David Brooks’s dilemma (and ours)
By Scott McConnel | February 21, 2010
Consider one of David Brooks’ dilemmas. In last Friday’s Times he wrote a pretty good column about the contemporary American power elite. As he described it, sixty and more years ago, blue blood WASPs ran America’s financial institutions and foreign policy (something of a simplification, but let it pass), ethnic bosses ran the cities, and engaging working class drunks filed the newspaper stories. Now those critical sectors are run and staffed by the meritocracy, people who did well on the bubble tests and went on to succeed at elite universities. We have, Brooks explains, “opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of every other group. “
Then he acknowledges the new regime isn’t working out as well as expected. None of these major institutions is now doing its job adequately, and the country knows it. We need, Brooks concludes, to reevaluate our definitions of merit, and leadership because “very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.” This is true, and for a newspaper column, a profound observation.
But there is a salient body of fact that Brooks elides, and therein lies a tale. While opportunities have opened up for women and all the non-Wasp groups Brooks mentioned, all groups have not rushed with equal force into the breach. If one takes, for example, the issue of Mideast diplomacy, it has been noted recently that most of the country’s important Mideast diplomats are Jews, most of writers covering the Israel-Palestine conflict for the New York Times are Jewish, as are two of three of the president’s top political advisers. Dig in a different direction, and one finds a similar kind of thing, as observed on this site, of the financial players engaged in selecting the next senator from New York.
There is no need to exaggerate the phenomenon, and indeed a need not to—outside of New York, there are plenty of rich Protestant power brokers, the South is important politically and Jews are seldom influential there, etc. But to say the least, the collapse of the WASP ascendancy has not been equally rewarding to all of the groups Brooks cites at the top of his column. Indeed for some of them, like Catholics, that collapse has probably coincided with a net reduction in cultural and political influence.
Brooks avoids mentioning this, as do virtually all writers. The reason is obvious: nearly any analysis, indeed any mention, of Jewish power is overburdened with sensitive historical associations. Unspecified but ominous reference to this history is the main polemical weapon Leon Wieseltier uses in his effort to take down Andrew Sullivan for his writing on Israel and Palestine. Some of Sullivan’s arguments, Wieseltier asserts “have a sordid history”; Sullivan is one of those who proclaim “without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea that Jews control Washington”; Sullivan adopts an explanation which “has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.” No need then to examine the truth or the untruth of Sullivan’s argument, a vague allusion to history suffices. Criticism of Israel is tied to the modern history of European anti-semitism, and to an extensive bibliography of generally tendentious books about Jewish power, from Alphonse de Toussenel’s Les Juifs, Rois de L’Epoch (published in 1845) forward. Of course this discourse was an auxiliary to the holocaust. About this Wieseltier (and the countless others who polemicize in this manner) are correct: discussions of Jewish power have sometimes had terrible consequences.
But where does that leave 21st century Americans? One example is the case of David Brooks, who clearly knows what he leaving out of his column about the American power elite. Brooks is Jewish, and a Zionist, and in no danger of being labeled an anti-Semite by Leon Wieseltier or anyone else. But still he is hesitant; presumably because he doesn’t want to write something that either might encourage anti-Semitism, or (more likely considering his readership) enhance public understanding of the Israel lobby. At least the first of these motives is commendable. But the reticence has a consequence: when Brooks writes a column about the American power elite and its weaknesses, he needs to avoid one of the essential aspects of his subject. That can’t really be satisfactory to him, or to his readers. It’s a dilemma with no obvious solution to it.
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From the Archives
If Americans Knew
By Sarah Schmidt
American Jewish Historical Quarterly
Sep 1975-Jun 1976; 65. l-4; AJHS Journal pg. 121
Horace M. Kallen, the social philosopher best known in American intellectual history for his theory of cultural pluralism, adopted Zionism in 1903 as a secular mode of retaining Jewish identity, an alternative to the Jewish religious tradition which seemed to him to be incompatible with twentieth century America. He had come to Zionism primarily through the influence of two of his Harvard professors, literary historian Barrett Wendell, who interpreted the Hebraic spirit of prophetic social justice as the inspiration for the American founding fathers, and William James, whose philosophy of Pragmatism emphasized the reality of meanness.
Kallen extended Wendell’s identification of Hebraic tradition with American idealism; he defined Zionism, the movement to renationalize the Jewish people, as an opportunity to found a model democracy based on the same concepts of liberty and equality, which, for him, symbolized America. At the same time he applied James’s concept of pluralism to the ethnic group; among them the Jews, who were beginning to become prominent in the United States, and argued that preservation of differences constituted the true measure of equality the Declaration of Independence had set forth. Zionism, thus, was able to fulfill two functions for Kallen- it allowed him to retain his Jewish identity and to become, thereby, a better American.
In 1911 Kallen became an instructor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Wisconsin. When he moved to the Middle West, he left his familiar environment. Lonely, and somewhat out of place in Madison; he felt the need to assert his Jewish identity more strongly and stepped up his pace of Zionist involvement. Finding little understanding within the official Federation of American Zionists for an expression of his own, philosophically oriented, ideas on Zionism, and quite some antagonism for his demand that the Zionist organization concentrate its activities on obtaining statehood for the Jewish nation in line with the 1896 Basle Platform which had sought “a home in Palestine secured by public law,” Kallen decided to form an organizational instrument through which he could effectively channel his own Zionist activity. On August 18, 1913, therefore, Kallen founded a secret Zionist society which he called The Parushim, the Hebrew word which means both “the Pharisees” and “separate”. … continue
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