American Eating Culture

A productive exchange with a fellow blogger always makes me happy. Here is what blogger Steve responded to my recent post about the differences between English and Russian writing styles:

And as Clarissa gave examples of Russian writers who wrote in a clear and direct style. And the same could be found in Afrikaans in the writing of people like Beyers Naude (a dissident Afrikaner theologian), who could turn Afrikaans from the clumsy and ponderous tool of bureaucratic oppression into something light, clear, and beautiful to read.

But while oppressive bureaucracy may account for some of the differences in style, I don’t think it accounts for all. Perhaps English has also been affected (or infected) by the urban fast-food culture, with people eating on the trot.

I think that the fast-food culture definitely is one of the factors that contributed to the creation of the eating on the run and enjoying a meal with friends while standing and walking around at a party.

However, I believe there are also other reasons why this eating culture arose. One of these reasons is the belief that resting is somehow too indulgent or even sinful and one needs to be constantly on the move. Parties turn into opportunities to network instead of offering an occasion to relax. I have a terror of networking as a practice not only because of my autism but also because I always feel embarrassed when I observe these naked attempts to exploit festive occasions to meet the right people.

The very concept of “fast food” that is eaten out of a brown bag or a plastic box is very strange to me. I work a lot and always have but I don’t understand how it is possible routinely not to have time to sit down for a nice and leisurely meal served on beautiful crockery and arranged and decorated prettily. If you don’t have time for things like these, then what do you have time for?

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Psychological

I knew in advance that September was going to be hard because of all the service obligations I had, the office move, and the difficulty of getting back into a working mood after a long summer vacation. However, I envisioned October as a month when I would have a lot of free time to work on my research and enjoy existence. October was going to be very productive for me.

Of course, when you convince yourself that something is imminent, it is bound to happen.

During the entire month of September, I was pretty much useless. In spite of teaching only two sections of the same course that requires no preparation, I was a mess. I simply couldn’t get myself together for anything. I kept forgetting, oversleeping, losing papers, not managing to do anything on time, getting confused and upset over insignificant little things that I saw as insurmountable problems. No research was getting done, mountains of paperwork were accumulating, and I felt completely adrift.

Copying a file from my computer onto a flash drive would take hours as I wandered aimlessly around forgetting what I was supposed to do. I’m not exaggerating. It once took me 8 separate trips downstairs to fetch a flash drive. I’d go downstairs, fumble in my handbag, forget what I was looking for, go back upstairs, and then the entire charade would repeat itself. I was also permanently sick. Mind you, there were no actual reasons for me to feel and act this way. I only did because I had convinced myself I was going to.

On the morning of October 1, however, I woke up, attacked the mountain of paperwork and student assignments, worked on my translation, and did a lot of research-related reading. The forms that had been daunting me for three weeks got done in one hour twenty minutes. I honestly did more in these first two days of October than in the entire month of September. I felt (and still do) energetic, efficient, and in control.

It is all in the head, people. What’s sad is that I had to waste an entire month to get this thought really to sink in.

No, the Creative Class Is Not Dead. Mainstream Journalism Is

Whenever I read the following kind of pronouncement

The dream of a laptop-powered “knowledge class” is dead. The media is melting. Blame the economy — and the Web

I know that I’m seeing an article written by a mainstream journalist who is throwing a hissy fit at the idea that the hoi-polloi now have means of making themselves heard. And what’s even more upsetting, all those bloggers and Twitterers are doing a much better job of keeping people informed, entertained, and intellectually engaged than any conventional journalist ever could.

There is no ” fading creative class”. What we are seeing is a very positive and promising displacement of all these boring Doothats, Timbergs, and Wolfs who can’t see further than their partisan allegiances and keep regaling us with an endless rehashing of the same ancient platitudes with true creators, intellectuals, artists, and journalists.

Past Crimes and Justice

Llama, a new reader from Australia whom I am very happy to have on this blog, has left a link to an article about a case that has provoked a lot of debate in Australia:

Lawyers for an elderly man who has been ordered to stand trial for raping his then-wife almost 50 years ago have argued in the High Court that he cannot be tried for something that was not illegal then.

The man, 80, was ordered to stand trial in the South Australian Supreme Court accused of raping his wife in the 1960s.

He took his legal fight to the High Court, where his lawyer David Bennett QC argued the courts could not criminalise conduct that was not illegal at the time.

The court was told that in the 1960s, a long-held common law principle meant that marriage amounted to consent and it was a wife’s duty to obey her husband’s demands for sex.

The question is, of course, whether it is reasonable to bring to trial a person who committed a crime when it was not yet considered a crime. What we have to remember when discussing such a case is that there are two goals a criminal trial aims to achieve: meting out punishment and preventing this particular individual and other individuals from committing the same crime in the future.

I think we can all agree that punishing this man in the court of law for doing something that at that time was perfectly legal would be unfair. This rapist deserves to be shunned and scorned by everybody he knows because no matter what the laws were at any time, most people were still incapable of inflicting this kind of violence on anybody. Obviously, this person is a jerk and there is no doubt in my mind that he had to have known that what he did to his wife was morally (if not legally, at that time) wrong. But putting him in jail as a form of punishment for this rape would be neither legal nor reasonable.

However, there is another aspect to the criminal justice system: crime prevention. A rapist can’t be left roaming the streets because this puts other people at risk. A person who is capable of raping somebody is a scary individual of the kind I don’t want anywhere in my vicinity. (And please don’t start offering me the ageist argument of “Oh, but he is too old to rape.” A well-functioning legal system should not, at any point, take into account the age of anybody who is legally an adult. Just like it shouldn’t take into account anybody’s gender.)

At the same time, locking up criminals is supposed to function as a deterrent to other potential criminals. The only way of combating spousal rape is by placing a few spousal rapists (ideally, of both genders) in jail in order to demonstrate that this crime will not be tolerated by any of us.

I come from a country where street harassment of women is a daily reality. After I moved to North America, I could not believe how amazing it felt to be able to walk down the street or get onto a bus without being groped, grabbed, and told nasty things. Of course, all of this still happens in the US and Canada but the amount of this kind of harassment in my country is on a completely different level. And all it took to make people think twice about harassing others sexually in the streets was a few attention-grabbing trials. The same strategy could prove useful in areas such as spousal rape and female rape of men. For people who are still not convinced that you can rape a spouse and that a woman can rape a man, a few well-publicized trials could be an eye-opening experience.

Lost in Translation

This is what I wrote on this blog recently:

Take Tenured Radical, for example. I disagreed with most of what she wrote but at least her posts were always interesting, controversial, engaging, and fun. After she moved to the Chronicle, everything she writes has become bland, sanitized, and utterly boring. So I stopped following. (Read this post on students with autism, for example. There is just no substance to it. I have no idea what the blogger was even trying to say.)

And here is how Tenured Radical retold my post in her own words:

I know, I know.  No one should ever write about autism unless they are actually they are actually on the spectrum themselves — this was a point that was made in several of the comments.  Those without ASD should all be mute and await instruction. I remember a similar admonition from feminist collective meetings in the 1970s and 1980s, where no one was supposed to speak except out of their own experience because to do so as oppressive, colonizing, and just plain wrong.

Can anybody spot ten differences between these two texts? Actually, let’s try to spot any similarities instead. If anybody manages to find any, please let me know. Those who are familiar with my blog could also venture a guess as to whether I am likely to use the expression “those without ASD.” I just looked up ASD, and it means “autism-spectrum disorders.” How much chance is there that I, of all people, would refer to autism as a “disorder”?

It is very sad when people assign some really outrageous opinions to you and then proceed to berate you for the thoughts you never even remotely entertained. It is even sadder when people can’t accept honest criticism of their bland and boring writing and try to hide behind some strange criticism of autistics who supposedly prowl around the blogosphere trying to shut everyone up.

Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion

This is what I’ve been reading this week. Feel free to self-promote to your heart’s content.

An outstanding post on the horrible and barbaric “Conceived in Rape” campaign in what is turning into a horrible and barbaric state of Mississippi.

You think that people in Pamplona run with bulls? Think again as you watch this hilarious video and read the explanation of the new phenomenon.

A brilliant and important post on reproductive freedom.

A series of interesting posts on religion. Here is the first one. And here is the second one (make sure you read my fascinating 🙂 comments to the post.) There are more posts in the series appearing daily, so make sure you wander around the blog and find them.

Really great suggestions on how to meditate.

Drinking a lot of coffee may decrease the risk of depression. I don’t know if it’s true but now I feel very self-righteous about my out-of-control love for coffee.

An absolutely hilarious article on really stupid academic titles.

A powerful post on what hides behind the men’s rights movement.

How do you decide to donate money for a cause? I think this is a great topic for a fruitful discussion.

A very important post on how to break an addiction to beauty stores.

The success industry victimizes men.

A response to my post on using terminology people from other ethnic groups might find offensive.

Six ways to fix the embarrassing GOP primary debates.

Culture-Specific Writing Styles

Blogger Steve, whose great blog you can find here,  made the following comment that I would like to address in more detail:

I read somewhere that different cultures have different styles of writing, and it had some diagrams, and one that I remember showed English culture as going straight to the point, but Spanish culture taking as long as possible to get to the point, and circling around it for a long time, and a lot of this also involved preference for the passive voice.

I have tended to think that beating around the bush is undesirable, and I agree with what you say about the passive voice. But I also wondered if that was just an Anglo-centric viewpoint, and was something I needed to become aware of, as others have implied that I need to become aware of my alleged white-centric viewpoint.

But then I think, you are more likely to have a Ukrainian-centric viewpoint than an Anglo one, and yet I agree with you about the passive voice, so perhaps it isn’t an example of cultural chauvinism.

For years, I preferred to write my research in Spanish and dreaded writing in English because precision and concision that are marks of a good writing style in English were completely alien to me. If Spanish allows for interminable, roundabout sentences, then Russian does so to even a greater degree. I can create a sentence with 15 dependent clauses that goes on for 20+ lines and uses a passive construction in every clause. I really dig writing this way, too, because it reflects my way of being so well. Learning to stop beating around the bush and just saying what I want to say was a long and painful process for me. It was very hard to get rid of all the verbal flourishes, all of the “It might be argued”, “One might be justified in venturing a suggestion”, “It should probably be mentioned”, “What seems to be in need of being pointed out in this situation”, etc.

When I first started writing in English, I thought it would be OK simply to transfer my very Russian writing style into English. I soon discovered that it was not acceptable, though. One of the reasons I started this blog was to learn to write in a way that would sound less Russian and would be more attractive to English-speaking readers. (I think this has been a very successful strategy and my writing has improved dramatically in the 2,5 years of blogging.)

Now, the question is: why are the writing styles in Russian and in English so different?

I believe that the vague, imprecise, never-really-coming-to-the-point, passive-voice writing style in Russian is a result of our painful and long history of political repression.

When I read Belinsky and Pisarev, my favorite XIXth-century Russian literary critics, I see a very beautiful, powerful writing style that is free of any trace of vagueness and imprecision. When Pisarev wants to say that Pushkin is an idiot, he does it without hiding behind any verbal flourishes. When Belinsky wants to say that women are downtrodden and abused in the Russian society, he does so in a crystal-clear and passionate way.

The roundaboutness and lack of precision gradually became the hallmarks of the Russian writing style as the twentieth century progressed. The Soviet censorship was so terrifying and careful that sneaking any marginally original insight by the censors required significant skill. Readers learned to decipher interminable sentences for any sign of mildly subversive reasoning. The art of writing simply, clearly and directly was lost because there was no use for it. Whether the knowledge of how to write in a less convoluted, passive style has any hope of being reborn in Russian-speaking countries will depend on how well the freedom of speech will be protected in our countries.