Category Archives: Uncategorized

How my Miscarriage Made Me More Pro-Choice

You can read my recent guest post on Feministe here.

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Wherein I Become A Radio Star

This morning I aired on a local NPR series called Engines of Our Ingenuity.  You can listen to it here.  Enjoy!

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Two New Articles

It just happens that in the last two days I’ve published two articles.  Here are the links:

Why Obama Should Not Visit the Western Wall

Shani Boianjiu and the Past and Present of Jewish Literature

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Hier ist kein warum: on North Korean threats, language, and politics

kimjongun

Kim Jong-Un of North Korea

Last night I my husband and I were talking about North Korea’s recent threats to attack the United States and South Korea, and I mentioned that I had read that a North Korean official had threatened to turn the U.S. into a “lake of fire.”  I was a little off – the actual quote from The New York Times by Kang Pyo-yong, the vice defense minister of North Korea, is this: “If we push the button [to activate the nuclear weapons], they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil, and its followers, into a sea of fire.”  As we spoke, my husband laughed and absently wondered why authoritarian regimes like North Korea always resort to the kind of inflated rhetoric that sounds ridiculous to the outside world. While I quite relish the idea of living in a nest of evil (It sounds so fun! Porn! Drugs! Fattening foods!), I began thinking about the question of language and authoritarianism more seriously.

Manipulation of language for political purposes is not restricted to the realm of totalitarianism, of course, but it is of central importance to the maintenance of any authoritarian regime or regime of terror.  It seems to serve two primary purposes: dehumanization through the devaluation of linguistic meaning, and the establishment of an impenetrable, closed social and cultural space controlled solely by the regime.  George Orwell touched on these ideas in his 1941 speech-turned-essay “Literature and Totalitarianism,” in which he noted the potential for control offered by language and culture.  Of the totalitarian regime, he wrote, “It not only forbids you to express — even to think — certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison.”

Primo Levi, in his Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, made this connection between the manipulation and devaluation of language, dehumanization, and demarcation of a new, impenetrable boundary between the world of the regime (in his case, also a literal boundary, marked by barbed wire and electric fencing, between the death camp and freedom) and the outside world.  Upon his initiation into the camp, Levi writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.”  When a particular human condition is so extreme as to be outside language, language must be bent and twisted to accommodate or describe it.

arbeitmachtfreiPerhaps nothing is as clear an example of this abuse of language than the inscription on the gate through which Levi and his fellow prisoners walk each day to work: Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes you free.  This sign has two effects: first, it mocks the prisoners in their utter powerlessness, making a joke of the killing labor they are forced to do; second, and more insidiously, this inside-out claim about work and freedom hollows out meaning, depriving language of its signifying power, further dehumanizing its victims by refusing to acknowledge the reality of slavery and murder to which it mockingly refers.  And if language is, ultimately, the means by which we construct our own identities, express our thoughts and feelings to others, and understand our very selves, its devaluation necessarily contributes to a loss of humanity, not just for those whom the regime enslaves and imprisons, but for everyone.

Rendering language meaningless, the backwards rhetoric of authoritarianism also creates a clear boundary between the world of the regime and everything outside of it.  Levi describes this process through a small detail, noting that after his arm has been tattooed with his number, which is to replace his name, “for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, a number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin.”  The wristwatch, representative of the order of the civilized world outside the camp, has given way to his number, which itself has replaced his name, literally erasing language and compromising its power to signify meaning.

The rules and mores of the camp are likewise differentiated from those of the civilized world of the wristwatch, as Levi discovers when, thirsty after traveling in a cattle car for more than a day with no water, he tries to break off an icicle outside the window of his new barracks.  A guard snatches it from him.  “‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German.  ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”  That is the lesson of totalitarianism: there is no why here.  Language has no meaning, so explanation is useless.  The rhetoric of authoritarianism may sound funny, but it’s not a joke. To reduce a country, its people, and perhaps the entire world to a “nest of evil” not only makes it easier to press that button, but it corrupts our understanding of what evil really is.

Even worse, this corruption of language has its parallels in other realms of our culture, far more quotidian and pervasive than the occasional pronouncements of a North Korean dictator.  The other day Rand Paul implied a comparison between Hitler’s rise to power and President Obama’s.  How many times a day do you see an advertisement for something “new” or “must-have”?  To threaten a “sea of fire” may be obvious hyperbole, but how often do we encounter this very kind of hyperbolic language every day?  And to what extent does this corruption of language interfere with our ability to understand and represent our very selves, to, in a sense, remain human?

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Hindsight is 20/20. Sort of.

Today I turn 40. I was not one of those kids who always imagined her future (perhaps to my detriment, since I sometimes think those people’s lives seem a lot easier and more fulfilled than mine, although the key word there is “seem,” since I really have no idea), so I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about what my life should be like at this point, on the cusp of middle age. But I’m pretty sure I did not think it would be like this: uncertain, financially and professionally unstable, with that persistent sense that George Saunders recently described in The New York Times Magazine that “You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored.”

Why 40/40?

Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but I often feel I know as little now about what happened then as I did then. Perhaps my hindsight is as myopic as my eyesight. Also, isn’t 40 the age when you have to start wearing bifocals? Anyway, it seems like my vision is pretty messed up.

40/40 is my slightly myopic 21st-century version of a midlife crisis. Even at 40, I still have that unsettling sense that I’m waiting for something to happen, and I wanted to try to create something both as a way of staving off that feeling and as a way of making it happen, whatever “it” is. The mystery and opacity of the “it” is what is so unsettling, so I will define it by creating something tangible, whose results I can see and enjoy (or fret over) right now. Click – voila! – instant gratification.

The question is, what? I am a private person and have no interest in writing a personal blog about my kids or my job or the persistent ache in my right shoulder. I love to write, but I am uncomfortable when people read what I’ve written or know what I really think about all kinds of things – this is probably why I chose an academic field in which anything I write is guaranteed to be read by no more than five people, give or take. I also love to read, but so does everyone else. Zadie Smith recently captured my own feelings on the subject of reading and expertise far better than I could myself:

“I have known many true connoisseurs, with excellent tastes that range across the humanities and the culinary arts – and they never fail to have a fatal effect on my self-esteem. When I find myself sitting at dinner next to someone who knows just as much about novels as I do but has somehow also found the mental space to adore and be knowledgeable about the opera, have strong opinions about the relative rankings of Renaissance painters, an encyclopedic knowledge of the English civil war, of French wines – I feel an anxiety that nudges beyond the envious into the existential. How did she find the time?”

I want to make myself find the time for a project that can satisfy and challenge me both, so here it is: in honor of my fortieth birthday I am going to read 40 books this year and write about them here. I am going to combine reading and re-reading, because one of the things I find myself doing more and more frequently as I get older is thinking about books I read long ago and wanting to read them again, but as I get older I’ve also realized that time is running out to do it, and I better get started. To keep it fresh I also want to read newly published books, fiction and non-fiction, things I’m interested in and things that are good that I might initially think I’m not interested in but then become captivated by. I’d prefer to read only good books, but I’m sure that won’t happen all of the time. I have a short list to start, but I need suggestions, so if you have any, please share. Check back shortly (oh, the optimism!) for my first reflection.

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