January 08, 2007
First, I should note that for this post, this especially applies.
Will calls this New York Times story "rather strange." Only in our little corner of the blogosphere do we grow more temperate as the level of deserved approbation rises. Such is the soft bigotry of low voiced condemnation. Fierce disagreement means that we love you (or at least are rather fond); calling you "odd" or "confusing" is our little way of dismissing you to the rogues' gallery of tinpot dictators and editorial columnists: amusing, poshlusty, possibly deadly.
But I am not so temperate as my host; this Times story is anti-Asiatic in effect if not intent. It begins so benignly bad, rolling with the stupid languor of all Times pieces on race, a smarmy Ruth Messinger draped condescension towards the brown, black, and yellow. But the effect of its continued susurration of idiocy is a building hatred that sits uneasy, Chait-like, in my chest, demanding a response which does justice to the athletic achievement that is the badness of the story, and yet knowing its own insufficiency. Part of this is the important lesson of the article's context, in which this is not merely another bad housing project like story in the Times' war on smart writing about race, but emblematic of the failures of the entire public housing agenda that is the Sulzberger Dasein.
We will arrive at the errors of its context later. First, to the feast that is its content. It is full of trivial stereotypes ("I-Pod free," "the setting sun for its identity" (thanks, all you high school seniors from Irvine; you're a James Clavell novel, who knew?), "Dragon Lady," "Math and Engineering students," "domineering parents," "piano," "self-segregating," "the good Asian who gives it up to teach," "to teach black kids!" (the implication surely being that Asians aren't racially conscious and don't give back--where is Spike when you need him?)), trivial observations blown into demographic trends (pho, and dim sum, and residence halls, oh my!), trivial ways to make Asians look odd for doing normal college activities (I mean, I hate a cappella, but "Out of nowhere, an a cappella group, mostly Asian men, appears and starts singing a Beach Boys song" [?!] Then they vanished back into the trees, whispering "Lowenstein, Lowenstein"), and myriad trivial excuses for discrimination. I include the next quote in full, because God help me if I assist this piece's reception by quoting it out of context. Herein we see the strategy of quoting the affected minority to deflate the implication of the quote:
In the late 1980s, administrators appeared to be limiting Asian-American admissions, prompting a federal investigation. The result was an apology by the chancellor at the time, and a vow that there would be no cap on Asian enrollment.
University administrators and teachers use anguished words to describe what has happened since.
“I’ve heard from Latinos and blacks that Asians should not be considered a minority at all,” says Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at Berkeley. “What happened after they got rid of affirmative action has been a disaster — for blacks and Latinos. And for Asians it’s been a disaster because some people think the campus has become all-Asian.”
Note a few outstandingly amusing things here. First, the conflation of ending affirmative action in the late 1990s and the removal of the illegal anti-Asian quotas in the 1980s. That's low. Second, the aforementioned quoting of the discriminated against minority, in a quote which sets up, in classic Times fashion, the proper minority opinion as being the one that conflates all minority thought into a single brown/black/yellow fusion which happens to perfectly follow upper middle-class Jewish liberal piety. Third, and perhaps most importantly, no discussion, none!, of the actual demographic effects of removing the 1980s cap. Without introducing the obvious, and offensive contextual point, which makes me want to pick up my laptop, smash it into my skull, and stop writing, let us just take this in a completely neutral way. Ending the 1980s racial quotas against Asians was an anguished disaster because of the failure of race-blind admission policies to mollify other minority interests in an unrelated policy decision fifteen years later? Really?
Oh, to channel Leon, who would be ever so much more eloquent in rhetorically asking how he could give a fuck, and then giving a fuck.
Let us finish content quickly. Again, in its full glory:
I think we’re now at the point where the category of Asian is not very useful. Koreans are different from people from Sri Lanka and they’re different than Japanese. And many Chinese-Americans are a lot like Caucasians in some of their values and areas of interest.
That's the current Chancellor, Dr. Birgeneau, sensitively describing how many Jews are almost white in their interests... Damn, I'm introducing context. Must restrain self till amusing anecdotal fury presents itself. That's the current Chancellor, Dr. Birgeneau, sensitively describing the full flourish and diversity of the many funny looking Asian people who make up a plurality of the students he oversees. Good lord, what could be next? I know, let's introduce another quote by an Asian to dismiss the stereotype we're going to reinforce in the very next paragraph. (Again, sic, sic, sick.)
He also says Asian-Americans are tired of having to live up to — or defend — “that tired old warhorse of the model minority.”
“We shouldn’t be calling these studying habits that help so many kids get into good schools ‘Asian values,’ ” says Mr. Liu, himself a product of Yale College and Harvard Law School. “These are values that used to be called Jewish values or Anglo-Saxon work-ethic values. The bottom line message from the family is the same: work hard, defer gratification, share sacrifice and focus on the big goal.”
Hazel R. Markus lectures on this very subject as a professor of psychology at Stanford and co-director of its Research Institute for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Her studies have found that Asian students do approach academics differently. Whether educated in the United States or abroad, she says, they see professors as authority figures to be listened to, not challenged in the back-and-forth Socratic tradition. “You hear some teachers say that the Asian kids get great grades but just sit there and don’t participate,” she says. “Talking and thinking are not the same thing. Being a student to some Asians means that it’s not your place to question, and that flapping your gums all day is not the best thing.”
Really. The very next paragraph. I'm sorry I'm not at my Buckley-esque best in this response, orotund, profound, grandiloquent. But I am weary made by this article, wag dogging tail at the end of my day. Mr. Liu, who used his insidious Asian values to get into Yale and Harvard. Never fear... these aren't values that are "Asian." They're "Jewish." Or maybe "Anglo-Saxon." Oh wait. No. They're Asian. "Asian students do approach academics differently." Thanks Hazel!
Can I finish? Why fisk. Let me merely quote:
The story of Jon Lee’s journey at Berkeley is compelling. As president of the Asian-American Association, he has tried to dispel stereotypes of “the Dragon Lady seductress or the idea that everybody plays the piano.” His closest friends are in the club. It may seem that he has become more insular, that he has found his tribe. But Mr. Lee says he has been trying to lead other Asian students out of the university bubble. Once a week, they go into a mostly black and Hispanic middle school in the Bay Area to mentor students.
I feel much as I did after my first colonoscopy.To context, friends, let us away. From this Coast of Bohemia, this snowless Winter, to another land, where two over-achieving peoples cross-bred and had a blogger.
Let us pretend that a blogger named Jeremy has a mother who is Asian (henceforth "Mom's People" ("MP")) and a father who is Jewish (henceforth "Dad's People" ("DP")). There are many similarities between these peoples, MP & DP, although far greater are the similarities between Mom, Dad, blogger, and brother. These identities we elect (scientist, candidate, moviegoer, Scotch drinker) or grow into (father, retiree, sound ear, kind heart) dwarf what we are made of, even if what we are made of is inescapably part of who we are. This is true for our histories too, which dwarf us in their making, even if we forget them in our living.
So MP & DP both had relatives locked up in the war (MP's parents, DP's cousins), and both fought in the U.S. Army (both grandfathers, MP enlisting out of the Camps), and both faced discrimination with which Mom, Dad, blogger, and brother have never had to deal. MP's grandparents could not own land in California, MP's parents did not go to college; DP's grandfather was quota'd out of Dentistry school, DP's other grandfather was cheated out of a union pension. But all told, DP and MP wouldn't trade this imperfect country for the world. We've had it good, better here than in Vilnius, better here than in Hiroshima. Our victimhood here is largely performative, while the lands of DP's and MP's past histories are anti-Terran graves, historically absent, ash left to be sifted by other residents.
So let me not dare attack DPs or the Times for being a DPish paper; the contextual point which follows is not meant to be Buchanan-esque, only Easterbrook-esque. We DPs have a greater moral responsibility to get these things right.
Doesn't mean we have to be angels. Look, Lord knows I made fun of the MP associations in college. Some of the points of this article are spot-on, because any self-segregating cultural clique, from Hillel to the MP Baptist Fellowship seem boring, stultifying, and full of uninteresting women. In college, I mostly hung out with self-loathing DPs and dissipate WASPs (more than half of this because I was into blondes). But let us say, fairly, that while MP doesn't like to talk about the past (an actual cultural value: much tradition, little historical reflection), DP makes heavy weather of slights, real or imagined, done to everyone from now to my DPs shetl where my great-grandfather was forced to make boots for the Tsar. That's how we roll; it's endearing, like rugulach.
This is not a quality that I share, DP identifying as I am. But it is fair to say that this is a defining quality of the Times. And, as above, let us say that this quality carries with it some logical, non-cognitive dissonance inducing responsibilities. Responsibilities about race which the Times never, ever manages not to screw up. The Times, which decries historical DP quotas, and makes endless, endless hay of every perceived slight to DPs, every reaction to the DP homeland which is not favorable (I'm a fervent Zionist, by the way, so let's not start that thread here), every educational injustice foisted upon DPs, every pseudo-scientific attempt to assign qualities to DPs that are any more real than those cultural attributes of a people fucked by time and place, for a paper with such a mission to act so loathsomely, for a paper with such obligations to suddenly call into question the minority status of MP (who were locked up in this country!), for such a paper to possibly excuse quotas on MP in the interest of a "progressive facade" (great words from the complainant), for this paper to do such a thing is a shaming blindness.
How incredibly self-serving, how ethnically limited, how historically hypocritical, how cheap. Stereotypes and snarky content aside (how about a chart of DP percentages by Ivy, or would that not feel like race-baiting in the way that the MP chart did?), that the angle of this piece in a paper which spends half its pages bitching about historical or actual slights to one half of me, would try to explain away an actual harm being done to the other half of me by painting that half as a bad minority... Nothing made me as disappointed today, as reminded of the self in conflict, as tired of the dishrag of record.I am little torn by my identities; they are minor selves. That the Times so evidently wishes it were otherwise is reason enough to turn from usual disdain ("how strange," "quite odd") to outright disgust.
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The New York Times has a rather strange story about the rising number of Asian students at elite colleges, and the people (mostly implied rather than explicitly quoted) who have some sort of a problem with this. I leave the basic issue of whether the article is accurate, offensive, or both for another time and other bloggers, but I was struck by this quote from an Asian student suing Princeton for race-discrimination:
Mr. Li is seeking suspension of federal financial assistance to Princeton. “I’m not seeking anything personally,” he says. “I’m happy at Yale. But I grew up thinking that in America race should not matter.”
Now, I could be missing some odd technicality of this lawsuit, but as a general rule standing doctrines require that a litigant be seeking personal redress of his injuries, rather than be trying to air a general ideological grievance. If Mr. Li's concession enters the record, it sounds like his suit is doomed. Comments (8)
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