suicide if he realizes Vizzini has won.) Vizzini's strategy, therefore, is to keep changing his answer until Westley's body language betrays the correct one. As Westley observes, "You're trying to trick me into giving away something." In light of Vizzini's sureness when he finally makes his choice, we presume he does manage to detect something in Westley's behavior at crucial moments--nervousness maybe.

Westley indeed is nervous, but for a different reason than Vizzini assumes. He's worried Vizzini will stumble upon his actual secret, that he has poisoned both goblets. Vizzini almost seems to be approaching the truth as he rambles about how he "clearly" can't choose this glass and "clearly" can't choose the other one either. He even says at one point, "You could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you." His own rhetoric contains the solution to the puzzle, yet somehow he never notices. He's just bluffing (a recurring theme in The Princess Bride).

He possesses the classic fatal flaw of overconfidence, or hubris. He may in fact be smart enough to figure out what Westley is up to. Immunity-building was a practice known to the Ancient Greeks, whom Vizzini references earlier in the scene when he declares that Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates were "morons." The problem isn't so much that Vizzini is less smart than he imagines as that he discounts other people's intelligence. Truly wise people accept the wisdom of others. Thinking everyone in the world but oneself to be an idiot is folly, not wisdom.

Essential to any game is sizing up one's opponent, and Vizzini seriously underestimates Westley every time the word "Inconceivable!" escapes his lips. He never learns his lesson even as Westley continues to do everything he thought wasn't possible, including defeating a master swordsman and a giant. He reasons that a man who can defeat those "morons" still cannot hold a candle to his perfect mind. As he explains to Westley, "I can't compete with you physically, and you're no match for my brains." It doesn't seem to occur to him that Westley used brains, not brawn, to defeat Inigo and Fezzik. Since he maintains such a low opinion of Westley in spite of all available evidence, he fails to consider there might be a trick up the man's sleeve.

Ironically, his lack of appreciation for other people's minds deprives him of a powerful tool he could use against his enemies. What makes Westley so formidable an opponent is not just that he's versatile and quick-thinking, but that he uses people's natures against them. That's how he handles all his adversaries throughout the movie: he takes immediate advantage of Inigo's fairness, of Fezzik's sportsmanship, of Vizzini's pride, of the palace guards' credulity, and of Prince Humperdinck's cowardice. In contrast, Vizzini is all tactic and no psychology.

You might think I'm reading more into the film than is there, but in the novel it's pretty obvious that the author, William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay), put considerable thought into the themes, the traditions, and the history this mock fairy tale draws upon. There are many interludes in which he speaks directly to the reader about various plot elements and their significance. Whether in movie or book form, The Princess Bride is not just clever and entertaining, but also well-conceived. It should not be underestimated.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Harry Potter, the jock

I'm sure I'm not the first to have noticed, but quidditch, the imaginary sport from the Harry Potter books, probably wouldn't work very well in the real world even if you had all the technology needed to make the game physically possible--including flying broomsticks, and a ball with a mind of its own.

In this game, each team has a group of players called Chasers who try to get a ball through the other team's goalpost. Of course every team has a goalie. This would all sound like soccer on broomsticks were it not for a couple of really exotic elements. First, there's a heavy, enchanted object called a bludger which tries to knock players off their broomsticks. To protect the players, each team has special players called Beaters, armed with a club for batting away bludgers.

The trouble is, nothing the Chasers, the Beaters, or the goalies do has any effect in moving the game toward its conclusion. A team could go on scoring goals forever, and the game wouldn't end even if the score was 440-0. A team's ultimate fate rests entirely with one player, the Seeker, whose task is to catch a tiny enchanted object called the Golden Snitch which only appears on occasion and tries to elude the Seeker's grasp. Once the Seeker catches the Snitch, his or her team earns 150 extra points and the game ends. Usually his or her team then wins the game. Only if that team is more than 150 points behind at the moment the Snitch is caught does the team lose. One of the later Harry Potter books (I can't remember which) depicts such a game.

Quidditch therefore has one fundamental flaw: the Chasers, who make up the majority of the players and whose actions dominate most of what happens, have a very weak incentive for scoring goals. As long as they manage to remain within 150 points of the other team, they are in little danger of losing. The score could be 140-0, and the team that hasn't scored could still easily win. Most likely, a typical quidditch team would hardly score at all, focusing its energy simply on preventing the other team from scoring.

To compensate for this all-too-obvious flaw, teams get ranked according to points scored rather than number of games won. But that makes it heavily dependent on record-keeping between games. You'd have to commit yourself in advance to playing many games for it to have any impact. It's not the type of sport that lends itself to casual play in the backyard.

In our world, most team sports revolve around one very simple formula: one team tries to relocate a small object (a ball, a puck, etc.), and the other team tries to stop it. That's it. Right there you have the basic description of soccer, hockey, baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse. Soccer and hockey are almost moronically simple games. Baseball and American football have intricate rules of progression, and baseball (along with its cousins such as cricket) is slightly unconventional in that a team's ultimate objective involves the movement of players rather than the movement of the ball. None of these games, however, allow more than one ball on the field at a time, much less more than one type of ball. And a game where regular scoring doesn't count for anything more than a team's record is hard to imagine. In sports, complexity is not necessarily a virtue.

The Potter books, nonetheless, make quidditch out to be the most dazzlingly exciting sport in the history of mankind, far surpassing any of the familiar earth-bound ballgames. No other wizard sport ever gets mentioned, suggesting the wizarding world is quite satisfied with this one. Most readers consider it one of the charms of the series, an example of J.K. Rowling's enduring creativity. Somehow it's fun to read about, even if the rules are probably too unwieldy for it to work in the real world.

Whether it's fun to watch is less clear. Only the first two movies show the game in detail, and the fourth and fifth movie don't show the game at all. The novelty of seeing the magical sport on screen makes it interesting at first. After that, there's little suspense to be generated, apart from hoping Harry doesn't get hit by a bludger. As a Seeker, most of what he does during any game is sit around waiting for the Snitch to appear. As for the other players, since they do not determine the game's ultimate fate, what's the point in watching them play? (It's no wonder the films so often show cheating and other disturbances; they aren't confident the game will be interesting on its own terms.)

Had Rowling eliminated the business with the Seeker and the Snitch, quidditch would be more believable. It would be like soccer in three dimensions rather than two, similar to what Orson Scott Card envisioned in his novel Ender's Game, in which child soldiers conduct simulated space battles in a null-G environment. But the Golden Snitch is just enough to put quidditch over the top as something truly otherworldly. If all the game consisted of was players trying to score goals, it would quickly begin to sound mundane once the novelty of their flying on broomsticks wore off. The bludgers add a level of danger you don't associate with high school athletics, and the Snitch makes the game unlike anything you've heard of.

Quidditch is really part of the whole mystique of the Harry Potter series. In a world where magic dominates and where broken limbs can be mended within seconds, physical prowess is a lot less valued than in our "muggle" world. That's why a kid who looks to us like a class-A dork can get to be the star of his school's sports team. That's why girls can play along with the boys, without anyone turning their head. That's why even the school bully is a pint-sized kid. But considering that the magic in these books is a lot like advanced technology, one must ask: isn't this where our own society is headed?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The twin straw men

Jimmy Carter has helped highlight some intriguing parallels between Israel-bashing and Obama-bashing. He stated recently that "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity" toward President Obama is fueled by racism. Israel supporters have long made a similar argument about anti-Semitism in the type of Israel-bashing that, ironically, Carter has engaged in. For their part, Israel-bashers and Obama-bashers both like to invoke the straw-man argument that the bigotry charge is being used against all criticism of the subject in question.


Soon after the release of his book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, Carter asserted, "There is no debate in America about anything that would be critical of Israel." Of course that statement is demonstrably false, as a glance at the editorial page of any standard newspaper will reveal. Indeed, Carter's own critical pieces on Israel have been carried by major papers both before and after the publication of his controversial book.

That's where the straw man comes in: following some inflammatory, over-the-top attack on Israel, the bashers insist they're being vilified simply because they had the temerity to "criticize" the Israeli government, as if calling Israel an apartheid state falls in the same category as complaining about its bus routes.

It would be one thing if these commentators argued simply that there isn't enough debate about Israel, and that certain criticisms are unfairly labeled as anti-Semitic. Instead, they make the extraordinary claim that all criticism of Israel is treated this way. This claim has been repeated so many times it has become a sort of mantra in anti-Israel circles, despite the fact that it crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.

What's striking is that virtually no one fits this description. Every U.S. president in the last four decades has attacked the building of Israeli settlements in the territories--the mainstream position in American discourse. Even the most fervent right-wing Zionists criticize Israel all the time, as their bitter reaction to the 2005 pullout from Gaza amply demonstrated. While there is basis for saying that many on the right are too quick to apply the "anti-Semite" label to people who deviate from the Likud party line, the mainstream in this country doesn't act that way, and even the rightists aren't vilifying all "criticism" of the Jewish state.

Most Israel supporters agree that there are certain types of assertions that cross the line from legitimate criticism to veiled anti-Semitism. Where that line falls exactly is a matter of debate. Irwin Cotler, commenting on the 2001 Durban conference, gives several examples of such assertions. These include calling for the destruction of Israel, attacking the legitimacy of the Jewish state, depicting Israel as the prime source of the world's evils, comparing the Israeli government with the Nazis, and singling out Israel for condemnation while ignoring or downplaying comparable or worse happenings in other countries. As Cotler observes,
For example - and apart from Durban - in December 2001, the contracting parties of the Geneva Convention convened for the first time to criticize Israel. This was the only time in 52 years that any nation was indicted. Similarly the UN Commission on Human Rights has singled out Israel for discriminatory indictment while granting the real human rights violators exculpatory immunity.

None of this is intended to suggest that Israel is above the law or is not accountable for any violations of international human rights and humanitarian law like any other state. Quite the contrary. But the problem is not that anyone should seek that Israel be above the law, but that Israel is being systematically denied equality before the law.
Convincing the average American that these sorts of criticisms are not merely unfair, but indicative of anti-Semitism, is tricky. It requires some knowledge of history and an understanding that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has often been framed in a way that encourages Israel's perceived shortcomings to receive attention far out of proportion to their importance in world affairs. Adding to the problem is that Israel, since its inception, has been surrounded by enemy countries whose leaders have often expressed explicitly genocidal wishes against the Jews. The destruction of Israel isn't just a political goal, but a call to mass murder.

What's notable about Israel-bashing is that, unlike ordinary criticisms of a country's sins, it is usually directed, subtly or overtly, at Israel's legitimacy as a country. And since Israel was created as the world's only Jewish state, it is hard not to notice traditional anti-Jewish themes cropping up under the guise of "criticizing" Israel. Carter himself unwittingly proved this point when he claimed that "most of the condemnations of my book came from Jewish-American organizations." Which organizations he had in mind, he did not say. As Deborah Lipstadt noted, most of the strongest public condemnations of his book came from Michael Kinsley, Ethan Bronner, Jeffrey Goldberg, Alan Dershowitz, Dennis Ross, and 14 members of the Carter Center's Board of Councilors who resigned in protest. All are Jewish, but none represent a Jewish organization.


Bill O'Reilly recently lambasted two columns, one by Eugene Robinson and the other by Maureen Dowd, who believe, according to O'Reilly, that "if you criticize somebody [they like] and it's a person of color, then immediately you're a racist." In fact, neither column suggested anything of the kind.

They were both reactions to Joe Wilson (R-SC), who shouted "You lie!" during the President's health care address. Robinson's column discussed at length the open disrespect shown toward the President by Wilson and other Republican Congressmen at the speech before adding, "I suspect that Obama's race leads some of his critics to feel they have permission to deny him the legitimacy, stature and common courtesy that are any president's due. I can't prove this, however." Dowd argued that Wilson's former membership in a neo-Confederate group, his campaign to keep the Confederate Flag flying above the state Capitol, and his dismissing as a "smear" a black woman's truthful claim to be Strom Thurmond's illegitimate daughter, formed an ominous pattern that cast suspicion on his unprecedented departure from accepted standards of decorum in front of the nation's first black president.

That's where the straw man comes in: following some inflammatory, over-the-top attack on Obama, the bashers insist they're being vilified simply because they had the temerity to "criticize" the President, as if shouting him down as a liar while he's speaking falls in the same category as complaining about his tariff policy.

It would be one thing if these right-wingers argued simply that there isn't enough criticism of the President, and that certain criticisms are unfairly labeled as racist. Instead, they make the extraordinary claim that all criticism of Obama is treated this way. This claim has been repeated so many times it has become a sort of mantra in anti-Obama circles, despite the fact that it crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.

What's striking is that virtually no one fits this description. Robinson, Dowd, and even Carter have all criticized Obama before. But you wouldn't know that from reading most of the right-wing sites, which, like O'Reilly, claim that these commentators apply the "racist" label to all who dare say anything negative about The One. A more recent Robinson column explains clearly when he feels attacks on Obama cross the line from legitimate criticism to veiled racism:
Of course it's possible to reject Obama's policies and philosophy without being racist. But there's a particularly nasty edge to the most vitriolic attacks -- a rejection not of Obama's programs but of his legitimacy as president. This denial of legitimacy is more pernicious than the abuse heaped upon George W. Bush by his critics (including me), and I can't find any explanation for it other than race.

I'm not talking about the majority of the citizens who went to town hall meetings to criticize Obama's plans for health-care reform or the majority of the "tea bag" demonstrators who complain that Obama is ushering in an era of big government. Those are, of course, legitimate points of view. Protest is part of our system. It's as American as apple pie.

I'm talking about the crazy "birthers." I'm talking about the nitwits who arrive at protest rallies bearing racially offensive caricatures -- Obama as a witch doctor, for example. I'm talking about the idiots who toss around words like "socialism" to make Obama seem alien and even dangerous -- who deny the fact that he, too, is as American as apple pie.
Of course one may legitimately disagree with Robinson. Obama is hardly the first president to be the subject of vitriolic attacks and kooky conspiracy theories. Robinson's point of contrast is with Bush, but I was thinking about Clinton, whose detractors called him a murderer, a rapist, and a drug addict and likened him to both Hitler and Stalin. On the other hand, no one threatened secession, or said he had a "deep-seated hatred of white people," or accused him of having been born outside the United States. Some of the attacks on Obama seem clearly to have racial (or xenophobic) overtones, but there are those on the left who see a racial motivation in less obvious examples such as Joe Wilson's outburst, which didn't happen when Clinton was in office but conceivably might have. Irrational hostility toward Obama may be rooted in racism, but it also may be rooted in the way Republicans tend to behave while out of power.

Conclusion: the parallels

Israel supporters and Obama supporters both believe that a significant amount of the hostility they receive is motivated by bigotry. Israel-bashers and Obama-bashers react by claiming that supporters are using the bigotry charge to silence all criticisms. This claim has become a sort of mantra among the bashers even though it falls apart under the least bit of scrutiny. In reality, even the staunchest Israel supporters criticize Israel, and even the staunchest Obama supporters criticize Obama. There is, however, basis for arguing that Israel supporters and Obama supporters sometimes try to suppress some criticisms by unfairly branding them as bigoted.

Nevertheless, what Israel supporters and Obama supporters are mainly reacting to are the more extreme, inflammatory attacks, particularly those that seek to undermine the legitimacy of Israel as a country, or the legitimacy of Obama as a president. Whether those sorts of attacks are in fact evidence of bigotry can be debated, and depends to some extent on one's understanding of the history of racism in the U.S. or of anti-Semitism in the world at large. But those who do see bigotry in these attacks should at least have their views described accurately rather than caricatured to make them easier to knock down.

(Hat tip to Rabbi Harry Maryles for the cartoon.)

Friday, July 31, 2009

The sushi myth

Often when I mention sushi to someone who has never eaten it, I get a response like, "Well, raw fish ain't my cup of tea." It seems that every American who hasn't directly encountered sushi believes it is just another word for raw fish. They hold this belief firmly, like it's a simple fact.

I don't know where this misconception got started, but it's widespread. I myself held it at one time. Snopes even has an entry debunking it. But it takes on an added irony when it comes from people (and Jews in particular) who don't realize they have been eating a type of uncooked fish for years, called lox.

"What?!" they exclaim. "How can lox be raw? Everybody knows it's smoked salmon. Even the dictionary says so."

Okay, now wait a second: do you know what smoking means in this context? It refers to cold smoking, a preservation process that does not expose the fish to heat. Furthermore, not all lox is smoked; it is mainly preserved through curing--soaking in brine (hence the salty flavor).

Like sushi, it is an acquired taste. It's a little weird, actually: eaten by itself, it's borderline unpalatable. Add cream cheese, and it becomes delicious. The raw fish that is found in some sushi has a similar quality.

In the last ten years or so, kosher markets have begun selling sushi. To remain kosher, it must forgo traditional ingredients such as crab. The first sushi I ever ate, I made myself. I was guided through its creation while sitting in a Sukkah, in a program hosted by my college's Hillel during the holiday.

If sushi isn't raw fish, what is it? Usually it consists of rice wrapped in seaweed, with a middle that can contain just about anything--fish generally, but there is also vegetable sushi and fruit sushi. I even once tried chicken sushi, though I didn't think the combination worked.

Snopes defines it as "vinegared rice that can (but need not) be paired with raw seafood." That's also the definition offered by Wikipedia, which then links to the Snopes page. But does it really need to have rice? I once ordered something from a sushi menu, and was given simply a slab of raw tuna on a plate. I say "tuna" because that's what the menu called it, but it didn't look or taste anything like the sort of food you find in a Chicken of the Sea can. It was dark red, with a jello-like consistency, and was about as appetizing as baking soda toothpaste.

But if it doesn't need to have rice, and doesn't need to have fish, what makes sushi sushi? I tried asking this once to a sushi chef, but he didn't know enough English to explain it to me, or even to understand my question.

I made some a few weeks ago using a kit, the first time I've done it without supervision. The kit provided the seaweed and rice, and I added lox, carrots, cucumbers, and celery. The people I served it to liked it, but it was far from perfect. I put in too much rice, making it hard for me to keep the pieces together. I've asked for tips on Internet forums, and watched what the chefs at local restaurants do. The latest technique I learned is to wet the knife before cutting the rolls.

Let's face it. Sushi is just more fun to make--or to watch being made--than it is to eat. The chefs always remind me of artists, their products more visually dazzling than gustatorily appealing. But you should try it some time, just to say you've had it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A nerdy examination of nerdiness

What, exactly, is a nerd? Roger Ebert once attempted to answer that question, in his review of one of the Revenge of the Nerds flicks:
These aren't nerds. They're a bunch of interesting guys, and that's the problem with [this film].... A nerd is not a nerd because he understands computers and wears a plastic pen protector in his shirt pocket. A nerd is a nerd because he brings a special lack of elegance to life. An absence of style. An inability to notice the feelings of other people. A nerd is a nerd from the inside out, which is something the nerds who made this movie will never understand.
I must confess that I find Ebert's definition rather strange, especially his contention that the protagonists of this film couldn't be nerds because they were "a bunch of interesting guys." I've always thought nerds were the interesting guys. It was the popular kids who were the bores, who went on to boring, regular jobs, while their nerdy classmates went on to become the inventors, the rocket scientists, the CEOs, the movie stars. (If you don't believe me about that last one, go read an interview with Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck about their high school days.) I presume Ebert doesn't include in his definition a tubby, bespectacled guy who analyzes movies for a living. He doesn't because he seems to define nerds as dysfunctional human beings rather than the people you learn to respect when you grow up.

Ebert is afflicted with a condition I like to call lexicitis, which is the desire to provide precise definitions for words that defy any. The word nerd is little more than a loose collection of stereotypes, rooted in the superficial world of teen cliques and in-crowds, but applied to adults without any consistent, universally accepted meaning.

I wouldn't even call it a character type, for it can encompass many character types. Rick Moranis's mad scientist in Honey I Shrunk the Kids is nerdier than Christopher Lloyd's mad scientist in Back to the Future, but then Moranis made a career out of putting a nerdy spin on characters who might not seem nerdy if played by other actors. In Parenthood he played a perfectionistic snob, but a nerdy perfectionistic snob.

Like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, you know 'em when you see 'em. I think of nerds as social oddballs, but not all social oddballs are nerds. Nerds are often thought to be intellectuals, but not all intellectuals are nerds, and not all nerds are intellectual.

Above all, the word evokes particular images: a guy who wears glasses with a piece of tape in the middle, a guy with pens in his shirt pockets, a guy who reads comic books and plays video games and likes science fiction movies and memorizes UNIX manuals.

Nerds are traditionally pictured as male. Girls and women have been described as nerds, but nobody's sure what that means. Women nerds defy a sexual stereotype almost as much as women football players do.

Nerds are, also, usually pictured as Caucasian. Of course blacks can be nerds too (think Urkel), and in black youth culture, nerdiness blends with the idea of "acting white." As for Asians, according to Hollywood in recent years, all Asian guys are nerds (this has apparently replaced the older stereotype that they all know martial arts). And all Jewish men are nerds, except for Israelis.

The commonest explanation for the word's origin is that it came from the name of a creature in a 1950 book by Dr. Seuss. How it acquired its current sense is unknown, but by the 1960s it was being used by teenagers to describe those they considered uncool.

The twin word geek has a different history, originally referring to a performer at a carnival sideshow who bit the head off a chicken. It later evolved into a synonym for nerd, a fact that hasn't stopped people from coming up with a distinction between the two. The filmmaker John Hughes once explained it in the following way: "A geek is a guy who has everything going for him, but he's just too young. By contrast, a nerd will be a nerd all his life."

Personally, I've never heard anyone else use that definition. But I agree that the two words are not always identical. It's one of those pairs like morality and ethics that seem interchangeable but upon closer inspection turn out to have a subtle difference in connotation. Geekiness usually suggests an element of the grotesque, whereas nerdiness is something you can find endearing. The heroes of most teenage comedies are nerds, not geeks, despite what John Hughes may think.

Still, it seems like both words don't mean quite what they used to. Early in the 2000s, Comedy Central had a game show called Beat the Geeks, in which contestants would try to match their knowledge against Star Wars geeks, horror geeks, James Bond geeks, Simpsons geeks, Playboy geeks, hip-hop geeks, wrestling geeks, and so on. What was striking was how many of these so-called geeks were immersed in pop culture, something you would not associate with the geeks of old.

Nerds were once thought to make up the computer-literate population, but now that we've entered an age of iPhones, Blackberrys, webcams, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, you're considered uncool if you aren't caught up on the latest computer or Internet development. It's not surprising that I haven't heard the phrase "computer nerd" in a long time.

This is what happens when you take a term invented by adolescent boys and try to apply it to adults, most of whom have long lost their sense of what's cool and what's nerdy. The word may shed light on some of the qualities of today's culture, but let's not take it too seriously, lest we become a living example of the word in its negative sense.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The line between cranks and scholars

What is it with some linguists and claiming a mysterious relationship between English and Hebrew? First there's Isaac Mozeson, the literature professor (I hesitate to use the term "linguist") who maintains that all English words can be traced to Hebrew. Then there's Ernest Klein, a rabbi/linguist who saw Semitic origins where other scholars didn't. I never expected John McWhorter of all people to enter the fray. But he does, in a recent book that features an eccentric theory about early Semitic influence on the language that would become English.

Superficial relationships
Even in my early childhood, I noticed resemblances between certain Hebrew words and their English counterparts: camel is gamal, wine is yayin, and earth is eretz. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. Animal names often come from languages spoken in the region where the animal is found. Hence, moose comes from a Native American tongue, and camel comes from a Middle Eastern Semitic tongue that may or may not have been Hebrew, but was certainly related. Similarly, the ancients would have referred to wine using the term from the culture that first disseminated the drink, just as we today adopted the Japanese word sushi instead of inventing our own term using pure-English roots (e.g. "seafood roll"). As for eretz and "earth," that's probably just a coincidence.

That last statement, in my experience, often provokes the response, "I don't believe in coincidence." But it has nothing to do with coincidence in a cosmic sense. The Hawaiian word kahuna meaning "priest" sounds remarkably similar to the Hebrew word for priest, but unless you can devise a story about an ancient encounter between Semitic tribes and Polynesians, it is likely that the two languages just happened to hit upon the same combination of sound and meaning in this one instant. These things happen from time to time.

Isaac Mozeson
In his 1988 book The Word, Mozeson maintains not only that the English language (as well as all other languages) comes directly from Hebrew, "the language of Eden," but that this fact can be discerned by examining the roots of English words. According to Mozeson, "Hebrew vocabulary has as much affinity with English as it has with Arabic. More English words can be clearly linked to Biblical Hebrew than to Latin, Greek, or French."

As for the Indo-European theory of modern linguistics, Mozeson argues that it is nothing more than a racist plot by white Gentiles to segregate their languages from other cultures and undermine the eternal truth of the Torah. As Mozeson puts it, "The third son of Noah, Ham, is behind the generic term for African languages, and white gentiles in the linguistic community have no trouble with the evidence of a related Hamito-Semitic language family. Let the Blacks and Jews share the ghetto, whisper the professors, as long as Indo-European remains lily white." It never seems to occur to him what the "Indo" part of the theory signifies.

The book is filled with his unorthodox etymologies. "Sparrow," he claims, comes from the Hebrew tzipor ("bird"). The English word "lad" derives from the Hebrew yeled ("boy"). "Direction" comes from derekh ("path, way"). He even traces "samurai" to the Hebrew shomer ("guardian")--via Japanese, of course.

This is all quite clever. But I can't help thinking of the father in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding who insists that if you give him any English word, he can explain how it is derived from Greek. He shows how it's done with some easy examples, like arachnophobia. Then one of the kids says "kimono!" The father is stopped short for a moment, then he explains that it comes from the Greek word for winter, himona, and in winter you stay warm by wearing a robe--kimono!

If Mozeson considered other theories, he'd find his own wanting. For example, mainstream linguists trace the word direction to the Latin directus, which is the past participle of the verb dirigere, "to set straight." That word comes from a combination of dis- ("apart") and regere ("to guide"). Not exactly a plausible candidate for connecting with the Hebrew derekh. But Mozeson disregards the mass of historical and literary evidence, as well as the theories of systematic sound change between languages, used by mainstream linguists to establish cognates. Ironically, Mozeson's picture of language evolution makes the process seem far more random and haphazard than in mainstream linguistics.

Of course, his method could be used to "prove" that any language came from any other language. John McWhorter demonstrated this in his 2003 book Power of Babel. Not specifically in reference to Mozeson or any other crank linguist, McWhorter "proves" that Japanese comes from English, based on the following words:

sagaru: hang down (i.e. "sag")
namae: name
mono: thing, single entity
nai: not
mo: more
miru: see (hence, "mirror")
taberu: eat (hence, "table," where one eats)
atsui (ott-SOO-ee): hot
hito: man (i.e. "he")
yo: emphatic particle (i.e. "Yo!")
kuu: feed your face (i.e. "chew")
inki: dark-spirited or glum (hence, "inky")

I actually think Japanese shows a close relationship to Hebrew. In Hebrew, karati means "I read." And what people are more in need of learning self-defense than the guys with their noses in books?

Ernest Klein
Klein was a linguist and Orthodox rabbi best known for two works: an etymological dictionary of English, and one of Hebrew. He had a tendency to suggest Semitic origins for English words more often than other scholars did. Unlike Mozeson, however, he worked entirely within the framework of mainstream linguistics, and in fact his dictionaries are widely respected works of scholarship. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which has had considerable influence across the Internet, relies a great deal on Klein's research. One time I was reading a word-origin blog that traced the word traffic to the Arabic tafriq meaning "distribution." I immediately suspected--and quickly confirmed--that the blogger had gotten his information from the Online Etymology Dictionary and ultimately from Klein.

John McWhorter
In his earlier books on linguistics, McWhorter mainly attempted to explain the views of professional linguists before the general public. He does some of that in his latest book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, talking about the flaws in conventional conceptions of "correct" and "incorrect" grammar, as well as debunking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that a language's grammatical properties affect its speakers' thought processes). But he also proposes some theories he admits few linguists accept.

For the purposes of this blog entry, I will mention just one of the theories: He thinks that the Phoenicians, who spoke a language very similar to Hebrew, made their way to the area that is now Germany and Denmark and had such a profound effect on the languages spoken there that the entire Germanic subfamily (which includes modern German, Dutch, English, and the Scandinavian languages) was the result of Semitic-speaking adults struggling to learn an Indo-European tongue.

Linguists have long believed that Proto-Germanic underwent strong non-IE influence. For one thing, one-third of Proto-Germanic vocabulary cannot be traced to IE roots. McWhorter discusses several lines of evidence, including Proto-Germanic's substitution of fricatives for stop consonants (compare English's father with Latin's pater), its tendency to put verbs into the past tense by simply changing the vowel (e.g. drink/drank), and its extreme simplification of the IE case system.

McWhorter speculates on a possible connection between certain Germanic and Semitic roots, such as the English word fright compared with the Semitic root p-r-kh meaning "to fear." Particularly interesting is his attempt to connect the names of two Germanic deities, Phol and Balder, with the Phoenician god Baal. Also, an archeologist allegedly found the remains of a Phoenician cooking pot in the shallows of the North Sea.

McWhorter is quick to admit that none of this comes close to proving his case; he simply argues that his hypothesis is an intriguing possibility worthy of further investigation.

Final thought: the line between cranks and scholars
Etymology is far from an exact science. Look in any dictionary, and you will find scores of words with unknown origins. In those situations, even the professionals end up resorting to guesswork, some of it as crude and far-fetched as anything Isaac Mozeson could have dreamed up. The difference, I suppose, is that legitimate researchers try to gather up as many facts as they can, and acknowledge when the limits have been reached. Usually.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Different routes to the same destination

Back to the Future Part II has one of the more bewildering plots of any movie I count among my favorites, and a wild theory about it occurred to me a few years ago. I've never heard anyone else propose this theory, but it resolves several plot holes and makes sense on its own terms, once you think it through. My theory is that Doc's true motive in taking Marty to 2015 isn't to help Marty's son as he claims, but to teach Marty a lesson that will help prevent the accident that destroys Marty's musical aspirations.

The scene at the end of the first film, replayed at the beginning of the second, raises a number of questions. In this scene, Doc assures Marty that "you and Jennifer turn out fine," and that the problem is that "something has got to be done about your kids." After he takes Marty and Jennifer to visit the future, however, these statements don't match up with what we see. The middle-aged Marty from 2015 hasn't exactly turned out fine, and only one of Marty's kids needs help. Why did Doc mischaracterize the situation?

It should be noted that the filmmakers have stated in interviews that they created this final scene before they had any real plans for sequels. As such, Doc's statements were probably just throwaway lines they found amusing at the time. But that doesn't explain why, when working on the second and third film, they chose to contradict Doc's statements.

The entire scene was re-shot for the second film, ostensibly because the actress who played Jennifer in the first film--Claudia Wells--had been replaced by Elisabeth Shue. Somebody on a message board pointed out to me a subtle difference between the two versions of the scene, which are otherwise quite identical. In the Claudia Wells version, Doc's line "you and Jennifer turn out fine" is spoken smoothly and confidently. In the Elisabeth Shue version, Doc visibly hesitates before saying the line, and he utters it a bit too rapidly to sound convincing. (You can examine the difference with this video. Pay particular attention to 1:25-1:38.)

Still, Doc's behavior in either version doesn't make much sense. Why is he interrupting Marty's life only hours after Marty returned from the first adventure just so they can rectify something decades in the future? Why doesn't he let days, or weeks, or months pass before asking Marty to come with him? Since they have a time machine, what's the rush? If my theory is correct, Doc is trying to keep Marty away from the present. That makes sense given what we learn in the third film: the pivotal car accident is supposed to occur later the same day.

You might ask why Doc doesn't just tell Marty straight out about the accident. He could say, "You know, Marty, later today you'll be involved in a car accident that permanently injures your hand and destroys your musical aspirations, all because you took a guy's dare." The reason for Doc's silence is explained during a brief exchange in the third film, when Doc blurts out the truth:
Doc: Marty, you can't go losing your judgment every time someone calls you a name! That's exactly what causes you to get into that accident in the future.

Marty: [Suddenly stops and turns toward Doc.] What? What about my future?

Doc: [Realizes what he just said.] I can't tell you. It might make things worse.

Marty: Wait a minute, Doc...what is wrong with my future?!

Doc: Marty...we all have to make decisions that affect the course of our lives. You've gotta do what you've gotta do. And I've gotta do what I've gotta do.
Doc realizes that if he interferes directly with Marty's future by warning him about the accident, Marty might manage to avoid that particular catastrophe, but he'd retain his habit of acting foolishly whenever somebody calls him "chicken." Then, with his future thrown into flux, something even worse might one day occur as a result of that habit. The only safe way for Doc to improve Marty's future is by inspiring him to grow out of the habit. And what better way to do that than to show him the consequences of his son's acquiescence to peer pressure?

In other words, taking Marty to 2015 to help Marty's son was basically a ruse. Ordinarily, Doc wouldn't concern himself with a matter so remote from their current lives. He hopes that Marty, by seeing what happens to his son, will begin to reflect on his own weaknesses.

Of course, Doc thinks they'll go straight home after dealing with the son. He doesn't anticipate the chain of events that lead them to 1885. But by the time Marty gets back home at the end of the third film, he has in fact matured enough to avoid the accident on his own, as Doc had hoped, though influenced by different experiences than what Doc originally had in mind--a different route to the same destination.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Crazy professors

Just about everyone who has been through college has stories about crazy professors. I'll tell you a couple of mine.

My first encounter with one came in my second year of community college, in a required course focusing on several thinkers who shaped the modern world including Darwin, Marx, Toynbee, and Einstein. The teacher was an African Sorbonne graduate who wore his watch on the pulse side of his wrist. I had an inkling of his ideological leanings when he criticized our assigned textbook as "too Eurocentric."

There are times when even I question Eurocentrism in traditional histories. As I suspected, however, this professor was merely replacing one "centrism" with another. I could feel his frustration as he looked for openings in the assigned material to tell us about his beliefs, which included the idea that much of Ancient Greek civilization was "stolen" from black Egyptians. It wasn't easy for him, since he was assigned to be teaching us about DWEMs (Dead White European Males). I was immune to his digressions because on the first day, I had gone to the library and borrowed a copy of Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa, which debunks Afrocentrist claims about history. I learned more from that book than I did from the entire course.

He was only a moderate Afrocentrist. At the extremes is Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College in New York, who holds that mankind is divided into "ice people," comprising those of European descent, and "sun people," comprising everyone else. Ice people are violent, materialistic exploiters, while sun people are kind, compassionate peacemakers. Dr. Jeffries also maintains that Jews financed the slave trade and continue to use Hollywood to promote black subservience. It's like he took the Nazis' master-race theory and flipped it around. Around the Jews, that is.

Later on, I got an American history professor who was almost as weird as the Afrocentrist guy, though in a different way. He looked like a character out of Roald Dahl: slight build, pointy nose, pencil-thin mustache. The oddest thing about his appearance was his hair. "Never trust a professor with strange hair" should be my motto. He looked like he would have been an ordinary bald man except that he had a big clump of hair resting on top, almost like a cockatoo. Bad use of monoxodil, I thought.

On the first day, he mentioned that previous students had complained he hadn't made his teaching relevant to the current times. He promised not to make that mistake with us. He kept his promise. For one thing, he had a relentless obsession with Bill Clinton, whom he considered the most corrupt president since Nixon. (This was a while before the Lewinsky scandal.) Throughout his lectures, he kept throwing in comments about how "Slick Willy" and his wife were letting the country go to waste.

He didn't seem to recognize any boundary between fact and opinion. FDR, he taught us, was a great president, though not because of his liberalism. Truman was overrated, Eisenhower was underrated, and Vietnam was unwinnable. The prof's most fervent belief was that there was a conspiracy behind JFK's assassination. He wasn't sure of the nature of the conspiracy, he just knew beyond any doubt that there was one. And he let us argue our favored conspiracy theory on the final exam for extra credit. Accepting the findings of the Warren Commission wasn't an option.

For several years afterward, I went mad trying to read up as much as I could on the stuff we had covered, which I felt had been tainted by the guy's political and ideological proclivities. I eventually concluded that apart from his hangups about Clinton and JFK, he was reasonably fair and accurate most of the time.

I'm not implying these two professors were in any way representative of my overall college experience. After I transferred to U. of Maryland, I no longer met any ideological fruitcakes. A few of my professors there articulated liberal political views in front of the whole class, a practice I considered unprofessional (at least in non-political courses). But there was relatively little weirdness and flakiness. Yet the fact I encountered this sort of thing at all is significant. These are the kinds of experiences you hear and read about, and can't believe when they're actually happening to you.

P.S. For those who may not be aware, the picture at the start of this post is of the late comedian Sam Kinison playing a crazy professor in this scene from the 1986 movie Back to School.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Urban bubbe meises

Linked to at DovBear's Blog

Blogger Wolfish Musings recently wished for a Jewish version of Snopes, the premier site for investigating urban legends. He made this wish after receiving an email listing ten "proofs" of the Moshiach's imminent arrival. As it stands, such a site already exists, and it is called Jewish Legends. Unfortunately, it lacks the scope or professionalism of Snopes.

Snopes was hardly the first urban legend-debunking site, but it took a new approach to the subject. For one thing, unlike previous sites of its kind, Snopes didn't deal exclusively with tall tales. Some of the claims that Snopes investigates end up being true. According to Snopes, what sets urban legends apart is not their truth value but their mode of transmission. They're the types of stories you "know" happened because you heard it from a friend of a friend (or read in an email forwarded to you by a friend). Occasionally such stories may in fact be accurate or nearly accurate. The problem is verifying them, and that's where Snopes comes in. It categorizes the truth value of stories with a red light for false, a yellow for uncertain, and a green for true.

Jewish Legends adopts the same color-coding, but with Stars of David instead of traffic lights. Unlike Snopes, it includes roughly the same number of "green" stories as "red" stories. Because so much of it is true, the site begins to sound more like a weird news page than an urban legends page.

Some of the green stories are reasonable choices, such as the report that Coca Cola tastes better during Passover season than during the rest of the year, because it uses sugar instead of corn syrup. Religious Jews are aware of this fact, but because it's so word-of-mouth, it's the type of claim for which verification is useful, if for no other reason than to convince skeptics.

But why do we need the site to tell us, for example, that the first pro-baseball player was Jewish? That may be a noteworthy fact in itself, but it's not a story that has been passed around by word of mouth. I had never heard the story before I came to the site, so it's probably not something that was in need of investigation.

Likewise, the site puts Christopher Columbus's Jewishness in the yellow category. That belief is not an urban legend by any definition. It is a legitimate hypothesis still being debated by scholars.

I also wonder why the site bothers itself with answering the Protocols or the business about a kosher tax. Once you start getting into the debunking of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, your task is practically endless. And it gives the site a graver tone than a discussion about urban legends ought to have. Is the site going to start taking on Holocaust deniers? That would be a perfect way to kill the fun.

The site's best entries include whether the name of the Satmar sect comes from "Saint Mary," whether the Israeli archaeologist Vendyl Jones was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, whether Mordechai was Esther's uncle, and whether "hip hip hooray" has anti-Semitic origins. (Click the links to find out the answer to each of those questions.) Those are all beliefs that have swirled around the Jewish community for quite some time, and are worthy of investigation. I just wish the site would also tackle more current stuff, like the chain emails targeted at Jews. And the weird news entries, interesting as they may be, should at least be placed in a separate section and be less focused upon.

The site seems to have an Orthodox standpoint, but it never tells you that it does. It considers the existence of the Golem to be an open question. It asserts that the actor Ben Stiller, contrary to popular belief, is not Jewish (his father is, and his mother had a Reform conversion before he was born). I suspect that Ben Stiller would disagree.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The corporatists

Though a proud and lifelong Democrat, there's a point where I begin to feel just as out of step with the left as I do with the right. That point occurs when people start using the word corporate with a conspiratorial tone.

For example, I was recently in the library and saw a book on Barack Obama that didn't seem to be either attacking or praising him. I assumed it was a detached journalistic analysis, an approach I haven't seen much of these days. My interest piqued, I took it out.

I should have noticed the back-cover endorsement by Noam Chomsky.

The book was called Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. I didn't read the whole thing, but I did happen to glance at an appendix in which the author referred to Obama's "corporate- and Empire-friendly" views on capital punishment, gun control, and civil liberties, as well as his "conservative and imperial positions on Iraq, Iran, or Israel."

These characterizations may raise the eyebrows of those who think of Obama as the latest incarnation of Karl Marx, but they are frequent in hard-left publications such as The Nation, where the U.S. Democratic Party is considered "center-right." That isn't as absurd as it sounds if you take an international perspective. As Nation writer Eric Alterman argues in his 2003 book What Liberal Media?,
The entire context of American politics exists on a spectrum that is itself well to the right of that in most industrialized democracies. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton was probably further to the right than most ruling West European conservatives, such as Germany's Helmut Kohl and France's Jacques Chirac. Indeed, virtually the entire axis of political conversation in the United States takes place on ideological ground that would be considered conservative in just about every nation in democratic Western Europe.
The 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate was a paranoid right-wing thriller about communist takeover. The 2004 remake is a paranoid left-wing thriller about corporate takeover. In the new version, Meryl Streep plays a senator and Hillary lookalike who, aided by a Halliburton-esque corporation with family connections, instigates a plot to make her son president through blackmail, murder, and brainwashing, in which a Gulf War platoon have devices implanted in their bodies making them "remember" her son as a war hero. Throughout the movie, a sinister cable news network is seen in the background in various public places (and the anchor is played by Al Franken, no less).

Hey, I'm not saying critics like Ralph Nader don't have a point about corporate influence in society. But when they start to sound like left-wing versions of the old John Birchers seeing communist infiltration in every corner, I have to jump ship. The nice thing about being a non-ideological Democrat, by far the most common variety, is the relative freedom from paranoia. You can just sit comfortably on the left of the good old fuzzy middle.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The walking America

Toward the end of his inaugural address, President Obama said, "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed....why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

This is one of the only times I have ever heard Obama even allude to his race. Throughout the entire campaign, he remained remarkably silent on the subject. The only time his race was mentioned at either of the conventions was in one gracious line by Mike Huckabee at the Republican Convention. If you think that's easy, contrast it with how often Joe Lieberman referred to his Jewishness during the 2000 campaign. For example, Lieberman's acceptance speech contained the line, "I cannot express with words the gratitude that I feel in my heart today as the first Jewish-American to be honored to be a major party candidate for the Vice Presidency." Find me one moment where Obama talks about feeling honored as an African American. He not only rarely brings up the subject, but when he does, it is usually indirect, as in his quip last summer about not looking like the men on the coins.

That's why I'm astounded whenever I hear people say his candidacy was entirely about race. How did that perception come about? Well, for starters, his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father that first brought him to public attention is largely about the struggles of a biracial man to find his identity in a racially polarized world. Another reason is that his "race speech" in the wake of the Rev. Wright controversy became perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire campaign.

More significantly, though, the pundits couldn't shut up about the subject. And no matter what Obama did, there was undeniably a symbolic aura surrounding his candidacy. People were intrigued by him, who he was, and not just what he said. They found his life story, while not as heroic as John McCain's, equally fascinating.

His mantra of "change" resonated in different ways, because on one level it highlighted a substantive program to reverse the destructive policies of the Bush Administration, but on another it was a call to remake the image of the American government before the entire world. Outside the United States, Bush has always evoked the worst stereotypes of Americans--the country bumpkin, the frat-boy, the privileged son of rich whites, the member of an elite class with a callous disregard for the plight of the weak. (If any of those stereotypes seem to conflict with one another, that is partly a reflection of Bush's image-making, which cast this Ivy Leaguer as a rural American.) It may not be fair, but Obama overturns those stereotypes all at once, simply because of who he is: a walking America.

Before Obama appeared on the national stage, anyone would have predicted that the first black president would have a name like Harold Williams, or even George Washington. Obama isn't just the first black president, he's the first president with a funny name. His biological father was Kenyan, but he was raised partly in Indonesia by an Asian man, and the rest of the time on American soil by whites. I don't mean to imply that his background is unusual. On the contrary, it speaks to the greatness of America in a way that the office of the presidency has tended to conceal.

Even though he doesn't talk about his own race very often, one of his central messages has always been bringing people of different backgrounds together. That was much the thrust of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention ("There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America"), which propelled him to national attention and convinced many people, including yours truly, that he was potential presidential material.

It isn't just rhetoric; he seems to have accomplished some of this goal in the diverse coalition he built. He didn't just attract a higher percentage of blacks than usual, he also received a larger proportion of the white vote than any Democrat since Carter. He also won every region of the country except the South, and even there, he won three of the eleven states from the Old Confederacy: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. A black candidate could have won the presidency with a narrower band of support.

That America would eventually elect a black man as president was probably inevitable; that it would be someone like Obama is unexpected. He didn't just win, he smoothed out a range of demographics that most people considered to be deep, insuperable divisions. In this scheme, he doesn't need to talk about his racial identity because it so clearly informs how he has approached the task of trying to unite America.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I am going to ask a question that, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever asked before: Is Alanis Morrissette Jewish?

This question occurred to me when I visited her Wikipedia page recently. The section on her early life described her father as French Canadian. That much I knew already. But then it said something I did not know: her mother was a Hungarian immigrant named Georgia Mary Ann Feuerstein.

Feuerstein? Feuerstein?

I did some checking, and I came to a Google Books preview of Morrissette's biography, written by music journalist Paul Cantin. The book revealed that Ms. Feuerstein came to Canada as a child when her parents were escaping an anti-Soviet uprising. She and Morrisette's dad met as teenagers, but "Georgia's strict European parents did not allow her to date, and so they spent their time together playing badminton, broomball, and street hockey."

Neither this book nor the Wikipedia article gave any indication that Feuerstein--or Alanis, for that matter--had Jewish roots. I typed the words "alanis feuerstein jewish" into Google and found nothing.

This episode forms part of a bizarre pattern I've noticed. With most famous people, any smidgen of Jewish ancestry will get some press as soon as it is revealed. I remember the hoopla over Madeline Albright's discovery that her mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Christopher Hitchens, too, seemed deeply affected when he found out his mother's mother was Jewish.

In 2006, it happened to Senator George Allen in the wake of the controversy over his "macaca" moment that probably cost him his Senate seat and his presidential aspirations for the 2008 election. (Since "macaca" is a racist slur in some French dialects, reporters were spurred to look into the background of Allen's French-speaking Tunisian mother, Etty Lumbroso, who turned out to be a Sephardi who had hidden her Jewishness from her husband and son all those years.) You simply don't see comparable attention given to people who discover, say, an unknown Italian ancestor.

In the 2004 presidential election, I saw at least one article describing the Jewish connection of three of the candidates: John Kerry's grandfather was Jewish, Wesley Clark's father was, and Howard Dean is married to a Jew.

There are even celebrities who have long been commonly, incorrectly thought to be Jewish by many people: Charlie Chaplin and Dr. Seuss (born Theodore Geisel) come immediately to mind. (I admit to being surprised about Dr. Seuss, who was apparently German-American. I always thought his pen name was a reference to the Hebrew word for horse. It turns out that Seuss is his actual middle name, and it is properly pronounced "soyce.")

That's why it's curious whenever a celebrity has hints of a Jewish past but no one seems to talk about it. John Goodman has a Jewish-sounding surname, but I have been unable to find any information at all about his ethnic or religious background. Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) might have Jewish paternal ancestry, but it is rarely mentioned anywhere, and Starr has never identified as a Jew. Michael Caine (born Maurice Micklewhite) claims not to be Jewish, but he attended a Jewish school as a kid and speaks Yiddish.

You might wonder why I'm obsessing over this topic. I am afflicted by the condition made famous by Adam Sandler's Chanukah song, of having a weird preoccupation with trying to determine which celebrities are Jewish or of Jewish descent. Jews with this condition can easily be mistaken for anti-Semites, and vice versa. (The neo-Nazi site Jew Watch keeps a list of celebrities it identifies as Jews--often unreliably. An innocent observer stumbling on the page might easily think it was written by a Jew.) It is such a prevalent condition that it's a wonder no one has coined a word for it. I'd call it Sandlerism.

Mistaking Sandlerism for anti-Semitism was the subject of a funny anecdote in David Zurawik's informative book The Jews of Prime Time. An old SNL skit, co-written by Al Franken, featured a game show in which panelists were shown a photograph of someone famous and asked to guess if that person was Jewish or not. "Our first famous personality," said the host, "is Penny Marshall, the star of television's Laverne & Shirley. Okay, panelists, Jew or not a Jew?"

The skit cut to a mock commercial parodying a series of IBM commercials at the time called "You Make the Call." The narrator says, "Sandy Koufax is on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's Game Seven of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. The stylish left-hander is involved in a tense battle.... Okay, IBM invites you to make a call: Sandy Koufax--Jew, or not a Jew?"

The game show returns and the host tells the audience that Penny Marshall is in fact Italian--and then awards prizes to the contestants who guessed "not a Jew."

The night after this skit aired, SNL producer Brandon Tartikoff (himself Jewish) received a call from his mother. "I'm embarrassed to call you my son. This Jew/Not-a-Jew sketch was the most anti-Semitic thing I've ever seen." There was a long pause. "Besides," she said, "I always thought Penny Marshall was Jewish."