sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 29, 2011

Chilly in Egypt

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:22 pm

During the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, American bloggers became a bit obsessed with hot Lebanese babes.

Like this one.

Well, there is the babe theory of the political movement postulated in P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores:

Best of all, there were hardly any beautiful women at the [Housing Now!] rally. I saw a journalist friend of mine in the Mall, and he and I pursued this line of inquiry as assiduously as our happy private lives allow. Practically every female at the march was a bowser. “We’re not being sexist here,” my friend insisted. “It’s not that looks matter per se. It’s just that beautiful women are always on the cutting edge of social trends. Remember how many beautiful women were in the anti-war movement twenty years ago? In the yoga classes fifteen years ago? At the discos ten years ago? On Wall Street five years ago? Where the beautiful women are is where the country is headed,” said my friend. “And this,” he looked around him, “isn’t it.”

Will Franklin proposed the Babely-Come-Lately Sub-Theorem:

An alternate view of the Babe Theory holds that attractive women are drawn more to successful political movements than to fringe movements.

Babe Prerequisite Corollary:

Another view of the Babe Theory holds that a society will not be ready for democratic reforms if it does not have babes. Babes, you see, are a sign of a certain minimal level of affluence.

No protest babe phenomena seems to take place in Egyptian riots.  The crowd is overwhelmingly male:

like here

or here

or here.

Occasional woman is not exactly your bare-chested Liberties:

Yeah, that one.  Her finger really bothers me.

It could be that Egyptian women don’t feel that the revolution will be successful, or that Egypt did not accumulate enough wealth.  It also could be that the rioting men don’t want their women out on the street, like whores, you know.


January 28, 2011

Uncomfortablablablable Choices

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:36 pm

Where is the superman for our middle class schools?  So many middle class parents pay federal, state and local taxes, a portion of which is allocated to educational programs, AND send our kids to private schools.  Even when public schools are not bad, the taxpayer is still getting ripped of because charters could deliver the same quality education at a lower price.

Our neighborhood public school is underperforming even by the state’s standard, so we are considering moving, but not before we check out public, private and charter schools in the East Bay Area.  A few nights ago I went to one of the local charter school fares.  The sole  elementary represented was Nea Community Learning Center.  A community learning center?  What do they do there, community organize?  Nea passed out fliers with some sort of a graphic representing “nine Nea principles”.

Creepy and cultish!

None of those principals refer to learning.  It’s OK, I suppose, because “Nea” comes from an African proverb “Those who do not know, can know by learning.”  Mmmm… perhaps it flows better in the original.  But don’t despair, Nea is a green campus.  Yay!

The worst thing about the flier was a quote by a tenth grader praising the “level of comfortability” in the school.  Comfortability, is it even a word?  It is, I checked.  But is it a good word?  Certainly not.  My suspicion is that the concept of comfortability was invented by a grad student in the process of writing her dissertation on… comfortability.  It is certainly not a word I expect a well-spoken young woman to use.  It’s mind-boggling that Nea teachers didn’t understand that they are embarrassing a student.  It’s shameful that it take s a person who learned to speak English in her late teens to point it out.  It’s ironic that here in the Bay we praise ourselves for our intelligence, and locals mock school marquees with misspelled words across middle America.

Although I’m underwhelmed by school choices for a family like ours, I hope one day there will be a charter school good enough for my children.  Local middle class parents put their kids into gimmicky charters.  Those schools emphasize multiculturalism or some such nonsense. The character of local charters expresses the wishes of local parents, and most local parents want PC.  Thanks to people like them we already have PC in public schools across the nation.  The charters here are like public schools in their orientation, only more so.

I don’t like the fact that charters often praise themselves for being innovative.  I want less innovation in education.  I want old school.  I want to return to the 50s and early 60s, the golden age of American education, when the country was challenged to enter the space race.  I want a school with academics as a gimmick.  Gosh, maybe this should be our Sputnik moment.  I know there should be a sizable minority of parents in the Bay Area who want learning-learning for their kids.  No “multiculturalism”, no green campuses, no zero tolerance for bullying (as if teachers looked the other way until a year ago), but teachers who provide structure, challenge youngsters and inspire the love of learning.  A campus like that should eventually emerge in a deregulated educational environment.

January 24, 2011

Little Obsessions

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:56 pm

Remember the Turkish “flotilla”?  Yesterday Israel issued a report exonerating the actions of IDF, which, apparently is world news.  Anyhow, it was on top of my news feeds.

Weapons seized by IDF on Mavi Maramara in May 2010.

And why is it world news, exactly?  So there was some kind of a border incident and two people died.  OK.  But our own American citizens are warned to stay away from Mexico/Arizona border, and maybe Gretta will cover it.  The savagery of the terrorist campaign against Israel in the previous decade was certainly newsworthy.  Israeli actions designed to prevent future attacks, such as building the Security Fence, were much less interesting.  Yet the media the world over kept obsessing about the Wall.

And please, this has little if anything to do with Palestinians who are pawns in this game.  The world doesn’t care about Palestinians, only three countries in the world give them citizenship.  And they are Jordan, which is by all reasonable standards a Palestinian state, Israel and the United States.

Israel, on the other hand, is important, and not only to Jews like myself and anti-Semites.  It’s a military power to recon with in an oil-rich strategically situated region.  Israel is a trusted custodian of many Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy places.  In Islamic tradition, any land once belonged to Islam is typically understood to be Islamic.  The Holocaust is still something that Europeans and Americans have to think about.  Europeans often feel besieged by the Islamic immigrants within their proper, and feel it necessary to entertain their demands.  So, when Israel appears in the news, usually in a negative light, it helps to keep in mind that this is what it’s all about.

As it happens, certain developments in the region can upset the balance of power, and do so not in our favor.  I’m speaking, of course, of Iranian nukes.  Now, this is something worthy of an obsession, and a continuous stream of headlines.

Iraqi would-be nuke factory Osirak was bombed by the Israelis in 1981.

January 18, 2011

I Promise I’ll Shut up about Chua Already

Filed under: society — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:29 pm

…just have to note that this kid probably didn’t have food poisoning on the day of his Juilliard audition.  It was probably nothing but fun for him.  I doubt his mother hovered over him during his lessons and practices, planting ideas in his brain, like playing Beethoven upside down.

January 17, 2011

Somebody Please Explain Chinese Motherhood to Me

Filed under: society — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:36 pm

I liked Amy Chua better as a polemicist.  Her Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother is an easy read, but not very rewarding.  Miss Chua, who says she fetishizes complexity, should forgive me for saying that (not that she’d ever see my little screeds).  The book is page-turner, which is nice in hard to focus circumstances, like when toddlers are running around the living room, but I just didn’t get that much out of it.

Amy Chua obviously cares about her reputation.  The word got out that she’s a meanie, and now she feels compelled to put the following message in large letters on the dust cover:

This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs.

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

The thing is, Chua obscures Chinese parenting.  In one of her better passages she says:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

So it sounds like initially a child will need a good push.  Sounds like a good idea.  But Chua spend a whole decade hollering at her daughter Lulu.  Chua eventually gave up, but not before investing much time, effort and money into her reluctant child, and not before Lulu started breaking glass objects in public.  Obviously talented Lulu is quoted saying that her mother “ruined” violin for her.  It appears that Chua’s goal of raising a virtuoso violinist was undercut by power struggles.  In any case, the parenting philosophy described above doesn’t explain Chua’s behavior.  I want to know about Chinese parenting philosophy.

As for  Chua’s behavior, I’m curious what her father-in-law, who is a shrink, thinks of it.  Also, what does Chua’s father-in-law thinks of Lulu getting a mysterious food poisoning on the day of her sister’s Carnegie performance and the day before her own Juilliard audition? Her mother doesn’t think much of it.  On the subject of psychoanalysis, how about this Freudian goldmine with respect to Chua’s “good” daughter Sophia:

The summer after Florence’s passing was a difficult one.  To begin with, I ran over Sophia’s foot.  She jumped out of my car to grab a tennis racket while I was still backing up, and her left uncle got caught in the front wheel.  Sophia and I both fainted.  She ended up having surgery under full anesthesia and two big screws put in.  Then she had a wear a huge boot and use crutches for the rest of the summer, which put her in a bad mood but at least gave her a lot of time to practice piano.

This castrating mother passage has to be intentional.  Not only the author’s father-in-law is a psychiatrist, her husband Jed wrote some sort of a Freudian mystery novel.  Jed doesn’t come out too good in the book.  To be sure, she attempts to rehabilitate his masculinity here and there, but reader is still left with the question, how he allowed to transform his house into a battlefield.

I leaned more than I will ever need to know about samoyeds…  In any event, my like new copy of the Tiger Mother is now for sale.  Better get rid of it now then when it’s worth $.01.

UPDATE: Book sold!

January 16, 2011

Moral and Other Failures

Filed under: society — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:17 pm

Dan Mitchell asks, “Does Using the Soviet hammer and sickle in an ad mean the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is morally bankrupt?”  He explains:

I went to the website of a local radio station last night to check the weather forecast and was somewhat startled to see an advertisement for a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. But what shocked me wasn’t the music, but rather the use of the Soviet hammer and sickle, which represents a regime that murdered nearly 62 million people between 1917 and 1987.

The banner is still there, by the way:

This McDonald’s juxtaposition is classic.

Questions of this sort animate many conservatives and libertarians, myself including.  Here is how I answer it.

First, there is the general issue of Communist iconography.  We have a gut reaction to the swastika: we know that displays of swastikas are wrong, that it stands for the ultimate evil.  But if Communists committed horrible atrocities, then Communist symbols should be treated in a similar manner.  If victims of Nazism shudder at the sign of swastika, then the victims of Communism… that’s when the analogy starts to break down.

The history of Nazism is short and murderous. It went from a madman’s terrible plan, concocted in the 1920s, to the blood-drenched world war, culminating in the Holocaust.  Soviet Communism has a different trajectory.  It was inaugurated in series uprisings, progressed to a civil war (1917-1923), in which both sides committed horrible atrocities.  After a short lull in the 1920s, Stalin assumed power and unleashed his reign of terror.  He fought World War Two without much regard for human life, including that of his own soldiers.  Another round of terror followed the war.  But after Stalin died the Soviet regime scaled down the Gulags.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still a totalitarian regime based on fear, it just went a little… sclerotic?

If you read this blog, you probably know that I grew up in the Soviet Union and  came of age during perestroika.  People of my generation were surrounded by hammer and sickles, patriotic songs and all sorts of propaganda imaginable.  We laughed at it, we knew that the iconography was used by evil people to achieve evil ends, but by then propaganda was no longer working, and the decrepit regime was about to collapse.  I have a letter of appreciation from a local youth center with a kind of Soviet Baroque heading.  I’m not sure why this letter made it across the Atlantic, but it did.  It never fails to elicit good laughs at family reunions.  My refusenik uncle is always especially keen to poke fun at it.  I can’t imagine anybody having a similar reaction to swastikas.

I was awarded for participation in “socially useful” labor in preparation for a New Year celebration.  I recall I was in a puppet theater.

Americans probably have stronger reaction to hammer and sickles than Russians.  I have to say, though, that too many Russians are nostalgic for Stalin’s regime, a truly disgusting phenomena.  (There are also National Bolshevik low-lifes, by the way.)  And yet, many moral, normal Russians don’t blink a eye at Soviet iconography.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to react to Communist symbols strongly, just that it’s not always wrong to not react to it at all.  I guess it depends on the circumstances.

So what about the Shostakovich’s 5th?  I’m not a musicologist, but a quick wiki check reveals that it was composed in 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror, when Shostakovich found himself in the cross-hairs, and a number of his friends were murdered.  The Symphony contained segments reminiscent of a panikhida, Russian Orthodox requiem, and the audience understood it to be an expression of the country’s grief.  People cried during performances.  A picture of a Gulag would be more appropriate for an ad.

Forced labor at a Soviet concentration camp.

It boggles my mind that the designers chose to use the symbol of the oppressor to present a work reflecting the experience of Stalinist terror to the American audience.  I’m trying to think of excuses.  Did they copy the design that went with a Soviet edition of the music?  In this case, the graphic artists don’t know how to poke around the Internet to get a little background.  The illustration certainly looks like a moral failure on their part.  Is it also a failure of imagination?  Which one is a bigger crime in their eyes?

P.S.  The Symphony is performed by a Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein.  Interesting.

January 14, 2011

Non-Sentimental Education

A cousin of mine has her kids in a local public school.  She tutors them every night, not because they are behind, but to keep up with the Asians.  Russian Jewish families generally look at Asian families with admiration, and there is certainly a lot of commonalities between the cultures.  Multiple generations often live under the same roof — check.  Kids play classical music and get into good schools — check.  Women are always put together well — check.  Al in all, a hard-working successful professional community, like ours.

That Asian parents are demanding is well known.  Last weekend mommy wars went ethnic when Amy Chua, an Asian American mother, published a Tiger Mother polemic in lieu of her forthcoming book.  I more or less agree with her general outlook on a parent’s role in her child’s education:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

[…]I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Growing up I had multiple conversations with my mom about finding fun in difficult things and blah-blah.  I intend on imparting the same wisdom into my children’s heads, and I don’t think it will be easy, at least not initially.  Since many Soviet teachers were on the sadistic side, I initially found the gentle American pedagogy a relief.  It didn’t take long, though, to realize that self-esteem movement is a dead end.

I realize that Chua’s own Tiger mother persona is to an average Chinese mom what Woody Allen is to a Jewish son: improbable.  Yet I have no doubt that the events she described happened.  The centerpiece of Chua’s article is her campaign to get her 7 year-old daughter to play a piano piece correctly.  Here is how she sets the scene:

Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey” by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

Chua’s husband is white, which makes her daughters part Caucasian.  So, little white donkey and its master, huh?  I know, I have an excessive amount of lit crit behind my back (and by “excessive” I mean “any”).  Still, I can’t help wondering if she imagined her daughter as that cute little donkey and herself as her master.  We mothers certainly wield a lot of power over our kids.  Chua seems to rejoice in it.  Did you know that Chua once ruined a family vacation?  And that she thinks of herself as “maybe a little dominant”, and would like to have a beer with Barak Obama?  Well, the way she throws around military metaphors, she’d better get ready to meet Sarah Palin.

Steely eyes, no?

Now that I got that observation out of the way, go ahead and read Chua’s description of the day-long donkey struggle during which meals were revoked, future celebrations canceled and bathroom breaks forbidden until her daughter polishes the piece.  For goodness’ sake, it’s like nobody had successful children before!  And what do we mean by success in this case?  Chua’s daughter Lulu no longer plays piano, she plays violin.  So, I suppose, the point of the whole exercise was to play some recital.  Still, Chua is quite proud of her achievement.

Chua does get spectacular results long term: Both of her daughters are musical proteges, and, I imagine, they do great in school.  Their education is not yet complete, but I have little doubt that they will turn out well.  Since both of her progenies are easy on the eye, and considering that Asian women are in high demand these days, Sophia and Lulu should have little problem finding suitable mates and having children, perhaps becoming Tiger mommies themselves.  Perhaps Chua has figured out the way to raise young women in the early 21st Century US of A.  But what if she had boys?

I live in a Bay Area neighborhood where new middle class families settle.  Some of them are Asian, many mixed Asian and white.  You know, of course, what I mean by mixed Asian and white: Asian women and their mild-mannered husbands.  An Asian man married to a white woman is an anomaly.  Considering that a boy’s relationship with his mother foreshadows his relationship with his wife, white women may find it challenging to fill Tiger mothers’ shoes.  Perhaps Western women are not interested in dating and marrying men who became successful on their parents’ orders.

Feminism or no feminism, the allure of a Western man is his independent spirit.  “Mama’s boy” and “trust fund baby” are terms of derision.  (Asian American men can not in all fairness be described as either one of those.)  In Western cultures children claim a lion’s share of credit for their success.  And so American parents feel compelled to step aside at some point, and let their children develop on their own.

Chua singles out the self-esteem movement as a reason for the failure of Western education.  Self-esteem is a fairly new educational philosophy. The education establishment only embraced it in the late 1970s, and large segments of American parents still don’t buy it.  Before self-esteem there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who preached “natural education”.  In his enormously influential Émile Rousseau painted a romantic portrait of a child naturally developing his inner goodness.

First edition of Emile, 1762.

I don’t particularly like Rousseau.  He is the original proponent of child-centered education, and his prescriptions are often ridiculous: No swaddling!  No books until age 12!  And yet a Western parent is a romantic at heart.  What I mean by “Western” is any parent who raises his child within the framework of  Western thought.  In Western tradition rout memorization in and of itself is seen as insufficient.  We want to raise explorers and inventors.  Our view of scientific discovery is Romantic in its essence.  I want my kids to be instructed by teachers who are demanding, yes, but also inspiring, and in that I’m indebted to Rousseau.

In Rousseau’s vein we want our children to develop character and moral sense, although our ideas of morality might differ from his.  Moral education includes socialization of children.  Of course, none of it should preclude  a parent from giving a good structure within which to explore.  We cringe at Chua’s description of her power struggles, even though she does seem to get results.  She tells us nothing about the essential goodness in her daughters, only “crucial [need] to override their preferences”.  It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about the sense of discovery, the independent mind and the autonomy of the pupil. 

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