Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blueberry bagel as subtext

So. Lots of the people on the cultural appropriation is wonderful bandwagon, or adjacent liberal but anti-"PC" bandwagons - and who are at this very moment being called out for their white obliviousness on that topic - are Jewish. This has been the case for the last however many rounds of this topic. Best as I can tell, it's true in the US and Canada alike. What does it all mean?

-The ungenerous interpretation: The Jews in question are white, middle-class or well-off, and but for this one marginalized quality, Jewishness, would be raging alt-right white supremacists, as versus contrarian liberals. They feel as they do because they're white; their Jewishness is incidental. And after all, Jews are also well-represented among this set's critics.

-A more generous interpretation: Those with a liminal, intermediary, ambiguous identity - Jews, but also, to varying degrees, white women, gay men, non-black POC - have unique insights into how it goes for the oppressor and the oppressed. Even if they're not announcing their Jewishness, and instead opining as white people critical of 'identity politics', it's relevant.

-The sympathetic interpretation: Jews have long been oppressed, still are, especially by the newly-revived neo-Nazi movement, but a left framework refuses to acknowledge this one form of oppression makes some Jews feel excluded from the broader anti-oppression struggle and be sort of like, screw you, left and right. (Subtext: 'We never got a chance to complain about the dreadful things done to bagels.') But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

-The meta interpretation: I keep thinking about Item 3 from Bret Stephens's (yes, how apropos) advice to those who "aspire" to write op-eds. It is, in effect, to avoid nuance. That this is what the style does indeed demand means opinion-writing can't ever quite reach the subtleties of opinion-having. A stance that places you on a culture-wars team sells better than one that does not. (I'm still amazed that I got the opportunity to write a book that's critical of privilege discourse, but not team-anti-identity-politics.) To really get into the subtleties of how Jewishness impacts an experience of whiteness, this is something that needs... introspection? A separate study of its own, one not in op-ed format?

As might be obvious (?) I lean towards all of the above. I don't think the answer here is to say that well actually, white opinion-writers A, B, C, etc., are Jewish, both because they're still also white and because the listing of the Jews, no matter the motivation, can feel like a sinister activity. But not mentioning that A, B, and C are Jewish somehow feels - to me, a white Jewish writer a few notches to their left - like missing something important.


Chen Shapira said...

My generous interpretation (as a Shapira) would be:

- *I* don't mind when WASPs use Yiddish, eat bagels and make jokes about my ethnicity in stand-up routines. In fact, I find the use of Yiddish by non-jews rather amusing. Therefore I can't see why anyone else complains about appropriating their culture. Clearly they can't actually care and this is some kind of playing-the-victim-for-political-points game.

This kinds overlap with your generous interpretation, but you left yours a bit vague so I'm not sure this is what you meant.

Larkin said...

Chen, I feel the same way, but I'd also be very uncomfortable if, for instance, some fashion designer decided to make tallis or t'fillin the next big Burning Man fashion trend or whatever. Even though I'm not religious enough to actually wear those items, I know they have a well-established religious significance for my fellow Jews. So it's not that I don't care when people appropriate Jewish culture; it's that, for whatever reason, they haven't appropriated it in an offensive way yet. That understanding serves me well when trying to decide how to feel about other appropriation uproars: if the uproar is about something with religious/spiritual significance to the source culture, I take it seriously. If it's about food or language, I roll my eyes.

Chen Shapira said...

I like that rule-of-thumb, Larkin.

Also - offensive history. Uproar for confederate symbols seems as justified as uproar for using the "Jude" star.

Andrew Stevens said...

But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

I can think of precious few right wing intellectuals who are pro-Trump at all, but I can think of literally none who are Jewish. Bret Stephens, everybody at Commentary, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, etc. - all of them are vocally and stridently anti-Trump.

Sheldon Adelson and Mark Levin, I suppose, though neither of them are intellectual in any serious way.

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