Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Tribal Jewish backwardness" UPDATED

It's great how much easier it is to be a universalist humanist when nothing about you screams 'different.' If you are a white man, not too old or young to be taken seriously, if you look, oh, I don't know, like this, and have a name that is in no way 'ethnic,' it is much easier to wonder why these other folks make such a fuss than it is if, through no fault of your own, you visibly belong to an 'identity' group. You may begin with no feelings of solidarity whatsoever, but, reminded enough times of 'what' you are, you might soon enough see the limits to the 'we're all just human' outlook.

While I don't believe anything is gained by declaring one ethnicity the American ethnicity, I agree that it's a good idea to consider white Americans as having a specific ethnicity, one with no direct equivalent in Europe, but one with a history all the same. It reminds us that there is no such thing as an unhyphenated identity, that everyone has both an ethnic background and some relationship to the politically-defined nation-state in which he lives. No one is 'just' an American, because ethnicity, even that of the majority, cannot be lined up with the political definition of America.

If Christopher Hitchens argued against publicly-funded displays of religiosity, he would make a fair but less-than-controversial point. If no nativity scenes, then no menorahs, the end. But that's not his point. Christmas trees are, he explains, not about Christianity. Sure, they're used in that way, but if you look at the history, these tree-things were around before. They're just being used wrong, he wants us to believe. But, right or wrong, they are used this way, and if Hitchens thinks they're pagan but the rest of the country thinks they're Christian, it's fair for non-Christians to respond to them with an understanding of what they mean, not what they should mean according to Christopher Hitchens. The whole country shuts down on December 25 for something called "Christmas." Is that, too, a reference to the Vikings?

Menorahs, meanwhile, are about "tribal Jewish backwardness." Hitchens won't differentiate between the allegedly tribal and backward Jews from the Chanukah story and Jews today who observe the holiday. Presumably Jews are still being backward, not just because of what Chanukah apparently celebrates (shocker: I don't share his interpretation) but because we stubbornly insist on not accepting the universal innocuousness that is the Christmas tree, our modern-day equivalent of Greek philosophy, something applicable to all humanity.


I don't feel like this post was precise enough, so before anyone comments (anything could happen), I should add... The main point is not what Hitchens's name is or what he looks like and whether as a white man he does or does not have the right to whichever opinions, but rather that behind much of what presents itself as universalism or humanism is in fact a celebration of the culture and opinions of the majority (or, in some cases, elites of the majority) rather than of an ideology that really does allow for the well-being and participation of all human beings.


Anonymous said...

Phoebe -- your hypersensitivity on all materrs Yehudi is getting absurd. Hitchens is the guy that skewered Mother Teresa and hates the pope. He lambastes Islam on a regular basis. A mild criticism of the Judah Maccabee, and you go nuts?

Anyway -- the culture of the majority that Hitchens celebrates -- general secualar western ideas -- is also the culture of most American Jews. So Hitchens is right to point out that Hannukah celebrates narrow ethnic nationalism against more inclusive universalism.

In an America that has "Shalom in the Home" on TV, who needs Judah Maccabbee or any other priest-king?

Anonymous said...

Also -- note the irony ogf a woman named "Phoebe" -- a truly Hellenistic name, celebrating Hannukah. Judah might have lopped off your head based on your name alone!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"-- the culture of the majority that Hitchens celebrates -- general secualar western ideas -- is also the culture of most American Jews."

Most, measured by what standard?

And I suppose, after careful historico-religious consideration, I named myself?

Anonymous said...

"Most" measured by numbers. Most American Jews are not Satmar Haredim, residents of Kiryas Joel, followers of Messiah Schneerson, or any other Jewish group outside the mainstream of American life.

And no, you no more named yourself after careful consideration than you chose your own religion after careful consideration. Why should one parental hand-me-down be priviliged over another?