A Commentary symposium based on Norman Podhoretz’s new book Why Are Jews Liberal? Some samples.
If I may be allowed so vast a sweep of generalization, Republicans, conservatives, are the party that feels comfortably at home. We need not attach a value to this observation; you may approve of this sensibility or not. But for Jews, unease is our mother tongue.
Why are the arts so often allied to liberalism? One explanation—without claiming this as the only reason—is that artists see themselves as outsiders. Yes, this is often just a fashionable pose, but that does not diminish the alliances it suggests. Pace the few artists, like Chesterton or T.S. Eliot, who contradict the pattern, art and alienation are very left wing. Whether tailors or couturiers, Jews remained the designers of outsider chic.
Podhoretz’s book is meant to explain why Jews do not vote their self-interest. I would say it is because they vote their self-conception, which is a very different thing. Jews identify with those who see themselves as on the margins: African Americans, immigrants, various minority interest groups. The blue-collar poor may feel angry, but they also feel that America is in some deep sense “theirs.” They don’t need to claim it, although they may wish to reclaim it. But for all those who suspect deep down that no matter how patriotic they may be, no matter how much they may contribute, the Daughters of the American Revolution will always see them as arrivistes, it will remain attractive to make common cause with those on the margins.
The liberal belief that Jews should be pro-choice and pro–gay marriage has nothing to do with connecting to Jewish tradition and everything to do with disassociating from Christian conservatives. According to this argument, Catholic and evangelical attempts to “impose” their values on social issues represent a theocratic threat to American pluralism that has allowed Judaism to thrive. The one segment of the contemporary community least concerned with this purported menace is the Orthodox—the less than 10 percent of the Jewish population that gives nearly as disproportionate support to Republicans as their Reform, Conservative, and secular Jewish neighbors give to Democrats. The reason for this contrasting response goes beyond the Orthodox tendency to agree with conservative Christians on most social issues and relates to their much greater comfort with religiosity in general. The Orthodox feel no instinctive horror at political alliances with others who make faith the center of their lives.
Those who seek to liberate the bulk of American Jews from their reflexive and self-defeating liberalism must do more than show the logic of conservative thinking. They should recognize that Jews, like all Americans, vote not so much in favor of politicians they admire as they vote against causes and factions they loathe and fear. Jews fear the GOP as the “Christian party,” and as the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity, Jews will continue to reject -Republicans and conservatism. Podhoretz poignantly describes the way many Jewish Americans have adopted liberalism as a substitute religion. A more positive, engaged attitude with our real religious tradition would lessen the resentment toward religious Christians and, in an era when even Albania, Moldova, and Iraq have built functioning multiparty democracies, introduce for the first time in nearly a century a true two-party system to the Jewish -community.
But my own tentative personal resolution, reached after reading Why Are Jews Liberals?, is this: I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it.
So instead of focusing on the mishegas of the American Jewish community, why not focus on the glories of Judaism? Instead of focusing on the attitude of American Jews toward Israel, why not focus on the attitude of all Americans toward Israel? The important things are for the practice and study of Judaism to become more vital, in America and elsewhere, and for the state of Israel to remain strong and secure.
Norman Podhoretz himself in the WSJ:
As a Jew who moved from left to right more than four decades ago, I have been hoping for many years that my fellow Jews would come to see that in contrast to what was the case in the past, our true friends are now located not among liberals, but among conservatives.
Of course in speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.
In this realm, too, American Jewry surely belongs with the conservatives rather than the liberals. For the social, political and moral system that liberals wish to transform is the very system in and through which Jews found a home such as they had never discovered in all their forced wanderings throughout the centuries over the face of the earth.
This effect is compounded by a factor which, whether or not Podhoretz discusses it in his book, I didn’t notice mentioned by the symposiasts, namely the town-and-country divide in American politics. Although the trend to suburbanization has somewhat ameliorated this generalization, most American Jews are fundamentally urban in their orientation, while most American conservatives are fundamentally rural.
Think of Reagan, riding horses and clearning brush at his ranch — it is an image that appeals to the “country” side of the town-and-country divide, embodying as it does the antique ideal of the American frontier homesteader.
This “rugged individual” ideal, the self-sufficient property owner zealously guarding his freedom, is intrinsic to what American conservatism is all about, and it is an ideal quite alien to the urban lifestyle. The city-dweller is inherently dependent on public services. He doesn’t draw his water from a well, doesn’t go out with a chain-saw to supply firewood for the winter, doesn’t augment the grocery budget by hunting deer or growing his vegetables.
Also, and I think this is an important point, city people can’t drive worth crap. A country boy learns to drive by hot-rodding along winding backroads, often well before he’s old enough for a license. Because his home is sometimes quite distant from the places where he works, shops or goes to school, the rural youth has typically driven many hundreds of miles before he turns 18.
The rural American’s natural love for the internal combustion engine, and his pride in his automotive skill, has a lot to do with his active hatred of environmentalist wienies who want him to limit his fuel consumption by driving a hybrid or — God forbid — taking public transportation. “I drive, therefore I am” is the existential truth of the rural American, a truth that the city-dweller can never truly appreciate.
People tend to vote how they live and, despite the particular cultural differences that influence the politics of American Jews, I suspect that lifestyle has a lot to do with the persistence of liberalism in Jewish politics.
If Messrs. Podhorhetz, et al., wish to promote conservatism among American Jews, let them find some way to encourage Jewish families to move to small towns in the Heartland, where their kids can grow up hunting, fishing and hot-rodding the backroads. A guy with a gun rack in the back window of his four-wheel drive truck may occasionally vote Democrat, but he’s extremely unlikely to be an out-and-out liberal.
Maybe I’m too touchy about this, but I’m profoundly disturbed by the idea of relocating intellectuals, especially Jewish intellectuals, so they can learn about real values. Isn’t that exactly what Stalin and Mao did? Is there any Maoist/Stalinist/Leninist idea that the American right hasn’t embraced?
You know, if Robert Stacy McCain has slightly more readership/institutional support, Ross Douthat and Charles Lane would be writing “McCain is wrong to suggest that Jews be forcibly moved to the country, but there’s no denying that Jews are too urban…”
And, yes, feel free to make up your own jokes about hot-rodding the backroads.
And that brings us to McCain’s “encouragement” of Podhoretz to get Jews to move to rural areas so they can embrace real conservative values. For reasons I hope I don’t have to explain to anyone on this blog, no one even remotely familiar with the ghastly result of worldwide anti-semitism would seriously suggest Jews move anywhere in order to change their politics. McCain claims this is a “perverse” reading of what he wrote but it is he who is being perverse. That he doesn’t understand this, or claims not to, is exactly what is so troublesome; Jews have heard this kind of “encouragement” many times before, and it never ends well. What he wrote is, by any normal standard, an outrageous thing to say and places him far beyond the pale of serious engagement.
I’ll leave it to others to come to their own conclusions about the motives behind McCain’s “encouragement” for urban Jews to relocate to the country for political reasons. I’ll simply conclude by repeating what so many of us have said: our political discourse is deeply askew. Norman Podhoretz’s and Robert Stacy McCain’s ideas would have only a marginal impact and distribution in a healthy discourse. Instead, NoPod, a truly troubled soul, is thought a serious intellectual, and the likes of McCain are heard everyday in the drooling rants of Beck and other clowns. They can’t be ignored, but they also can’t be engaged. Believe me, I tried. I learned.
Yes, this loose-hinged proposal does carry a dank odor of Nazi/Stalinist/Red Chinese population removal/reducation programs (with the unpleasant suggestion that real values are rooted in the soil, the higher forms of intellect prone to decadence), but I’m also struck by how dated McCain’s calendar-art lithograph of the Heartland is. It’s Tom Sawyer–not Huck Finn; Huckleberry Finn being a more subversive narrative–meets Andy and Opie in the eternal summer that no longer exists for overworked, overindebted Americans no matter how fine the fishing might be at the creek. And “hot-rodding the backroads”?–what is this, Thunder Road? The Robert Mitchum movie, I mean, not the Springsteen song. Thunder Road came out in 1958, Macon County Line came out in 1974, and the age of cheap gasoline is gone, and putting Duddy Kravitz behind the wheel isn’t going to churn out a new generation of Jewish hellcats swearing allegiance to Sarah Palin between whittling projects.
Jason Zengerle at TNR:
Granted, McCain’s little plan is problematic on about 15 different levels, but the part of it that really gets me is the totally jingoistic, outdated view of “rural America.” Maybe it’s because I just read Nick Reding’s very good book Methland, but I have my doubts that “the small towns in the Heartland” exist as McCain describes them. A Jewish mom and dad who move to the Heartland today are probably more likely to see their kids grow up to be tweakers, not hunters. Also, McCain would do well to pay a visit to Postville, Iowa. The Jewish influx there didn’t turn out so well.
E.D. Kain at The League on the “rugged:”
The “rugged individual” has been mythologized as the bootstrapper – the American business mogul who pulled himself up from humble beginnings into a position of power and wealth. The entitled individual is spoiled, shallow, skeptical of the value of hard work, more interested in selfish pursuits than in helping others, detached from consequence, and possessed of an odd expectation that they deserve a great job, great pay, lots of toys – all for simply existing. Both are examples of the so-called American Dream – one its myth, and one the consequence, perhaps, of that myth.
But an individual cannot be defined by the sum of his parts, or in isolation. An individual is marked as such by his contribution (or lack thereof) to the larger group – the family, the community, the workplace, and so forth. Contrast defines us – as does conflict.
My grandfather – a school counselor and carpenter and father of eight, who was perhaps the most gentle, kind, and hard-working man I ever knew – springs to mind as the exemplar of this sort of individualism. He was simple in both demeanor and ambition. And yet he stood out. He shone. The church was filled to the brim on the day of his funeral. He had no enemies. All his children were successful in life and marriage. His six daughters each married good men, and likely that was due in no small part to his example.
He was rooted, too, to one place, to his community and his parish and his ever expanding family. And yet he stood apart. Still, he was no “rugged individual.” He leaned on his family and they leaned on him. He understood the necessity of the group. The group enriched and empowered him.
Yet we in America have a problem rooted in our myth of “rugged individualism”, which is an archetypal story that, in its purest and most puerile form, pits the individual against nature and the rest of society in a sort of deathmatch; it could be seen as a caricature of survival-of-the-fittest, and in its most extreme forms gives rise to paranoid survivalism. And the paranoia of the rugged individual manifests collectively as well, sometimes in complex, ironic ways: we got an intense, completely staggering dose of it in George W. Bush’s U.S. of A., where collective paranoia was manipulated by those in power by playing into popular fears relating to national security and defense. The result at home was a paring-down of civil liberties, but abroad the consequences were much more lethal. Not only the United States of America, but much of the globe, is still reeling from this kind of rugged recklessness.