Monday, January 27, 2014

Too Much-Not Enough Information

I get some pretty good statistics about the page-views for this site: country, city, hardware and operating system, search keywords, pages visited, exit links clicked. I can often tell when people visit from university networks, and can sometimes narrow it down even further. For example, I know from my site statistics that one of the fellows at the Katz Center reads sometimes from the office I occupied last year. And NYU's network even identifies specific computers when they are wired into the network. I don't do anything with this information except to occasionally make a mental note.

But occasionally there's just enough information to completely weird me out without there being enough information to assuage that sense of the creeps. For example, right now, right as we speak, there is somebody at NYU systematically reading through the archives of my blog. The mystery reader is on the wifi network so I can't tell anything else about his or her location within the university except that he or she is here. I have to assume it's innocent, but there's this nagging sense that I've been "caught." It's a patently ridiculous fear. I have always blogged out in the open. This is because I wanted to be able to talk about my work in a substantial way and my field is so small that even writing pseudonymously, I would have been identifiable. I didn't want to give myself a false sense of security that a pseudonym might have offered.

What's more, while I have strong opinions I'm civil in expressing them. I don't talk about the university or department politics or my students except in very general terms to write about the practice of teaching. I don't engage in offensive or high-risk blogging. (Okay, all the pictures of my cat sitting on my book manuscript this winter may have been a little bit loopy and even tedious, but hardly controversial.) But I still, right at this moment, feel exposed. And I'd hate to think that just the fact of blogging might be a risk. I've heard it said but I didn't believe it. I hope I can continue in disbelief.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fighting Speech with Speech: A Public Service Announcement from the Middle Ages

Those who don't know history... yeah, yeah, yeah... doomed to repeat...whatever.  I'm not a medieval historian primarily to engage with the modern world. But sometimes my academic expertise comes in handy in contextualizing issues that crop up now and then. Sometimes the Middle Ages and the modern world intersect in wonderful, productive, lovely ways; but other times, it is the ignorance from that period that seems to have survived instead.And my approach to ignorance, hatred and bigotry is not to shout people down or tell them to go google to find out why it's a problem; I'd prefer to put together some answers and resources to address the problem. So consider this a bit of a public service message about a problem that has (like the plague*) survived from the Middle Ages and crops up now and again.


What is blood libel? Blood libel is a false claim that Jews ritually slaughter children for a variety of reasons, including to use their blood to bake matzah for Passover and because of general evilness.

When and where did it originate? The twelfth century, in Norwich, England (Scroll down the linked page for images of the castle keep where Norwich Jews sought protection in vain from their Christian neighbors who suddenly wanted to exact collective punishment.) Over 100 subsequent cases of this libel are documented in medieval Europe. Cases were reported as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, and this libel was one prong of the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda.

What typically happened after blood-libel accusations were made? As alluded to in the previous answer, collective punishment was exacted for these crimes that never occurred. Not only were the supposed perpetrators executed, but so were many members of various Jewish communities at large. As recently as this month a French Jew who was executed on the basis of a blood-libel claim was exonerated for his "crime," 350 years after his death.

Why is this still relevant today? This is still a concern because people still believe it. For example, I'm bringing this up now because of a page that is making its way around Facebook that repeats the blood libel and claims to offer proof of many cases of children having been ritually murdered by Jews. A campaign underway to report it to Facebook as hate speech has so far been unsuccessful.

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

Why is this still relevant today (Part II, updated 8/29/14)? With the recent rise in anti-semitic attacks that go far beyond the purview of condemning Israel's action in Gaza this summer, the blood libel is one of the major reasons invoked for firebombing and stoning synagogues (as happened while I was in Paris last month) and assaulting Jewish citizens of any and all countries. This video struck me particularly, as a Hamas official tried to hedge for an English-speaking audience, not disavowing his comments that he personally witnessed Jews slaughtering children ritually for matzah-baking purposes, but instead trying to blame the whole thing on medieval Christians. For a very brief period yesterday, Facebook finally classified blood libel as hate speech and removed the pages with "evidence" of ritual murder by Jews. This morning it reversed itself and returned to its previous position that it is a challenging idea, not hate speech.


Part of my goal in writing this blog post is to contextualize a claim that might, on the face of it, just seem gross or mean but in fact has a much deeper historical problem encoded in it. This most current iteration is actually a pretty amateurish one that, consequently, doesn't really scare me. Compare it, for example, to the campaign fliers that were produced a few years ago in San Francisco in support of a proposed law banning infant circumcision (which we are decidedly not going to discuss here). I'm sure that it's possible to run a campaign about that issue without resorting to centuries-old stereotypes about Jews and imagery reminiscent of the way that stereotype played out specifically in Nazi Germany, but this one didn't manage that**:

From random ignorant people posting a few sketchy things on Facebook to slick political machines, this belief persists both explicitly and implicitly in wider discourse about Jewish practice. Without knowing the history, it might not immediately be clear that this kind of claim is, in effect, a call for violence.

What to do about it? My own answer is to let hate speech stand and to combat it not by silencing it but by educating and writing and speaking out just as loudly and a lot more eloquently. We fight speech with speech. Bottom line, end of story. We don't need to value free speech*** to express our desire for world peace or the pleasantness of fluffy puppies. The freedom to speak protects the most marginal, the most outlandish, the most controversial and, yes, the most vile ideas. The purpose of that protection is not to let changing tastes dictate the exchange of ideas, with the consequence that things that would never be a matter of taste are also protected.

But what happens when Facebook considers itself to be a self-contained, private community with its own speech standards that ban hate speech rather than being society at large? First of all, I'm not sure I buy it. Facebook, for better or for worse, is society at large. But if we take it at face value for a moment and call it a community with its own self-regulating norms that do not permit hate speech, then why doesn't the blood libel constitute a prohibited category of speech?

Along with several others, I reported this page as hate speech.  I differ from some of them in that I'm not sure I'd want it taken down. I believe fighting speech with more speech. I want the world to know that it is populated with people who believe that I murder Christian children and bake matzah with their blood. However I would definitely like an explanation from Facebook about what their corporate-community entity considers to constitute hate speech, and I'd like for their arbiters of same to understand why the blood libel is such a big deal.


*The specific nature of the medieval plague bacterium and whether it is in fact co-identified with modern plague is a favored subject of long and loud debate in certain medieval history circles. I'm using the example as a metaphor here and don't really want to derail the conversation with a discussion of Y. pestis.

** As it happened, this particular campaign also couldn't manage to make its point without gay-baiting, either. Regardless of what one thinks about the issue in the abstract, this campaign was deeply problematic and steeped in ignorance and hatred.

***And yes, I know that this isn't a First Amendment issue per se because it's not the government interfering. Whether one wants to make the case that the conglomeration of media outlets means that corporations should also be bound by that protection as a matter of ethics is a separate issue. Nevertheless, we can talk about the freedoms of speech and expression in the abstract as something we value (or don't) as a society.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lost Book. Send in the St. Bernards. And the Brandy.

I appear to inhabit a corner of the universe that is near a vortex hungry for Bernard Septimus' Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition. The NYU copy is out of circulation, the ILL copy that I requested has allegedly been checked out to me but actually hasn't, and the only reason I know any of this is because I can't find the copy of the book that I own.

In a brief moment of bibliographic panic, I looked into buying a new copy and came across this option:


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book-Finishing Marathon (Day Thirty, This Time with No Cat Pictures)

My book just spontaneously became 20% less done than it had been.

I'm currently writing the methodological and theoretical sections of the introduction and began to rethink things when I wrote the sentence: "Although this study takes for granted the notion of text and history as a continuum it is, with the exception of chapter five, decidedly not a work of New Historicism." I go on to make a case for the historiographic work that the book does despite having taken the "linguistic turn." But the caveat about chapter five started to bother me and I began to question the wisdom of having a solitary foray into a related but distinct methodology at the end of the book.

My hair-brained solution, which obtained for all of about four hours, was to cut chapter five and publish it as a stand-alone article and then not write the as-yet-unwritten chapter four, leaving a very tightly-focused three-chapter book. However, it was impressed upon me that I'd never get a book contract like that, and so I went to plan B.

Now, the first three chapters will be part I of the book because they are very tightly coherent and related to each other. What are now chapters four and five will form the backbone of a part II that focuses broadly on reception history. What is now chapter five, the New-Historicist, anecdotal look back at the reception of the material, will become chapter six, following a new and, definitionally unwritten chapter five, which will constitute a more standard reception history.  Part I will focus on the creation of Arabic as a prestige language among Andalusi exiles, and Part II will focus on various aspects of the later reception of that prestige language in creating a history of al-Andalus and its exiles. In a certain respect I regret it because it definitely means that I will be prioritizing quantity over quality. It still will be a good book, but it won't be quite as tightly wrought as I might like and I won't be able to spend as much time carefully crafting and revising each chapter because I just have to get the flipping book finished.

Perhaps tellingly, when I went to modify the table of contents, I mistyped the new addition as "chapter sux." No need to page Dr. Freud, even.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


This hashtag has been making the rounds on Twitter, pithy illustrations of the flaws of double-blind peer review. Some of the entries hit a little close to home... own included.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book-Finishing Marathon, Day Twenty-Eight

125pp. 41k words and change. Most of the introduction, chapters 1-3 and a chapter 5 still in need of some serious cleaning up.

Pure Speculation

Ironically, I don't have a huge amount of evidence to support this claim, but I'm beginning to think that when one scholar dismisses another's work as "speculative," as often as not it's an attempt to make a legitimate dismissal of work that he or she dislikes for less legitimate, personal, or imprecise reasons.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book-Finishing Marathon, Day Twenty-Seven (Really)

Well, if you're going to sleep across an unhelpfully large percentage of the surface of my desk, then you can hold my papers up.

Yes, you.

Book-Finishing Marathon, (early) Day Twenty-Seven (Twenty-eight? I've lost count.)

Turning the introduction of a talk I gave last year into the beginning of the general introduction to the book.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Week in Links (Guys and Dolls Edition)

"For the pleasure of the thing": The manner and frequency of questions directed at  non-Jewish scholars  in Jewish Studies fields are indicative of some of the problems with the discipline. Here's one heartening answer, anyhow. (And as a bonus factoid, apparently the Hebrew Union College holds the majority of surviving Kaifeng manuscripts.)

Mapping my Judaic Studies Career in China

Not Judaic Studies as such, but Jews studying, in Istanbul, as political pawns:

Auerbach in Istanbul

Some modern implications of medieval commentary on disobedience and punishments:

The Politics of the Binding of Isaac

Typos as modern-day, high-tech scribal errors. A welcome read after texting someone that my academic field is "ultralight history":


For the scribes who have not yet joined the digital age:

Overstock Goat Parchment Sale

The National Department of Poetry. The second-best link ever on the internet, next only to the Arabic translation of the Jabberwocky (which, in this organizational scheme, must be under the departmental jurisdiction of the Joint Chiefs of Cacophony).


The very best professional advice I've gotten lately was to separate the intellectual issues from the labor-relations issues. It's simple and makes perfectly good sense but was also a counter-intuitive revelation because of the way that those two things are unequestionedly intertwined. Another Damned Medievalist offers her take on that same thought:

This Year's Fun at MLA

A different and calmer voice on alt-ac employment, PhD production, and the academic hiring crisis:

The Road Not Taken: PhD Training, Academia and Alternative Careers

Two approaches to evidence:


Finally, if you're planning to visit New York City any time soon, watch out for needlessly cruel, animatronic movie ad campaigns:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pass (Part III)

Part I is here and Part II is here.

I attended a public magnet high school in San Francisco that, while I was a student there, was just coming out from under federal supervision — a consent decree that had been in place since the year I was born — because the school’s population was considered to be insufficiently diverse: too many Chinese and Chinese-American students, the Northern California circuit of the United States District Court had ruled. Despite the federal supervision and an admissions scheme that required different test scores for students of different racial and ethnic groups, the plurality of the student body was still Chinese-American.

Lowell was a relatively comfortable place for me. After a miserable four years in a private middle school full of new money and a false, forced doctrine of multiculturalism that paid lip service to celebrating other cultures and made tokens out of the one black kid, the one Asian kid, the one Jewish kid in each class, I suddenly inhabited a world where I didn’t get mocked for — forget about not having — not caring about designer clothes and not going on outlandish ski vacations, and where being smart wasn’t bad or even all that exceptional. I still didn’t find myself in the default position, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. I remember that there was the occasional indignity or insult, but they were so minor that fifteen years on, I don’t even remember the details. It wasn’t always a walk in the park — it was high school, after all — but most of the fights I had were about editing the school newspaper rather than race.

Linguistically I was well on the outside, though I learned enough to at least be able to be polite. One of my classmates whose parents spoke limited English taught some of us who were her friends how to ask for her on the phone so that when we called her house we didn’t just have to shout: “Cynthia? Cynthia!” into the receiver at her mom and dad. I may not know how to do anything in Cantonese once I get Cynthia on the phone, and I wouldn’t even be able to understand if the answer were something along the lines of her not being there and might I want to leave a message, but I do at least know how to ask that the phone please be passed to her: “Mm-goi Cynthia tieng denwa?”

And when anyone in the media or from outside of Lowell would write or say anything negative about Chinese-Americans as a group or when parents of some of the white kids would go on about how there were just too many Asian kids who were making the environment of academic competition intolerable, I would start to feel not just angry but defensive, reflexively thinking: “Those are my people you’re talking about!” Even though, of course, they really weren’t. Maybe the most extreme example of that perspective came on a very early college-visit trip I made to the Washington University in St. Louis. I came through Kansas City, and when I stepped off the plane and into the airport, my panicked reaction was: “There are all these white people here. I bet I totally stick out.” It took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only one there who would ever think to peg me as Asian rather than white. I may have been so comfortable in my majority Chinese-American high school that I was (and still sometimes am) uncomfortable in a veritable sea of white people, but I also recognize that in most of the country, it’s a privilege that I’m the only one who knows that. At the same time, my experience in my particular, cosmopolitan corner of the world means that I don’t take the privilege of invisibility for granted on the occasions that I do have it, as I did at a distance from the crowd in the Kansas City airport. I can step out into the wider world and disappear, but I also know what it’s like to stick out, both in reality and in my own imagination.

In my professional life I have come across a startling number of people in my pretty obscure, pretty narrow academic field of study who were also products, if not of Lowell then of the San Francisco Unified School District. One of my other colleagues — senior, well-liked and respected, widely published, and a graduate of Washington High School, the school I would have attended had I not gone to Lowell — who suggested that it was something about that environment that had primed us to study religious, cultural and language contact in the medieval Mediterranean basin, something about those cosmopolitan grungy, badly-lit hallways and centralized clock systems that never worked right, those transcendent red terry gym shorts, the native hybridity sprung up in the classrooms that were too cold in the mornings and too warm all October, something from there that called us inexorably to the Med. The way she put it was this: There are lots of languages around you, some of which you understand and some of which you don’t, and that’s okay. It scales up: There are a bunch of cultural modes at play, all of which you can participate in and draw upon to lesser and greater extents without it being appropriation because the presence of different cultural paradigms is simply the mode in which everyone operates: You’re no longer responding to being in the minority or the majority, but living in a microcosm that, if never perfectly, draws upon all.

Convivencia is a term that has become a hot potato in my field. Literally it just means the state of living together and, at its core, describes readership and other cultural practices where there is significant overlap amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslims, specifically in Spain. But, largely through a deliberate collective scholarly misreading of a popular book that restricts itself to cross-cultural literary contacts, the term is viewed as an intellectual crutch, signifying a sort of happy-go-lucky kumbaya attitude in which members of the three Abrahamic faiths respected and enjoyed each other’s religious traditions and ushered in a Middle Ages in which people weren’t running around killing each other willy-nilly for God or territory. But that’s not what it is at all; I like to think of it more along the lines of people from different religious traditions reading the same kinds of things and asking the same kinds of questions, not so much in parallel but because they are living and practicing their religions within a single multivalent culture.

But to those of us who grew up like that, an honest reading of convivencia makes good, visceral sense. Even though they were East Asian rather than Mediterranean languages that surrounded us, the kind of community that one finds in San Francisco, especially in the public schools, is what made convivencia not a theoretical term, not something that needs explication or qualification, but simply what I believe it to be: a local, natively hybrid mode of cultural production. It simply is what it is; and I am lost in the textual places, be they the Twitterverse or a student research paper, where it is otherwise. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pass (Part II)

Part I is here. Just a heads up: This post quotes from a play that uses the f-word. I've reproduced it intact in the quotation.


Jews as white folk? This is where the terminology becomes problematic because it conflates religion and race, although that’s really a separate matter that deserves its own post. But this terminology also attempts to inextricably conflates race with power, implying that just because I look European-ish I am a part of the power structure. The idea that whiteness is the proxy for power reminds me of the scene in Angels in America when Roy Cohn, the fictional alter ego of the eponymous man who tried the Rosenbergs and pulled the strings at HUAC, explains that he’s not gay even though he sleeps with men because he’s also powerful:

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words. On labels. "Gay", "homosexual", "lesbian"; you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler — clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn't understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can't get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?... Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.” (Tony Kushner, Angels in America)

Heterosexual as powerful, white as powerful, those careless substitutions are harmful all around, I think. To describe "bad feminists" with the term "white feminists" racializes social evil even in spite of all the caveats that one can be white and a feminist and not be a "white feminist." It conflates an oppressed class with an eternally, existentially, definitionally powerless one. If white is a proxy for power, then nobody else can ever even aspire to have it. The converse is just as harmful: witness a recent blog post (relevant because tenure and race have become conflated in what Another Damned Medievalist has termed the “winter privilege wars”) in which the author was given the pseudonym “Adjunct Nate” in spite of his not being an adjunct because he “has solidarity.” It ends the conversation before it begins it because nobody who isn’t an adjunct (or an honorary one, as determined by whom?) can possibly be on the “right” side or have anything productive to say. The terminology becomes pernicious destiny.

What’s more, in terms of facilitating a broader conversation in which those “white folks” begin to behave and discuss in more productive ways, then railing rightly against a warped system or structure by making broad claims about white folk is going to put a lot of white folk on the back foot. And sure, an ideal reaction would be for those people to take themselves out of it and not to react by saying, well, I’m not like that! I know this probably puts me in the bad or useless ally category, but I see it simply as realistic. (And frankly, given that the standard-bearer of what constitutes a good ally has herself just been caught out making fun of interracial families, perhaps the absolute authoritativeness of her opinions in such matters and her poetics of discourse ought to be revisited.)

Defensiveness is going to be a suboptimal but natural and not uncommon reaction; and it seems that it would be better all around to have both a more precise discussion and one that allows more people to participate. I know that critical race theory has moved beyond this, that conversations about being a good ally are done and dusted, but I’m not sure they should be. There’s something deeply twisted about ADM feeling that she has to write, in the post linked above: “I don’t want anybody to think I think like that.” I don’t want anybody to think I think like that either; in other words, don’t assume that I’m one thing intellectually or in my approach to the world because I'm in your category of white people.

The idea that being allied or supportive or just a basic not-bad person requires simply taking everything that’s dished out, and that there’s only one correct way to have these conversations, and that white people should be shouted down and should be shut out for even asking questions; to my mind, activism and education go hand in hand. It’s not a question of understanding or approving but simply of being practical and realistic. I’ll put the nail in my own coffin and quote Claire Potter, who has been demonized as an arch-conservative (which, I think, says something more about the academy at large than it does about her): “Allies don’t let allies make excuses; they push for better analysis.”

Anything short of that is a Catch-22 in that it forces people to say, oh, I’m not that kind of white person, I don’t think like that, which is also an unacceptable thing to say:

The Twitterverse is sweeping a spokesman and her movement on its shoulders as its current hero-darling. It’s a popular message that it’s easy for people to get on board with unquestioningly. It makes me want to exercise my prerogative as a medievalist and disconnect from the web. I know exactly what criticisms I’m going to receive for saying what I’ve said here, and I realize it may be stupid for me to post this now, when I don’t have time to play along or argue back because I’m trying to finish a book project. But I think it’s worth being a little critical before adopting and heralding and celebrating a subtly-but-deeply flawed message of justice.*

The twin rhetorical techniques of piling on and shouting down is just a long winded, cathartic way of saying: Get out. (And I know that saying this opens me to charges of “tone policing.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.) But two cases where other academics were trying to think through structural issues this winter are perfect counterpoints that illustrate the problem. Claire Potter, quoted above, is a prominent academic blogger who wrote about the extent to which internet rage is or isn’t a productive response to the sorry state of the academy; and the raging internet didn’t hesitate in proving her point by piling on, heavy-handedly shouting down, ad hominem attacks, and frivolously declaring victory. Karen Kelsky, who blogs job market and professional advice, tried to tie that broader discussion of the horrifying state of the academic hiring to the ongoing discussion on Twitter amongst activists and academics about racism, structural and otherwise. She wrote an exceptionally offensive post in which she completely appropriated and minimized the conversation on race by comparing white people to tenured professors in the way that they take advantage of a system that is rigged in their favor. And oddly, despite how so clearly offensive it was, the web response, at least where I was looking, wasn’t so much unbridled rage but rather explanations about why different people found every aspect of the post problematic; and the blogger listened and apologized in a genuine and unqualified way.  It was obviously really big of her to apologize straight-up with no rhetorical curlicues or contortions. But I suspect that the fact that there hadn’t been a great piling on, that people explained what they found problematic or offensive about her argument, and encouraged her to read specific things to educate herself more, that all of that made it easier to apologize than it might have been from a beaten-down position.

Am I making this about me? Yeah, I am. And that’s because I’m thinking about this from my own perspective as someone who wishes she had done a better job in handling an issue of structural racism that came up in her classroom, as someone who is still trying to work out how to balance her pastoral role against her pedagogical one. I’m thinking through it in the way I know how to think through things — by writing about them, by reading, by talking to other people. I don’t really want to participate in the discourse that I have found, though; but I suspect that’s ideal because I’m smart enough to know that in so many ways I’m not welcome there.

For the most part, this just makes me want to stay farther away from the corner of the Twitterverse I have begun to inhabit; it has stopped being useful and interesting and has become more like distracting, hurtful background noise. There are more examples and problems I’d like to draw in, but this has already gotten quite long, so I’ll stop here with this: I went online, I found a relevant discussion that wasn’t going to be productive. I couldn’t join in and I couldn’t even just plain quietly walk away without being rendered some other kind of caricature:

There was never a way in; but even for a bystander looking in from the outside there is also no way out.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book-Finishing Marathon (Intermission)

Once I got to the point of posting Muppet videos and off-brand angry bird office supplies by way of book manuscript situation reports, I realized that five weeks of non-stop book work had perhaps not been an unqualifiedly good idea. So I braved the drizzle and the line and went to see the Dutch masters' paintings on loan to the Frick Collection from Mauritshuis.

The place was a madhuis! (Ahem.)

The line, regardless of whether you wanted to purchase same-day or advance tickets, was out the building, down 70th St., around the corner up to 5th Ave., and around the corner and halfway down the block on 71st. The Israeli couple behind me in line were having an adorable conversation that began with a review of the plot of the Tracy Chevalier novel that takes its name from one of the Vermeers on display and then wound its way around to a discussion of whether Frick is a strange name for a museum and — doesn't that mean something bad in English?  —Yes, but I think it's the name of the founder of the museum all the same.

Normally the length of the wait would have been a source of irritation, but for head-clearing purposes, there's almost nothing better than some fresh air and drizzly-fogggy-San Francisco-style weather.

The Rembrandts and the Vermeers didn't hurt too much, either.

I was expecting the Girl with a Pearl Earring to be a huge visual cliche, but it really was an authentic work-of-art-in-the-age-of-mechanical-reproduction moment the likes of which I've only ever really had once before, the first time I saw Las Meninas in the Prado. I wish I had something really incisive and lit-critty to say about that, but that's all there is.

Back to the book!

Pass (Part I)

I’ve been futzing around with versions of this post since the very beginning of December, since I read the first draft of a student research paper that spoke more to modern day race and class privilege than to anything about the Middle Ages and did so in a way that, at least as far as teaching goes, was new and challenging for me to know how to approach. What you’re reading now has been up and down and up and down on and off the blog in two major forms with some tweaks since then. I’m calling this the final version although, as I tell my students, there’s no such thing as a final draft. This probably isn’t the totality of what I want to say or the best way I could articulate it. It’s certainly not extensively researched since all of my research energy is pointed firmly at those same Middle Ages that my student so skillfully managed to ignore. Writing that sentence feels funny, too, since I don’t normally encourage a firm division between modern and medieval, having been the student of medievalists of the sort who firmly consider Salman Rushdie to be part of their purview and who wouldn’t do but keep close tabs on the modern goings-on in the regions whose histories they write. I guess I’m struggling with time management in all sorts of ways.

“Give it to me in narrative form,” one of those medievalists used to say, when I would get ahead of myself. So here goes:

This all began while reading, as I said, a first draft of a student research paper. I had to start out by explaining that Benzion Netanyahu was definitely not the same person as Benjamin Netanyahu, and while yes, his conservative politics may have influenced his historian’s judgment, it had very little to do with the premiership of Israel. And in any case, you ought to know what you’re in for when Netanyahu is the most reliable source on a bibliography. Ultimately, using the argument from the web site of a Holocaust-denying Catholic priest as its backbone — you’d be forgiven for thinking that I hadn’t spent parts of several class sessions or given handouts and detailed instructions on how to critically analyze secondary source material — the paper argued that the lesson of the Spanish Inquisition was that racial and religious minorities, including African-Americans whose voting rights had been curtailed and Muslims who had become the targets of everything from surveillance to violence in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, should understand that these restrictions and worse came into being because the people in power just feel really threatened by them, and that the onus of that fear lies on those minorities to understand that.

I honestly don’t think that my student is a racist in the conventional sense of the word. I think that it was in some kind of earnest, unexamined sympathy that she was trying to argue that everything from the Inquisition that nobody ever expects to civil rights violations in New York City in the 21st century aren’t actually justified but are based on irrational fear; but it doesn't really make much of a difference. I tell my students to avoid the intentional fallacy in reading texts, and I'm not going to make it in reading theirs.

The thing is that I took the coward’s way out. When I was a college student, I detested professors who injected modern politics into unrelated class discussions. I didn’t want everything to boil down to George W. Bush or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or — no, those were the two main things — even if I agreed with them on at least one and a half of those issues. I don’t want to be one of those professors who goes off on tangents because she’s sure she’s right. When I talk about the modern world in my classroom or in my office, it’s because we are talking about Adonis’ appropriation of the petty kingdoms of al-Andalus as a metaphor in his poetry or because Salman Rushdie is firmly a part of my brief. I mostly don’t want to go near anything that isn’t firmly grounded in text, and all the moreso with students. And so I didn’t try to explain to my student that no, it’s not the responsibility of African-American voters to understand that the power structure feels threatened that they might effect change and it’s not up to any Muslim in America to suborn the fear that his religion might inspire in the mind of the bigot. I told the student to take all the references to the modern world out of her paper on the Spanish Middle Ages, and in doing so, I failed as a teacher and as a human being. I don’t believe that the modern should be pulled out of the medieval. And I think that this kind of pernicious, unlearned, pervasive attitude about the relationship between the majority culture and minorities is so clearly wrong that there’s no debate in whether or not I should address it or whether I am right; but I am equally certain that someone bashing George W. Bush in the classroom believed the issue to be as clear-cut and obvious and with only one right answer and I didn’t want to risk becoming that professor.

I did write a blog post about the whole issue though, and went into a little bit more detail because it happened to be during the brief interstice when this space was password-protected and restricted to people I know in real life and have gotten to know reasonably well online; it was always FERPA-compliant but it went into greater specificity than I was comfortable doing for a general audience. Even this is probably too much; the student could recognize her paper if she were ever to come across this, even though nobody else can.

By coincidence, a tweeter I had started following a few weeks earlier because of some very on-the-nose observations she made on anxiety in graduate school and the academy, weighed in on what is more her main topic of writing an activism in a way that was very relevant to what I was thinking about:

That was exactly what I had been wondering, and more specifically, wondering about how to address it in the classroom. I almost retweeted the remark before realizing that it was the opening salvo in a jeremiad against white folks that I just wasn’t comfortable participating in, including these two:

I was trying to figure out how to attend to this particular problem, but I definitionally needed to figure it out first. Obviously these comments weren't personal, but they also marked thinking about this issue (and thinking about it in the way that I usually think through things, by writing) as something that I oughtn’t do because I’d never do it right.  And there’s a lot wrong with that: Even if this sort of discourse pigeonholes me as white folk, I don’t fit in as neatly as the theorists and the activists who rely on their work might like; the terminology perpetuates the problem; and this line of rhetoric disregards both human nature and the fact of cosmopolitan enclaves that treat the whole issue of race and culture in a completely different and incompatible mode. There’s a lot there. This is going to end up being a three-parter.

Critical race theory says that I’m a white person. And if you don’t look too carefully or talk to me, I can be pretty invisible in lots of parts of the United States, though as a friend who grew up partly in the American South pointed out to me, I’d never pass, even visually, there. I know that the extent to which I can pass is a privilege, whatever its limitations. But I’m also Jewish, and in spite of several scholarly arguments to the contrary, my lived experience as an American Jew makes me pretty definitively not a white person in the way the term is used as a critical category.

The fact that this part of the Twitter conversation could include a remark in which someone, mocking Jewish people who try to insert themselves into the right side of the debate, could do so with a caricature whine that would be unthinkable to pour into the mouth of any other minority group: “What about the JEEEEWWWWS?!” suggests to me an othering that negates the “whiteness” it tries to impart. (I unfortunately don’t have a screenshot of this one because at that point I was so disgusted that I figured I’d never write about this; if I remembered the exact number of Es and Ws, I might have a better time locating it through Google or the Way Back Machine, but alas.)

I’m white-looking enough that I can mostly pass, except to the little old Russian ladies on the bus or in the copy shop or at the airport who register that we have something phenotypically in common and start jabbering away to me in Russian, refusing to believe my protestations that I simply can’t understand them. Because even though I consider myself fully American, even though I’ve never been to Russia and (clearly) don’t speak the language, there is something — my cheekbones? my hairline? — that marks me to coteries of little babushkas as being as foreign as they are.

I’m white-looking enough but a college roommate still told me that I didn’t “look American.” That I looked more exotic, like a “European beauty” — I know that must sound like I’m satirizing, cartoonish as it is, but I’m quoting what I suppose was meant as a compliment.

I may look white at first glance and may have much privilege that results, but I still have to negotiate how to respond to a “you people” speech from a U.S. Customs official when I (a U.S. citizen, by the way, only and always) returned from giving an academic talk in Israel and, having been awake at that point for close to 36 hours, made a mistake in filling out my customs and immigration form. I have to figure out how to tell someone I consider a close friend (and apparently I have defaulted to the inadvertently passive-aggressive mention in a blog post method) that describing someone as “Jewish” isn’t at all offensive, actually, but then backpedaling (that even believing that she needed to backpedal) by saying “no offense, but I could tell by his nose” is super offensive and tied in with all kinds of murderous historical stereotypes. I don't want to have to trot out a litany of insults, but even though I may look white at first glance, and even though critical theory may declare that I am white, it’s 2014 and I still have to talk about the extent to which I can or can’t pass in mainstream American society.

And then there is the Gestalt, the famed immigrant mentality that has never really died out. I am a fourth-generation American. I had the luxury of knowing that my parents were mostly kidding when I brought home tests with high scores and they would ask: “So, nu? A 97? What happened to the last 3 points?” But they still asked. And I also knew just as readily that when my grandparents were asking that question, they were mostly not kidding; and I know this because I grew up hearing, over and over again, the story about how my grandfather’s older brother participated in a prestigious medical training program in the Air Force, the top ten graduates of which were guaranteed a spot in an equally prestigious civilian medical school, with the promise that they would continue to serve once they finished their education; and the year that my great-uncle Arthur graduated tops from that program, the medical school slots went to graduates #2-#11, Christians all of them. We still had to be the very best because even that would never, ever be a guarantee. I know that I attended Yale within a generation of the Jewish men who had managed to gain admission despite the explicit quotas that imposed upon them higher expectations and lower possibilities of success; and to a one, at least among the ones I know, they were permanently warped by that environment. Every time some pundit comments on how the Jews control Hollywood or the economy or the news media, I am reminded of how tenuous whatever gains we have made remain. I have spent my life not belonging anywhere I have found myself. That’s partly a different story, but it’s also partly because however much I might see myself as a Jewish American, the world sees me as an American Jew. Jews may have some "access to whiteness" — sometimes good access, even — but we’re definitely not white folks.