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    Ladies of the Slope

    Posted by Sean at 12:39, November 25th, 2010

    My father’s side of the family has its Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before the designated Thursday every year, and my parents are hosting; therefore, it was this weekend that I helped them and my brother (and the aunts, uncles, cousins, and once-removeds who rounded out the party of thirty-odd people) get a full turkey dinner on the table.

    That tradition over with, my parents and I are going to a restaurant today, where my mother doesn’t have to clean up and my father doesn’t have to stow folding chairs and table leaves back in the basement.

    We’re thankful that we’re American and free, healthy, happy, comfortable, and fond of each other.

    But of course it doesn’t do to get complacent, even on Thanksgiving, and Lisa Miller of Newsweek has considerately provided us with this week’s ration of food guilt (via Instapundit, who treats the enterprise with the casual contempt it deserves). From her exquisitely calibrated tone of patronizing, deep-think concern about the lower orders and her look-what-a-progressive-nabe-I-live-in social-marker dropping, you will have little trouble guessing that she lives in Brooklyn (Park Slope, in her case). This is the opening:

    For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed by my husband. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano, the label says, “the hippest cheese in New York” (no joke)—on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. My nutritionist neighbor drinks a protein shake while her 5-year-old son eats quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. She is what you might call a health nut. On a recent morning, my neighbor’s friend Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her comfy kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens Ferguson and her husband, Dave, keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. The Fergusons are known as locavores.

    Alexandra says she spends hours each day thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food. She is a disciple of Michael Pollan, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made the locavore movement a national phenomenon, and believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to the existential happiness of farm animals and farmers—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet. “Michael Pollan is my new hero, next to Jimmy Carter,” she told me. [*speechless*–SRK] In some neighborhoods, a lawyer who raises chickens in her backyard might be considered eccentric, but we live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a community that accommodates and celebrates every kind of foodie. Whether you believe in eating for pleasure, for health, for justice, or for some idealized vision of family life, you will find neighbors who reflect your food values. In Park Slope, the contents of a child’s lunchbox can be fodder for a 20-minute conversation.

    Several thoughts, along with my gorge, come up as I read this. One is that I’m happy I live in Manhattan, where we at least frankly acknowledge, without tarting it up as spirituality, that we like the increased number of choices you have when you make good money. Another is that Miller’s neighbors are just doing, with more hauteur, a version of what my parents did when my brother and I were growing up. We were members of a church that believed that industrial farming and food processing were harmful, and that treating your body as the Temple of the Lord meant eating as much natural food as possible. My parents were never affluent, and when my father was laid off from Bethlehem Steel, money was often extremely tight. Yet we went to the farm to get fertilized eggs; we went to a sympathetic dairy for raw milk; we drove miles and miles and miles to some beekeeper who played Isaac Watts hymns and other improving music at his apiary, or something, to get our honey. We got peanut butter, which looked (and felt in the mouth) like mortar, fresh-ground at the health-food store. Coke was a special treat we had when people came over for dinner after church. I didn’t taste a Pop Tart until I was in college. My mother baked all our bread.

    And because we were a family of straitened means, there was a good deal of clever thrift and making do. When fresh vegetables were out of season or budget, we ate frozen. My parents rented a little garden plot from Rodale Press to grow vegetables during the summer. We got a lot of protein from chicken parts and chuck roast and pollack filets on sale. None of this was what you’d find on the menu at Gramercy Tavern or 11 Madison Park, but my mother knew how to cook and season homely ingredients judiciously. There was never a sense of deprivation. I mean, I had a bratty streak like any little boy and bleated about not having Lucky Charms in the house and stuff, but it would never have occurred to me to complain that what we did eat was poor-quality food, though I’m sure it would have given Miller and the rest of her kaffee klatsch a heart attack.

    See, her central complaint is that we’re Not Doing Enough to ensure low-income families get better nutrition:

    Mine seems on some level like a naive complaint. There have always been rich people and poor people in America and, in a capitalist economy, the well-to-do have always had the freedom to indulge themselves as they please. In hard times, food has always marked a bright border between the haves and the have-nots. In the earliest days of the Depression, as the poor waited on bread lines, the middle and upper classes in America became devoted to fad diets. Followers of the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, writes Harvey Levenstein in his 1993 book Paradox of Plenty, “could live on fewer than six hundred calories a day by limiting each meal to half a grapefruit, melba toast, coffee without cream or sugar, and, at lunch and dinner, some raw vegetables.”

    That “in a capitalist economy” is a meaningless qualifier, though I realize many people in Park Slope find it politically satisfying. It’s not as if the party elites in communist, socialist, or social-democratic societies didn’t have the freedom to indulge themselves, though they may not be able to do so publicly. What matters is mobility: in America, you don’t have to end where you started out if you make the effort to move up. That doesn’t make the Depression less tragic, or the pseudo-mortifications of the elites less silly, but it does mean that Miller isn’t necessarily making the political point she thinks she’s making here.

    How could we be doing better? Three guesses which societies Miller suggests we should be emulating.

    According to studies led by British epidemiologist Kate Pickett, obesity rates are highest in developed countries with the greatest income disparities. America is among the most obese of nations; Japan, with its relatively low income inequality, is the thinnest.

    When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

    Japan’s relatively low income inequality—for the millionth time—cannot be blithely split out from its overall collectivism and enforced conformity. That’s the trade-off: if you want everyone to live in the mostly-comfortable middle, you have to squelch the ambitions of the top of the bell curve as well as trying to lift the circumstances of the bottom. It’s all very well to admire the community spirit of the Japanese, but I’d be willing to bet that most members of the stratum of Park Slope society Miller speaks for wouldn’t be able to take it for five months together–especially once they saw how many of their child-rearing decisions were supposed to be outsourced to the school system.

    As for our inferiority to France, plenty of Americans place a high value on having the family together for dinner, even if they don’t spend the whole meal nattering about how various tastes are “unfolding” in real time. Ads for restaurants almost always present people laughing and talking together while they eat, presumably because picturing mealtime as a “convivial” experience resonates with their target audience. That Americans think of “eating well” as being related to nutrition may have less to do with any alleged I’ve-got-mine mentality than with the fact that many of us have ancestors, often in living memory, who came here with nothing and worked their way to increased prosperity.

    Miller consistently talks as if the freshest produce and the most chemical-laden processed stuff were the only two choices, which makes me wonder how many supermarkets she’s actually been in. She’s not the only one, though:

    Time is just part of the problem, [low-income single mother Tiffiney] Davis explains, as she prepares Sunday dinner in her cheerful kitchen. Tonight she’s making fried chicken wings with bottled barbecue sauce; yellow rice from a box; black beans from a can; broccoli; and carrots, cooked in olive oil and honey. A home-cooked dinner doesn’t happen every night. On weeknights, everyone gets home, exhausted—and then there’s homework. Several nights a week, they get takeout: Chinese, or Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Davis doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables mostly because they’re too expensive, and in the markets where she usually shops, they’re not fresh. “I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”

    Interesting. Every grocery store I’ve seen has this thing called the “freezer section.” Inside every package is stuff covered with a mysterious white hoar; when you heat it, the hoar dissolves—like the snow joyously melting when Aslan frees Narnia from the White Witch—and then you have vegetables and fruits. No, they’re not as quite as good or nutritious as those you pick yourself (or buy at an outdoor market from the stall run by Distressed Clapboards Farm), but they’re cheap and nourishing, and they’re tasty if you prepare them properly. Also, plenty of foods can be made in big batches on the weekend and stored so you can reheat them on busy work nights. The idea that there’s no real estate between cherimoya from Whole Foods and generic canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup is just wrong.

    And even if people want, laudably, to insist on getting fresh produce if possible, is there really nothing low-income people can do? Maybe their church can pool money and buy things in bulk. Maybe they can form a coop. (Some of the more ostentatiously civic-minded Park Slope residents could volunteer to help with the organizing and accounting?) Or, most simply, maybe someone could rent a van to go once a week or so to a larger, better-stocked supermarket than there may be in the neighborhood and take the food around. The poor still wouldn’t be eating imported cheese and free-range chicken, but part of being a household of straitened means is doing more with less, and that’s been true since civilization began. As someone who made many a meal of ground-turkey meatloaf with frozen string beans growing up, I have a hard time getting all weepy over the inability of people on food stamps to afford heirloom tomatoes.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    Added later: If you don’t get the allusion in the title but do care, here it is:


    Posted by Sean at 08:24, November 17th, 2010

    A few weeks ago, the NYT asked a bunch of academics to comment on the closing of the French department, among others, at SUNY–Albany. Its respondents obliged, vouchsafing that the humanities ennoble the soul, make workers more savvy about operating in culturally diverse environments, and teach critical thinking. Oh, and they’re interesting and stuff. John McWhorter argues that losing humanities programs at universities doesn’t mean humanist studies will be killed off; otherwise, though they come at it from different angles, all the other contributors think closing humanities departments is a very bad thing.

    Assuming that the NYT asked its contributors to respond to the question as framed here, their answers aren’t all that bad, but it’s interesting that most of them didn’t raise the issue of quality. Harvard professor Louis Menand—try not to hold it against him that he also, blech, writes for The New Yorkerargues as follows, for example:

    First, no department is an island. Universities are places where scholars in one field have opportunities to debate, collaborate with, and learn from scholars in very different fields. The loss of any department is a loss to every department at that institution.

    Second, what parent does not want his or her child to have access to literature, philosophy and the arts? Who thinks those are dispensable luxuries for educated professionals in an advanced society? You would have to have a very primitive view of the purpose of education to believe that the cultural heritage of humanity has no place in it.

    Finally, of course the humanities teach something. Their subject matter is culture, and since everything human beings do is mediated by culture — by language, by representations, by systems of values and beliefs — knowing how to understand other languages, interpret cultural expressions, and evaluate belief systems is as indispensable to functioning effectively in the professional world as knowing how to use a computer. This knowledge may or may not make you a better person; it can certainly make you more productive and successful in the workplace.

    All that sounds nice, but it leaves out one important practical consideration: a lot of the humanities programs that exist at real American universities suck. They make it too easy to skate through to a degree. They assess “critical thinking” through lots of paper-writing—to the near-exclusion of, not as a companion to, testing whether students have systematically absorbed hard facts. And for all the blather about broad education, they have watered-down math and science requirements.

    The Albany program closures are still a topic, and when I clicked through to this NPR story about them from Ann Althouse this morning, these paragraphs caught my eye:

    Upon learning about the suspension of the foreign language programs, David Wills, a professor of French, was shocked at first, but then he was angry.

    “None of us accepted that it was something that a university could do and still call itself a university,” Wills said. “This is not a university if you only have one non-English European language program left standing.”

    That’s also not an unreasonable argument, but I couldn’t help looking up Professor Wills to see what kind of contributions he’s been making to the life of the mind. He’s in the French department, so you can probably guess what’s coming:

    His original research was in Surrealist poetry but his published work has concentrated on literary theory, especially the work of Derrida, film theory and comparative literature. He teaches classes in 20th century literature, literary theory, and film.

    Wills’s major work, developed first in Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995), concerns on the one hand the originary technology or “non-naturalness” of the human, and on the other, the ways in which writing functions as a technological in/outgrowth of the body. Those ideas are extended via what he calls “dorsality,” a thinking of the back and what is behind – the other of the facial – where the emphasis is on certain ethical, political and sexual implications of a technological rewriting of identity. In recent work he also investigates the question of conceptual invention against the background of musical improvisation, for example in jazz, and the instrumentality or technology of the voice.


    Single author

    Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics (Minnesota, 2008)

    Matchbook: essays in deconstruction (Stanford, 2005).

    Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995; Editions Galilée, 1997, 1998 [author’s translation]).

    Self (De)construct: Writing and the Surrealist Text (James Cook University Press, 1985).

    In short, if this joker hadn’t existed, Roger Kimball would have had to make him up. Let me take a wild guess and say that it’s unlikely that Professor Wills’s course students and advisees do not emerge from his tutelage with a comprehensive grounding in the historical facts and artifacts of French culture. Maybe the rest of the French faculty at Albany takes a more traditionally rigorous approach; I don’t know. I do know that every college student in America knows that if you want to minimize effort and maximize GPA, you choose a humanities major. And within your humanities major, you target courses taught by professors who incorporate lots of “relevant” material from pop-culture and personal experience into the syllabus, because watching movies is easier than reading Choderlos de Laclos in the original. Nowadays, there are at least a few like that in any language and literature department; there were even back in my day.

    I suspect that employers have learned from experience that people whose studies were heavy on post-structuralism (or whichever of its heirs is hot now) deal just fine with “texts” but are not so hot with reality. Critical thinking that only allows you to poke holes in someone else’s hermetically sealed argument isn’t all that useful when you leave the academy and need enough facts at your command to assess and fill your own gaps of knowledge in order to do your job. The more shrewd students have probably figured that out, too, even if they might not be able to articulate why they avoid certain departments. Derrida et al. gave us some fun word games, but when you didn’t finish the deliverable on time, you can’t exactly send an email stating that, human knowledge being inevitably contingent and human subject-hood being inevitably decentered, the client is not in any position to make a firm claim that the widget didn’t arrive. (If you decide to try it, though, please let me know how it went. I could use some amusement. My computer came down with a serious infection over the last few weeks, and I finally got Blue-Screen-of-Deathed and had to reinstall everything. Fortunately, I’m obsessive about backing things up, so I didn’t lose anything but time.)

    Added later: Someone at College Misery links to this withering open letter to the Albany president, which gives all the usual (and valid) defenses of the humanities:

    I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.

    Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

    Once again, that’s great in the abstract, but I’m not sure it applies to the concrete example of SUNY—Albany as it exists. Professor Wills doesn’t strike me as the type to be offering courses on Voltaire, taught with old-style rigor, that he just can’t find students for. Perhaps even the French studies program director isn’t. Erin O’Connor links to another open letter from Albany’s Brett Bowles, which does a good job of pointing out the legerdemain involved in blaming tight budgets for the proposed cuts:

    At a time of severe budget crisis when a business model is being invoked to justify the elimination of academic programs, non-academic units such as athletics should be held to the same standard of cost effectiveness. At a minimum, athletics should be expected to rely on the intercollegiate athletics fee and whatever external revenue they manage to attract.

    Following that principle would allow the $4.27 million that athletics is receiving from the state to be redistributed to cover academic-related expenses.

    If those savings do not sufficiently address future academic budgetary needs, athletics should be downsized before eliminating academic programs and compromising the educational mission of the university.

    True, all of it. But I note that Professor Bowles’s faculty page states that his specializations are “Politics, society, and mass media; contemporary France; European Union; French and European film; documentary film,” so we have another scholar who focuses pretty narrowly on the era of French art and thought that began just before our grandparents were born and extends into the present. There’s nothing wrong with that on a scholar-by-scholar basis, exactly, but when whole departments get tipped too much in that direction, the historical depth the humanities are supposed to provide gets compromised. I have no idea whether it’s been compromised at Albany specifically, but I do note that I haven’t seen anyone address whether it has.

    John Ellis wrote on Minding the Campus this month about the dubitable moral logic behind “defending the humanities”:

    There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.

    Yet the crisis does need a response–but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: “restore the humanities.” That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health. There is a traditional way of dealing with failed departments in academe. An external chairman is appointed, with a mandate to remake the department as one that can function properly. In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments, rather than departments that have been reshaped to indulge the whims of faculty who never outgrew their adolescent utopian political fantasies. That is what we owe our students, who have been telling us so, loud and clear, as they have voted with their feet. The bill is finally coming due for years of irresponsible behavior by faculty and administrators alike. Bailing them out is not the way to go; holding them accountable for the disaster they have created is. Without reform, proposals to pour new funding into “the humanities” will only perpetrate a fraud. Unless this is part of a conscious effort to restore a genuine humanities, it will only prop up the pseudo-humanities.

    Professor Ellis may be exaggerating the extent of the rot; I don’t know. But he’s certainly right that the nobility of the humanities means little if they’re not taught responsibly. Mark Bauerlein was one of the few who made a similar argument in the NYT.