Sleepwalking Toward Sanitizing

I don’t know if this has attracted much attention outside Massachusetts, but in the news yesterday was the controversy over a statue at Wellesley College that depicts a remarkably lifelike sleepwalking man clad only in his underwear. The painted bronze statue, “Sleepwalker” by Tony Matelli, is part of a solo show at Wellesley’s Davis Gallery. It has been placed outdoors on the Wellesley campus and has moved hundreds of students to sign a petition demanding its removal on the grounds that it is triggering memories of sexual assault for some students.

 

(Photo from the Wellesley Report)

 

It is important to first emphasize that the man is not naked. He is wearing underpants. His genitals are not visible, or even suggested. His eyes are shut, and as the name of the artwork itself suggests, he is unconscious – he is asleep. He is not taking any deliberate action. Matelli stated to the Boston Globe, “Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage.” And that’s precisely what art is meant to do – interact with your unique mind, with all its history and experiences, and make you think, even if it draws you out of your comfort zone. And while nobody will deny that sexual assault is a horrible thing, I strongly believe this call for the removal of the statue on the grounds of what memories it evokes in some viewers is inappropriate.

One complaint I’ve read about the statue’s placement is that it is intrusive. If somebody is walking across part of the Wellesley campus, they see it – they can’t avoid it the way they could if it was inside the gallery. Fair enough, but public art is all over the United States, much of it referencing war, which by its very nature is a traumatic act. Furthermore, the link between the intrusiveness of public placement and the “triggering” of traumatic memory is tenuous at best when you consider that the man depicted by this statue is less blatantly sexually suggestive than, say, a billboard of David Beckham advertising underwear – and advertising is incredibly intrusive. You can’t escape advertising in American society unless you lock yourself inside with no TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. That doesn’t mean we ban advertising underwear on the grounds that it is by its very nature sexual and in public, and all things sexual could serve as reminders of sexual violence. If an image in the public eye is disturbing, you must avert your eyes, not place curtains over the rest of the world.

David Beckham for H&M: massive advertising image of a fully conscious man in his underpants. More sexual. Not violent.

Let’s be clear, sexual violence is a horrible, life-altering thing. Nobody is denying that. But it is just one of many terrible things that can happen to a person in the course of an average life. Some people survive getting viciously mauled by dangerous dogs. Their experience is undoubtedly traumatic and they may be triggered every time they see a large dog being walked by its owner or running free in a park. Yet, The world does not owe them a dog-free town in which to live. Gun crime is a sad fact of life in America, yet images of guns are pervasive in this culture and are not going anywhere. I have my own disturbing anxieties, and guess what, they’re my problem. Over many years, as I have grown older, I have learned to deal with them. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned the world doesn’t owe me a comfortable existence. Why? Because they’re my problems and part of my life story, not other people’s. I don’t expect everybody to read my mind and know exactly what sets me off, because the world doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. It’s impossible, unless we all walk around with dry-erase boards around our necks on which we constantly update our feelings, like a real-world Twitter. And even if we were to do something so absurd, what exactly would we be achieving? What actionable course would come out of it?

We all have our traumas, but the world does not revolve around any of us. None of us. The world does not owe you an existence free of offense. The world does not owe you consensus. An environment in which every step is taken to sanitize expression to the level of no possible offensiveness is a world without free expression, a world without art. It is a world suitable only for children, who lack the capacity for critical thinking. Because once you start sanitizing, you can’t stop. Everything is potentially triggering to somebody. But guess what, life is triggering. Life is painful and sad and part of growing up is learning to cope with really, really unpleasant things. People mature with experience and they have to be mentally stimulated to do so. For better and for worse. The truth is that some people in this world are men, and some men sleep in their underwear, and a statue depicting a male sleepwalker in his underwear may offend some people the same way that any other work of art could offend anybody. One form of offense should not be privileged above another when the reason for that offense stems from personal interpretation rather than any blatant characteristic depicted in the artwork itself.

Or, in short: this argument is not about sexual assault.

This argument is not about sexual assault because this is a statue that, at face value, has nothing to do with sexual assault.

All the artist can control is that face value. The rest is up to the viewer.

Of course, because art is open to interpretation, it is perfectly valid if you are reminded of sexual assault while viewing the statue. Everybody is entitled to interpretation. What everybody is NOT entitled to is to force that interpretation upon others, especially when there is no blatant sexuality in the artwork. If the man had a visible penis? Yes, that would change things. But he doesn’t have a visible penis. He’s wearing underwear. Because some people sleep in their underwear. And he’s sleepwalking. We know he’s sleepwalking because the title of the artwork says so. That much, we know. Everything else is personal interpretation – and personal interpretation is just that. Personal. Your own. Thinking back to when I was in college, I’m pretty sure that it was in the Illiad that sleep was said to be the brother of death. I can look at this statue and think about the person being suspended somewhere between life and death. Death is an incredibly unsettling thought. But that doesn’t mean I can make it, or this artwork, go away. If traumatic memories are so pervasive and disturbing in somebody’s life that the sight of this statue will have a severe adverse impact, then that requires a level of professional help that should be made available, affordable, and unstigmatized. The statue isn’t the issue – the trauma is. Removing a work of art doesn’t get rid of PTSD. The statue that triggered you today could be the news story you overhear tomorrow, or the picture in the paper that you couldn’t avoid. We don’t treat diabetes by ridding the world of sugar – we give insulin to people who need it and tell them how to control their diet. Same principle. Treat the root cause of the anxiety and panic rather than bleach the public realm.

Another argument I have heard is that it is particularly distasteful that this artwork depicting a man in his underpants has been installed at a women’s college. I don’t have time for that. Going to a women’s college does not mean you will not be exposed to the sex that comprises roughly half this planet’s population. Higher education exists to expand your experience of the world, not constrain it. (That is precisely the reason I never even entertained the possibility of applying to a women’s college back when I was 17. I wanted a university that reflected the world a bit more accurately than shutting out half the population, and on a more personal level, I got satisfaction from beating the boys on an equal playing field.) If you want to go to Wellesley or Smith or Barnard, that’s fine, that’s up to you. But don’t expect to keep imagery that reflects the rest of society out. If you want to be completely cloistered, you’ll have to become a nun. And even then, you’ll have to interact with men.

If this controversy gets people talking about sexual assault, that is undoubtedly a good thing – there needs to be more action against rape on college campuses and I think we can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean somebody’s artwork should be a casualty when it does not depict rape. Also, it should be noted that this is not the only sleepwalker statue Tony Matelli has created. He has one of a woman in her underwear. If this had been installed at Wellesley instead of the male version, we would probably be talking about the sexual objectification of women rather than traumatic memories of rape. (Hell, in many parts of American the statue probably couldn’t even be shown in public because REALISTIC FEMALE NIPPLES EQUAL HORRIBLY WORLD-DESTROYING OBSCENITY don’t you know…but that’s another story) And that would be just as good a debate as this one, but it still wouldn’t be grounds for removing the statue.

I anticipate I will be accused of having no sympathy, of victim-blaming. It is not victim blaming to suggest that the world cannot anticipate, and then cater to, your every emotion. It is no more victim-blaming than it would be for me to insist that, say, I have the right to walk down a public street where at one point in time an entirely different young white woman with dark hair committed an act of horrible injustice against somebody living there. Might my action trigger horrible memories for somebody? Sure. Should I be expected to know what goes on in other people’s minds? No. Should I change my life because an innocuous act could offend somebody? Of course not. And neither should Tony Matelli lock up his visual art, which is meant for open-air display, because somebody’s interpretation might trigger unpleasant memories. Nowhere in the history of humankind has a life been free from pain or offense. Societies come to a consensus about what is beyond the pale – those blatant images of abuse, gore, exploitation, what have you. And for those images where there are grey areas, we have debates. Removal of artwork because it could potentially be interpreted a certain way – potentially being the key word, because there is nothing sexually explicit about it – shuts down debate. Nobody is policing your feelings by stating that the world can’t always reflect your feelings and that public art is part of that world. Supporting victims of sexual violence includes believing them when they say they were raped, helping them in whatever way possible when they’re involved with law enforcement, offering support when they need it, being an ear to listen when they want to speak, and teaching young people that no means no. It does not include shutting out the world because something might be interpreted in a certain way. In short, you do not get justice for anybody by getting rid of a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underpants. Sanitize everything for everyone, anticipating every possibility for offense, and you’re left with nothing at all.

Finally, I want to leave you with images of artworks that will live forever in the pantheon of human creativity precisely because the memories they evoke are so painful:

We do not hide Picasso’s “Guernica” or Goya’s “The Third of May” from survivors of war, locked away where they cannot possibly trigger horrible memories. We keep them on public display because we may learn from them and the emotions they evoke. Art, whether creating it or viewing it, can also function to help people come to terms with traumatic pasts, whether individual (as the victims of trauma) or collectively (as a people who have been harmed, harmed others, or had harm done in our name). We do not treat adults as if they are made of glass, terrified they may crumble if exposed to challenge. To borrow from First Amendment law, we do not reduce a population of adults to that which is suitable to children. Those artworks are powerful precisely because they stir up strong emotions, and we would be a lesser species without them. We can use the controversy at Wellesley as an opportunity to discuss the problem of campus rape, but we can do that without removing an artwork that does not even depict rape or any kind of sexual act. We do not reduce culture to what is completely literal because to do so is an insult to our minds, which want to look at the world abstractly and interpret it in different ways. And some of those interpretations are unpleasant. That’s part of life. Life is pain, life is suffering, and yes, life is unfair. But we keep living it for a reason.

UPDATE, MARCH 5th: Jill Filipovic, in the Guardian, has called time on the overuse of “trigger warnings.” I think her piece is brilliant, especially how it highlights the way people shut down reasonable discussion and debate by pointing to potential trauma. What the over-use of trigger warnings mean is that if you proceed with engaging in “triggering” material, such as assigning a great work of literature like “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achibe, you suddenly become an aggressor because you didn’t give into the demand of someone who claimed to be speaking for the oppressed and downtrodden, and thus you make somebody a victim. This becomes a huge slippery slope in academia, where students can complain about unfair treatment by professors. Can you imagine the lawsuits? “Professor X forced me into the psychological trauma of reading this book, or else I would fail the class, even after I pointed out why it is problematic.” It sounds ridiculous, but just wait…

And, y’know what? I’m going to say it: Not everybody is a victim. We don’t need to define ourselves as victims. I read “Things Fall Apart” when I was 15 and so did my entire high school class and somehow we survived without any trauma. As a young woman I’m tired of being treated as if I can’t deal with anything more controversial than a slice of bread or see beyond my own experiences. Trigger warning: I’m asking you to thicken your skin.

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Reading the City

Perhaps it’s a legacy from my time in academia that when I read articles about familiar topics, I find myself asking, “What gaps in our knowledge does this address?” Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article, “Lessons from Living in London,” has been doing the rounds, and I’m afraid that the lesson I have learned from it is that ex-pats don’t always see the parts of a city that make it so unique – the parts that make it different from where you left behind, and which make you fall in love with it and call it home. I’d say that even though you may be geographically within London – and pretty close to the center of it – you can’t get a good sense for what it is to actually live in London if your only experiences are of Notting Hill, Kensington, Hampstead, and Angel.

Unfortunately, at points in the article where I think Lyall is about to launch into fascinating detail, the prose falls short. For example, she writes, “Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole.” And that may be true, but unfortunately for the reader, she does not elaborate on how or why. I start thinking, where is her evidence? Of course years spent in a city of over 7 million souls should make evidence thick on the ground. And far beyond simply confirming her claim, I want to read about how and why residents feel so connected to their individual dots on a map. What are those unique features high streets have that set them apart from each other within a sea of identical chain stores? Lyall could have gone into detail here and captured part of why people fall in love with London, but instead, we don’t get anything other than the standard well-off expat experience. We don’t get any sense for what those neighborhoods even are, because she doesn’t go to them. When she says “residents,” who does she mean? Who does she know, who has she talked to? American expats? Native-born Londoners? New immigrants? It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think the rich and unique life of the city is found in Kensington, a place barely anybody can afford anymore.

Now, Zadie Smith is one of those authors you either love or hate, but there is no denying she has a gift for rich description of parts of London that are far from the tourist path. You have people in middle-of-nowhere Kansas who have a rudimentary idea of what Willesden and Kilburn are like thanks to her books. To me, the uniqueness of London is found by going way up the Edgware Road, or any other main route, to where people who moved without corporate backing live. Of course, Lyall’s experiences are her own, they’re completely valid, and I would be dead wrong to criticise anybody for writing a piece that wasn’t exactly what I want to read, but at the same time, an article that is about living in London needs to go beyond what has already been written ad infinitum. If your experience of a city outside the touristed areas is the same as that of a tourist – e.g. very limited – then what is the point of living in that city? Even though the woes of newspaper publishing nowadays are well-known, the New York Times obviously wasn’t going to make her live in the places most new arrivals to London tend to land, but Kensington and Angel are essentially bubbles. They could be anywhere. Only living there and then saying you know London would be like imagining all there is to New York City is Midtown Manhattan and maybe Brooklyn Heights. Meaning, you’re missing out on so, so much.

Go beyond zone 1 and you’ll see what makes London unlike anywhere else in the world. The Tottenham High Road, now widely known for being the birthplace of the 2011 riots, has businesses catering to immigrants from everywhere from Colombia to Ghana to Poland, yet it remains distinctly a part of England with gems like Bruce Castle and the Walthamstow Marshes. Go past Hampstead into Golders Green and there’s a park with wildlife you’d associate more with Australia than North London. I don’t mean to get all “Bro do you even North London,” because Sarah Lyall can only write about what she has experienced and everybody’s life is going to be different and this isn’t a bloody competition, but it is the fact that her article seems to indicate she didn’t experience very much of what the city has to offer off the beaten path that really gets me. The article is about living in London, but I see little of the London I lived and loved. Have you had a wander through Crystal Palace Park? Gone up the hill to Alexandra Palace and looked out at all those rooftops and wondered about the people beneath them? Have you walked the canals and the reservoirs and the places where it’s hard to believe you’re actually still in a massive city? Have you gone past Canary Wharf to the little farm in Mudchute? Then walked through a public tunnel underneath the river to Greenwich? When those riots erupted, did you hear people talking about Broadwater Farm and did you know it not as someplace grown, but someplace built? Ever navigated using the Wembley Arch? Felt guilty about the nice clothes you got so cheaply at the market in Bow because errrrrrrm maybe they *cough cough* fell off the back of a lorry? Found free orchards behind a council estate in Stoke Newington and in the corner of a park in Ealing? Just got onto a bus for the hell of it and waited to see where it would leave you? Because that’s what living in London means to me. An opportunity to always find something new.

Or, stay within the center of the city, but look around the corners. Even Kensington itself is more multi-faceted than this article depicts. Notting Hill may be known to most Americans as that genteel little place from a horrible movie (sorry, I have something against Hugh Grant, it’s irrational but don’t try to convince me otherwise), but have you ever wondered why the West Indian carnival is there? Because in the middle of the last century, in a racist housing market, immigrants from the Caribbean who had little choice of where to live found one of the few places they were welcome – albeit in exchange for exorbitant rents for run-down, subdivided flats – was W11. Of course, Notting Hill is now too pricey for the vast majority of new arrivals, but the carnival is just one reminder of the movement of people around the city both within and throughout generations. 

When Lyall recalls a lost man in Soho who is fumbling with a map of Brussels, I wanted more. Because, well, I honestly don’t find anything interesting about someone’s experience of culture shock being that dry-cleaners don’t deliver to your door, or that you have to say “rubbish” instead of “trash.” Maybe the NYT editors were aiming for what they thought their average reader would identify with – though, to be honest, having almost never gotten delivery of anything in NYC, I found myself really not caring. London is an extraordinary place. Tell us an extraordinary story. 

I was hoping that when she said “geography is destiny,” we were going to be taken into a discussion of how London is growing increasingly polarized, how places like Kensington and Angel are far beyond the price range of the vast majority of native Londonders, but again, Lyall failed to elaborate. If you want to know how geography is destiny in London, I recommend reading Danny Dorling’s The 32 Stops, part of Penguin Books’ collaboration with Transport for London to publish 12 distinct books tied to the 12 lines of the London Underground. Dorling, a geographer at the University of Sheffield, writes accessibly and succinctly, using the stops on the Central Line to illustrate the extent of inequality in London. It is a quick read, but insightful and chock-full of information. The Central Line begins and ends in the suburbs, and through vignettes about imagined individuals and families, he paints tiny pictures of what matters in the lives of everyday Londoners. It is short, to-the-point, and most importantly it achieves its aim. You can borrow my copy.

Of course, this was just a short article in the travel section. It can’t go into massive detail. It’s not supposed to. And I can’t tell anybody how to experience a place. But I feel like piping up and saying that life in London is more vibrant and offers more experiences than the article might indicate. Strangely, the closest I felt to New York was in Golders Green, one of the few places in London with a visible Jewish presence. To me, it’s fascinating that despite their physical distance, I found commonality between the two cities I consider home in an ethnic enclave that resembled so much of the American counterpart. And I don’t care if the shops there don’t deliver, because the 210 bus that took me there and back crossed Hampstead Heath just fine, with a view to kill for from the front seat of the upper deck.

The law of little things

Now well-settled in Boston, I’m happy to report that I don’t have a single regret about quitting the PhD. It would be premature to say I’ve put it all behind me, because – let’s be real – you don’t shrug off nearly three years of dashed expectations and disappointments that drove you into a depression in less than three months. But all in all? Life is smooth enough for my liking and that’s really all I can ask for right now. The students are all coming back to town now and I am just so, so relieved to not be one of them.

I had a bit of a rocky start. I was sitting around minding my own business one night about a week into my tenancy when I saw something scurry along the side of the room. Then another thing. And another thing. Furry little brown things. Mice. Instead of being a tiny annoyance that I should have shrugged off with one call to the exterminator, this knocked me sideways. Boston was supposed to be a new start, everything was nice and clean, and in my mind an infestation contaminated the fresh new life I was putting together for myself. To me, I might as well have been back in the Tenderloin. Everything seemed ruined for a while. Let’s just say that disposing of live mice stuck to glueboards was not what I envisioned myself doing in June, and I was just so stressed out from the move. Fortunately, they’re gone, and with a little luck they won’t come back. The new apartment is feeling like a home. Got a big tank of fish and some plants on the fire escape and whatnot. Nothing wrong with creature comforts, so long as nothing related to the creatures is furry with a long, bare tail.

 

In a country as big as the United States you have to realize that there are simply some places that suit you better than others. The past several weeks have reinforced my belief that it has to be the East Coast for me. The attitudes here just fit. I love the bluntness, the implied acknowledgement that we’re all busy and need to move quickly and life is too short to care about meaningless crap. It’s so…refreshing to not have put my guard up every time I set foot out my front door. In particular, I don’t have to run a gauntlet of crackheads just to get to the subway or deal with creeps who think I want their attention. It’s amazing. I got “hey-baby-how-ya-doin'”-ed in line at the supermarket today for the first time in yonks and it reminded me that it’s not something I have to put up with several times daily anymore. And let’s face it, getting “hey-baby-how-ya-doin'”-ed is harmless. In San Francisco it was a constant OH YEAH BABY LEMME GET SOME OF THAT ASS that never, ever relented. You can only tell yourself to ignore things so much. I didn’t suddenly become a different person when I moved to Boston, and while I know I’m always the first one to remind people that correlation does not imply causation and you need to rule out as many extraneous variables as possible (hi, I’m a researcher), I think the reason I don’t constantly get catcalled and harassed now is because I’m not living in a total hole of a place where people having nothing better to do. Simple as. 

It is the little things in life that can really stress you out and bring you down, for the simple fact that lots of little things add up into one big massive thing rolling down the hill with you in its path. And San Francisco, as we all know, has got loads of hills. I spent way too much time dealing with one thing after another, one broken promise and disappointment and shortcoming after another, to the point where I just stopped expecting anything to get better out there. That’s not good for anybody and I’m not going to romanticize it. Life in Boston is, quite frankly, normal. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If your circumstances are normal you have plenty of energy for going wild in your imaginative life, which is good news for me as I have quite a bit of overdue writing on my plate.

 

Fortunately, the law of little things is commutative; it works in the opposite direction, too. Boston is SO CLEAN. I don’t have to dodge piles of poo (dog or human) when I walk down my street. I don’t have to ride buses that smell of urine and on which I’m probably going to see people beating each other up over nothing. People don’t walk up to me on the train and tell me their miserable life stories. Nobody is smoking crack or meth outside my building or shooting up in broad daylight. Nobody is waking me up with their screaming in the middle of the night. Nobody is whining about their sacred human rights being infringed just because somebody looked at them the wrong way or served them the non-organic vodka. I live right near the center of Boston, yet I look outside and see more trees than heaps of trash. All these little things mean I can enjoy life just that bit more, and it makes more of a difference than I expected.

 

In a perfect world we all know I would have ended up back in either London or New York, but for now Boston is fine by me. The litmus test for me is whether I can find someplace in a city where I can kill time and not feel preoccupied by anything at all. The Public Garden, full of ducks and people all minding their own business together, is that place for me in Boston. I get on a bike and wind through streets here just to mentally map it all out, which I never felt the need to do in San Francisco because I simply didn’t care enough about the place and it didn’t feel like mine. Again, there’s nothing like riding your bike up the canal in London until you’re in a field in Northolt, or wandering out to the middle of the Walthamstow Marshes, or riding the NYC subway to the end of the line and walking along the shore with everybody speaking Russian in Brighton Beach, but right now it’ll do. I really wouldn’t mind staying here a few years – I’ve had enough several-thousand-mile moves to places where I know absolutely nobody. My closest friend from San Francisco, who went to college out here, is moving back tomorrow and it’s going to be fantastic.

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(I have lost track of how many people ask us if we’re related.)

 

My life in California was not normal. I had come to expect all those dysfunctional things as part of my normal routine, and that’s just messed up. No wonder I was bloody miserable. Everybody in San Francisco is all about the freedom to do whatever you want, be whatever you want, but there’s something to be said for having freedom FROM constant hassle and lack of social boundaries, too. I simply don’t have to live like that anymore and it makes all the difference. That’s not to say everything is sunshine and roses now – let’s face it, I’m one of those people for whom there will always be something lingering around, I’ll never be able to just let things go – but I’m a hell of a lot happier with my life than I was a few months ago. This feels more like what I wanted for age 28. 

 

In other news, I went to Chicago for a couple days last month when my friend Zach, who I’ve known since we were the two five-year-olds getting plucked out of class because we’d already taught ourselves to read, got married. I’m so happy for him and Regen, and it was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for the better part of a decade.

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Chicago is strange. Cabrini-Green has completely vanished. The South Loop is full of new-build apartments and townhouses. Downtown, Donald Trump has built himself a massive monument to his feelings of masculine inadequacy. The whole place is simultaneously familiar and foreign. Nice to visit, but I can’t see myself living there again.

 

A few weeks ago I went out to LA for a few days to do something fun and new which I can’t say anything else about at the moment, but you’ll hear about it sooner or later.

 

I’m considering getting a Quaker parrot. I’ve loved these birds for ages, ever since I was a teenager with a weekend job in a pet shop, but they’re considerably larger and longer-lived than the ones I’ve had before, and they were out of the question in California because the state banned them. But now that I might be here for a while…I dunno. They’re known for being remarkably good mimics:

 

The last one I met seemed to like me well enough.

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So that’s that. I’m willing to accept things changing little by little.

(EDIT: two minutes after I post this, I find a mouse trying to eat his way through a bag of chips in my kitchen. The above may be temporarily null and void, because I say so.)

I Quit!

I am no longer a PhD student!

I have cleared out my office space, returned all my library books, gotten my $10 deposit back on the bathroom key (really). But no, I haven’t gotten my doctorate. I’ve dropped out. I’ve decided to cut my losses and move on to something that’s better for me.

It wasn’t easy to drop out. After all, I’ve never done it before in my life. But I’m not alone – roughly half of American PhD students in the social sciences will do just that. The reason it’s so hard for us to realize we need to stop is because it runs counter to everything we’ve ever done, and also to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We’re smart people. Smart people become professors and get “Dr.” in front of their names. By definition, we are the kind of people who thrive in academic settings. We breezed through high school, loved doing our BAs, and remain insatiably curious about our topics of interest. Going on to get a doctorate seems like the logical thing to do when you’re that kind of person, right? And there’s really no reason we can’t succeed if we just work hard enough, right?

Well, no. I was dead wrong.

Of course, I did my research ahead of applying to a PhD program, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but because I had never had any trouble getting things done throughout my post-secondary education, I assumed I could surmount any problems with the same ease I had previously experienced. And of course, everybody likes to think she will be an exception. Everybody wants to believe, I have enough passion to get this done, I am conscientious enough to finish quickly, I am dedicated enough to deflect any adversity that may get thrown my way. Yes, I may not be earning much, but I’ll get some fellowships or bursaries. Yes, I won’t be getting much supervision, but I’m independent and I can motivate myself. After all, that’s what the story has been in our lives up until that point, so why should we expect the PhD should be any different? We have always been dedicated, we have always been academically exceptional. We’re doing what seems to fit us perfectly.

The problem is, it IS different. A PhD is another animal altogether. The old rules don’t apply. Sometimes really, really smart people have the most difficulty. It’s not a matter of intelligence or enthusiasm or how much you want to succeed. It’s how well you do this new and tricky dance. It’s academic office politics, it’s a matter of how other people feel about your passions and how your interests align with theirs, it’s a matter of how many stumbling blocks arbitrarily get thrown in your path. And unlike other countries, where you go in knowing your dissertation topic and finish in three or four years, at Berkeley the average time to degree for sociology PhDs is nine years. Nine. Years. I convinced myself I could be done in five – six at most – but I quickly found so many obstacles in my path that it became clear it wouldn’t happen. Having just completed my third year, I can walk away with an MA in sociology, but I do wish I had come to this realization a bit quicker. I guess I was just too optimistic, expecting things would get better. They didn’t.

Shortly after starting, I found that one rug after another began to get pulled out from beneath my feet. I had been told I would get some credit, and consequently some exemptions from coursework, for already having a master’s degree. Nope nope nope, didn’t happen. I thought I would have the opportunity to earn as much as the other students in my cohort because I wanted to work really hard. Nope nope nope, my salary was half of everybody else’s my first semester because a fourth-year student needed a job and was inexplicably given half of mine. I couldn’t come close to making the rent on my university-owned shared apartment! I was led to believe I would have a stipend every year. Nope nope nope, it was gone after the first. I expected this university would have the computer software I would need for doing my statistical analysis. I honestly thought I wouldn’t have to bang my head against the wall with so many administrative nightmares, and even if I did, I figured somebody would be able to point me in the right direction to get them fixed. I assumed I would be treated as capable, and I would have opportunities to interact with lots of people who shared my interests. Nope, nope, and nope.

I went from being a happy, financially independent young woman living in London to a demoralized barely-adult. I felt as if I was a teenager again, stripped of autonomy and independence, having to ask my parents for money, being trapped by Berkeley’s poor public transportation, and squeezed into a new city much smaller than I expected. My boyfriend in London and I tried to keep up our relationship, and he came to visit me, but 5000 miles was just too massive a gap. By the time I went back to England for New Year my first year I realized that what we had was gone. Whereas I had previously shared a sunny, spacious maisonette in a decent part of North London with a good friend, I was now stuck holed up in cramped university housing surrounded by fraternities with three other girls, two of whom hated each other’s guts. After my first year, I moved to San Francisco proper and rented my own studio apartment, but the only affordable neighborhood walking distance to the train to Berkeley was the very worst in the city, full of drug addicts who think nothing of using the sidewalk as a toilet and smoke crack in broad daylight. I left the pet bird I had raised from when he was a chick, who I had tamed and trained and taught to speak, with my friend in London, and he died much sooner than I expected. I gave up a lot to do this PhD, mentally telling myself it would pay off, and so long as I stayed patient and worked hard, I would find it was worth it. The problem is, that never happened. All I saw were the things I had given up, and no payoff. And not only was I not getting anything positive in return, I WAS getting a hell of a lot of alienation and frustration.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that California and I do not really get along. I came in with an open mind, but after living in London for so many years, and New York City before that, the Bay Area just can’t compare. I had reverse culture shock. It was the little things I missed, like being able to sit down and watch a Tottenham match, or wander through Finsbury Park, or sit outside the pub on a sunny afternoon, or get Polish food whenever I wanted it, along with the big things like my job and lifestyle and friends. But in addition to missing London, California in particular was also rubbing me the wrong way. San Francisco feels far dirtier than New York and London. Attitudes tend to be very knee-jerk good versus evil rather than realizing that the world is far more complicated than that. I’m liberal, but I quickly got tired of the constant conspicuous competition to see whose heart bleeds most. I got tired of people honestly thinking it is sexist to say “you guys.” I got very, very tired of everybody calling their crazy untrained mutt a “service dog” so that it can run around the supermarket or restaurant or clothing shop and nobody can say a word about it because OPPRESSION! Do you know that some people compost their own human waste out here in their gardens? Yeah. I got tired of the gourmet artisan kale chips in the food bank donation barrel when, for the same price, you can feed your family pasta for a week. In fact, I’m tired of kale altogether. Please stop talking about how wonderful your kale is. I honestly don’t care. Nobody outside the West Coast bubble cares about your kale.

I think most people apply to Berkeley because, in addition to its academic appeal, there’s something about the Bay Area lifestyle that really appeals to them. It wasn’t like that for me. I came to Berkeley because it is ranked one of the best sociology doctoral programs in the world, and that’s all. My interests didn’t overlap much with those of other students – hiking and skiing aren’t my thing, I didn’t want to Occupy Oakland or go on strike, Burning Man sounds like hell on Earth, and when I cook, I honestly don’t care about locally-grown and organic heirloom tomatoes that cost four times more than the regular ones. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, that’s fine, and you will love living in the Bay Area, but it’s really not for me. Not at all. It’s not my kind of place, and the way I see it, if I haven’t grown to like it by now, I never will. And that’s fine. The East Coast has room for millions of people like me, and there are plenty of people who love California and will be far happier here than I ever was.

Eventually, all the close friends I made were people from outside the university. We met through shared interests like music and dance. I didn’t know anybody here when I arrived. My nearest family member is in Ohio. My parents are on the East Coast, and even though we have a very close relationship, I don’t get to see them very often because it takes an entire day to get there and another day to return. In London, I had four bus lines stopping right across the street from my front door in addition to Underground and Overground lines only a short walk away. In Berkeley, I quickly realized that you are largely trapped without a car. Bus service is mediocre, and the BART trains even worse. I felt less safe walking around there at night than I ever had in proper big cities. In short, upon starting the PhD, my world suddenly became very, very small.

There are lots of things wrong with the social science PhD experience in America. You can poke around the internet and find plenty of articles about them, but for a quick run-down, I recommend the blog 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School. I didn’t find this blog until a few months ago, but upon reading it, I realized it was spot-on. I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone in my feelings, and even more relieved to learn that it is possible to quit the PhD and have a bright future.

The penny dropped this past winter when I was supposed to be studying for my qualifying exams, the oral ones I would need to pass in order to officially advance to candidacy. After waiting months for professors to give me feedback on my reading lists, and finding the number of titles I would have to study increase exponentially, I tried to just sit down and read. And I couldn’t. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make myself read a book. I have always been a voracious reader, and you would assume that because these books are within my areas of interest, I would devour them. But I simply couldn’t. My eyes scanned over the text over and over and I couldn’t finish the page because all the sudden I just didn’t care. For me, the joy had been sucked out of sociology. I didn’t want to spend any more hours poring over these texts. I simply couldn’t make myself do it. And that’s when I knew enough was enough.

Enough. That’s what I finally realized. I’d had enough of the whole damn thing. Had enough of feeling like I didn’t matter one bit, enough of having zero support. Enough of the frustration and alienation. Enough feeling like I was stagnating and getting absolutely nowhere. Enough of feeling like my priorities and attitudes were completely different from those of my colleagues. I always knew I wanted to be a policy researcher rather than a professor, and when I did more research and found out that having a PhD can actually work AGAINST you in non-academic job market, I realized I had little to gain and a lot to lose by staying in the program. I didn’t want to be miserable any longer and I needed to do something about it. So I decided it was time to quit.

Every day since I made that decision, I have asked myself, does it still feel like the right thing to do? And every day, I have answered in the affirmative.

I don’t see this as a failure. In fact, quitting was possibly the smartest thing to do. I only get one life, after all. I came into this at age 25. I’m 28 now. I’m not going to get those three years – those three years which could have been very economically productive – back. I want to eventually be somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother and it’s not going to happen in California. I don’t want to look back on my life in the future and find out I peaked at 22. It’s time to cut my losses.

Let’s get serious: a shocking number of PhD students contemplate suicide. In fact, a Berkeley study a few years ago placed the figure at roughly one in ten. I’m not surprised, because when the first time you find yourself failing is in your late 20s or early 30s, and you’ve invested several years of your life in something that you may never finish or which may not even amount to a job that pays a living wage, sacrificing all the trappings of normal adulthood, it is understandable that people become very depressed. It never got that bad for me, probably because the cultural mismatch between California and myself reminded me that things would get better as soon as I moved back to the East Coast, but it’s horrifying to know that so many of my colleagues may be despairing like that. If anybody in a similar situation is reading this: IT’S NOT WORTH BEING THAT MISERABLE. IT’S SIMPLY NOT WORTH IT. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT. It will be tough to leave, but you CAN do something else. You’re still an intelligent, capable person. It took a while, but I convinced myself that I could still accomplish meaningful things without being Dr. Kite. And above everything, I want to be really, really happy again. I want to go back to being the person I was back when I was feeding the birds in Finsbury Park and walking up the Tottenham High Road with a match ticket in my pocket.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending for me. After several months of job-hunting and the associated existential crises (“What if I’m unemployable for life because I tried to do a doctorate?”), I scored a dream job. I am proud to say that next month I will be moving to Boston and starting a job as a Research Associate at Harvard. In my communications with the principal investigator and her grad student assistants, I have felt more valued in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years of study. They are warm, enthusiastic, encouraging people who believe in me, and I am going to succeed with them. I am grateful to them and I will not let them down. It’s so wonderful to feel appreciated again. Policy-relevant work at last! My enthusiasm has re-emerged and it can only get better. The nightmare is over. Boston is new to me, but my best friend from San Francisco used to live there and she is moving back this autumn. I can easily visit New York. I can’t wait to find my new apartment and start over as a career researcher. I will be fully financially independent. I will have a life that makes me happy.

I didn’t fail. I simply realized the PhD was not for me, not for my life. (Hey, the PhD works for a lot of people, and I wish them the best of luck and all success. I hope they are able to keep following their passions and hopefully get better support than I did.) I made the best decision for my circumstances, and now I’m going forward to greener pastures. If I had never tried, I would probably always be thinking, “Damn, I should have gone for a PhD. I wish I had done that when I had the chance.” Well, now I know it’s not for me, and I won’t have to wonder. And – Harvard! I still can’t believe I’m going to be doing research at Harvard. I am going to have a good salary! I am going to have savings! I am going to feel like a proper adult again! I’m not leaving Berkeley with my tail between my legs, but with my head held high.

I’m moving on up.

I’m still here!

 

And you should expect something nice and long within a few weeks, hopefully.

 

But in the meantime, have the kids from Gladesmore School in Tottenham, North London, performing their single, because they’re incredible:

 

Dumbing Down

I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.

Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.

During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.

Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.

This terrifies me.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.

We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.

What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.

Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?

Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.

And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.

I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?

I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?

And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.

I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.

I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?

And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?

Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.

Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.

The new UC logo is all kinds of horrible

The University of California’s funding woes are well-known. Not a month goes by when there’s not a rumor of yet another tuition increase for undergraduates, and if you want to see an example of austerity in action, I’ll show you the bathrooms in the huge social science building at Berkeley which are cleaned maybe once a week. They are foul. But once a week is still better than what I get in the office I share with five other PhD students (which doesn’t have enough desks for all of us) – that room has never been cleaned since I moved into it over the summer.

Yet despite all the real problems, the UC system decided to throw away a good chunk of money on designing a new logo, needlessly rebranding what is arguably the best group of state universities in the world in an embarrassing attempt to look hip and down-with-the-kids.

You may be wondering what was wrong with the original logo. The answer is, nothing. It looked like the standard, formal logo of any United States university established earlier than the 20th Century. A book, a star, the motto “Let There Be Light,” the year of its establishment…perfectly good logo that immediately communicates that the schools which make up the UC system are serious places for learning and research:

Here’s the slightly more elaborate version (which appears on my business cards!):

Because there are multiple UC campuses across the state, sometimes the logo is altered slightly to give the name of the individual institution:

  

(FYI: While there are many campuses of the University of California, only one of them is abbreviated “Cal,” and that’s UC Berkeley.)

So, what do you do when you have a perfectly good logo that communicates everything it needs to communicate? You ruin it in the name of trying to look contemporary and cool. The new logo is really, truly horrible. “Let there be light?” Nah, let there be the symbol you get when your YouTube video is buffering:

I…I can’t even. It’s like the design team deliberately did its worst. It looks like a flushing toilet viewed from above – and in light of the continuing state funding fiasco, plenty of people would say that is a propos. This logo plays right into the hands of everybody saying that the UC system isn’t what it used to be.

Dumbed down. Style over substance. Unsophisticated. Vague. Commercial. That’s what I think when I see this logo. NOTHING about it says “university” or “California.” It could be a logo for anything – but the last thing I would expect it to be associated with is a prestigious university. It’s not fresh, it’s not exciting, and the gradient looks like it was made in a primitive computer paint program. Not a good look.

I’m not convinced this isn’t an elaborate prank. I mean, a team of designers didn’t think, “Hmmm, this looks a little bit like a flushing toilet, and somebody might connect that to the current problems with UC system funding”? Nobody realized that it looks vague and basic and doesn’t have any kind of symbolism that would tell people what it’s for? It seems like most of us viewing the new logo thought something along those lines after about five seconds. Reactions from students and alumni have been universally negative, often including comments like, “I can’t believe we paid money for this,” and, “If only you’d consulted us first, this would have been immediately scrapped.”

But wait! It gets hilariously better/worse! The designers created a video to introduce the new logo, and it (probably unintentionally) reinforces those negative messages. The video has the unfortunate symbolism of a book being shoved aside THREE TIMES in the first 46 seconds in favor of items like a tote bag and a mug, which isn’t exactly the best move for a university that needs to communicate, in the face of a funding crisis, that high academic standards are being maintained. Watch it here: http://vimeo.com/53530934

They…actually…thought…it was a good idea to show people pushing away books…in a branding exercise for a university.

Admittedly, it’s a nice video. I like the hand-crank/light switch parts. Those are quite cool. Too bad it’s advertising a horrible image. If this new logo is all about branding, then the video makes it look like serious academics are being pushed aside for the sake of slick marketing and commercialization. Professional designers (who are supposed to look for this kind of thing for a living) didn’t notice that and think it might not be the best message? I noticed this after viewing it ONCE! Plus, if you have to explain what a shape is meant to be – e.g. the top of the new logo is meant to look like a book, as outlined in the video – then that means the symbol can’t stand on its own and it fails at doing its job. You shouldn’t have to explain something as simple as a logo – the logo itself is supposed to communicate that kind of thing automatically. I understand that designing an image that pleases everybody is really difficult, and I don’t want this to be taken as a personal attack on the creators, because they have a tough job. I’m certainly not perfect – for example, in calling out some Internet Racists (TM) today, I accidentally wrote “Asian-American” instead of “Asian” and made myself look pretty dumb. That was embarrassing. Mistakes happen. But this is some serious public money and it should have gone through several layers of testing before it got approved. How do you possibly make something that communicates the total opposite of what it is meant to represent?

This appeared on MemeGenerator. Perfect.

I’ve never taken one marketing class in my life. I’ve never worked in advertising or brand identity. Neither have most of the people commenting on the logo. Yet nearly ALL OF US agree this is amateurish and ineffective for communicating the mission or the features of the University of California. Didn’t they hold a focus group or at least ask for comments? Test the logo on students or alumni before making it public? This is honestly the best that paid professionals could do? The problems with it are so, so obvious (Kind of like in the UC system! ZING!) that it is kind of embarrassing that this got the green light. It means that UC decision makers thought this logo was a good idea, and that students and alumni would like it. If none of us looking at the image are professional designers and we immediately see what’s wrong with this, I find it really hard to believe that the people being paid to make the logo and who presumably have experience designing this kind of thing didn’t anticipate that this *might* not go over well…

When you’re making a logo, you do need to imagine what your lay audience will think of it. You may be the pro designer, but you are trying to convince other people of something with your marketing technique, and if the audience hates it, then it doesn’t work.

Argh. UC paid good money for this. And my shared office still never gets cleaned, and we have to bring our own sugar for coffee and tea…

Oh well, at least some creative people at the Boston Review have already altered it to add in a reference to last year’s UC Davis pepper spray incident:

In other news, today is my 28th birthday. I can’t believe it, either. My oldest friend is getting married – I got the save-the-date card a few days ago – and I am still a student. Yes.

UPDATE: Over 43,000 people have signed a petition to ask the University of California to please not use the new logo. For once, I think the term “epic fail” is truly appropriate. http://www.change.org/petitions/university-of-california-stop-the-new-uc-logo

ANOTHER UPDATE: It has been suspended! After reaching 50,000+ signatures, UC decided to axe the new logo. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER? *high-five*

Here we go again

And with another outbreak of violence surrounding Gaza, I brace myself to deal with the inevitable flood of hatred against Jews, the accusation that we’re genocidal and commit war crimes, that we target children, that we have no respect for Arab life, that we are unprovoked aggressors. You name it, we’re accused of it. I know that sometime in the next few days, I will read of visibly Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill and Golders Green being attacked, of synagogues being vandalised, because people punish Jews worldwide for whatever happens in the Middle East while at the same time claiming, “I have nothing against Jews, just Zionists and the Israeli government.”

Outside the Israeli Consulate not far from my apartment, people are chanting, “Zionist scum, your time has come.” Welcome to tolerant, liberal, progressive San Francisco.

No mention of over 12,000 rockets landing in Israel, targeting civilians, since 2001. Non-Israelis and non-Jews rarely consider the fact that their countries, if faced with the same attacks, probably would have retaliated a lot quicker. No mention that militants in Gaza deliberately aim at non-military targets. Nope. It would get in the way of their refusal to see any shades of grey in this massive mess.

This is me a few years ago, in London:

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It’s strange. I’m not really an observant Jew. I’m in synagogue maybe twice a year. But more and more I have to be a spokesperson for my ethnic group in the face of loads of bullshit. I have to explain everything to people who don’t have a clue. I don’t like it, but I have to do it because then otherwise I’m just rolling over and being complicit in letting people walk over us. Between this and Tottenham-Y-Word-gate, I’m feeling like I have to be SuperJew when I’m honestly not the best spokesperson, but, eh. Gotta be tough, Kite. Got to risk the fact that people are going to label you things that you are not, call you scum, dissolve friendships simply because you believe Israel has a place on the map alongside a Palestinian state. That’s life. Some people are going to love you and others are going to hate your guts, but the best you can hope for is that people are going to listen to your argument. Big shrug.

I hate war. Like any other person who isn’t a total sociopath, I want war to be the last resort. There are crazies out there who hate Muslims. I am not one of them. Extremists hijack Islam and use it to justify violence, and I know moderate Muslims feel the same way about that as I do whenever some crazy ultra-Haredi-Jewish idiot dehumanizes Arabs: angry that our background has been seized by people full of hatred, and eager to distance ourselves, rushing to say, “We’re not all like that.” I am saddened by any loss of human life, and I detest those right-wing elements of Israeli politics who treat Arabs as lesser people. But it is inexcusable for people to ignore the context, to ignore how many times Israel has offered to negotiate and been rebuffed, to ignore the barrage of rockets on towns like Sderot. People point to the skewed death tolls, at how few Israelis compared to Palestinians have died. That’s because there is an excellent missile shield intercepting them before they hit Israeli towns, and a coordinated warning system and network of bomb shelters. But that’s immaterial – does a government have to wait until a bloodbath has already happened to defend its sovereignity like any other country would? Israel has said enough is enough. Apparently, in the eyes of the rest of the world, it is not allowed to do that. It is supposed to sit there and take it and take it and take it.

I believe that the only way there is ever going to be peace is a two-state solution. Neither of us is going to disappear anytime soon so we ought to figure out some way to accommodate both groups. But Hamas won’t even come to the negotiating table. Palestinian people deserve better than that.

Hamas could help Palestinian people. It doesn’t. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, it left agricultural infrastructure intact so that Palestinians could use it. Hamas destroyed everything. If Hamas can keep Palestinians in poverty, if Hamas can place weaponry in civilian areas to maximize casualties in Israeli strikes, then it can continue to demonize Israel. Its charter calls for the extermination of Jews – not just Israelis, all Jews – and how can I negotiate my right to breathe?

I’m not going to apologize for my existence or to whom I was born. I am not going to be a useful idiot. There are loads of people who want us Jews to shut up and go back to hunching over our books in the Yeshiva rather than reacting like any other country would in the face of eleven years of attacks on its existence. Sorry – ain’t gonna happen. We Jews will negotiate land, we will negotiate policy, but we will not negotiate our right to simply be alive.

The rest of the world has a problem with that.

The rest of the world thinks that Israelis and only Israelis need to roll over and die.

Anyone who thinks this is genocide, read a book that has the definition of genocide in it. Look at Darfur, at Kosovo. And stop embarrassing yourself.

I was a teenager when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and I hoped that within my lifetime a similar process would play out between Israelis and Palestinians as it did between Irish Republicans and Unionists. That hope fades with every year I grow older. If there is to be ANY hope for peace, there needs to be negotiation. Hamas doesn’t want to negotiate. Never has done and, sadly, never will.

A friend of my father’s is an American Jewish doctor. He’s also part of a group that regularly travels to Israeli hospitals to perform free life-saving surgery for Palestinian kids. Several years ago he operated on a child with a heart defect. After the successful surgery, he met the child’s mother, who didn’t have any money and who didn’t speak Hebrew (and the doctor didn’t speak Arabic), but she was so overcome with emotion that she began stuffing a bag full of sweets and crying and giving it to him. Things like this show that no two groups of human beings are natural enemies. We get warped by politics, by intolerance. Both groups have done plenty wrong, but the only way forward is to at least acknowledge the other side has a right to exist. Israel has tried this. Hamas has refused. And that’s sad. And civilians suffer. All people essentially want the same thing. They want healthy children and a safe place for them to grow up. They want them to live.

The world doesn’t want to see things like the surgery project. The world thinks there’s no good in Israel, that it’s not a truly multicultural place. The world thinks people like this simply don’t exist, can’t exist, because it sees Israel as an evil malignancy to be chopped out and thrown away.

And I feel sorry for the rest of the world.

In which your resident Jewish girl states an ambiguous opinion

My dad sent me this article yesterday about how the Society of Black Laywers is threatening to file a complaint with the police if Tottenham Hotspur does not stop fans from using the word “Yid” to describe themselves. I figured I would weigh in with my 2p, even if this is just my little blog.

I’m not terribly bothered by the use of “Yid” by Tottenham Hotspur fans. But I never use it myself, for a very basic reason: I’m a Spurs fan who is actually Jewish.

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Jew-hatred is not a thing of the past. Jews are still singled out for attack based on our ethnicity/religion, in the UK and abroad. “Yids” is still being used to refer to us that way (though, to be completely honest, I’m more likely to get “Jewish bitch”). For us, it’s not as if it existed only zillions of years ago so the word no longer has that sting of hatred in it. It’s still there, built in to the very sound of it.

I know very well that when my fellow Spurs fans use “Yid,” they mean no offense to Jewish people like me. I know they’re not being anti-Semitic (Some of my best non-Jewish friends are vocal members of the Yid Army, etc etc). But the word is so loaded that some of us can’t simply shrug it off, say we’ve taken it back, and pretend that it’s not problematic.

You can only “take back” a derogatory term if you’re from the group being targeted by it. “Yids” refers first and foremost to Jews, not to Spurs fans. The vast majority of Spurs fans are not even Jewish, so it’s not as if they are reclaiming this term to take pride in their ethnicity. Go anywhere in London and ask somebody what “Yid” refers to, and they will immediately make the connection to Jews even if they also are aware of the Spurs link.  It was only originally used as an insult against Spurs fans because that bit of North London used to have a large Jewish population. In essence, when “Tottenham” was synonymous with “Jewish,” there was no distinction made between the supporters at White Hart Lane and the shop owners on the High Road whose families lived in the surrounding streets. Most of the Jews of Tottenham, like other immigrant groups, have done well for themselves, and over the past several decades they have moved to elsewhere in North London as well as the Hertfordshire and Essex suburbs. The population addressed by the slur left, but because the football club is geographically tied to the neighbourhood, the slur remained. My point is: supporters of other clubs may use it against Spurs fans in general, but that was not its original nor its primary usage. Crucially, non-Jewish Spurs fans have never had to deal with it referring to their ethnic group, to their blood, and the consequences of that. If other JEWISH Spurs fans want to use “Yid,” that’s an entirely different story.

To draw the most obvious parallel, it’s like non-Black people using the N-word. If Black people want to use it, then that’s their choice because the original and enduring meaning of the word has always been against their ethnic group, used to disrespect them and keep them down. But there are a lot of Black people who hate the use of it, and likewise there are plenty of Jewish people who never want to hear anybody referred to as a Yid in any sense, ever again. Non-Jews don’t get to choose when it’s OK to use “Yid” because it’s not their insulting word. Down the road in Golders Green and Stamford Hill, Jews still get physically attacked because of who they are. Fists, bottles, even cars used as weapons. It’s a bit too close to home – literally, as Stamford Hill sits just south of Tottenham. “Yid” hasn’t been completely consigned to the past in North London, at least not yet. Even if Spurs fans mean it affectionately when they refer to themselves, it doesn’t change the fact that I typically hear that word used as a way to signify that my people are viewed as devious, sleazy scum taking advantage of non-Jewish English people because we’re obsessed with money and only care about our own people, or whatever is being said about us this year. I can’t forget that because it is still happening today. I don’t think we Spurs fans really need to take it back, either. We have plenty of other words for ourselves. We don’t need this one. Using it doesn’t improve anybody’s life – or fix our club’s issues on the pitch.

I am very grateful for the good will shown by the Society of Black Lawyers, but I think that “Yid” is by far not the worst thing people yell at matches. The bigger problem is the incidence of words which are flat-out hateful and have never been seen by the recipients of the abuse as a point of pride or defiance – like the abuse that Black players and those suspected of being gay get. I would also be a lot more concerned if Yossi Benayoun was getting abuse for being an Israeli Jew, or something along that line.

I’m not going to judge you if you’re a Spurs supporter and you call yourself a member of the Yid Army. I know you mean no insult by it. And to be honest, we Jews have much, much bigger problems to deal with than what people say at a football match. Just don’t expect me to join in with you.

I would definitely not go so far as to call it anti-Semitic abuse – it’s just football fans, who by definition need to show membership in the larger group, to signify a common identity. I’m a sociologist. I know how signs of group affiliation work. But I’m not going to say that hearing the word doesn’t leave a bit of a sting, and I would like Spurs supporters to at least take a second to remember that this word isn’t only their term of camaraderie. It’s my signifier that there are a hell of a lot of people out there who hate me just because of my ethnicity. For some of us, it’s far more difficult to see it as entirely harmless. It’s a massive grey area. I’m not a killjoy, I’m just Jewish. And we Jews have a good sense of humor when something’s actually funny.

I know this is not the most well-organised argument. I’m sure that plenty of Spurs fans are going to see me as some killjoy bitch who needs to shut up and stop getting in the way of their fun. As a Jewish fan, I feel obligated to weigh in with my opinion when it comes to this term. I wish I didn’t, but for as long as my people are getting stick – and worse – simply because of our background, I have to say something. I love Spurs and I want everybody to enjoy matches at White Hart Lane as much as I do (or did, because I moved to California in 2010). Can we do better? Yes, certainly. We can and we should. I’m not going to jump on you if you think my argument is crap, but I hold Spurs supporters to a high standard, and I think you can all live up to it. Think about it – if you respect the history of the club, and know the history of the neighbourhood, then you owe that tiny bit of respect to those of us tied to that particular part of history, those of us who have had to deal with the word “Yid” when it has been used in a not-so-casual way.

For the love of all that is sensible, please vote NO on Proposition 37

Voting NO on Proposition 37 tomorrow and hoping it fails. The proposition is not simply a case of “Shouldn’t you have the right to know what’s in your food?” – it’s scaremongering and anti-science, and the proposition itself is full of exemptions that would make the labels ultimately meaningless, kind of like those Prop 65 warnings you see everywhere (because the trial lawyer behind those is the same one behind this proposition – I’m sure he’s doing this just because he cares about food, no ulterior motive at all!).

The labelling scheme WILL increase food prices, and this WILL have the hardest impact on poor Californians who already pay high food prices. No, Monsanto is not my friend, but neither are the quacks like naturopaths supporting the Yes-on-37 campaign. I’m siding with the seven Nobel Laureates in chemistry or physiology/medicine from California, and dozens of other academics in saying no to 37. I trust them a lot more than a quack like “Dr.” Mercola, the top donor to the yes-on-37 campaign – Mercola is an HIV denialist and anti-vaccine panic-monger, why on earth would anybody trust him when it comes to anything scientific? Trust a man who doesn’t think AIDS is caused by HIV to know what is healthy? No thanks. I’d rather chill with the biologists at UC Berkeley who also believe this proposition needs to fail.

Nor should we pretend that businesses like Whole Foods are in this because they believe in the greater good – they have a profit motive just like every other business. It’s ludicrous for them to point the finger at companies that have a financial stake in GM food when they themselves have a massive financial interest in promoting non-GM food. (As for health arguments, you have a huge risk of food poisoning from “natural” fad foods like raw milk.) Plus I’m disgusted that people are using the “Monsanto gave the world Agent Orange and they’re telling you GM foods are safe” argument. That’s irresponsible scare-mongering of the worst degree.

As for “Frankenfood” arguments – genetic engineering takes place in nature, and always has done. You’ve been eating genetically engineered foods your entire life. An engineer friend schooled me, and it’s really fascinating. Definitely read up on it. I’m disturbed by how many of my colleagues in social science are buying the pro-37 arguments – guys, we’re striving for credibility as scientists, so shouldn’t we be examining the evidence? Shouldn’t we be looking at how there are no studies in proper peer-reviewed journals that find evidence GMOs are harmful to your health?
More is at stake than just California’s reputation – which, believe me, is already firmly cemented in the head-in-the-clouds-hippie category. Science is already under siege from quacks who take advantage of poor science education in this country. I have no business interests in this whatsoever – I’m a PhD student in sociology who hates unnecessary panic, and who hates the idea of the pro-GM backers being viewed as saints just looking out for your health and safety when they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes like everybody else. I’m not bankrolled by any corporation – if I was, then trust me, I wouldn’t be living in the Tenderloin. I’m for facts, not taking advantage of fear – NO ON 37.