Friday, October 29, 2010

Shalom, elites, 2.0

I'm too tired to continue arguing Tea Party with Miss Self-Important (see comments here), who's convinced me I'm wrong but I'm starting to think I'm too tired to figure out why or what about, and that after sleep I'll have work-work to get done. So let's try this, readers who are not averse to commenting: Does the expression "Real American" make you think "anti-Semitic"? Does it evoke something else instead? Something else in addition? Nothing at all? Please explain.


Britta said...

I guess for me, what differs between anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Catholic tropes is that Catholics are very much seen as inferior--poor, uneducated, superstitious, over-productive (anti-Catholicism against Germans, Irish, Italians, etc.), whereas anti-Semitism posits Jews as both inferior but also possessing superior power. Anti-Catholicism shares much with "standard" racism, and indeed has been transferred from Southern Europe to South America--now that the "brown" people of Spain and Italy are white, the "brown" people of Mexico and Guatemala become the hordes impinging on the US. I would argue that this sort of racism is far more explicit in the Tea Party movement, what with its pretty virulent xenophobia.
I'm not saying that making fun of eating arugula is anti-Semitic, but to attribute a nebulous, almost mystical quality to the power held by cultural elites far out of proportion with their actual ability to influence things (culturally, economically, politically, etc.), and finding it extremely dangerous and threatening (dare we say demonic?) to American and its "authentic" residents resonates with anti-Semitic tropes.

Daniel said...

Interesting discussion over all, so I guess I'll procrastinate work a little and leave a comment. I am a Jew who grew up in the South (Atlanta, then Memphis, and then after I went to school, my parents moved to North Carolina), so I never really had the whole New York banker/media elite association with Jews that I think other Jews did/do. Nor did I understand it - in Atlanta, Ted Turner was the media elite. I was frequently the only Jew in my public school class, but had a lot of interaction with other Jews through Hebrew school, BBYO, USY, etc. So maybe I have a slightly different perspective.
"Real American" almost never means "anti-Semitic" to me. I suppose that if I twisted my mind around I could come up with a way that it does, but it would be difficult. I've always thought that "Real American" is just a shorthand that groups use to say "this person is on our side." For example, the Tea Party-ers might say that "Eric Cantor is a Real American" because they like his YouCut program. Or something like that. Yes, the phrase is meant to divide into us and them. But only in the same way that "conservative" and "liberal" are.

Withywindle said...

It is a conservative talking point--but one that I think is true--that it is Democrats, the left, that have used the phrase "un-American" most often lately, as a way to stigmatize opposition to their policies ("it is unAmerican to oppose amnestying illegal immigrants," or what have you); and that if leading Republicans and conservatives threw the term around with anyway near that abandon, they would be pilloried by the media. So one should consider the tu quoque factor: the bandying about of essential Americanism is either a bipartisan affair, or perhaps more characteristic of the left nowadays.

But Daniel Larison made a good point several years ago (I may have alluded to this before): that where American identity is construed as a proposition, the natural corollary is to take oppposition to that proposition--or opposition to any partisan interpretation--as unAmerican. A national identity centered on people rather than on propositions finds it more difficult to exclude you from the national community merely based on your belief. "UnIrish" is a less feasible piece of rhetoric than "UnAmerican." If you like, both people-patriotism and proposition-patriotism have characteristic flaws; some mixture of the two, perhaps, works best.

I think "anti-Semitic" will be one of the characteristic deformations of "real American"--but I also think that, already, the left's "unAmerican" deforms toward "anti-Semitic." But if essential Americanism is misguided, so is an attempt to define an essential Real-Americanism. It is a complex of beliefs, varying in intensity. For a descriptive generalization, rather than an essentializing one, I would say the current Tea-Party movement has troubling strains of paleo-connery, and that I wouldn't invite Rand Paul to a seder. But I think the left has far greater and more dangerous strands of anti-Semitism, and that I will take my allies on the right over my enemies on the left any day of the week--but always noting that such political judgments are by their nature temporary and provisional. Alas, some element of anti-Semitism we will probably always have with us; you have to choose which ones you work with--and note that "anti-Semitic" is always an incomplete description. One could fairly call David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon anti-Semitic, but they were also Righteous among the Gentiles, to be ascribed so on the day of Judgment.

Withywindle said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention: many Americans are lousy at the this-name-is-Jewish radar. So they may be ranting against some elite type without even realizing (s)he's Jewish.

JL Wall said...

I don't think the Tea Party, or any of the New Elite worry-mongers, have said/done anything intentionally (and, in all likelihood, unintentionally) anti-Semitic. The problem is that their rhetoric has overtones that have a history -- and it's easy to glibly and accidentally use these things. Nevertheless, it sets sirens off in the back of my mind.

ESPECIALLY when I start (over?)reading and see the New Elite claims as claims about authenticity -- especially since, in America, a Jew among the elite essentially can't be anything BUT a member of a "new" elite. But it's also simply history: when people start talking about being "authentically" nationality X, the Jews as a whole get excluded, even if individual Jews are allowed to remain.

Anyway, there's an inherent difficulty in talking about this. Like I said when I wrote about it before, all it calls for is "a raised eyebrow here and there." Sounding an alarm is shrill and, frankly, unfair to the people we're talking about. I'm neurotic, so I hear sirens (and I have a number of Jewish friends and relatives who hear them, even though they also know they should know better), but the only thing I think this whole phenomenon of potentially anti-semitic/anti-other-minority tropes/rhetoric warrants is being noticed -- because I think, in the face of history, its simply idiotic to refuse to notice even accidental, innocent uses of tropes with nasty histories.

(It didn't help ease my neuroses that Murray's article came out after supporters of my soon-to-be senator curb-stomped someone who disagreed with them, and claimed she deserved it.)

Sigivald said...

Depends on who's saying it.

From a Klansman, I'd infer anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic and anti-Black, because I know their very likely voluntary-association-group-based prejudices.

From Sarah Palin (and most of the Tea Party), I think it's almost meaningless in terms of specific content - and to the extent it means anything, it's just a call-back to republican (note the lack of a capital R) values and "the American Dream".

In that use, Jews (and Catholics, and Mexicans and Gypsies and black people and Asians and everyone else) are "real Americans" if they embrace American values, however they're defined by the speaker (see above re. "American Dream", republicanism).

In that use, "real American" is about valuations, not ethnicity or even religion - though I imagine for many at some point a zealous enough embrace of a non-Abrahamic religion would move them to unease, if not actual bigotry.

(And I think I agree with JL Wall entirely - and Withywindle, for that matter.

Can most Americans tell a Jewish name from a German one? I've seen a lot of failures in both directions. It's easy for them to not realize someone's a Jew, or to assume someone who isn't, is.

And if there's that much confusion, we can't just assume that any given criticism of someone who's Jewish, even when it coincides with old button-pushing tropes is necessarily informed in any direction by his Jewishness - because we can't assume the critic even thinks the target is Jewish, unless he's explicitly said so.

It's good to remember that non-Jews think about Jewishness a hell of a lot less than Jews do, and might not be aware of it even subconsciously in cases where someone who's both Jewish and doing Jewish-studies-related graduate work is acutely aware of it.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Will respond more later, but for now, to Sigivald,

I'm well aware that Jews think about Jews more than most, and that Jews who study Jews are off-the-charts. That's why I'm trying the commenters-go-wild approach to figuring out whether I'm imagining things.

Also, even I don't know what names are Jewish versus German, nor do I have much in the way of Jewdar - barring cultural signifiers (long skirt, walking on West 96th Street) or situations where the Jews are the visible minority (an American Jewish tour group to Mongolia or Nigeria ), 99% of the time I have no idea. I'm not sure what it matters if Joe Middle America can spot a Jew.

Britta said...

I completely agree that for most Americans (including many American Jews), Jews/anti-Semitism isn't even on the radar. I think that's what makes these tropes so powerful: that people who don't think or care about Jews at all, nor hold any conscious or perhaps even unconscious prejudices against Jews, still are able to mobilize them against a certain group they find powerful in ominous yet nebulous ways, and for whom the group is "among us but not of us." This is modern anti-Semitism in a nutshell (well, missing the overt scientific racism) even though it isn't being mobilized against Jews.

I think the "to what extent does your average American have Jew-dar/anti-Semitism-dar" is an interesting question. I agree that many Americans have none (I remember my WASP-y college roommate had no idea that a pale guy with a dark brown afro named the equivalent of "Isaac Goldberg" might be Jewish, and was totally shocked to find out that there were people who were able to assume that with a high degree of certainty without specifically asking him about his religious/ethnic background).

However, I have found there still are swaths of America (mainly where German immigrants settled) where casual anti-Semitism still exists, and where noses and names are still scrutinized. Even in these places this is recognized as a not totally acceptable thing to do, and is really only done in private in-group settings with a sort of wink wink nudge nudge. Interestingly enough, I also know Jewish people (and non-Jews, of course) for whom subtle anti-Semitism also goes completely under the radar.