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Archive for the ‘rants’ Category

new commentary on lt

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Efraim Zuroff in the Guardian CiF, on ongoing issues (including the recent resignation of a politician, following his article which referred to the “legend” of the Holocaust) and lack of US criticism. Well-written and pointed article. I’ll comment when I get a chance.

Written by menachemkaiser

1 December at 12:21

Posted in rants

the anti-vegetarianism

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As if Lithuania herself wanted to back me up: This hunting/meat festival was held in Rotuse, the town square, on the same spot as the vegetarian festival. (Here for article.)

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30 November at 19:55

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vilnius the forlorn

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21 November at 15:23

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vilnius the quirky, sunlit

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16 November at 13:03

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my grand theory of journalism, pt. one

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I spoke last week about media/journalism at Vytautas Magnus University, in Kaunas, about 100 km west of Vilnius. Hard to say how it went: the crowd was, like all sober Lithuanian crowds, exceedingly polite. Appreciative? Attentive? Confused? Impossible to tell. I may have spoken too quickly and I may have overspiced my lecture with one too many American references — not everybody reads Huffington Post (thank god). So it wasn’t clear how much got through; maybe it was an unwitting exercise in crosscultural frustration. But my thesis was, I think, pretty neat, and a handful of attendees have asked for a transcript of sorts, so I’ve decided to write the lecture up. To qualify: I’m no historian, and the following is supported by the superficialest of research. I’m probably wrong on any number of points, and almost certainly guilty of simplification, exaggeration, reductionism, decontexualization, etc, etc. No facts, though, were abused intentionally, though doubtless it occurred. Further, I am likely, though unintentionally, continually blaspheming the holy distinction between causation and correlation. (My reluctance to research and actually back anything up, more laziness than anything else, is a good example of the editorial problems inherent in a blog. On the other hand, without a blog I probably wouldn’t write this at all. On the other other hand, maybe it’d be better if it wasn’t written at all.)

Given all that, I would love to be cut down to size, and welcome any corrections of any degree.

Journalism, like air or Lady Gaga, is one of those things that seems to be ubiquitous and eternal. Just always was, and very is. We don’t give it much thought, and as a study it tends to collapse into practice — journalists don’t study the philosophy of information-dissemination any more than tailors study the metaphysics of style. Or, at least, they haven’t until recently: Everyone now knows about the precariousness of journalism’s very future, the impending collapse of traditional media, the evils/glories of new media, what Twitter and Facebook and Google might or might not mean to journalism. For the first time in a long while, probably since the inception and popularization of radio, journalism’s in an evident state of chaotic reassembly. This, unlike most historical goings-on within the annoyingly small journalistic universe, is actually newsworthy, so they’re reporting it. The New York Times on the New York Times’s financial woes: awesomely meta. The beast is self-aware, and it’s obsessed with itself. Seemingly every magazine, newspaper, and website can’t dedicate enough space to the ‘future of journalism’ or whatnot.

The point is that, at least in my generation, the hoi polloi have never had to think critically of journalism, to deconstruct its mechanics, to mine its history for lessons and instructions. But, if the situation’s as dire as we’re being told, then some sort of understanding might be a little bit urgent. Because if nothing else, eulogies without appreciation are silly, not to mention boring.

I’m not going to explain journalism. I don’t want to, I don’t know how to, and I can’t. I will, however, attempt a structure of the phenomenon of journalism. I’m overtly borrowing scientific terminology here — how it works is my operative question, not what it is. The Gas Laws, for instance, explain, via the relationships and interactions of properties, how gas functions. The question ‘what is gas’ is a question of definition, outside the immediate purveyance and goals of the respective laws. Ditto for ‘what is journalism.’ The analogy only goes so far: journalism isn’t a science, and any offered explanation/theory is more intuition than description, really; but I see no reason why that can’t be just as helpful, or at least interesting. So to round out my qualifying intro, what I’m trying to do is demarcate the functions of journalism, highlight if not detail its mechanics, with the hubristic aim of making the process of change that much more transparent.

I’ll boldly define journalism as encompassing three separate but highly interdependent and porous spheres: Delivery, Content, and Consumption. Delivery is the medium, more or less — the physical (or virtual) material and process that gets the content to the reader. Content is the actual journalistic material, and includes all those intangibles like size, tone, format. Consumption is a bit more abstract, though not necessarily more complicated — it’s the Audience, and all her foibles: how and when she reads, her attention span, expectations, etc. I’ll liberally employ examples throughout, so if it’s not yet clear — and I don’t think it is yet — it’ll hopefully be soon.

Here’s my thesis. The history of journalism — that is, the history of major changes within journalism — can be broken down as a sort of process: a new technology (either external or internal) comes along and impacts (by design or accident) one of the three spheres, which affects in ways usually unforeseen the other two, and bango — a ‘new’ journalism emerges.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism as a term/concept only really comes into existence with the advent of the newspaper, which in any recognizable form pops up in early 18th century. These papers are mainly British exports; and even the colonies’ papers pretty much report exclusively on London politics and the like. Not local (not until later at least, and even then the emphasis was decidedly Imperial), and usually not recent. But significantly, a proto-journalistic conscience emerges; the care and demand for properly-reported current events is born. The very idea of reportage, really. I stake this as my starting point, hopefully not too arbitrarily.

The Industrial Revolution, eponymously enough, revolutionized the industry: each of the two spankin’ new presses that the London Times purchased was capable of 1100 impressions an hour, instead of just a fraction of that. This was in 1814. Fierce competition ensured that by mid-century every newspaper of note was using the new presses, which had by then evolved the capability to churn out tens of thousands of papers an hour. And all of a sudden there were a lot of newspapers: more than 2500 in 1850, compared to about 350 in 1814. Delivery — in my appointed terminology, though also in its traditional, technical sense — then, underwent an unprecedented transformation: more newspapers (more news, more journalism) were going to more people than ever before. This was probably the greatest period of growth in journalism’s history.

This isn’t the only major technological change within Delivery’s sphere. The Post Office approved a special newspaper rate in 1851, which had obvious and beneficial repercussions. The telegraph, invented ~1830, went mainstream around this time, too, which made bureaus and long-distance reporting feasible, and then mandatory for any big paper. Somebody figured out how to print on both sides of the page, an innovation that, as trivial as it sounds, effectively doubled news-space (and also, and here’s a hint to where I’m going, doubled the news itself, and all that implies). And in 1830, Transcript, the first respectable Penny Press newspaper, was published in Boston. Newspapers had been traditionally priced at 6 cents until a publisher realized that the poorer, a class which by and large included the recent crashing waves of immigrants, was a lucrative, untapped market, and priced their newspaper at a penny — hence Penny Press — which quickly became the standard. This had profound effects. While newspapers weren’t exactly elitist, they were generally higher-class, and the news and tone catered to their (paying) audience. (Remember, advertising wasn’t yet a dependable source of revenue.) Widespread Delivery meant much wider interests; sports and style and gossip and really the entire idea of different sections ate into politics’s news monopoly. Content (again, in my terminology) shifts to reflect the new Delivery.

So to present my oversimplified point: Delivery very quickly becomes big, fast, and mainstream. Now, journalism needs a news story to match its appetite, a stage to showcase its newfound technology and centrality, a scoop big enough and important enough to properly utilize the gleaming journalism infrastructure.

Enter the Civil War.

[Part two TK.]

Written by menachemkaiser

15 November at 07:00

Posted in rants

vilnius the religious

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Some pics from abouts a month ago.

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14 November at 14:42

Posted in rants

bagel wrap (pt 1?)

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(N.B. The following has been slightly updated.)

Who knew bagels could be so provocative?

The Vilnius bagel party and attendant article has spawned a surprising and impressive response of breadth, profundity, and emotional vigor. I am humbled and delighted and grateful; the conversation has been fun and enlightening, highly animated and engaged, and I’m honored to host and moderate it thus far. But, as is obvious, it’s not really about bagels anymore (if it ever was): the dialogue has scurried away from appropriateness of bagels/levity in Lithuania to the exceedingly messy and entangled issues of Jewish representation, activism, existence, and the gaps and overlaps therein. This is a heartening conversation, if for no other reason than that it exists and is being propelled by young heebs. But it’s also a conversation far more complex and complicating and fraught, and one that I enter with a great deal more trepidation. This has immediate, real-life consequences for me. Bagel party dispatches are easy; explicating my feelings/thoughts on very personal and constantly-forming Jewish-selfhood and -mission is not.

I respond to no one and everyone. Much was raised, all good-intentioned, nearly all well-informed, and most with an eye to productive and meaningful dialogue. No lines were clearly drawn (Efraim vs. Everyone is a facile and silly designation), and if teams seemed to emerge, then I disavow affiliation with any, aside from what I believe to be a homologous pack of thoughtful and caring j-participants. The personal attacks on Efraim+his motivation, were, I feel, unsubstantiated and added little. Much of it, if intuition serves, was a reflexive defense of myself and Jake, and for that I am appreciative. But Efraim’s points should not be summarily dismissed simply because they were couched in an aggressive tone. (That perceived aggressiveness was, and this should have been clarified long ago, in great part due to his outsized persona in the realm of Jewish activity and activism: all comments and sentiments of his will be scrutinized, magnified, and in the process likely distorted; he’s the furthest thing possible from, say, an anonymous blogger. Like, the fact that he posted his criticism is more noteworthy than the criticism’s actual content, which upon reflection I felt to be at the very least misguided.)

But this horse is long dead, and flogging it further would be masochistic and egotistical. I feel the bagel party has been defended — if not in purpose and effectiveness, then at least in non-inappropriateness — on multiple fronts and from multiple perspectives and by multiple voices. I have little to add to this exhaustive and exhausted conversation.

But, again, it’s not about bagels; it’s about issues far more universal and, at the same time, sharply personal. Questions and topics of abstract practice and policy are daily decisions of import here. For me, it’s converging upon the following, seemingly simple proposition: I am a Jew living in Lithuania. But: Where belongs the stress? What’s the operative word? And what does it mean?

There are implied responsibilities to such an existence, of course. I am Jewish, and I am engaged in that Jewishness. My love, care, and concern for Jewish ideas/peoples/continuity/history is deeper than is usually apparent. And I am aware that, whether I like it or not, I function as Jewish representation to whatever degree wherever, let alone in the Jewish ghost town that is Vilnius. This status/responsibility is compounded by the fact that I’ve been granted the time, resources, and autonomy — plus whatever personal and professional abilities — to just maybe make something meaningful and impactful and lasting. Efraim’s frustration, regardless of its poor execution and conveyance, was thus stinging.

Okay, so I’m a Jewish activist; I am a Jew living in Lithuania. But the implication — the execution of those implied responsibilities — isn’t at all straightforward. The western periscope through which we view ongoing “injustices” from afar is luxuriously narrow. It’s easy and gratifying and rousing to talk about division of activist labor and vanquishing the evil and educating the ignorant. The cushy conferences and speeches are worthwhile and inspirational, and are often the agents of meaningful change, I’m sure. But the surety and bellicosity that define some activists — and they hoist that attitude as honorable and necessary — aren’t feasible here, while living in and among the ‘issues.’ Please notice that I’m pointedly avoiding any declamations of who or what is right. Nonetheless, the hi-def moral image, the clear demarcations of right/wrong, of heros/villains, the injustices and evil and the political and social and artistic solutions, are a lot more pixellated and fuzzy from up close. The narratives here (and everywhere) are twisted and nonlinear and resist any neat western assessment.

I am a Jew living in Lithuania.

Ethnic and cultural minorities will and maybe even should view history through their x-centric lenses, but this is never justification for myopia. Raising awareness and effecting change are not automatically on the same trajectory of effort. It takes foresight, and, more importantly, sensitivity to engage meaningfully on foreign lands. Strategy, really. Rallying cries of injustice and evil often reach the ears of the accused as rhetorical bludgeoning. It alienates.

Emphatically: Non-alienation isn’t obeisance or appeasement, let alone forgiveness. Any advocation for unearned forgiveness or unfounded and hollow reconciliation is confused, potentially dangerous, and serves to undermine a great deal. This is not my beef. Efraim, I’m honored to even be participating in such a dialogue. Jewish advocates the world over, I salute you.

The argument can and has been made — even if implicitly — that consideration of alienation doesn’t/shouldn’t enter the activist equation. An injustice is present, an evil is flourishing, and we shall mobilize and vanquish/uproot. Is this is the good and proper way to effecting change? Perhaps: people do notice, and sometimes care. But systems, structures, and populations are defined by, respectively, inertia, establishment, and pride, all of which are informed by history. It’s easy to forget — and easier to never realize — just how unintelligible and strange our historical emhpases, our focused narratives, are to others. It’s not alienation, then, that’s the main concern — it’s irrelevance.

I am a Jew living in Lithuania. I teach students. I regularly interact with people of influence in various social circles. I’m here on a prestigious and very American grant. If my Jewish activism isn’t ‘soft’ — and I use the word stripped of all pejorative and inferior connotations —  then I’m not only pretty much guaranteeing ineffectiveness w/r/t to anything Jewish, I’m rendering myself fairly worthless. A bagel party, against this backdrop, is kind of perfect.

A ‘versus’ paradigm (I think I may be echoing Jake here) has defined the players in the ongoing Lithuanian Jewish issues: Friends or Enemies (sometimes also cowards, usually as a subset of enemies). I’ve already been called prejudiced and a coward (two separate instances/accusers). I predict that I’ll be labeled an enemy by somebody or other within the next little while, though the most radical and polarizing thing I’ve done is boil, bake, and serve some bagels. I don’t understand the origins or intricacies of this yelling match yet, or at least not well enough to muster the confidence to pass judgment. But Jewish activism concerning these issues, both here and abroad, is unwieldy and undiplomatic and has largely been ineffective beyond earning notoriety.

Jewish activism isn’t a binary proposition; and the question to engage can’t be framed by a ‘whether.’ Even the recognition of issues, or at least their scope, isn’t straightforward or unanimous. And the ‘battles’ can’t operate under any assumed definition — nothing here is nearly that simple.

This much is simple. I will continue to exist and learn and teach and represent in Vilnius. I will have fun. Some of my activities and writing will have to do with my Jewishness and the Jewishness in and behind and under Vilnius. Some won’t. I will be lonely sometimes. I will be proud of my Jewishness. I will share that pride, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I will make friends. I will have an effect. I am not an island. I will reflect before acting and acknowledge that this is a country that knows not how I fit in. I am a Jewish activist in the cleanest sense of the word. I seek not to aggravate but understand when it might be necessary. I may make bagels again. Above all, I hope.

Maybe: I am a Jew living in Lithuania.

Written by menachemkaiser

10 November at 17:47

Posted in bagel, rants