Sunday, December 19, 2010

How naive is radical feminism?

For a variety of reasons -- ranging from how sons are encouraged to study chemistry whereas daughters are discouraged from pursuing mathematics (although biology may be acceptable), to the fact that many girls appear more inclined towards the sociological than the technical -- men are the overwhelming majority in the sciences. Not every male scientist is anti-feminist and not every heterosexual female scientist is forced to represent her gender in a pair of pants. Yet, it may be fair to say that the institution of science has over the centuries withdrawn from society and transformed into a bastion of nerdy masculinity where a woman's presence is treated with even more disdain than a jock's, as if her entry were not earned on equal merit.
In the humanities where women outnumber men comfortably, they have carte blanche to treat disciplines such as gender studies as a pulpit from which to rant against the patriarchy. Men in these programs are indoctrinated to be sensitive to their privilege but for all practical purposes they have been emasculated. It's no coincidence that the humanities contain too many effete, straight metrosexuals. These folks believe that their compassion for oppressed femininity makes them superior to most men whereas in reality it makes them -- among other things -- less attractive to women, especially straight radical feminists, who are without exception subconsciously drawn towards alpha-types who do not supplicate in exchange for sex.
You can trust social evolution to weed the pussies out. The academic Steven Yates, who is careful to differentiate between "liberal" and "gender" feminism, offers this take:

"...I took a look at so-called “feminist scholarship.” What I found jolted me. One radical feminist called Newton’s and Bacon’s ideas about scientific method a “rape manual” (they spoke of “penetrating” nature’s secrets—get it?). Another compared a romantic candlelight dinner to prostitution. These are just two examples, and not even the weirdest (don’t ask!). Around this time it surfaced that a “feminist legal theorist, ” Catharine A. MacKinnon, had compared voluntary sexual intercourse to rape. That oversimplifies somewhat; what she says is that in “male-dominated, patriarchical, heterosexist society” the line between voluntary consent and coercion is blurred, so that in sexual relations between men and women a fine distinction between “voluntary” intercourse and rape can’t be drawn. Yup: under the insidious patriarchy, men as a collective are potential rapists; women are helpless victims.
It seemed like a sick joke to me. Men dominating women? Where? At the time I couldn’t even get a date, much less find someone to dominate. Approach an academic woman? I’d have to have been out of my mind!...
... In a recent interview with The New American (June 12, 2006), Aaron Russo, currently of America: Freedom to Fascism fame, reports how he once defended his sympathy with the women’s movement and with equal opportunity to an unnamed member of the Rockefeller clan. Russo describes the chilling response: “He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re such an idiot in some ways. We … created the women’s movement, and we promote it. And it’s not about equal opportunity. It’s designed to get both parents out of the home and into the workforce, where they will pay taxes. And then we can decide how the children will be raised and educated.’”"

Read more here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Orwell matters

George Orwell can never go out of style because he's timeless like a faded photograph. His views remain some fifty years ahead of the status quo, relevant to every heretic in this age of apocalypse.
That said, I've always found Orwell's fiction a bit dull if reliably flush with ideas. I much prefer his non-fiction. His essays and travel writing are full of brilliant moments. Take for instance this passage from Politics and the English Language:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Read more here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


From New York:

We do know what hipster means—or at least we should. The term has always possessed adequately lucid definitions; they just happen to be multiple. If we refuse to enunciate them, it may be because everyone affiliated with the term has a stake in keeping it murky. Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool. “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster,’ ” a headline in The Onion put it most succinctly.

Read more here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Is Nadal better than Federer?

From my piece in Open magazine:

We invest respect in geniuses of the past out of a sense of nostalgia. Such nods to tradition are also an acknowledgement that present greats stand upon the shoulders of giants. In cricket, Sachin Tendulkar has made more runs against a wider range of teams stocked with better bowlers and fielders than the ones Don Bradman encountered; it is nevertheless considered bad form to speak of them in the same breath. The reluctance to displace Bradman from the top of the hierarchy of cricket greats has much to do with our subconscious inclination to equate 100 with perfection, the mystical value of his batting average of 99.94—so far ahead of the nearest competition—and the fact that it has stood the assault of time. But it also has to do with indulging romanticism.

When you compare Federer and Nadal at their peak (which is all that matters), to me it appears Nadal’s bloody-mindedness ultimately settles the issue. Nadal has always been more threatening in Wimbledon finals against Federer than Federer ever was in French Open finals against Nadal. He has overcome everything from banged-up knees to his parents’ divorce. This is a man who sticks to a singular purpose. If indeed Federer were the greatest, how is it that he is only second-best at the art of mental disintegration in his own era?

Read more here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cleopatra's life lessons for American Presidents

A hilarious piece in The New York Times outlining the lessons to be learned from Cleopatra's managerial style:

If you’re going to seduce someone, set your sights high. Cleopatra fell in with the most celebrated military commanders of her day, sequentially allying herself and producing children with her white knights, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As she demonstrated, the idea is to kiss your way up the ladder. Along the same lines, there was an ancient world equivalent of the hire-an-assistant-of-whom-your-spouse-can’t-be-jealous wisdom. Cleopatra surrounded herself with eunuchs. They got into less trouble than did other aides, or at least different kinds of trouble.

Read more here.

The Divine Comedy

From Prospect Magazine, a classic piece that argues Western civilization has overvalued tragedy since the Middle Ages:

The resistance of the monotheisms to comedy has another, more subtle, cause. The comic point of view—the gods’-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing. The western comic novel has often had a harsh, judgemental edge. Swift has a hint of Yahweh about him. But the recent death of God has freed a lot of space for the comic novel.

Read more here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A national conceit

Of all the conceits perpetrated by this country's media, the term 'the American people' infuriates me the most.

I am not certain if Barack Obama contrived to use it when he visited India a few weeks ago. I do know however that the phrase slips by most people I know, both here in the United States and back home. It does not bother them at all. The phrase is after all in common circulation, employed by affiliates of every political persuasion. At the end of the recent election cycle, combatants as always made nice and humbly accepted that the American people had spoken, and that their verdict would be respected. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg criticized the selective usage of the phrase to depict the will of what he branded, "in practical terms, the slice of the scaled-down midterm electorate that went one way in 2008 and the other in 2010".

I am more struck by the remarkable arrogance in the implied assertion that "the American people" are worthy of a collective title -- a cynical ideology that, by promising the mythical prize of inclusion, ingeniously transcends racial and socio-economic divides. My outsider status within this country no doubt impacts my response, seeing that I am constantly made aware of my visa status. At the same time I am not alone in my otherness within this historically troubled society. Minority groups constantly negotiate their position relative to each other and to whites in what is arguably the most powerful nation in history.

Any casual student of the rise and fall of empires would estimate that the mean period of complete domination once used to be around a few hundred years. Given the extent of its cross-cultural influence, it is difficult to predict how long America might continue to remain a serious force.

England is the other recent colonial power that persists in glorifying its nationhood, except newspapers like The Sun are usually given to moaning about the good old days. As a future political giant India has shoved the propaganda of patriotism down its citizens' throats with a remarkable degree of efficiency, given the disparate conditions of language and religion. God knows, the mainstream Hindi film industry makes enough 'wholesome' movies. Yet, next to the United States, countries like India and Brazil seem emasculated. Much has been made of the economic rise of these two countries but at the risk of oversimplifying, for all practical purposes China is the new windmill that cannot be conquered whereas India is merely Sancho Panza to America's Don Quixote. New Delhi Television's 'We The People' seems comically inadequate when you compare it to the perpetual construction of American greatness.

Smooth transfers of power serve as a reminder of the moral superiority of civilized discourse, and as an opportunity to convince skeptical American voters of the noble intentions behind drilling democratic values into strategically crucial regions. Regrettably, in the twisted conception of contemporary conservatism true patriots support unpopular wars; the Left prolongs those wars for fear of being labeled elitist pussies. It would be naive to make an issue out of the hypocrisy of America's lack of interest in politically irrelevant regions like Burma or Sri Lanka. Nevertheless there is injustice, even irony, in the circumstance of a nation that routinely subjects racially-charged slurs to self-censorship, yet is inclined to wield a phrase that is equally inappropriate like a gleeful phallus.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Quality TV in the digital age

From my Op-Ed piece in The Times of India:

...There is something pretentious about using the word 'cinema' to signify sophistication: i immediately picture Peter Bogdanovich in a cravat. The notion that you could argue for the preeminence of one visual medium over the other is absurd. The sense of elitism is misplaced - a bit like arguing geometry is somehow more elegant than algebra - and probably has its roots in film scholarship's struggle for legitimacy: many researchers are displeased to find a much younger medium like television riding on cinema's coat-tails.

Read more here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The last lingua franca?

From a book review published in The New Republic:

...Google Translate, Babel Fish, and Microsoft’s Bing Translator all offer instant, automatic translation across a range of languages, and are constantly expanding their services. The results are often riddled with mistakes, sometimes amusingly. But Ostler believes that improvements in the technology will eventually “remove the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate.” Printed texts and recorded speeches will be accessible to anyone with the right software as “virtual media.”
Read more here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The artifice of stand-up

An old piece of mine in The Daily Texan:

A show about nothing

Some friends and I were waiting to make a left turn exiting Robert Dedman Avenue on Friday night after Jerry Seinfeld’s gig at Bass Concert Hall, when four young men, dressed in coordinated colors like the members of a disciplined ballet troupe, came jogging in our direction. There was quite a distance between us but we stopped just to be sure. Yet, as they got around our car, one of them whacked the hood twice in loud protest of what was essentially a considerate act.

You know what's especially irritating about that kind of behavior? It's the self-righteousness: “I’m out running at night trying to keep myself fit, while you and your debauched friends are conspiring to stop us from running in a straight line.”

That’s the effect Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine has on your mind; suddenly you see everything through the lens of comedy – partly from your own outraged sense of self-righteousness and partly to convince yourself that you’re just as observant as Mr. Seinfeld.

On Friday, Mr. Seinfeld, 54, co-creator of Seinfeld – a sitcom purportedly about nothing – was nothing if not reliably observant. He opened with a self-reflexive piece on how everyone was looking to go out on a Friday evening, how going out meant a lot of planning, and how honored he was that “going out” meant being “in here”.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Seinfeld took shots at the news media (none of which came cheap); he went on to mock both Apple i-phone and Blackberry users. He tossed out casual punch-lines – “There really is not that much of a difference between ‘life sucks’ and ‘great’. You’re licking at an ice-cream and it drops accidentally; you’re thinking, man this sucks, but what do you say? Great.” He did a bunch of funny faces, and from time to time the distinctive high-pitched yelp crept into his voice.

You wouldn’t know from watching his television show that Mr. Seinfeld is good with physical comedy. He used the stage well, ambling from side to side, and at one point during his performance, even pretended to drop dead.

Stand-up gigs are surreal events, and a celebrity performance renders it even more so. There is a subtle complicity between the crowd and the comic. You go there expecting to unwind, so unless the comedian is graceless you’d likely indulge jokes that might not sound as funny in the outside world.

It was a little incongruous to see so many well-dressed people at what was after all, a comedy show; most of us are used to grungy comedy clubs, but clearly this was the big league. Frank Sinatra – the presiding deity of upper-middlebrow acts – warbled in the background as the audience waited for the opening act to get on stage.

That part was filled in by comic hustler Mark Schiff, an old friend of Mr. Seinfeld, and whose routine was part-classic New York shtick and part-Morey Amsterdam (from the Dick Van Dyke show).

Whereas Mr. Schiff’s jokes occasionally seemed canned, Mr. Seinfeld had no such trouble. He was able to effortlessly create the illusion of spontaneity, which is so crucial to building a conversational rapport with the audience.

The show ended not with a goodbye, but a hello: an anecdote about meeting Wayne Knight, the actor who plays Newman on Seinfeld. “Hello… Newman,” Mr. Seinfeld said with one eyebrow raised, in reference to a recurring joke from the sitcom.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The exclusion principle

i was listening to an episode of This American Life on the subject of fraternity parties the other evening, and it struck me how the cultural logic of this country especially encourages and rewards participation in social groups, and punishes individualists and loners by labeling them with tags like "creepy losers".

the sense of one-upmanship embedded in the partying circuit, which ira glass was gassing about for half-an-hour, isn't nearly as interesting as how frats and sororities perform the insidious role of weeding out "undesirable" people from the pool of potential american success stories.

most american school and college kids obsessively perform some sterilized, socially-sanctioned-identity-with-a-name under the narcissistic illusion that they are different from everyone else: cheerleader, dope addict with a cap worn backwards, party girl, mr. sarcasm. even if you want to complicate their identities by acknowledging that the cheerleader also happens to be a genius at biology and mr. sarcasm should be known for his singing talents, my point still holds -- the performance of identity isn't as interesting as the overarching structure that commands that performance.

the hostel system in indian high schools and colleges almost never works as a brand. while it certainly helps in building close personal ties, few make imaginative use of it as a networking tool. nobody is really trying to weed you out, people are randomly assigned to hostels and often folks don't care enough to manufacture a rivalry between rival houses. nobody is going to cite your house affiliation while giving you a job 10 years from now. except in the case of the indian institutes of technology, desi university networks at home or abroad, are virtually non-existent.

perhaps, then, the defining feature that distinguishes a developed nation from the rest of the world at a structural level is the value the former places on the conscious idea of efficient social organization. in countries like india where social evils like caste continue to flourish away from urban centres, the appeal to make distinctions -- while often cynical -- is driven by emotion, instinct and prejudice. in the west, however, the hegemonic force involved is the hyper-valued commodity of logic, or at the very least, faux-logic: distinction is introduced through the formal practice of education. school and college social organizations become the earliest gateways put in place to cock-block a) anti-social people whose opinions are unpredictable and difficult to read b) average-looking people, or more accurately, people who aren't sufficiently "well-groomed".

grooming is one of those peculiar american virtues drilled into students of all races at every step; which is to say, because of contemporary values perpetuated in the media --

the american people might forgive
unflattering features on an ugly face
but not a strand of hair that is out of place.

fortunately it's not as if people who don't make it to one of these social groups are doomed to fail, but all of this really does make you marvel at how america continues to thrive upon the principle of exclusion. fraternities and sororities can offer a wealth of connections to some of the best talent out there. but at its worst, the system reaffirms and re-inscribes the art of bullshit.