The eraser

God, I love John McWhorter. Not only is he a descriptive rather than prescriptive grammarian (sorry, dear friend, co-blogger, and prescriptive grammarian!), one rarely sees work on such a thorny subject (race) written with such nuance, such honesty, and totally without fear or cant. I don't always agree with him, and many times I don't know enough to agree or disagree. But he is always worthwhile to read.

Anyhow, he has a fascinating piece (have you noticed how frequently people at TNR, excluding McWhorter, use the words "fascinating" and "piece" to mean an article?) up about the figures influencing black history (not all of them black) that he'd like to erase. Part of what is interesting to me is how many scholars and writers are on the list. McWhorter doesn't just go for the cultural icons, but traces the source some of the cultural ideas that motivate the black community and that he wishes did not. You should totally read it.

Someone in the comments attempted a similar list of Jews. However, he seemed to miss the point of McWhorter's fascinating piece and merely listed Jews who embarrass all Jews who might be tarnished with their brush (e.g., Bernie Madoff, that gonif, that putz, may he grow like an onion with his head in the ground). But it got me thinking: there are certainly ideas that shape the Jewish community that I wish do not. I don't always know the source, and am not sure if there is a single source for some of them. But here they are:

1) That building West Bank settlements is a right, an obligation, or a reasonable response to terrorism.

2) The defensive crouch in response to criticism of Israel. Is Israel criticized unfairly for responding to attacks? Absolutely! Is some criticism of Israel veiled anti-Semitism? Absolutely! Are some people who take on the mantle of Very Brave to Criticize the Israel Lobby, Because You Know How the Jews Get, and Just Watch and See If I Lose My Job Now for Saying What Needs to Be Said trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes? Absolutely! Is Israel above reproach? Absolutely not! Has Israel ever acted in bad faith? Absolutely! When we can distinguish valid criticism from invalid (at which Israelis seem much better than American Jews), we do not give proper grist to the Very Brave folks' mills.

3) That intermarriage is the second Holocaust, and that it will be the death of Judaism. Imagine if we had welcomed the non-Jewish spouses of Jews instead of shunning them. Not only would there be a hell of a lot more Jews now, not only would Reform and Conservative Jews be less outnumbered by ultra-orthodox, so many families would have been saved from so much heartache.

4) The movement in reform Judiasm that agitated for being more like church, and therefore less chit-chat and more standing quietly at attention. Boo-oo-ring. Also, I like more Hebrew!

5) The self-deprecating jokes. That Jews can't fix things, are bad athletes, are over-doting mothers, etc. Because most of these jokes have a subtext: we are smarter than they are and care more about our kids. And jokes about the goyim - jokes about how different is goyische culture, jokes about drinking, about supposed emotional coldness. (A common joke among both Jews and Italians is that Jews and Italians are the same, except Italians have better food. I heard a different, and more pernicious version: "Italians are just like us, except they hit their kids and don't believe in higher education.") It's hard sometimes to separate ethnic pride from ethnic feelings of superiority, and I wish more of an effort were made.


  1. Prescriptive grammarian? Mercy me and mine, whoever could you be describing? (Or should that have been "whomever"?)

    I found McWhorter's list much more in-depth and intelligent than the list over at The Root that inspired it. But then, McWhorter is reliably more intelligent than most.

    Looking on Jewish culture as a quasi-outsider, I've always loved the self-deprecating humor. From my perspective almost all subcultures have jokes about the culture at large that contain a subtext of resentment, but humor has always struck me as a healthy way of ameliorating those feelings.

  2. "Looking on Jewish culture as a quasi-outsider"
    What in the world is a quasi-outsider? You are either inside or outside. Or are you one of those people who lives in the doorway?

    Not being jewish I can't really say much about the culture. I am not sure I agree that being Jewish is somehow equated with Israeli politics. The only people who have any control of that are Israelis. For the rest, it is just opinion. A little more of an awareness of an outsider status would be good. I am American whose family came from Ireland, I might criticize Irish politics but I know I do it as an outsider, that my opinion holds no real weight. I would certainly not put Irish politics at the top of my list about changing Irish American culture, the IRA notwithstanding.

    I long for the day (if ever) when Israel will be just like Denmark. I am sure there are plenty of Americans whose family came from Denmark, I am also pretty sure most don't care in the slightest for Danish politics.


  3. Suffice it to say, the vagaries of my religious upbringing, ethnic background and cultural affinities are such that "quasi-outsider" is about right. The details are not the kind of thing that lend themselves to discussion in a venue such as this. Drive up to Maine, and we can discuss it at greater length over dinner.

  4. hey Dan, only if epic's husband cooks the meal. hah


  5. Israeli politics are complicated by the fact that anyone Jewish can become a citizen by asking. My patrilineage is Irish, too, but I'm not eligible for automatic Irish citizenship. If I were, I'd probably care more about Irish politics and my views might actually have a smidgen of weight.