Life Without a Cellphone

This is an ongoing series of articles and cartoons about my life without a cellphone:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Reintroduction

Part 3-A: Maslow Into Madness

Part 3-B: Maslow Into Madness (Rabbit Holes)

Part 3-C: Maslow Into Madness (Unbound)

Part 4-A: Um, Okay?

Part 4-B: Um, Okay? (Psychosomatic Confusion)

Part 4-C: Um, Okay? (Patchwork Oscillation)

No Body at the Wheel (Synthetic Poetry in Demotion)

Part 4-D: Um, Okay? (Inconclusive Conclusion)

Folly Is Joy

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The Healthiest Block In New York?

An article about a particularly healthy block:

The Healthiest Block In New York?

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Banking Articles

Here are two more articles about my time in banking:

I, Too, Have Messed With LIBOR

On Greg Smith, Goldman Sachs, and a Perp Walk Down Memory Lane

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Art After Terror

An edited version of the below appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of NY Arts Magazine

The ACTION–ReACTION exhibition at .NO, a Lower East Side gallery dedicated to Norwegian artists, aims to explore power relations. However, .NO also creates a link to the 7/22 acts of terrorism in Norway – stating that some pieces can be seen as “contributions to a collective mourning process.”

The ambiguity this linkage creates, of what is or is not terrorism-inflected, is only increased by omission of dates on artwork labels and by two eye-catching works on opposite ends of the space that explicitly reference the attacks. With this in mind, interpretation separate from the Oslo-Utøya attacks is left as kin to ignoring the 800 lb. pink explosive in the room.

And I mean that last bit of insensitivity almost literally, as the piece that confronts you through the window as you approach the gallery, BELIEF=interests (Vibeke Jensen, 2011), includes ingredients for explosives. Even what you see on approach refers to a post-attack reality: a blue “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” barrier spans the window. Intersected by a pair of unfinished wooden planks boarding up the window, it marks the gallery as crime-scene.

Viewed from inside: the barrier is painted black; one plank is mirrored; its vertical partner is painted black and scattered with mirror fragments; a plank on the floor lies beneath a bucket of nitrogen fertilizer, an unlabeled bag containing seeds, and two roses; a greasy-looking epoxy adhesive streaks the planks.

In contradistinction to these tactile, real-world objects are print-outs of a Twitter feed. Here, in the virtual medium through which news of the attacks spread, we read statements regarding the piece and attacks. For example, the fertilizer, epoxy (stand-in for diesel fuel), and cotton (represented by seeds), are bomb ingredients. Yet fertilizer and seeds can also be used to grow roses. A return visit to the exhibition showed the roses had been left to rot.

To my eye, identity seems to transition from whole to fragmented as one shifts from whole mirror to mirror fragments, with impetus provided by the explosive represented below. Simultaneously, the whole mirror’s irregular shape admits that Norwegian identity was never “whole” in the first place.

In these mirrors one also glimpses the piece on the opposing wall: it reads “no one is illegal,” with one word per line and alternating between right-to-left and left-to-right text. This mirror-writing of every second line “reflects” back at BELIEF=interests, placing the two works in dialogue. The statement rejects the killer’s anti-immigrant Islamophobia and gestures at unity: Norwegian is written left-to-right and Arabic right-to-left; the structure allows the eye to snake from word to word, without interruption.

Subsequent research, however, revealed that this piece predates the attacks by two years. Apart from reminding one that Norwegian immigration debates existed pre-attacks, this re-purposing jibes with conceptual art’s philosophy: if concept is criterion and object itself immaterial, why not re-purpose object in a different context and bestow on it new significance?

Into this milieu enter other artworks: Charcoal drawings by Sverre Malling, one shrinking a person to fit on a leaf, another enlarging a shell to fit a person, nod at gunman Brevik’s human prey hiding in the natural environs of Utøya. Pencil drawings by Sol Kjøk offer interlaced nude figures forming spheres or physically propping up one another; Norway-reds and -blues augment this message of post-attack national unity. Christer Karlstad’s oils portray figures in states of suspense, set in the muted light of a time suspended between night and day, a metaphor for post-attack national mood.

Overall, while interesting, the pieces seemed lacking in ambition. Perhaps this was deliberate: while the issue of what constitutes “simple” is a thorny one, there are predominant strains of Norwegian art that favor simplicity in the service of sincerity. Perhaps tame/earnest is an accurate reflection of the national mood “the-morning-after.” Or perhaps none of the artists risked overreacting.

Where the exhibition succeeds most is in its use of space. Between the partially boarded-up gallery, the mirroring effects, and the ceiling-placement of a painting by Karlstad – representing a woman suspended down towards viewer from the opening of a hole, it seemingly places the viewer in that hole – I found myself uncomfortably enclosed amongst the totality of responses, their myriad respective media indicative of a national emotional response spewing through all the cracks in the dam.


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Footnoting David Foster Wallace: Part 1

Published in The Huffington Post

Co-written with Casey Michael Henry

There are recognizable rituals to the post-burial coalescence of an author’s legacy: the heartfelt memorial, the vaguely similar-to-visage-seeming New Yorker cartoon, the earnest and inspiring discussions of author and work by those who knew him well (and those who didn’t), his familiar words exhaled and reissued and his every unpublished syllable exhumed, the video of author reanimated and palely regurgitating all the outdated theories, seeming very much spontaneous, seeming alive, even…all providing a faux vital authenticity to the ultimate transformation of author into “ism:” a loose abstraction bearing only the most grotesque and outward form of his style, ready-packaged for appropriation.

Thusly has David Foster Wallace, perhaps the most intentionally malleable and linguistically flexible writer of the last thirty years, been crunched, winnowed down, and calcified into a glib bumper sticker of “Wallacianism;” a bright and gaudy affectation used to further whomever’s objectives.

This process has accelerated of late. Last week saw the republication of Wallace’s Federer essay by ESPN, appropriating Wallace’s “genius” to sell US Open coverage. Last month saw the adoption by The Decemberists of the apocalyptically-themed game of Eschaton from Infinite Jest to resemble a motley-dressed Wes Anderson replay. Reaching back, the psycho-kinetic redemption of rape victimhood in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men became the grad-school Gossip Girl of John Krasinski’s adaptation. And, most directly, Wallace’s often colloquial swirling assumption of opinion and counter-opinion, fact and hair-brained reaction, art theory and corndog design, has recently been hung by Maud Newton in the New York Times as the source of the linguistic and expressional excesses and sloppiness of an entire digital generation.

All this made possible through the evacuation of history, the ‘slickification’ of dense, avante garde ‘stuff’, the replacement of Wallace’s challenge to irony with saccharine twee. So that, over time, what it means to be Wallacian has reduced to a loose bunch of cartoonish associations: a tic’y rash, genius, kooky! funny ☺, depressed ☹. This is the first step in the mythification process, and in this article we aim to restore some sense of history–of purpose–to what it means to be ‘David Foster Wallace’ by discussing Newton’s piece, a piece that not only takes advantage of history evacuation but actively advances it. In the sequel, we will explore the second step of the mythification process–the appropriation made possible once history is erased–as it reaches its terminal point in the above-named multi-media.

But let us return to Newton’s appropriation of Wallace. Her correlation that Wallace’s impresario-as-wandering-dude tone in his non-fiction is responsible for a new kind of online and blogging lethargy–too many watery qualifiers, e.g. “really really,” too-self-consciously conversational intros, e.g. “oh, hi”–is first made possible through a sequence of intentional flattenings.

For example, to present Wallace as a ‘stoned slacker’ (to use Bill O’Reilly’s terminology), at even the linguistic level, is a misreading. One does not craft a 1,100 page tome in the form of an arcane mathematical structure (in this case a Sierpinski Gasket or, as Wallace describes it, a sort of “pyramid on acid”) by happenstance.

Further, Newton’s assumption that Wallace is the sole practitioner of the artful defusion of ‘high brow’ pretension by ‘street slang’ is an overstatement–recall Joyce’s exhausting of the entire practice in his “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses where the whole history of the English language is satirized, equally, from its inception to his contemporary cockney.

The overall point missing is how Wallace mastered the art of bridging academic sophistry with the innately human: e.g. combining a Wittgensteinian notion of addiction not existing beyond an addict’s ability to articulate it with the more immediate philosophy of gotta-have-nonpresent-drugz-in-an-ever-fuckuppable-intensity. He was, as appears to be the too-obvious definition that seems to cow reviewers by its obviousness, the true crafter of a postmodern ‘sincerity’–a seemingly impossible task in the wake of Pynchon and the psychosexual slapstick of characters like “Oedipa Maas” and “Tyrone Slothrop.”

It is not only misperception, however, but a whole-sale misjudgment of Wallace’s conversational peccadilloes that Newton opens up by nailing Wallace to the cross of tic’y jargon. The very descriptives Newton hammers Wallace for from his essay “Big Red Son,” describing a porn king as “hard not to sort of almost actually like” and his own literary movement as “the whole cynical postmodern deal,” in fact perform a surreptitious erosion of certain postmodern tendencies: the former subverting a tendency for moral relativism by acknowledging an ethical spectrum in ‘liking’ a traditionally ‘unlikable’ figure, and the latter imploding postmodernism’s disaffected posture by describing the movement in its very tone of disaffection. It’s, like, the only way to subvert a structure’s “power/knowledge,” as a five-dollar Foucaultian would say.

And it is not only what she hammers him for that proves problematic, but also her exaggerated manner. After referring to “the whole cynical post-modern deal,” Newton files a complaint re: “whole” appearing twenty times in the essay. This is hyperbole-by-omission: “Big Red Son” is fifty novel-sized pages long. Furthermore, not every “whole” is slangified–note the usage in e.g. “CES as a whole,” or “performer’s whole face.”

On the whole, Newton is content exhibiting observations and accusing Wallace of mischief, without probing the motive question–Why? Why does he use ‘whole’ and other slangy expressions? Or rather, why these stylings in this essay? Newton unfairly merges all his writing into one defendant.

Witness, in an ultimate ‘book by its cover’ moment, her reference of the very next title in the same collection, “Certainly The End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” as another example of Wallace’s tics–eliding the subdued stylings present in the essay itself in comparison to “Big Red Son.”

So why would “Big Red Son,” an essay about the academy awards of pornography, replete with (very) casual dialogue, rough-around-the-edges industry players, hypersexualized dispassionate fucking environments, discussions of double penetration, triple penetration, penis fluffers, overly-enhanced breasts, and writing with one’s own asshole (writing sample included) contain more than your average allotment of slang?

Rather than answering, Newton is content referring to Wallace’s stylings as “tics” and “quirks.” This in and of itself is not problematic–Wallace himself considered the possibility in an email to Jonathan Franzen: “…tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.”

The problem, then, is the complete lack of acknowledgement that these tics might have purpose. With the evacuation of purpose, ‘tic’ and ‘quirk’ turn vulgar pejorative, her rhetorical strategy amounts to “label to dismiss,” and Wallace, suffering from a verbal Lyme disease, is left vulnerable to her and others’ myriad appropriations.

An attempt to restore purpose: On a stylistically superficial level, “Big Red Son”‘s slang matches its subject matter–porn. D.H. Lawrence this world is not. But, paradoxically, slang simultaneously contrasts the technical language Wallace uses here for explicit descriptions of sexual acts–in this context viewed through a mechanical, soulless, pornographic lens; sex as a series of academic acts to be academically filmed.

Against this backdrop, slang is the humanizer, what Walt Whitman called “an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably.” Here slang hints that there is more to this porno world, that there is humanity in its performers and its viewers. It corresponds with Wallace’s description of a fan’s desire to see those rare, fleeting moments when the face of a porn actor reveals “some sort of genuinely felt erotic joy,” and the actor ceases to be just body.

But slang is not Newton’s only suit. She also tags Wallace’s “plus” and “worse” with a pejoratively inflected “childlike speech.” Why would Wallace, who in “Tense Present” stops to differentiate between definitions of ‘authority,’ resort to general words–behold also the listless “thing” and the resigned “stuff” that pock-mark his prose–over the verbal armory at his synapse-tips? Newton implies that he masquerades as “one of the guys.” But could Wallace have believed the reader would be fooled whilst he liberally displays his compulsive genius?

Another attempt to restore purpose, from “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:”

The acoustics in here have the nightmarishly echoey quality of some of the Beatles’ more conceptual stuff.

Note the specificity. Not just description of sound, but of sound environment. Not just echoey, but nightmarishly so. Not just nightmarishly echoey, but so as in specific subsection of certain band’s music.

Only he doesn’t say “music” or name songs, he uses the vague “stuff.”

Potential explanation 1: he doesn’t remember specific songs at that moment
Potential explanation 2: he realizes it isn’t the Beatles’ music itself he is referencing, but his memory of it
Potential explanation 3: it hints, especially when considered in conjunction with the regular occurrence of vague words in the essay, at exhaustion with language as a means of reaching some unreachable, occluded, underlying truth

In any case, “stuff” allows for, just as “whole cynical postmodern deal” does, a personal, in-the-moment-feeling, a gut human reaction rather than an academic intellectualized-mulled-over-after-the-fact-description. “This was my experience.” Not, “this is a revised experience, product of later research and thought.”

In that sense, both childlike speech and slangy expression operate for Wallace as kin of free indirect discourse, here disguising as prose the speech or internal monologue of the author himself, rather than that of a character’s. So that, amidst a first-person essay that is by definition a certain strain of the author’s voice, we get also the interjection of a less formal strain of that author’s voice. (the rhythms and personal voice of Wallace’s hyphenated-too-many-words-crammed-into-one-breath-type-devices mark them ‘FID kin’ as well)

Which brings us to Wallace’s voice-via-footnotes. A reading experience heavily interrupted by author-provided footnotes is hardly new. Joyce assisted Gifford with notes to Ulysess. Nor is an author commenting on, or warding off criticism about, his own discourse, through footnotes, a revolution. See “The Wasteland.” The innovation, then, was Wallace wanting footnotes to interrupt the reading experience to better represent a fractured reality.

Furthermore, reading his footnotes one often feels transported elsewhere–here to the mind of Wallace, there into conversation with him–with the return to the body of the text always a bit jarring, like a return to work after a daydream, with a requirement to reengage, to remember that one is reading. In that sense, footnotes also fight the omnipresent creep of human passivity Wallace feared.

In a larger sense, all of Wallace’s stylings are interruptions–Brechtian reminders that what you are reading is a construction, that behind it is a man, with his own point of view, who has obsessively constructed the world you are experiencing as whole. They are Godard, in conspiratorial whisper, reminding you that in front of your eyes is not a character but an actress, not a reality, but a film. To call Wallace’s stylings annoying and manipulative, a purposeless distraction to be tolerated whilst enjoying his genius, as Newton essentially does, is as wrongheaded and unproductive as asking Godard to do away with all the shenanigans and just stick to the story already. And besides, ‘sincere’ just sounds better.


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Footnoting David Foster Wallace: Part 1

My latest piece is up at the Huffington Post:

The article was prompted by Maud Newton’s piece about David Foster Wallace in the New York Times a few weeks ago. My article deals with the mythologizing and appropriation of David Foster Wallace in contemporary culture.


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From Point A To Point A By Way Of Point A

Published in The Huffington Post

A pretentious open letter, full of generalizations and exaggerations, to current and recent high school and college students:

The following is not a lecture, though it might seem to be. Nor is it an attempt to push my views of the world, though the medium sends that message. Nor is it advice, despite the advice it contains. It is not even meant as suggestion, innocent as that would be. It is simply support for those of you who hold a certain minority view, who will be peer pressured by friends this summer and might welcome reassurance from a like mind.

Of course, we are well into summer now, but, if you are lucky, you might still soon be off to gallivant around the globe. Only not exactly gallivant…more like gadabout, playing an international game of tag with an imaginary, relentless, and inexhaustible ‘it’.

When I ask students if, given a two-week vacation, they would rather visit six cities or one, they invariably opt for six, reasoning they can ”knock off a few places.” 3 days Rome. 1.5 days Florence. An afternoon Lyon. 3.5 days Paris. 1.5 days Brussels.  And, of course, 2 long, tripped out days in Amsterdam. The great city collection race – not even, the great landmark scavenger hunt, as if landmarks were so many happy meal toys: collect all 1 million!  And for what?  It can take two weeks just to escape tourist Paris, to work through the obvious and the trite, the superficial and the cynical, until, perhaps only at the very end…a sudden shift in tone…a deeper meaning interjects itself.

But a city reduced to a commercial, reduced to an entry on a tapas menu for you to quickly englut so that room on the table can be made for the next and the next and the next…you will not so much travel as consume the idea of a place. Another city crossed off the list. Another Facebook album created. Another electronic pin electronically dropped on an electronic “places I’ve been” map. And it will all flow through you without touching a thing.

The concomitant photography obsession is no coincidence. Photography, the ultimate document-for-later-over-experience-now tool, gives consumption primacy and obfuscates intimacy, leaving your time abroad never more than two-dimensional and quasi-anachronistic; one cannot escape the Heisenberg untravel principle. If you are after a mediated experience, sink into a couch and watch the travel channel while shuffling through postcards.

I remember a trip with my brother and some friends several summers ago. We had scheduled to be in Lyon for a couple of days, en route to Switzerland to meet some friends (try not to picture me on a yacht sipping a martini as you read that sentence). My brother started to push for us to skip out of Lyon early and travel to Zurich through Milan “because you can do Milan in half a day.”

What place, what lives, can be reduced to six hours between trains? And if they can be, why visit at all? Unless such a venture is a day-trip as part of a long stay in one city, save your time and money and stay put. With this requisitioned bounty of time and money you can accomplish more than you could sitting on yet another bus, and perhaps even have a nice meal instead of yet another falafel from Maoz.

Being in Lyon for only two days was out of my control. But to cut even that short just to visit another locale with the unabashed purpose of crossing another city and country off a list was too much to bear. And to be able to cross off a country after only six hours! Please, save your trysts for your dating life. For your travels partake in a long, intense, sex-filled relationship with a city (or two) of your choice. You do not conquer simply by coming and seeing, so replace the vapid thrill of empty conquest with the hard-earned thrill of intimate discovery. Just be prepared to explain to your friends why your Facebook albums are titled “Paris I,” “Paris II,” and “Paris III,” rather than an alphabetical list of every European capital.

Now, I do not propone this method of travel with the aim that you go learn more about a place’s “culture”, which, in the pre-packaged, handshake, epidermal, blink-of-an-eye manner it is often experienced by travelers, is as much related to consumerism as watching a commercial or purchasing a t-shirt – often amounts to purchasing a t-shirt. I mean for you to meet actual people – lives meeting lives. I mean for you to absorb some essence of a locale – the place’s the thing, let it catch your imagination.

Imagine yourself a citizen of Rome with a week or two off. What would you do? Dream what it would be like to live there.  See what it would be like to linger…to linger at a café, to linger at a museum, to linger even on a street bench…to visit a place more than once, to become a regular, even. Let the guidebook be more resource than command center, less bible than occasional, helpful stranger, and linger till you for forget home.

For there is a certain symmetry to travel: to connect with one world, you must disconnect from another. So leave your laptop at home, get a phone that cannot call home, and leave your cameras behind, as they are little more than a link to your future return home. If, however, you’d sooner leave behind your still-beating heart than your camera, consider a one camera per group rule: Each day someone else is saddled with full camera responsibilities. Others cannot make any requests or criticize any choices. Whatever comes out comes out. The rest will have to live on inside of you.

My most recent trip was to a small, isolated, coastal town. I left my digitals at home and set my email to auto-reply. I stayed there long enough to watch the dark-sanded beach I slept by transform nightly with the phases of the moon. Long enough to transition from a watch’s time to that of the sun, to turn from casting spells to ward off rain to begging for it. Long enough to watch the leaves shed their dust and the dusty road turn a rich earthen clay, seemingly overnight, seemingly every night, as dry season slowly gave way to rains, so that every day I said to myself again, “Yes, today the rainy season has arrived. Today everything is finally green.” Long enough for the owner of my lodgings to volunteer his journals from his first few years in the country, to learn the rhythms of life of the locals he had living on-site. Long enough to become a regular at two restaurants, to learn about the second life of one of the workers struggling to maintain a small farm, of another’s work to design and build a skate park, to meet the families of the owners, to be invited into the kitchen of a renowned French chef for a lesson. Long enough to turn from loving surfing to hating it to loving it again, to graduate from beginner’s break to world-class-I-feel-like-I-am-going-to-die-today-break, to get caught in currents and thrust towards rocks, to see sores on my abdomen open and slowly seal and harden. Long enough for my surfing instructor to feel sufficiently comfortable to betray his ambivalence towards this client’s presence, lamenting that, as we paused for a moment to look back at the shore, where glamorous houses belied the poverty not far, in a cliché made sincere no less by his accent than his emotion, “no local owns land on the beach. We sold our soul for a little bit of money Omer,” before paddling away to catch a wave. Long enough to learn of a secret break that those who moved to the country to surf guard against interlopers, to go admire them at sunrise, to learn of a fight between natives who sought to surf that break and were aghast to have immigrants claim it as their own and threaten them, pounding fist into open palm. Long enough to be taken to a traveling rodeo, its arrival a highlight of small town life, to watch the generations gather together, above and below and around wooden bleachers, while local men and teenagers, drunk, enter the ring as makeshift bullfighters, begging to get gored, as rider after rider explodes into their stumbling, preening midst. Long enough to mourn a lost love in unwired isolation, for the sound of the hard ocean break, close outside my sliding door, to turn from rhythmic comfort to disturbing, unrelenting, psychological abuse.

Finally, in the redemptive measure of a trip’s success, long enough to be invited back: the aforementioned French chef has promised a one-week cooking internship upon my return. And so, if I can resist the temptation to cross another city off my list, I will once again disappear from the here and recreate myself there.

Please, if you go away in the coming weeks or years, do not be restless. Keep your mind still, your exposure long, and allow for truth to arrange itself. It could happen anywhere…


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X-Men: First Class: Reviewing Magneto and the Super Jews

Published in The Huffington Post

Ever since I converted to atheism, I have wondered what it means to be a Jew. Was I even Jewish anymore — the ‘ish’ appending my classification suddenly appearing more appropriate? Such were my musings at thirteen, the only immediate change in my life a cessation of special prayers before Yeshiva league basketball games. But the identity questions remained and are still pondered with stereotypical neuroticism: Am I a Jew? Can I choose not to be a Jew? Can others decide that I am a Jew? Can I disunite culture from religion? Would others care or still conflate the two? What is a Jew? And…do I want to be one?

I do not believe in god, nor practice Judaism, nor blindly support Israel’s policies. Yet I cannot deny that a Jewish upbringing and school, with summers spent in Israel, shaped me. My only ties to Judaism are family, memories of a Jewish childhood, the Hebrew language, and a Thanksgiving-like attendance of Passover dinners. Yet the world considers me Jewish. While I can ponder, study, manipulate, disprove, and, finally, dismiss social constructs to my brain’s content, when I reopen my eyes they have a funny little habit of appearing quite unharmed. All that is clear to me is that, by force of habit or society, I instinctively identify with other Jews.

Interestingly, the past half-decade of film has presented non-stereotypical Jews to test and expand this identification. Strong, athletic, violent, handsome — something separate from the bookish, weak, nerdish, neurotic construct that shaped me — they are…the Super Jews. Their latest incarnation is Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.

While Super Jews exist in reality, as a social construct — as part of public consciousness — they have been absent since perhaps Flavius’s account of Masada. They are projections in a liminal space, Golem-like in power yet manifestly human, seemingly fanciful yet based on historical figures or archetypes. That other than Liev Schreiber the actors in question are non-Jews, though detrimental to a Jewish viewer seeking identification, works to broaden Jewish identity. And that baggage that actors carry from previous roles is in this case mostly larger-than-life characters, adding to the perceived power and mystique.

Two generations ago, Charles Bronson and Rutger Hauer brought their tough-goy personas to Raid on Entebbe and Escape from Sobibor, respectively. Their cinematic Super Jew progeny include:

Munich (2005)
-Eric Bana: coming off Trojan warrior Hector, the Hulk, and a super-hero-like soldier in Black Hawk Down
-Daniel Craig: tabbed to play Bond; best known for action role in Lara Craft: Tomb Raider

Defiance (2008)
-Craig: having added Munich and a pair of Bond movies to his resume
-Schreiber: tabbed to play superhuman mutant Sabretooth; recent roles of note included a brainwashed vice-presidential candidate in The Manchurian Candidate and a CIA operative in The Sum of All Fears

The Debt (2011)
-Marton Csokas: relative unknown; with action movie pedigree including Kingdom of Heaven and The Bourne Supremacy
-Sam Worthington: fresh off playing the son of Zeus, a half-Terminator superhuman, and a blue alien of superhuman proportions and physical prowess.

(Counterintuitively, Tarantino’s eponymous Basterds are precluded from Super Jew glory. In the film, while others, including their non-Jewish conspirators, are granted a modicum of interiority, history, and dialogue, these Jews are purposefully left as dehumanized, blank mercenaries for Germans to fear. The movie’s Hitler seems terrorized by these “apparitions,” rumored to be Golems — which essentially they are. Even the Golems’ mark, the Hebrew word for truth on the creature’s forehead, makes a cameo: in a twist, the Basterds brand truth onto Nazi foreheads in the form of swastikas)

Into this milieu enters Magneto. He is super in the truest sense of the word, able to manipulate magnetic forces and viewed as perhaps the most powerful mutant of all. Despite his presence in a fantasy universe, he, like the other Super Jews and unlike the Basterds, is both characterized and acted with serious intention. And yet, I did not have the same instinctive identification with this Super Jew, that strange, shared bond of “Jewishness” I usually feel, wanted or unwanted.

There is a difference between him and the others, a power hitherto unseen: the ability to transcend the Jewish social construct. This is by far the movie’s greatest act of fancy, for who has ever accomplished a like feat? While his past haunts him, Magneto chooses not to consider himself Jewish and the world follows suit — viewing him as mutant full stop, with none of his actions judged in a Jewish context. As a measure of this feat’s difficulty, to transcend Jewish identity, to have this seductive power of self-determination, it was necessary to leave human identity behind.

And perhaps this void is for the better. The danger with any violent Super Jew portrayal is the risk of unintentionally critiquing Israel (assuming the director does not wish to). This risk is greater with a character meant to be more than individual, to embody a certain set of broad-scale ideas in a debate, as is Magneto in opposition to Professor X. And the Magneto/Israel parallels abound:

Jews shaped and driven by Holocaust imprisonment and suffering; formerly weak but now autonomous and powerful; chased Nazis with vengeance; believe in “never again” and fulminate at the phrase “just following orders;” have little faith in humanity’s tolerance for difference; follow a violent path — along with its attendant civilian casualties — to achieve their goals; toe the line between self-defense and aggressive preemption (or outright aggression, depending on one’s viewpoint); use behavior of antagonists as rationale for aggression, though sometimes their own actions are root cause of said behavior; extending to the comic-book world, both desire a homeland for their kind.

All this would prove banal without another Magneto parallel. There is a strange, not oft discussed discomfort with the Holocaust both allowing for and shaping Israel and its citizens’ mentalities. For it is not a giant logical leap for some to make that if the Holocaust had such an influence in shaping Israel, so too did the Holocaust’s architects. Usually this line is disposed of with a simple and effective willful disregard. The movie, however, seems to engage this idea head-on, to even progress from just a “shaped by Nazis” towards a “replication of them” implication:

We first see Magneto’s powers emerge in a moment of rage as a child in a concentration camp. They reappear with increased intensity after witnessing Sebastian Shaw, then a Nazi, murder his mother. Strangely, though his anger is taken out on both human and inanimate object alike, he spares the Nazi killer, who laughs, deliriously calm, watching Magneto’s metallic storm. The sequence ends with Shaw putting an arm around Magneto as they walk towards the settled destruction and into a bright illuminating light; the Nazi discussing the unlocking of Magneto’s powers, their hands finally touching.

Later, Magneto will paint this Nazi as father-figure and refer to him as his creator. He will express agreement with Shaw’s views on mutant-human relations and take over his group — symbolically anointing himself as the new Shaw when he dons Shaw’s helmet for protection (and, as this protection is from the telepathic interference of other minds, he is in that same action rendered literally close minded). Even Magneto’s plan in the original (temporally later) X-Men movie, to mutate humans by force, is similar to Shaw’s plan to accelerate mutations in humans through nuclear war, with both eerily reminiscent of Nazi experiments on Jews.

Magneto views his kind as a superior race. He is capable of a methodical man-hunt, sadistic killing, and, eventually, a calm equilibrium in violence — a state described as optimal for exercising his powers. And that baggage the actor brings from previous roles? In his previous major role to date, Fassbender played a character pretending to be a Nazi.

And so we are presented an Israel-like figure who is also a Nazi-like figure. What intervention can the movie possibly employ to avoid the implications? The elimination of his Judaism (an either Nazi-like or freedom-inspired solution, depending on one’s point of view). For while Israel is wrapped up in its Jewish character, the mutant Magneto is not at all Jewish. If he were obviously so, the movie would receive attention of a kind that hurts box-office receipts.

The irony is, given Israel’s Jewish character, not only that Israel is largely secular, but also that the closest approximation of Magneto’s ability to cast off Jewish identity is immigration to Israel, where that difference falls away in a sea of likeness, replaced by more pedestrian distinctions: country of origin, political leanings, piety, military service, class…


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X-Men: First Class: Reviewing Magneto and the Super Jews

My latest piece is up at the Huffington Post:

It is not a straight film review. Rather, it deals with questions of Jewish identity in X-Men: First Class, in life, and in relation to Israel. Take a look!

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Will be back soon…

Just a quick note that I’m still in Costa Rica (as I have been for almost three weeks now), still without much internet (which is good), but should be back by month-end (maybe)….at which point I will be a more consistent blogger (cough cough). You are now free to move about the internet.



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