Is Kevin MacDonald Right?Dialog between Joey Kurtzman of www.Jewcy.com and John Derbyshire of National Review Online
By Joey Kurtzman / February 27, 2007
Kevin MacDonald has been described as the “Marx of the Anti-Semites.” Google around the slimier regions of the web and you’ll see that his trilogy of books on Jews—A People that Shall Dwell Alone, Assimilation and its Discontents, and Culture of Critique—is celebrated in the nastiest Jew-hating environs on the net. And MacDonald himself is a hardcore American nativist in the Charles Lindbergh mold.
None of which necessarily means that MacDonald’s academic arguments are wrong. He’s a tenured professor of psychology, his theories have received some support from well-respected colleagues, and there’s no getting around the fact that his Jewish trilogy is as fascinating as it is alarming, a sui generis look at Jewish history and psychology with the help of modern evolutionary theory.
In this week’s Big Question, National Review columnist John Derbyshire and Jewcy’s own Joey Kurtzman mix it up over the question “Is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews?”
Joey and Derbyshire take the query and launch into a whole host of questions related to Jews and race in America: can a gentile journalist criticize Jews without being “smashed to pieces”? Would Jews benefit from more WASP criticism of Jewish culture? Are politically correct liberals in fact hopelessly racist? And so on.
But all the time, the question lingers: might Kevin MacDonald be right about the Jews?
From: Joey Kurtzman To: John Derbyshire Subject: Is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews?
All right, so why don’t I start this off by giving a quick synopsis of Kevin MacDonald’s work?
The man’s a professor of psychology at Cal State Long Beach who used to study wolves, and then one day switched to Jews. For reasons inexplicable to me, his work on wolves attracted rather less attention than his work on Jews.
MacDonald is an advocate of "evolutionary psychology," a rapidly growing field which seeks to explain the human mind and human behavior by examining them through the lens of evolutionary theory. He promotes the controversial idea that evolutionary competition takes place not just between individuals or genes, but also between human groups. He’s studied the Amish, the Roma, the Overseas Chinese, and other groups from an evolutionary perspective. But his primary focus has been on Jews.
I would boil down his theses to these two: In the course of Jewish history, Jews have developed predispositions to high intelligence, verbal intensity, altruism to kin, and a suite of other traits; and these traits further a “group evolutionary strategy” by which the Jewish population competes with non-Jewish populations.
To see some examples of how MacDonald’s theories have been treated in popular media, have a look at Judith Shulevitz’s “Evolutionary Psychology’s Anti-Semite” in Slate, and Mr. Derbyshire’s “The Marx of the Anti-Semites” in The American Conservative.
Okay, onto the meat.
True story: a Jewess of my acquaintance, who happens to be a veteran of several mainstream Jewish organizations, tells of stumbling upon MacDonald’s essay “Understanding Jewish Influence.” As she read about the gobsmacking ability of Jews to obtain power and influence in Western societies, about our eminence in academia and law, about how our high intelligence and organizational skill are key to our ability to achieve such prominence, my friend’s chest swelled with ethno-religious pride and she forwarded the essay on to a former colleague of hers, also a functionary in a Jewish organization. The friend replied: “The article was written by a non-Jew! And an antisemite no less! Don’t forward it to anyone else!”
It’s a tiresome old story. Self-celebratory, triumphalist Jewish historiography looks a heck of a lot like much of the stuff we dismiss as “antisemitism.” Had Kevin MacDonald proposed the same thesis about a Jewish “group evolutionary strategy” but been careful to pleasure us Jews with the sort of masturbatory interpretation we like—you know how it goes, something along the lines of “look at everything those Jews have given us with this strategy of theirs, all the wonderful scholarship and Nobel Prizes and scientific advances and cutting-edge social science!”—you can be sure his work would have met a rather different reaction. A reaction more like that received by the recent University of Utah study that argued that the Ashkenazi Jewish population has acquired genetic traits that confer high intelligence.
Sure, some of us were made a bit nervous to hear “Jewish genetics” discussed, but we were titillated and flattered by the study’s argument, too. When the New York Times wrote about the study we forwarded it around, helping make it the Times’ “most e-mailed story,” and instead of denouncing it as horrendous and antisemitic, I’d say most of us look forward to learning whether its thesis stands up to future study.
Which, really, is the only reasonable reaction to MacDonald’s work. In his preface to Culture of Critique, MacDonald says, “For me the only issue is whether I have been honest in my treatment of sources and whether my conclusions meet the usual standards of scholarly research in the social sciences.”
I don’t think it would be a courtesy too far if we were to evaluate MacDonald’s work based on those very criteria. Jewish academics have advanced their fair share of controversial theories and were within their rights to ask that those theories be evaluated based on their scholarly (rather than aesthetic) merit.
Whether we dislike MacDonald’s arguments or not, whether we find them gratifying or insulting, all that matters is whether his premises and models are valid, and whether the insights they produce stand up to further research. If a critic wants to wade into the debate over whether “group selection theory” is a useful scientific model, fair enough. If someone wants to argue that the Ashkenazi experience in Europe did not last long enough for selective evolutionary pressures to work their genetic magic, go to it. But accusations of antisemitism are irrelevant to all of these issues, and they serve only to prevent a rigorous examination of MacDonald’s work.
In Slate, Judith Shulevitz pleaded with John Tooby—the director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and at that time the president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society—to produce an academic rebuttal of MacDonald’s arguments. He assured her that he would soon do so. He never did.
So is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews? I don’t know. For now, that seems to me the only answer.
So I’ve got to ask…when you reviewed MacDonald’s work in The American Conservative, why did you play all the same games as Shulevitz? Before you even got down to examining MacDonald’s work you had already tainted him as “The Marx of the Anti-Semites” who had “the Jew thing.”
Come on, now. Were you afraid of offending Jews if you gave MacDonald a fair hearing, without prefacing your review with the equivalent of a flashing red neon light announcing “SUBJECT OF REVIEW IS AN ANTISEMITE! DISREGARD! DISREGARD!” Or was it Pat Buchanan or Scott McConnell who was afraid of getting pilloried by angry Jews? Whose sack was missing?
Over to you.
Wrestling with Derbyshire’s Law
From: John Derbyshire To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: The Marx of the Anti-Semites
The title of my review, “The Marx of the Anti-Semites,” was thought up by one of the editors of The American Conservative, most probably Scott McConnell. My own suggested title for the piece was “The Jew Thing.” I don’t actually think that “The Marx of the Anti-Semites” is a very good title. Kevin MacDonald is a more conscientious social scientist than Marx was; and while dedicated antisemites use MacDonald for supporting evidence, they probably think him a bit of a milksop for not condemning the “Zionist Menace” more frankly and forcefully.
Working back through your questions: Yes, indeed I was, and am, “afraid of offending Jews.” Of course I am! For a person like myself, a Gentile who is a very minor name in American opinion journalism, desirous of ascending to some slightly less minor status, ticking off Jews is a very, very bad career strategy.
I approached the MacDonald review with great trepidation. I gave my honest opinion, of course—the entire point of my line of work is to speak your mind and get paid for it—but I’ll admit I was nervous. Reading the review again, I think it shows.
I have somewhere formulated Derbyshire’s Law, which asserts that: “ANYTHING WHATSOEVER said by a Gentile about Jews will be perceived as antisemitic by someone, somewhere.” I have experienced the truth of this many times. Further, I have the awful example of William Cash before me. Cash wrote an article titled “Kings of the Deal” for The Spectator back in 1994, pointing out, in a perfectly inoffensive way (and, of course, quite truly) that lots of Hollywood movers and shakers are Jewish. You can google the consequences.
Why is Derbyshire’s Law true? I am not sure. It seems to me that Jews have a very strong preference that their Jewishness not be noticed. They want to “pass” as much as possible.
I remember thinking how strange it was, in that special issue of The New Republic devoted to The Bell Curve, that Leon Wieseltier should declare himself “repulsed” at the suggestion, by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, that Jews have higher intelligence than Gentiles.
“What an odd thing to say!” I thought to myself. “Why, if someone were to say that my common-ancestry group was smarter than others, I’d be proud!”
But that was a very Jewish reaction on Wieseltier’s part. It’s not hard to see why this should be so, historically. Remember all those Jewish jokes with the punch line: “How many times do I have to tell you, Sammy—don’t make trouble!” I am sure Kevin MacDonald has an explanation for it somewhere, though I can’t recall a specific passage.
Were Scott McConnell and Pat Buchanan similarly fearful of being thought to have gotten the Jew Thing? I don’t know. You had better ask them yourself. I don’t know Pat very well, so I can’t speak to his case. I do know Scott quite well, and I am quite sure he is not an antisemite in any sense in which I understand the word. He does believe that Israel, via her lobbies in the USA, has a distorting effect on U.S. Middle Eastern policy; but that is (at least in Scott’s case) a geostrategic judgment, and not antisemitic.
What are we to think of MacDonald and his books? My own opinion of MacDonald is that he is a plain reactionary, at least so far as the Jews in America are concerned. Someone described George Orwell as being in love with 1910. I think MacDonald is in love with 1950—with the old Gentile supremacy, when Jews were kept out of golf clubs and hotels advertised themselves on their stationery as “near churches” (translation: No Jews, please). He doesn’t wish any harm to Jews, but I do think he resents the disproportionate representation of Jews in the media, the academy, and other elites.
I’ll confess I can’t work up any indignation about this. It’s not an unreasonable point of view, though I don’t share it—I still haven’t got the Jew Thing.
I like my elites to be as smart as possible, and, yes (sorry, Mr. Wieseltier), Jews in general are much smarter than the rest of us. Who doesn’t know it? But there is nothing more normal in human beings than group partiality—a fondness for one’s own group, and some measure of negativity toward other groups. That’s just human nature, and I do think it’s silly and counterproductive to pretend human nature is other than what it is.
We are social animals, and we organize ourselves into groups, and develop group loyalties and hostilities, as naturally as we eat and love. Nasty things happen if our groupiness gets out of control, of course; but you could say the same of eating and loving, or any other aspect of human nature. Here comes the need for ethical and legal systems, also very human.
I therefore approached MacDonald’s work dispassionately, interested to see what he has to say. I found his first two books tough-going, jargony, and not very well written. The Culture of Critique, though, is an interesting book, and I think he says things that are true, uncomfortably true—for example about the tendency, on the part of 20th-century Jewish-led intellectual movements like the Frankfurt School, to pathologize Gentile culture.
I was glad to see that someone had written about these things in a non-vituperative way. They are things that occur to any thoughtful American sooner or later, and it is satisfying to see someone who’s done a lot of reading on these topics, trying to fit them into some kind of coherent social-historical framework.
Is MacDonald’s analysis a correct one? Partly correct? Totally incorrect? Well, I guess we’ll get to that in our exchanges. I registered some of my doubts about The Culture of Critique in my review of it. I have since acquired some more.
After reading Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, for instance, I have a much clearer idea about the role of Jews in the Bolshevik revolution, a view at odds with much of what MacDonald says.
Before passing the ball back to you, though, Joey, I have a question. My eye was stopped dead by your use of the word Jewess. Is this word still current? I myself used it, in all innocence, about 10 years ago, and was sternly reprimanded by several people (this was on an email discussion group). Perhaps this is a word that Jews may use, but Gentiles may not? Give me a ruling, please.
There is No Cabal
From: Joey Kurtzman To: John Derbyshire Subject: Jewesses and Derbyshire’s Law
Excellent stuff, John, thank you.
The Jewess question is a good place to dive in.
I was recently shocked, while watching Kill Bill 2 by Quentin Tarantino, to hear the word Jew used as a verb. Imagine! Jew-as-verb in a major American feature film!
Maybe Harvey Weinstein allowed it because Spike Lee had recently complained that Weinstein would never let “kike” be used in his films as he does “nigger.”
Regardless, it was a shocker to hear it. America has come a long way from the days when we could play fast-and-loose with our ethnic words. I think this is, on balance, a very good thing. I just spent five years marooned in the British Isles, where I was shocked to discover that gentle race-baiting remains, in many quarters if not all, a more-or-less acceptable form of light banter.
I reacted to this much as I imagine an anthropologist might react to the discovery of an Indian village where the locals still practice sati, or a Chinese community where all the girls have bound feet: “Do they really still do this? It’s atrocious and fascinating all at the same time! Quick, grab me a notebook, I shall study them.”
Jewess snaps us to attention precisely because it’s the type of word a certain sort of Brit might use, but Americans won’t. Like Irishman and other antiquated coinages, it suggests that ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity (for that reason, Elijah Muhammad made a concerted effort to popularize blackman). American Jews, like other Americans, dislike that implication.
We once dealt with this by using wacky innovations such as “Americans of the Hebrew faith.” And that’s not just a Jewish thing. During the height of PC tyranny in the 1990s, constructions such as these were drawn out even to sillier lengths. “John, my buddy at NRO who happens to be black…” was the hot formulation. One had to apologize for even alluding to someone’s ethnic background.
The same sensibility gives us the ongoing gag about the person who defends him/herself from charges of bigotry by announcing that “but…but some of my best friends are black/Jewish/Mexican/whatever!” The joke, presumably, is that a real non-racist would never even have noticed the ethnicity of their friends.
There has to be a middle ground. I appreciate the sensitivity that American culture affords to minorities, but I’m hardly the first to observe that there is a downside. When you police language so relentlessly, you don’t improve the quality of debate…you shut it down. But whereas this was once a mere annoyance, today it’s a real problem. More and more information on the genetics of human populations is rolling in, and we can’t be sure where it’s all headed or what it will reveal. It’s increasingly urgent that we learn to discuss group differences without flipping out over linguistic trivia or falling back on feel-good platitudes that get us nowhere.
John Tooby dealt with the Kevin MacDonald kerfuffle in Slate by offering the comforting pablum that “human races don’t exist as distinct biological groups.” Well, maybe, depending on how you define “race” and “distinct” and “group.” But that’s a spineless cop-out.
Even interested non-scientists like you and me, John, have learned that human populations have different distributions of various alleles (variants of a certain gene); that some of these variations between groups result in different distributions of biological traits such as Tay-Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia, and so on; and that we need prepare ourselves for the very real possibility that the list also includes psychological and behavioral traits.
I’m not asking for crudeness or intentionally insulting behavior, of course. But if puncturing some of our American and Jewish anxieties about race-related language will make it easier to have the honest discussion I’m looking for, then, hey, I say let’s go for it. Jewess is innocuous enough—let’s you and I agree to use it. If anyone calls you an antisemite or asks you to take one of the ADL’s sensitivity courses, you just tell them that a Jew gave you permission—nay, urged you!—to use the word. Pass the buck to me.
To be honest—and here is where my interest in MacDonald can be explained by resorting to his theories—I also think more open discussion of Jews and Jewishness will be “good for the Jews.” The protective veil in which American culture shrouds minority groups is a mixed blessing for us. Informed external criticism is a good thing for any community trying to improve itself.
Jews were once made to confront some of the more distasteful aspects of our scripture because European Christians called us on them during medieval disputations between rabbis and priests. And while I don’t want a return to medieval Europe or to religious disputations, I do think that when American Gentiles dance around Jewish sensibilities for fear of setting us off, when they fellate us with unqualified celebration of the wisdom of our ancient culture, the genius of our geniuses, and so on, it only encourages self-satisfaction and complacency on our part.
And the American Jewish community, as anyone involved in Jewish organizations will tell you, is in crisis. The last thing we need is complacency. Other American ethnic groups, I would hazard, derive just as little benefit from the WASP inability to discuss ethnic issues frankly.
So let it fly, John. In this dialogue and beyond, tell us what you’re thinking and why. Give us material to chew on, thoughtful criticism to work with. Sure, some Jews are so traumatized by Jewish history (in most cases, traumatized by traumas they never experienced) that in any criticism of Jews or Jewish culture they see the makings of another Holocaust. But if Tutsis can have frank conversations with Hutus hardly a decade after the Rwandan genocide, and if Bosnians can hash out political issues with Serbs, then surely a Jew who has no experience of persecution can handle a frank conversation with a Gentile who has no experience as persecutor. So bring it on.
I’m disappointed, though, to hear you discuss the catastrophic consequences of crossing the Jews. I think of it as the Robert Fisk conceit, and it’s a very old line. Guys like Fisk or Norman Finkelstein sell themselves as martyrs to world Jewry, as people who love truth so much that they are unwilling to bend to our intellectually totalitarian demands. That’s a neat marketing ploy, and it certainly gets them a ton of attention and the adoration of a certain type of intellectual groupie. But is it true?
No, it’s bullshit, is what I think. Derbyshire’s law is certainly true…no matter what you say about Jews (or any other ethnic group, for that matter), someone, somewhere will call you a bigot. But so what? If you’d given Kevin MacDonald’s ideas a more positive hearing, you’d have likely gotten a ton of criticism, sure. But that’s life as a public intellectual. Welcome to the monkeyhouse. People are allowed to criticize you, and with the democratization of ideas and arguments through the Web, more and more people now have the platform to do just that. Some will resort to nasty ad hominems. Such is life. Argumentative integrity is too rare a bird in public debate. Deal with it.
You mention the case of William Cash. I’m not very familiar with his case; I only know that he’s oft-mentioned by people who claim that an accusation of antisemitism is a professional kiss of death. But if The Spectator can run a cover image of a Magen David piercing a Union Jack, if Walt & Meirsheimer can get a relatively muted reaction in the States to their piece arguing that the pro-Israel lobby has hijacked American foreign policy, is it really true that you would be committing professional sepuku, or even just damaging your career prospects, by digging into Jewish culture and giving a positive review to Kevin MacDonald’s work?
I suspect that what drives people away from these topics is a fear of harsh, emotional criticism, rather than a realistic likelihood of damage to their career.
Indulge my curiousity: what would happen if tomorrow you submitted a piece to National Review saying, “Kevin MacDonald is really onto something. He’s doing great work and I think everyone should read him.” What sort of craziness would ensue? How would your career be damaged in concrete terms?
Be Nice, or We’ll Crush You
From: John Derbyshire To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: The flame of thoughtful conservatism burns low
All right, Joey, I will indulge your curiosity.
If tomorrow I submitted a piece to National Review saying, “Kevin MacDonald is really onto something. He’s doing great work and I think everyone should read him,” the editors would reject the piece, and they would be right to do so. I don’t think I would be canned for submitting such an article, but if it happened, I would not be much surprised.
You forget how lonely conservatives are. The flame of thoughtful, responsible American conservatism burns low, and needs constant careful attention. In the folk mythology of present-day America, conservatism is associated with Jim Crow and the persecution of racial minorities. I have not the slightest doubt that many millions, probably tens of millions, of Americans believe that, say, Pat Buchanan is a secret member of the Ku Klux Klan.
I live in an ordinary middle-middle-class New York suburban neighborhood. My neighbors all know I am a conservative commentator. A couple of them will not speak to me on that account. The others just think I am mildly nuts—a thing associated in their minds, somehow, with my being British-born. They regard me with a sort of amused sympathy. The nearest conservative I know lives about eight miles away.
Anyone running a mainstream conservative magazine has to constantly demonstrate ideological purity in matters of race. They have to show repeatedly, by indirect means of course (I mean, it would be no use to just stamp “THIS IS NOT AN ANTISEMITIC MAGAZINE! WE DO NOT FAVOR THE RETURN OF JIM CROW LAWS!” in Day-Glo letters on the cover) that they are ideologically pure in this zone. Otherwise, they won’t be taken seriously by the cultural establishment.
And that matters. In America, persons who have, or are suspected to have, incorrect opinions on race, are low-status. Human beings are primarily social animals, and we are intensely conscious of status rankings within the groups we belong to.
The best guide here is novelist Tom Wolfe. Recall that passage in The Bonfire of the Vanities—I don’t have the book on hand so I’m working from memory here—where the young New York district attorney and his wife have hired a British nanny to look after their baby. This makes for an uncomfortable situation at first, because British people get status points in urban U.S. society just on account of being British. (Yes, of course it’s absurd, but I assure you it is the case.)
So this struggling, ill-paid young DA and his wife, both from modest backgrounds, have an employee with more status points than a domestic servant ought to have. The status structure of their household is out of joint. Then one day the nanny makes some mildly un-PC remark about Black people, and the DA and his wife fairly weep with relief. The nanny is low-status after all! Nothing to worry about!
So if National Review were to print unqualified praise (or even praise not severely qualified) of a guy who argues that Jews have a “group evolutionary strategy” that involves the transformation—I think in The Culture of Critique MacDonald actually says “destruction”—of Gentile society, they would have done what that nanny did: dumped several status points down the toilet.
A conservative magazine simply can’t afford to do that. Its hold on the attention of the U.S. public is too precarious. A conservative magazine can’t afford to let a writer say anything nice about MacDonald without putting it under some such title as “The Marx of the Antisemites.”
There isn’t any kind of chicanery or dishonesty there. That’s just how the world is, how America is, under what Bill Buckley calls “the prevailing structure of taboos,” and the prevailing system of status perception, both of individual human beings and of easily anthropomorphizable entities like opinion magazines.
National Review wants to get certain ideas out to the U.S. public—ideas about economics, politics, law, religion, science, history, the arts, and more. To do that, the magazine needs standing in our broad cultural milieu. It needs status. That’s hard at the best of times for a conservative publication. To lose status points—to lose standing—just in order to draw readers’ attention to some rather abstruse socio-historical theories cooked up by a cranky small-college faculty member, would be dumb. Ergo, as I said, NR would reject a piece of the kind you suggested, and they would be correct to do so. I would do so if I were editor of NR.
To your next point (I am working from the bottom up again) that my professed fear of ticking off Jews is some kind of affectation or pose, I can only assure you that this is not so. Almost the first thing you hear from old hands when you go into opinion journalism in the U.S. is, to put it in the precise form I first heard it: “Don’t f*ck with the Jews.” (Though I had better add here that I was mixing mainly with British expats at that point, and the comment came from one of them. More on this in a moment.)
Joe Sobran expressed it with his usual hyperbole: “You must only ever write of us as a passive, powerless, historically oppressed minority, struggling to maintain our ancient identity in a world where all the odds are against us, poor helpless us, poor persecuted and beleaguered us! Otherwise we will smash you to pieces.”
Though if you look up the William Cash affair I mentioned in my last post, Sobran’s quip is really not all that hyperbolic. When the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the CEO of United International Pictures, Barbra Streisand, assorted other media bigshots, and of course the ever-vigilant Mr. Leon Wieseltier, all denounce you in public, you are in pretty serious trouble.
(Since that is the second time I have mentioned the “Kings of the Deal” brouhaha, and since a great many readers will not know what I am talking about, I have put the whole thing on my website here.)
This may be characteristic only of conservative journalism—I don’t know, never having done the other kind. A person doing liberal-oriented opinion journalism surely needs no such cautions, having completely internalized all the “blank slate,” egalitarian, and victimological tenets of the majority culture, and the status-ordering precepts I sketched above. (And this is even leaving aside the high probability that a liberal commentator is anyway Jewish himself!)
The place of Jews in modern American conservatism is a deep and fascinating story, with of course the conversion of the neocons at its center. You have to bear in mind the overwhelming dominance of Jews in every kind of leftist movement in the U.S. until about 30 years ago. Yuri Slezkine has the astonishing numbers. (Did you know that of the four student protesters shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970, three were Jewish? So says Slezkine, anyway. If you take four people at random from the U.S. population, the chance that three or more of them will be Jewish, given the most generous estimate of the proportion of Jews in the population, is worse than one in four thousand.)
In any case, it was a great achievement, and a great boost, for American conservatism to have peeled off a platoon of articulate, energetic intellectual heavyweights from the great socialistic mass of American Jewry.
Generally speaking—and I certainly include myself here—American conservatism is proud of its Jews, and glad to have them on board. Not that there aren’t some frictions, particularly on mass immigration, the mere contemplation of which just seems to make Jews swoon with ecstasy (American Jews, at any rate. Israeli Jews have a different opinion…). MacDonald gives over a whole chapter of The Culture of Critique to the Jewish-American passion for mass immigration.
There is also some odd kind of bonding going on between Jewish conservatives and evangelical Christians. I say “odd” because of how, I imagine, this bonding would have looked to the grandparents of today’s Jews. The explanation I have most commonly heard is that Jewish conservatives want to be accommodating towards evangelicals because the latter are friendly to Israel. Hence you get prominent Jewish intellectuals saying nice things about nutty evangelical preoccupations like intelligent design.
The Israel explanation doesn’t seem particularly convincing to me. Don’t evangelicals want all the Jews to return to Israel so that the End Times can commence, in the course of which the Jews will be annihilated? Nevertheless, once or twice a week I read something that leaves me thinking that in the mind of this or that Jewish conservative intellectual, evangelical Christianity is “good for the Jews.”
At any rate, these minor frictions and divisions are inevitable in a movement as broadly defined as conservatism. Jews are welcome in the American conservative movement. The great energy and intelligence of Jews, and their strong sense of group identity, do, though, sometimes lead to the same kinds of pathologies in the conservative movement as Kevin MacDonald logged in the Jews’ self-created movements (such as Freudianism, Boasian anthropology, and the New York intellectuals).
In particular, they are under the same temptation to defer to charismatic intellectual “rabbis,” and to enforce rigid standards of orthodoxy, with vituperation and expulsion for dissidents. I’d emphasize that these are occasional tendencies, and I believe they are much less marked among Jewish conservatives than among, say, Freudians (or for that matter among Jewish liberals). They are there, though; and if you get on the wrong side of them, you are in deep doo-doo.
And in the larger culture, a Gentile conservative who riles up Jewish liberals is really asking for trouble. You could ask William Cash.
Let me deal with your point about the British, and the larger point about group identification.
On the Brits: You are certainly right that the correct approach here is anthropological; though I don’t think your insufferable tone of sneering moral superiority would be tolerated in professional anthropological circles today.
So far as I understand modern theories of the mind, a great deal of our brainpower is given over to processing social information. The theory that seems to me most plausible involves three different modules in the brain: a relationship module, a social module, and a status module.
The relationship module manages our one-on-one relationships with other human beings. It includes a sort of lexicon of all the persons we know, tagged by their attributes as we see them. (Not just common attributes like “fat” or “red-haired,” but me-centric attributes like “enemy” or “borrowed my copy of The Culture of Critique and never returned it.”)
A second, the social module, manages our behavior in our group, and our attitudes to our group and to outside groups. Group stereotypes, for example, which perform very valuable social-psychological functions, dwell in this module.
A third, the status module, computes our status within our group, either by objective criteria, or by attempting to “read” the entries about us in other people’s relationship-module lexicons, via those people’s external behavior. This status module has algorithms for computing status. The code of the algorithms, and the data we input to them, differs from one society to another, and from one group to another in a given society. (We all belong to several groups, of course.)
Among the Masais, a male’s status in his village is measured by the number of cattle he owns. An American academic who belongs to the groups “mathematicians,” “dedicated amateur hang-gliders,” and “opera lovers” will measure his status in the first group by how many papers he has published, his status in the second by how long he has managed to stay aloft, and his status in the third by how many donations he has given to his local opera company.
Now, in the broad and general group “respectable middle-class Americans,” one’s attitudes toward other races are very, very important criteria in determining one’s status. A person like the nanny in that Tom Wolfe novel, who reveals incorrect attitudes on race, suffers massive loss of status thereby.
As criteria for status-in-group evaluation, these attitudes are less important in Britain. In many subsets of modern middle-class British society, mildly negative remarks about black people, like those uttered by the nanny, would not lose you any status points at all.
This does not mean that Americans are morally superior to Britons; still less does it mean that Britons are more sophisticated, more worldly-wise, than Americans. All it means is that for historical reasons—mainly because the U.S. once had legal race slavery, while the British Isles (as opposed to the British territories overseas) never did—British people compute status-in-group slightly differently from the way Americans compute it. The nanny’s error was to assume that her employers’ status modules were running the same code as British people’s. Coming from Britain to the U.S., I made many such errors myself, and still occasionally do.
So far as it is possible to make generalizations about such things, British behavior in this regard is closer to the norm for modern humans than is American behavior. The critical importance of racial attitudes in middle-class American status rankings is extraordinary. This has been the case for decades. Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Ten Little Niggers was deemed unpublishable under that title by U.S. publishers even then; they changed the title for U.S. audiences. Yet the play version was being performed in provincial British theaters, under Christie’s original title, well into the late 1960s.
As I said, this is not a question of moral superiority on the part of Americans, nor of superior worldliness on the part of Brits; it’s just that our thinking is slightly different, probably as a result of different national-historical experiences. (Though as always nowadays, group genetic peculiarities cannot be ruled out. Recent studies indicate that the population of the British Isles has been very little disturbed for tens of thousands of years. The successive invasions of Celts, Romans, Teutons, and Normans only slightly altered a common Paleolithic genome, likely derived from a small, and therefore distinctive, founder group.)
The exquisite sensitivity of Americans in these matters causes no end of misunderstanding and bad feelings, as the William Cash episode shows. I am sorry to say that it often makes Americans look like hypocrites to foreigners, making rather a mockery of all our pretensions to moral superiority. House hunting in the New York suburbs in 1992, my (Chinese-born) wife and I were once sitting in the office of a realtor, an American lady, trying to spell out just what we were looking for. We had no kids at the time, but were moving to the burbs precisely to raise a family. Well, chatting with the realtor, I said that of course we wanted to be in a good school system, one with not too many black kids. The realtor’s reaction was similar to the one described by P.G. Wodehouse when he wrote: “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.”
You don’t say things like that. You just do them: practically no white Americans, looking for a place where they can settle down and raise a family, will seek a school district that is majority black. In fact, that realtor, when she had thawed some, carried out what I am sure is her normal procedure of steering us well away from heavily black school districts. Patterns of housing segregation in the U.S. speak for themselves, very eloquently. This is, however, the only way in which honest speech about race in America is allowed. (I believe, in fact, that if the realtor had said: “Don’t worry, I won’t waste your time and mine by showing you properties in heavily black neighborhoods,” she would have been breaking the law. Her behavior, however, was indistinguishable from what it would have been if she had said that, and meant it.)
And if you are not raised in the U.S., you are sometimes totally nonplussed by the stuff native-born Americans come out with in this area. For example, I stared hard at the following paragraph of yours, struggling to get some sense out of it:
Like Irishman and other antiquated coinages, it suggests that ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity[….] American Jews, like other Americans, dislike that implication, and we once dealt with it by insisting on wacky constructions such as “Americans of the Hebrew faith.”
“Irishman” is an “antiquated coinage”? This is news to me. What, then, am I supposed to say this week? “Person of Irishness”? And does calling someone an Irishman really “suggest that ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity”? All it suggests to me is that the guy comes from Ireland.
And if American Jews “dislike” the notion that “ethnicity is a fundamental feature of a person’s identity,” then why are we having these exchanges? And why is “Americans of the Hebrew faith” any more risible than “persons of the Hibernian ethnicity,” or whatever damn fool thing it is you want me to say instead of “Irishman”?
I once wrote a novel about Chinese people. My first-person narrator, a Chinese immigrant in America, refers to himself once or twice as “an Oriental.” The book reviewer for USA Today took me to task for that. “Oriental,” she told me sternly, was a word that could only be used for carpets and furniture. For people, the correct term was “Asian American.”
So I guess Confucius, Li Po, and Mao Tse-tung were all “Asian Americans.” And then, of course, there was that wonderful moment in the 2002 Winter Olympics when a Black American woman won a gold medal, thereby becoming the first Black woman from any country to win a winter gold. The announcer for the NBC network could not bring himself to say it as I just said it, though. God forbid anyone should think he had noticed the lady’s blackness! The only way he could bring himself to say it was: “She’s the first African-American woman from any country to win a winter gold medal.” I’m sorry, but this stuff just makes me fall around laughing.
Now to the very interesting question of whether or not ethnicity is “a fundamental feature of a person’s identity.” I think the only honest answer is that for some people, including some Jews, it surely is, at least some of the time, and for others, not.
Look: My ethnicity (white English) is part of what I am. It is one of the groups I identify with. This is not deplorable, or wicked, or exclusivist of me; it is just human, dammit. We are social animals who organize ourselves into groups. An individual in a complex modern society identifies with several groups. These identifications have different weights in his mind; in fact, they have different weights (the term of art is “salience”) in different circumstances.
I had occasion to remark recently, in a discussion elsewhere about whether or not I am a racist, that I would feel much more at ease in a room full of black African mathematicians than I would in a room full of white English soccer hooligans. In the first group my salient identification would be “mathematician,” and I would be a mathematician at ease among mathematicians.
My identification with the group “white English” would not be very salient in that group—definitely not as salient as it would be if I wandered into a bar on 125th street in Manhattan. In the second group I would be very uncomfortably aware of my membership in the group “bookish types who dislike physical violence and have little interest in sport.” That would be my salient group identification in that milieu; and as the only person in the room nursing that group identification, I would be exceedingly ill at ease.
Membership in the group “Jewish people” must be something every Jew is aware of at least some of the time, even if it is only rarely his salient group identification. Jewishness is, after all, as group identifications go—compared with “white English” for example—exceptionally well defined and historically rooted.
To draw from Slezkine’s fine book again, those Russian Jews who consciously de-Judaized themselves in the late-19th and early-20th century, and moved from the Pale into metropolitan Russia, and became such an important part of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet state, suddenly found their Jewishness—which they thought they had shucked off, left behind in the shtetl!—very, very salient when Hitler’s Panzers rolled across the border. It’s situational, see.
The idea you seem to be retailing—that these group identifications, with all their inner complexities of status, and all their situational vagaries of salience is all some airy figment of our imaginations, or some relic of a barbarous era we (or at any rate, the most morally advanced of us) have left behind—strikes me as bizarre and preposterous to the furthest degree. Do you really believe that? Good grief!
The beginning of wisdom is to look at humanity as it is, with its arms and legs, its eyes and tongues, its livers and kidneys, and its brains organized into modules, in some way like I sketched above, those modules busily processing information—information about light and temperature, visual and aural information, and above all (for we are social animals) social information.
I may choose, freely choose, to treat my fellow human beings well or badly; but my interactions with them are governed by my brain, which has evolved with the ability to do some things but not others. Utter indifference to group identity is a thing the brain cannot do. The denial of human nature gets us nowhere.
Whatever we think of Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jews and their “group evolutionary strategy,” he is at least talking about a real human personality, one that I recognize when I look at myself and other people. It’s a personality that is aware of belonging to groups, that vies for status in those groups and that nurses negative feelings of various degrees to at least some other groups. Even when it wishes no harm to any other group, if given the choice between advancing the interests of a group it belongs to, versus advancing the interests of a group it does not belong to, will choose the former action nine times out of ten.
That is humanity as I know it, and as the great novelists and dramatists have portrayed it, and as the human sciences are beginning to uncover it in fine detail through such disciplines as evolutionary history. The bloodless, deracinated, group-indifferent, “blank slate,” omnisympathetic creature promoted by the merchants of Political Correctness is one I do not recognize as human. Those merchants are human, though, for all they seek to deny it. Their lofty pretensions to have risen high above us grubby group-identifying lesser beings strike me as just another form, a particularly obnoxious form, of in-group status-striving.