Ph.D. Octopus

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“The Minstrel Boy” Unites in Song: Star Trek, Paul Robeson, Great Big Sea, and Beyond

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by David

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”

From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life,  I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.

A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.

If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.

But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version  of “The Minstrel Boy.”

It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.

So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.

One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:

The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of  them modestly disappeared behind their creation. 

While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.

And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song,  but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together.  Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 18, 2013 at 15:41

Passover Reflections on Judaism and Identity

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by Weiner


I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread.  You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?

The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:

1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.

2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.

3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.

In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.

These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.

I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.

And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.

I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.

Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from  lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.

In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.

But maybe it has to be this way.

Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.

If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.

I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 19, 2011 at 10:13

Ethnic Studies and the Tea Party

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by Nemo

Over at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman has a thoughtful post on the Arizona anti-ethnic studies law. What I especially like about the piece is the way that Hartman wrestles with the concept of “ethnic solidarity.” On the one hand, he fears that the concept can promote as much harm as it does good. He points out that conservative campaigns (such as the one successfully launched by the Texas Board of Education) to present a sanitized version of the nation’s past essentially amount to “an egregious form of ethnic, religious, and political solidarity that has no place in the schools.” On the other hand, however, he argues that whatever “ethnic solidarity” Chicano Studies may promote, it would be unfair to equate the programs’ view of history to those on the right. To make his case, he provides a brief historical account of the intellectual origins of Chicano Studies, in which he emphasizes the movement’s anti-racism and internationalist orientation (concerns that the School Board in Texas and Arizona State Legislature seem to lack).

I would also emphasize that the Chicano Studies movement aimed to promote ethnic pride by providing a more accurate portrayal of United States history: one in which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans played an important part of the story. Some of this history, of course, would be characterized by conquest and exploitation.

Much of today’s right, by contrast, seems intent on sweeping such unpleasantness under the rug. Consider the Tennessee Tea Party’s recent statement (which Hartman also quotes) that “no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.” The group’s spokesperson, a Fayette County Attorney, later elaborated that the point was designed to combat: “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.”

Textbooks wars, as Joseph Moreau shows in his book Schoolbook Nation, have long played a role in American life. They predate the 1960s by at least a century. Still, it would be hard to beat the Tennessee Tea Party in its recent exercise in historical “revisionism.”

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 16, 2011 at 19:16

The Spirit of the Sixties?

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by Nemo

Over at the excellent U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman has written a provocative post on the relationship between neo-liberalism and the “spirit of the 1960s.” Citing a number of recent theorists including Wendy Brown, Slavoj Žižek, and Walter Benn Michaels, Hartman argues that activists in the 1960s, with their demands for “public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference,” helped pave the way for “unfettered capitalism with a smiley face.”

The Spirit of the Sixties?

Through the cunning of history, Hartman argues, capital has learned to thrive off of movements that “many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.” From this perspective, it appears that one of the most significant–but historically neglected–legacies of the 1960s was the way it provided establishment institutions multicultural ploys to feign progressivism while reproducing inequality.

While I think there’s something to be said for this view, especially the way that corporations and universities undertook the bare minimum of action to address the many grievances launched against them, it also risks downplaying the period’s genuine radicalism.  As historian Jeremy Varon has observed, by the late 1960s activists tended to understand inequality as a total “system” perpetuated by the nation’s leading institutions: universities, corporations, and government each played a role in protecting the interests of patriarchy, racism, empire, and global capital.

Or is this the spirit of the Sixties? Or just an awesome hair day?

In this era, groups such as the Black Panthers, the New York Radical Women, and even Students for a Democratic Society (and its various offshoots) demanded much more than diversity programs and corporate restructuring. This explains why the United States government saw the period’s activists, particularly the Panthers, as a major threat, and did everything in its power to destroy them (often breaking the law in the process).

On his larger point, I think Hartman’s correct to highlight capitalism’s newfound love affair with a United Colors of Benetton style of “multiculturalism” in the post-1960s period. These corporate reforms came on the cheap and did nothing to address the intertwined tyrannies highlighted by the late New Left: economic inequity, male privilege, black ghettoization, and American militarism. Today, corporations and universities–key institutional reproducers of social inequality–make use of the language of diversity to present themselves as the protectors of egalitarianism and social mobility. The fact that they get away with doing so—I think—says much more about the power of the American establishment than it does with the goals of 1960s radicals like Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Hayden, or Shulamith Firestone.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton: Harbingers of Neo-Liberalism?

While American institutions might have found ways to co-opt much of the period’s dissent, this should not detract from the real gains that the era’s activists have won, even when up against some of the most well-entrenched and well-funded opponents imaginable. In the face of massive hostility, sixties radicals played a major role in electing the first generation of black political officials since Reconstruction, transformed rape and abortion laws to give women more control over their own bodies, witnessed the rise of the gay liberation movement, and helped launch modern environmentalism. While never as successful as their conservative critics claimed, the era’s radicals also transformed the teaching of American history–making the stories of the poor, of people of color, and of women, for example, central to the discipline’s mission. If the period’s activists failed to stem the rising tide of economic inequality in this country, I think that says a lot less about them than it does with the power of their opponents.

Which brings me to the Tea Party.  Hartman concludes his post by asking whether he is “crazy” for sympathizing with Benn Michaels’ view that the Tea Party represents America’s only significant resistance to neo-liberalism (even if its members don’t realize it) because of its opposition to illegal immigration. Our own Wiz has already addressed many of Benn Michaels’ principal  arguments here.

As for me, I don’t think that Hartman’s crazy, but I do think that describing a movement largely composed of affluent and well-educated white people, who attack undocumented workers (one of neo-liberalism’s chief victims) and call for the elimination of an already pitiable welfare state somehow “anti-capitalist” wishful thinking at best. (Whether or not the Tea Party has some legitimate grievances is another point entirely.)

Resistance to neo-liberalism in action.

What does all this all mean for today? As Wiz noted in his critique of Benn Michaels,“one of the main effects of neoliberalism has been to create a global working class that is increasingly female and people of color. So any movement which seeks to empower this new working class has to take issues of gender, race, and sex seriously.” Creating alliances among opponents of neo-liberalism, while recognizing difference, it seems to me, remains crucial to any movement that aims to achieve social justice. This, perhaps, requires honoring the best of what the “spirit of the 1960s”–at least its radical side–has to offer.

The Sounds of Ethnic Particularism: Matisyahu can Stand Up and Sing

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by Weiner

Depressed by current events, I’ve turned to Matisyahu for comfort. The former Matthew Paul Miller, a secular Jew turned baal tsehuvah (i.e. he has become an extremely religious Jew) is a hip hopping hasid  strongly influenced by reggae music. He frequently rhymes about Jewish themes, which I enjoy, even if his religiosity can make me, an atheist/agnostic Reconstructionist Jew, somewhat uncomfortable. My favourite song of his, however , speaks to the secular and religious. It’s called “Jerusalem,” and I’d like to nominate it for our “Stand Up and Sing” political song contest.

The chorus, “Jerusalem if I forget you, fire not gonna come from my tongue, Jerusalem if I forget you, let ye right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” is a Biblical reference, from Psalms 137:5-6. The actual passage reads: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is classic (if not classical) Judaism: even when you’re happy, even when you’re celebrating, like at a wedding, for example, you should still remind yourself of tragedy, so break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The first verse of Psalm 137 is the famous, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” made famous by the reggae band The Melodians as “Rivers of Babylon” in the soundtrack for 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The Rastafarian/Jewish-Zionist connection rears its head again. Supposedly, the prophet Jeremiah penned Psalm 137 by those very rivers of Babylon sometime after 586 BCE, where he lamented his people’s exile aka The Babylonian Captivity, praying for a return to his homeland, Ancient Israel, and its capitol, Jerusalem.

Of course, one needn’t read this passage so literally. In fact, Matisyahu himself doesn’t. In the song’s first verse, he sings:

3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty

I guess Matisyahu is including the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, but he’s referring to 3000 years of life in the Diaspora (Jewish life outside of Israel/Zion). Or is he? For it seems that the “milk and honey” he’s being forced to give up is not something physical, “not the country,” but in fact “the dwelling of his majesty.” This is not referring to the King of Israel, but probably to God himself/herself/itself. But that’s only if you read the song religiously. If you read it as a proud secular Jew and ethnic particularist, like I do, you can still read it in a depoliticized fashion: this is not Zionism (the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew have a complicated relationship with modern Zionism anyhow). Instead the “dwelling of his majesty” could mean the spirit of Judaism, or Jewish identity, if your heart and mind. I think that’s how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (the denomination to which I belong, as did the pre-hassidic Matthew Miller), would probably read it.

The next verse is more expressly political, or at least historical.

Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be

The first line here may refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Yet the next verses are clearly about the Holocaust, and about Jewish assimilation after the tragedy. The last lines, “cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be,” is quite clearly a paean to Jewish cultural retention, yet it too need not be read religiously. It can just as easily refer to Jewish culture as Jewish religion. In fact, it need not be read Jewishly, but might simply be interpreted as a paean to ethnic particularism. The key idea: it’s schmucky to abandon wholesale the culture from which you sprang. Obviously reality is more complicated than that, but the words get me going each time.

Matisyahu’s message is clearly more religious than political. And yet, he is also trying to bring people together through music. And that’s not just instilling pride in Jews left and right, secular and religious. He’s also performed with Muslim beatboxer Kenny Muhammad. And in a version of one of his most recent hits, the catchy if somewhat naive and generic antiwar song, “One Day,” he performs with Akon. Yes, that Akon: the Senegalese-American Muslim and another of my favourite recording artists. It’s not peace in the Middle East, but it’s something.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 8, 2010 at 21:55

Asians in Universities: A Canada-US Comparison

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by Weiner

A recent Maclean’s magazine article reported that some white Canadians students worried about the growing Asian and Asian-Canadian presence of university campuses. Originally titled, “‘Too Asian’?” (now retitled “The Enrollment Controversy”), the piece noted:

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” …

Alexandra… explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.

Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.” ….

…an “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.”….

…“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say). Asian kids, meanwhile, say they are resented for taking the spots of white kids. “At graduation a Canadian—i.e. ‘white’—mother told me that I’m the reason her son didn’t get a space in university and that all the immigrants in the country are taking up university spots,” says Frankie Mao, a 22-year-old arts student at the University of British Columbia. “I knew it was wrong, being generalized in this category,” says Mao, “but f–k, I worked hard for it.”

The article has generated a good deal of controversy, along with spirited defence from Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail and fierce criticism from  Jeet Heer in The National Post (as well as Heer’s response to Wente in The Walrus). There is no question that the original article, by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, made some sloppy arguments. As Heer correctly observes, it over-generalizes based on only a few schools and few departments, it lumps Asian foreign students with Asian-Canadians, counts east Asians but not south Asians, dismisses the plight of non-Asian foreign students, ignores working class white students (and any notion of class really) and stereotypes many groups unfairly.

And yet, Heer’s criticism of the article “obfuscates” (to use his word) as much as Wente’s defense of it does. He misses two crucial aspects of the story: 1) the potential pitfalls of Canada’s purely numbers-oriented university admissions system and 2) the very interesting–from an objective, academic perspective–statistical over-representation of students of Asian background in elite Canadian and American universities.

The Maclean’s article, along with Wente’s defense, runs off a number of statistics: 38% of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia students self-identify as white, compared to 43% as Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, in a city in which only 21.5% of the population falls into one of these three groups. In California, Asians make up 40% of the student body in public universities, despite only forming 13% of the state population. In the United States more broadly, Asians are 5% of the population but between 10 to 40% at elite colleges. They make up especially large portions at science oriented schools like Caltech and MIT.

I don’t have access to the data on-hand, but I have no reason to dispute these numbers. Rather than run away from them, however, I think we (referring to those people, regardless of race or ethnicity, interested in higher education) should try to ask questions: what do these numbers mean? How can we explain them? And to what extent, if any, should our investigation affect education policy?

The authors of the Maclean’s article insist, “that Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data.” I’m not sure how “hard” the data are, but I suspect that there is a great deal of truth to this assertion. But this “fact” plays out differently in different contexts. Certain Asian groups are statistically more over-represented in public American universities, Canadian universities, and science-oriented universities (CalTech, MIT) than they are in top American private schools, like the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, and elite liberal arts colleges. Why is this the case?

I’ll try to answer this question with a personal anecdote. When I applied to college, I applied to only one Canadian school, McGill. I wanted to apply for a scholarship there. In order to do so, I needed an “R” score of 33. I was never quite clear on what the “R” score was, except that it was some figure tabulated using my grades in CEGEP (a two-year non-remedial form of junior college that Quebec students attend before beginning their undergraduate career) as well as some grades from the end of my high school career. When I was applying to college, my “R” score stood at 32.9. I thought, surely, at only a fraction of a point under the requirement, some exception could be made. I called the admissions office. My father, who is a professor at McGill, called the admissions office. There would be no exceptions. I tried to tell them that I participated in extra-curricular activities. That my grades had steadily improved, and would continue to improve in my final semester at CEGEP (they did). None of this mattered. Scholarships to Canadian universities, like admissions, are a numbers game. If you don’t make the cut-off, you’re out. My R score was good enough to get in to McGill (which I did) but not good enough to even apply for a scholarship.

This was in stark contrast to my experience applying to American colleges. I applied to all the Ivy League colleges (except Dartmouth, which my parents deemed too goyish). Every one of them read my entire application. Canadian university applications often require only a transcript. American schools want much more. Beyond transcripts and standardized test scores,  elite American schools typically require an application essay (sometimes multiple essays), a CV and letters of recommendation. They also accepted poetry, artwork, musical recordings, and other evidence of extra-curricular talent. I submitted the 100 page non-fiction self-published book on baseball that I wrote at age 13 (my wife submitted her award-winning photography portfolio). I got in to Harvard, and off I went.

In setting up this contrast, the strengths and weaknesses of each approach appear quite clearly to me now. On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about the more purely “meritocratic” Canadian system. School is about academics: those with the highest grades should get in. While the Canadian system favours the wealthy, who benefit from tutors, better schools, more access to books and other class-based advantages, the American system is even more class-biased. Entire industries serve to help richer students best the SAT, write the perfect application essay and sufficiently pad their resumes. Canadian schools also lack the resources to use the more “holistic” approach that American schools do for each and every one of their applicants. Instinctively, I sympathize with the Canadian admissions system, even if I had my own (albeit very minor and ultimately inconsequential) difficulties with it.

There are benefits to the American holistic approach, though. I clearly didn’t suffer because my scholarship application was not considered. But it’s certainly conceivable that some Canadian students do suffer: students from under-privileged backgrounds who have to work jobs which cut into their studying time, or have to help raise brothers and sisters because their single parent is at work. These are the kinds of circumstances that are often communicated in application essays, which Canadian universities, because they don’t require them, never see. Indeed, even if poorer students are too ashamed to mention these things in essays, American schools demand to know the incomes of their applicants’ families, what schools their parents went to, and yes, their race and ethnicity. All these factors are carefully considered in weighing applications. Some students are advantaged by being “legacies,” i.e. their parents went to Harvard, or because they are recruited athletes (by far the most advantaged) and so they get in as well. But others are “advantaged” because they grew up on welfare, or one of their parents died when they were in elementary school, or any other reason that might compensate for a less-than-perfect academic record.

I’m frankly not sure which system is better. But implicit in the absurd and offensive question “Too Asian?” are more reasonable questions as to whether there are other admissions processes which might be more “fair,” at least in terms of admitting people of lower socio-economic status.

In comparing the article to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League schools before WW2, Heer misses the irony. Today, quotas in American colleges, which exist more informally than they did back then, serve to INCREASE the presence of disadvantaged minorities, namely Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. At least that is the theory. In the famous 1978 US Supreme Court Case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke which enshrined the principle of Affirmative Action into American law, quotas were rejected, but race was allowed to be considered as a factor in university admissions in order to promote the court-sanctioned goal of diversity.

And so we get to the crux of the matter. Are Asians “disadvantaged” and do they promote or stifle “diversity”?”

Of course this is a matter of opinion. The important opinion here is those of admissions committees at selective American schools. Without all the data, I can only speculate as to their criteria. My suspicion is that Asian immigrants might be treated as somewhat disadvantaged, and thus given some preference, while the evidence seems to show that native born Asian-Americans are penalized because there are so many strong applicants that fit that ethnic profile. I don’t know if the different immigration policies in each country lead to large differences in the make-up of the Asian communities therein. Canada tends to favor educated, middle-class immigrants, so it’s possible that Asian-Canadians already have a leg-up, though I’ve heard similar theories about Asian Americans.

Again, it’s important to remember not to lump all Asians together: Chinese and Korean and south-Asian students perform better, on average, than Filipinos and Pacific Islanders. I don’t know the data for Cambodians, Thai, Vietnamese, and other groups. But the point is that even among Asian groups, and within those groups, large differences exist.

Also, while students of colour (in Canada, called “visible minorities”) face racial discrimination, many of these students at elite universities come from relatively privileged backgrounds. So determining who if anyone deserves preferential treatment in admissions requires looking at race and class. Some even argue that class-based preferences make more sense, to make sure that the iconic white “coal miner’s daughter” is not passed over in favour of a wealthy suburban African American or Latino applicant.

The take-away here is: the issue is complicated. Canadian universities’ relatively simple “meritocratic” approach avoids these difficulties. This is another huge point in its favour.

At Harvard, they used to say that they could fill their class with people who got 1600 on their SATs, or people who went to Stuyvesant High School in NYC, but that wouldn’t create the diverse student body they’re looking for. This leads to questions as to what the university’s mission is all about: is it to educate in the classroom and prepare students for careers that require some form of expertise, or is it to expose them to different cultures, to build future leaders and active participants in the local, national and international community? As an aspiring academic, I’m sympathetic to the former goal, though I also understand the desire for the latter. My impression is that in Europe, higher education seems to be about the schooling, not about “campus life.” In the United States, it’s the opposite: a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. Canada might be somewhere in the middle. And maybe that’s the right place to be.

Last, there’s the issue of explanation. Why do some Asian and Asian-American and Asian-Canadian groups perform so well in school? There are probably lots of good historical, cultural and socioeconomic explanations. But the point is that we should work to answer these questions, rather than run away from them. Let me refer to the 2004 essay by historian David Hollinger, which argues that “the failure to pursue this question implicitly fuels largely un-expressed speculations that Jews are, after all, superior.” Hollinger is right. And if you switch Jews for Asians then you have the Maclean’s story. So lets ask the question, and try to answer it.

Postscript: Since I began writing this post, Maclean’s has responded to the controversy surrounding the initial article with an emphatic defence of “merit.” It reiterates the claim that Canadian universities are “pure meritocracies.” The editors “find the trend toward race-based admission policies in some American schools deplorable.” They write:

Our article notes that Canadian universities select students regardless of race or creed. That, in our view, is the best and only acceptable approach: merit should be the sole criteria for entrance to higher education in Canada, and universities should always give preference to our best and brightest regardless of cultural background.

Again, this is true and isn’t: Canadian schools may not not discriminate based on race or creed, but they still do favour the middle and upper classes, who apply with distinct advantages. Still, I think the Canadian university admissions system is probably more fair than the American version. Last, I think the Maclean’s editors are right: Asian and Asian-Canadian academic success, like all academic success, should be celebrated. That way, humour like that of the Family Guy clip above becomes funny rather than offensive.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 4, 2010 at 18:27

Consider Das Racist

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by Nemo

Since we’ve been considering the hipster here at PhD Octopus, I thought it might be fitting to analyze the interesting case of Brooklyn-based rap group, Das Racist, recently profiled in the New Yorker. On a superficial level, the group seems to exhibit a number of hipster-like qualities: they sport kitschy thrift store clothing like Mickey Mouse wife beaters and Bill Cosby sweaters. They make music videos based on 8-bit video games from the 1980s such as Tetris and Double Dragon. They seem to eat, breath, and sleep a brand of passive-aggressive, self-effacing irony associated with hipsterdom, and they reside in what is likely the hipster capital of the United States, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Using the hipster label to describe Das Racist, however, says next to nothing about the group’s actual music. In the course of this past year, the trio has released its first two albums Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down Man, which are both smart, funny, and politically-inflected. They rap about everything from the Simpsons, to Anthony Bourdain, to “reading Frankfurt School treatises that turn the average man into fetuses.” They also rap about smoking on doobies.

For all their casual pop-cultural references and jokes about smoking weed and drinking (and while Luce might nominate me for one of Andrew Sullivan’s Poseur Alert for saying so), Das Racist also manage to infuse their work with a self-consciously post-colonialist aesthetic pulled from the pages of Edward Said, Gaya Spivak, and Arundati Roy. (Authors the group’s two lead writers, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez probably read while living in a Students of Color for Social Justice themed dorm at Wesleyan in the early oughts.) On their track “Ek Shaneesh,” they not only reference the above writers, but take their “subaltern” experiences as dope-smoking second generation East-Indian and Cuban-Italian Americans and place it at the center of the national story: “I am a pick-up truck, I am America”:

While Das Racist’s obvious humor helps ensure that their politics never come off as preaching, it also makes their intentions easy to miss. The group initially gained attention with their viral video “Combination Taco-Bell and Pizza Hut.” Originally cut as an afterthought, the song developed into something of a frat boy anthem. It’s doubtful that many of its listeners considered Suri’s later reflections that when one visits a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, “The space is transformed by a corporate language from one single physical space to a number of illusory spaces. These spaces serve to expand the illusion of choice. The space has been recontextualized. It’s comparable to covering walls with mirrors to make a room appear bigger.” Whatever it’s ultimate significance, more likely than not, many young men in college dorms sang along to the song once or twice and thought it was hilarious.

Regardless of whether their politics get through clearly, the group can rap. Their style ranges from a stream of consciousness craziness to some of the more standard hip-hop one-upmanship. On their track “Rapping 2 u,”  Suri rhymes that, “Matter fact, all my boys in bands and shit/rappers mad, cause they got Costanza dicks/you know, like the show Seinfeld/Michael Richards make my fucking mind melt!” One of the great things about  the group is that even with their rhyming proficiency, they also feel comfortable mocking hip-hop conventions, such as the common tendency for rappers to record vocals using fake patois.

All this to say that labeling a group like Das Racist “hipster rap” often shows a critical laziness at best, and smug superiority at worst. Just cause someone looks like a hipster, doesn’t mean you have to hate.

Written by Julian Nemeth

November 22, 2010 at 23:41