Wednesday, September 10, 2008


As I've already mentioned, he who praises the honest country folk insults Jews, whether he means to or not, thanks to a long tradition of praising the one group being used as code for insulting the other. This tradition can be traced to Jews' historical non-ownership of land in Christendom--those who can't work the land, however wealthy, lack the privilege of being salt-of-the-earth, 'just a small-town girl,' or however you want to phrase it. Does this make all paeans to village life virtual Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Not at all. But what's worth considering is that there are two major cultural (that is, not directly wealth-based) hierarchies in the States. One is the Bourdieusian (to use a very blue-state term) hierarchy, atop which sit the arugula-eating Vassar grads. The other is the hierarchy of authenticity, of family values (because obviously no one in a city has any values), of loving the good ol' U S of A (because again, no one from an urban area ever, say, enlists in the military), and of being American and nothing but. The more one is a 'coastal elite,' the less one is an elite of the other kind. Both of these categories are elite in their own ways, and indeed, New Yorkers feel insulted when other Americans imply that we don't count, and yes, especially around this time of year.

Fine. So my question is, how do we reconcile the idea of Jew-as-cosmopolitan with the oh-so-common accusation of Jew-as-parochial?

Jewish parochialism has not a thing to do with Jewish life in rural America, or rural anywhere, for that matter. To point out, as some have, that there are Jews living in small-town U.S.A. is like reminding us of the existence of black Jews, Chinese Jews, and so on. They exist, and their stories are worth telling, but they have a fairly small impact on what's recognized--by Jews or gentiles--as Jewish culture. No, parochial Judaism is a phenomenon specific to city life, or at any rate to places with enough Jews to make being parochial a possibility. And, though I think 'parochial' is an insult best avoided, you will find among Jews, especially in large cities, something remarkably like small-town values. How is condemning intermarriage any less 'family values' than condemning condom usage? How is clinging to pastrami and one religion different from clinging to guns and a different one? (Pastrami will kill us all, but more slowly.) The only reason 'parochial' is an insult when it's about a Jew but a compliment when directed at Sarah Palin (I mean, at the name I dare not speak) is that for some reason, there are those (ahem, W-M) who think particularist Jewish interests are anti-American, but particularist Alaskan (?) interests are purest red-white-and-blue.

It's because of this phenomenon, parochial Judaism that we should see a difference between a New Yorker (of any faith, Jewish included) who fled small-town life in order to find more interesting/better-paid work or tolerance of his lifestyle, and someone who lives in his community of origin and socializes primarily with those of similar background and values, but whose 'hometown' happens to be the Upper West Side. As with all other groups, there are Jews who feel uncomfortable with small-town values (that is, with many aspects of Jewish communal life) and look elsewhere; the difference is that they (alas, we) can explore the world, as it were, without leaving home. But that doesn't change the existence of Jewish communities with their own version of small-town values. Not every Jew is Portnoy.

So, back to what was originally supposed to be the point: in politics, anti-cosmopolitanism is crass but fair game, so long as it targets only cosmopolitans-by-choice. It's acceptable for those who stayed in a small town to resent (out of pride or jealousy) those who left, and the values that caused them to leave. And, often enough, those who left return the favor. Anti-cosmopolitan that consists of blanket condemnation of city-dwellers, that condemns those who have never been to a Walmart not because they're snobs but because the store does not exist where they live and they don't have cars, is the anti-cosmopolitanism that segues into potentially offensive territory.


Daniel said...

"As I've already mentioned, he who praises the honest country folk insults Jews, whether he means to or not, thanks to a long tradition of praising the one group being used as code for insulting the other."

Well, shoot. I guess I'll have to stop watching Frank Capra movies because of their apparently virulent anti-semitism.

Anonymous said...

Withywindle here:

1) The rate of recruitment into the military is significantly higher from small towns/rural America than from urban America, or even suburban America.

2) The criticism of Jew-as-parochial also echoes the ancient critique by Christianity of Judaism--we are universal, and universalism is a positive; you are limited, parochial, and your very ethic is negative. So too the mere fact that you are limited in numbers--you cannot be as ethical as the larger, Christian community.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Daniel, I think I've addressed this: "Does this make all paeans to village life virtual Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Not at all." That there's a huge historical connection between odes to the soil and hatred of Jews does not make every ode to the soil an anti-Semitic rant, but it *does* explain why Jews take these odes as signs of something not so great, just like some blacks heard Sarah Palin's demeaning of "community organizers" as something vaguely racist.

Withywindle: Of course enlistment rates are not uniform--my anecdotal evidence is for whatever reason skewed to thinking lots of urbanites enlist. But enlisting in the military is only one way of actively identifying as an American.

Daniel said...

You may have addressed it (or rather, stated it and then dismissed it), but you also provided no discernible way to determine whether or not an ode to "honest country folk" is an innocent ode to "honest country folk" or something much more sinister. It just seems to me that when dropping veiled accusations of discrimination (or claiming injury of discrimination) we need to have more proof of it or else actual discrimination gets lost in the noise. Are there specific comments that have been anti-Jewish as opposed to anti-urban? Does the fact that appeals to certain values in the past had sinister meanings imply that they always have these meanings and that appealing to these values is always off-limits? Can we have no appeals to federalist/states rights because it was once used to defend slavery?

Also, I've not seen any data suggesting that "Jews take these odes as signs of something not so great" in some greater measure than city-dwellers in general.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Argh. This is, contrary to appearances, a silly blog. I do not promise to back up any of these posts with statistics or in-depth historical analysis. My own reaction, and those I've witnessed in conversations and on blogs, back up what I'm saying. My point is that in America, being Jewish and being urban are so intermingled in the popular imagination (witness every movie with a character meant to be "so New York") that anti-urban sentiment can feel like anti-Semitism, even when that was not what was intended.

Andrew Stevens said...

There is a distinction between wartime and peacetime. See this link. Key quote:

"Wartime recruits come more from rural areas, particularly from the South. However, many states outside of the South, such as Alaska and Montana, continue to have strong proportional representa­tion. Areas classified as entirely urban are strongly underrepresented compared to areas with increased rural concentrations, all of which were overrepresented."

It is, I think, unquestionable that patriotism which expresses itself as willingness to fight and die for one's country among young men is higher in rural than urban areas. However, most Americans do live in urban areas and, therefore, most recruits are still urban.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"It is, I think, unquestionable that patriotism which expresses itself as willingness to fight and die for one's country among young men is higher in rural than urban areas."

What if it's just that those living in rural areas see fewer opportunities outside of the military than those living in cities? How is this 'unquestionably' about patriotism?

Withywindle said...

Because equally poor groups volunteer at drastically different rates; military service is a living tradition in some families and communities, not in others. I seem to remember reading (talking to a military recruiter?) that suburban Irish kids join up at far greater rates than suburban Italian kids; everything else is ceteris paribus, but the military tradition is far stronger among the Irish. And there's definitely a small-town military tradition. Now, economic opportunity, or lack thereof, isn't absent from the story here, but I think it's a fairly small portion of the elephant.

Andrew Stevens said...

Because of the distinction between peacetime and wartime. When wartime comes, the gap between urban and rural enlisting grows wider than it is during peacetime. Sorry I didn't make that clear.