Sunday, September 13, 2009


A few years ago, Leon Wieseltier responded to 9/11 by joining his fellow PNAC petitioners, nine days after the attacks, in calling for an attack on Iraq; now, lo and behold, of all people he's the guy defending liberalism in The New York Times Book Review against Norman Podhoretz's charge that Jews are crazy to reject the right wing (which is contained in a new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?). Leon Wieseltier! Ah, well -- I guess a lot of people are kinda-sorta/temporarily/intermittently on our side these days, right?

Wieseltier overwrites, but he lands a few nice punches:

...this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it.... the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing....

There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition ("I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica"); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson.... His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon's adage -- maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia -- that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.

... nowhere in his book does he explain precisely how the interests of Jews are served by the Republican positions on government, health care, tax policy, gun control, abortion, gay rights, the environment, and so on.... I share Podhoretz's concern that the American Jewish attitude toward Christian conservatives too often looks like contempt, but not his view, which seems to me preposterous, that the American public square has been stripped of religious expressions. I run into Jesus all the time. And I pity the religion that requires politics and politicians for its validation.

I like that last bit, though I don't see what's objectionable about having an attitude toward Christian conservatives that looks like contempt -- or, rather, that is contempt -- if you're not a Christian and are treated as, at best, a means to an end by Christian conservatives, and at worst as a heathen.

But there you are -- that's Wieseltier, sticking up for our side, but conceding a lot of points you and I would never concede. Late in the review, we get this:

Podhoretz's book was conceived as the solution to the puzzle that Milton Himmel­farb wittily formulated many years ago: "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."

Wieseltier goes on to give an eloquent defense of not voting like an Episcopalian if you're a Jew -- first of all, Jews simply aren't Episcopalians, and besides, why is it wrong to vote in the larger interest of the society rather than in one's own self-interest? -- but, really, why does Wieseltier have to call that line "witty"?

As a New Yorker, what strikes me about that line is how fixed it is in time, or at least in a mindset formed a long time ago. No one under age sixty in New York uses "Puerto Rican" anymore as shorthand for "non-black Other" -- the Latin Americans in New York are also (this is a partial list) Dominican and Andean and Mexican. It's people like Jackie Mason who still talk this way; he still tells creaky old jokes about Puerto Ricans stealing hubcaps, and, in front of his usual geriatric audience, he still kills with that material. His fans don't seem to have any idea that he's conjuring up legends from decades ago.

The people in the New York area who still like Jackie Mason are our good ol' boys; to them, the coloreds and the PRs are hubcap-stealers and apartment-building muggers (recall, also, the African American holdup man in the Saul Bellow novel who not only takes his Jewish victims but tops the deed off by exposing himself). It's hard for that generation (New Yorkers and otherwise) to shake the stereotypes of non-whites that were formed in youth and middle age.

So it's no wonder that that generation is disproportionately represented at tea-party-style confabs; it's no wonder that that generation wouldn't vote for Obama. Bill Clinton lost the elderly when he started working on health care, but they had voted for him in large numbers; they never voted for Obama.

Hubcaps are the reason.

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