Park Slope Food Coop: The Ninotchkas of Union Street

“We work every four weeks, not every month. Does everyone understand the difference?” the woman with the projector said in a baby voice, enunciating every word. Not everyone did. Shifts were 2.75 hours, she continued, and every single adult member of the household had to do them. No buying out of it, no family plans. I realized I would be required to work my husband’s shift, too, as he worked full time at an office job and I worked from home.

I asked if I could have a nonphysical task because of back pain. She interrupted, “If you have a medical problem, your physician can give us a note.” I signed up to work two shifts in the office.

Two weeks later, I arrived at the Coop’s check-in desk with my new ID card for what I thought was my first scheduled work shift. One of the scanner people told me, “You’re on alert for work, and Tom is on alert for orientation.” I was flabbergasted. I knew my husband had shirked the new-member orientation, but I thought I was following all the rules.

“But I’m here to work my first shift,” I said.

“No, you missed your first shift,” the guy told me. “This is your second shift.” Now, I was told, I would have to work two shifts for the one I missed as punishment. Former PSFC Member

One recent morning, I went to the co-op office to check my status. A fellow member-worker pulled my file: a collection of index cards that highlighted every job and misstep since my initiation into the club. Next to me, an elderly woman was being grilled: “Did you tell your squad leader that you had a medical emergency?”

Another time, I watched a woman hold her forehead, her children clinging to her skirt, while a worker at the register called out over the intercom, “Does anyone know how to process food stamps?” Former PSFC Member

To the Hollywood of 1939 and 1940, Stalin and Hitler were still a bit of a joke. Charlie Chaplin did “The Great Dictator” about Hitler in 1940, and in 1939 Ernst Lubitsch did “Ninotchka,” a comedy about the Bolsheviks that starred Greta Garbo. And today in Brooklyn, there is a bit of comedy playing on Union Street in Park Slope, starring scores of mock-serious Bolsheviks acting out a little Soviet: the Park Slope Food Coop.

Every member at PSFC must work at this coop. Want to pay someone else to do the work for you ? No no no. That would go against our spirit, our ideology. No work to do ? You must show up regardless — there’s lots of make-work we can dream up. And, oh yes, for those whose thinking is not right, there are a number of penalties: suspension, public ridicule, and the threat of expulsion. There are two committees that deal with politically-incorrect deviationists: a) the Diversity and Equality Committee, and b), for the most serious offenders, the dreaded Disciplinary Committee whose powers include expulsion. (Do you belong to any other organization that has such a committee ?) It seems that almost all members have had some brush with the FSFC discipline apparatus, at least for missing work assignments.

As is the case of all cults and political sects, the accounts of former members (such as the ones I have cited above) give insights into the working of the PSFC. But the frankest and most detailed information by far comes from PSFC’s own Membership Manual. Frank, because it spells out, in almost so many words, the irrational and vindictive nature of the group’s disciplinary procedures.

The most striking feature is the insistence that when a work assignment has not been fulfilled the offender must work two assignments for the one he has missed. Why two instead of one ? Surely one make-up session, and perhaps a modest fee to compensate the group for expenses, would make the Coop whole for any missed assignment. But making the group whole is obviously not the purpose of the exercise. Something else is clearly going on: the offender needs to be taught a lesson, he needs to be punished. And, the PSFC apologists will insist, if you don’t like it, don’t join. You knew what you’re getting into at the beginning, you contracted to live by these rules. Reasonable ?

No, not reasonable. We are not free to enter into contracts that punish because punitive action is reserved to the government. In the legal literature, this discussion is concerned with the difference between “liquidated damages” (allowed) and “penalties” (not allowed). No contract that calls for penalties is enforceable. Among other problems, such would-be contracts are considered unconscionable.

I think that the unconscionable double-make-up rule of the PSFC is a potential legal Achilles’ Heel for the group. An aggrieved member could, and actually should, sue the organization whenever it insists on double work as a condition for his continued membership. PSFC has been a feature of left-wing Brooklyn for quite a while now. No doubt it has been of some benefit to at least some of its members, mostly by providing leisure time sociability and an arena for self-righteousness. If it could shed itself of at least some of its vindictive disciplinary customs it could actually become a modest asset to the community. Here is my advice to any member who is suspended because of double-make-up: litigate through the courts and help to make PSFC a more positive force in Brooklyn.

The Puzzle of Vanity

C. Allen Gilbert

הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל
Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, all is vanity. Eccl. 1:2

At first sight, and even at second, vanity makes no sense. A man boasts and brags, he trumpets wisdom and accomplishment and brains, all in the hope of gaining esteem and honor and admiration. But lo and behold, the world likes neither braggart nor show-off. Even a person of substantial accomplishment faces ridicule behind his back when he becomes a braggart; for a lesser person, bragging can be devastating.

Presumably the braggart craves esteem; that’s why he brags. But bragging results in disesteem, a result quite generally understood. Hence the puzzle: why vanity ?

I have been interested for some time in the vanities of everyday life. Parents and grandparents like to boast of the accomplishments of their offspring. Does this kind of talk endear them, or their children, to anyone ? Minor academics sometimes like to place a “Ph.D.” after their names in contexts where this is not customary. Obviously the effect is pathetic. The owner of a delicatessen store, an immigrant from a European country, calls himself “Dr. X.” in his storefront window. Why ? People with business-related titles or academic degrees, real or self-conferred, or conferred by questionable authorities, adorn themselves with such decorations on their sig-files in personal e-mail. But obviously, all such show of vanity is to no avail. None of it can stave off the ridicule that the boasters so desperately hope to forestall.

Of course vanity comes in various forms and in various degrees of severity. One interesting type is vanity-by-understatement. When Queen Elizabeth opened the Faculty Club at the University of British Columbia in July of 1959 (some nine months before I myself became a member of that Club), she was asked to sign the visitors’ registry. Her entry in its entirety read “Elizabeth R.” I was twenty-one years old when I addressed a letter to Albert Einstein, disagreeing with him about the Soviet Union. Within days I had a modestly-worded reply from the Nobel winner, signed simply “A. Einstein.” In Britain, we are told, “When a medical doctor passes the examinations which enable him to become a member of one or more of the Royal Surgical Colleges and become “MRCS“, it is customary for him or her to drop the “Doctor” prefix and take up “Miss”, “Mister”, or etc. ” (Wikipedia). I must say that where naked vanity is offensive, the vanity-by-understatement is charming. Or so it seems to me. It is the only kind, as far as I can tell, that does not produce the rebound of ridicule.

But vanity-by-understatement aside, there are obviously many degrees of vanity, and many types, and, not least, cases in which it is not clear whether the incident can be called vanity at all.

A most poignant account of vanity under extreme conditions comes to us from Arthur Goldschmidt (1873-1947), a Protestant German jurist of Jewish background who was imprisoned in the Nazi Ghetto Theresienstadt (Terezin) from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945. Immediately upon imprisonment, he established a church among the Protestant inmates, and, upon his release, wrote a “History of the Evangelical Congregation Theresienstadt, 1942-1945.” The story is one of jockeying among a number of would-be preachers among these Jews-turned-Protestants. Whatever titles and positions they had had before imprisonment — doctors, engineers, etc. — were carefully referenced in the missives they sent one another in the course of the dispute over leadership in this little church. None had had theological training, but quite a few aspired to become lay pastors in the camp. Ultimately Goldschmidt, not least because he based his polemics on the Führer principle, prevailed in his exclusive right to preach. He survived the imprisonment, but almost all of the others — his antagonists and allies alike — were killed in the Holocaust. The various vanities documented in his story did little to either aggravate or alleviate the sufferings of the protagonists, but neither do they enhance our expectations for an ennobling effect of religious practice.

In the many instances of self-assertion of daily life, what would count as vanity and should therefore be avoided ? What is necessary for a decent self-respect, and should therefore be practiced ?

Without denying gray areas that may sometimes be genuinely difficult to navigate, a number of principles seem well established:

1) It is good to pay close attention to customary practices. It is not customary, for example, to add a Ph.D. after one’s name except under very limited circumstances. It is not customary (and may indeed be illegal) to call oneself “Doctor” if one is not a licensed physician. And so forth. Obviously, any gross violation of custom will be taken as vanity and invites ridicule.

2) Avoid any deviation from veracity. Avoid half-truths. Avoid exaggeration.

3) When in doubt, use under-statement.

I do not think that my advice will affect the person of true vanity. To whom does such a person listen, anyway ? With all that, the puzzle remains. Braggarts and boasters are not liked, their actions, beyond some very short-term advantage sometimes, bring them disesteem and grief in the end. And yet they persist.

Why ?

Academic Criticisms of Israel: 96% Hypocritical

Like any other democracy, Israel’s is imperfect and therefore open to reasonable criticism. There is certainly no a priori reason for suspecting the critics of Israel of unworthy motives. On the other hand, we do know that there are people who, under color of universal human values, criticize Israel because, not to put too fine a point on it, they don’t like Jews. So it is often a bit of a quandary to figure out, in any given circumstance, the preponderant motivation of the critic.

To solve this quandary, if only in the case of a single initiative by a group of Israel critics, we now have the ingenious work of Fred Gottheil, a University of Illinois economist. Gottheil contacted the 675 professor who signed an anti-Israel petition (a statement alleging human rights violations, and all the rest). Without making reference to their petition, he asked each of these signers to endorse a protest against human rights violations in Muslim countries. The result: of the 675 scholars he contacted, only 27 would endorse his proposed protest. So it appears that, at least in this case, fully ninety-six percent of the academic criticism of Israel was hypocritical. Except for a small minority, the signers did not appear to be moved by universsal human values at all. They don’t like Israel, pure and simple.

Gottheil’s project was carried out with sophistication and care, but of course, like any study in the social sciences, it has its limitations and cannot give an absolutely definitive answer to the questions it poses. But the results came back so clear-cut that they certainly constitute very strong evidence for the conclusion: this particular anti-Israel effort was 96% hypocritical.

Click here to read Gottheil’s report.

Read interview with Gottheil

Charflie Rose Stumbles — II: Tariq Ramadan

Dear Charlie,

Your interview with Tariq Ramadan yesterday was very disappointing.

There is an important literature that describes the darker sides of Ramadan’s public life. In particular, a recent book by Paul Berman, “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” has detailed Ramadan’s record of anti-Semitism and his support of terror attacks against Israel. When Ramadan mentioned “Palestine” in your interview with him, in a context in which it was probable that in fact he meant Israel, this should have alerted you to the problem even if you were unaware of what Berman and so many others have written.

You did not probe at all. You gave him a pass on all that is disreputable in his positions. The least that I can say is that you did not promote public understanding of this very problematic public figure.

Werner Cohn

Charlie Rose Stumbles — I: the Question of Alzheimer’s Disease

As current television goes, the Charlie Rose show must be rated as among the very best. He often gets intelligent guests, and the discussion is, more often than not, informative. Offhand and just guessing, I would say that I benefit from watching this show about half the time; I cannot think of another TV offering to which I could give a higher score.

All the more reason for me to criticize when he falters. Here is the first of a number of instances that I plan to discuss:

On August 28, the New York Times published an exceptionally informative article about the current state of knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease. It seems that the National Institutes of Health had convened a very high-level “science court” to assess what is known and what isn’t, and that this court had come to a conclusion:

the jury’s verdict was depressing and distressing. So far, nothing has been found to prevent or delay this devastating disease, which ceaselessly kills brain cells, eventually leaving people mute, incontinent, unable to feed themselves, unaware of who they are or who their family and friends are.

“Currently,” the panel wrote, “no evidence of even moderate scientific quality exists to support the association of any modifiable factor (such as nutritional supplements, herbal preparations, dietary factors, prescription or nonprescription drugs, social or economic factors, medical conditions, toxins or environmental exposures) with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Nevertheless, a couple of days after these widely-diffused findings, Charlie had Dr. Eric Kandel, an aged Nobel Prize winner, mentioning quite casually that mental stimulation would help delay or mitigate the onset of Altzheimer’s.

Does Kandel know something that the NIH panel does not ? If so, that should have been mentioned. Of course Charlie is not responsible for the opinions of his guests, but he should have known enough, or his staff should have known enough, to question the venerable Nobelist. And if Charlie was caught by surprise during the interview, he should have brought his viewers up to date on a later date. In the meantime, I am afraid, here is an example of Charlie working against public enlightenment.

How to Be a Progressive Jew

In his important book “Trials of the Diaspora,” Anthony Julius has a section on “oppositionist Jews.” They are also, I think, Progressive Jews. This is what Julius writes about them:

There has always been in Jewish circles the harshest self-criticism. These criticisms foster the taking of public stands by some Jews against their community or its established institutions. They often preface their criticisms with the phrase, ‘As Jews, we …..’, by impaction claiming to champion the ‘true’ Jewish perspective — an embattled, minority position, for sure, calling for a certain moral heroism, and articulating fidelity to an idea of Jewishness, rather than more mundane solidarity with Jews. In modern times, they often deprecated Jewry’s ‘narrow-minded provincialism’, ‘narrow bigotry’, ‘religious intransigence’, and so on — what Bruno Bettelheim disparaged as ‘ghetto thinking’. Some oppositionists have rather complex relations with Judaism that repay study; others are no better than posturers, without real knowledge or understanding of the religion. There are oppositionists who are prophetic excoriators of Israel, and they speak or write of of a love of Israel. There are an equivalent number (perhaps a greater number) of oppositionists, who lack that commitment, and are driven instead by embarrassment, fear, or a desire to ingratiate themselves with non-Jews or to distance themselves from their fellow Jews’ reprehensible conduct — or some combination of these motives. … Many oppositionist Jews have now taken up positions as scourges of the Jewish State. Out of perversity, some oppositionist Jews now place themselves in the company of anti-Semites.