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A Break from Hooray-for-us Historiography

From: Joey Kurtzman To: John Derbyshire Subject: Jewish history through a kaleidoscope John, I'm told we’ve used up our allotted space and have to wind down the dialogue. So this’ll be my last e-mail, and then you get the last … Read More

By / March 1, 2007

From: Joey Kurtzman To: John Derbyshire Subject: Jewish history through a kaleidoscope

John,

I'm told we’ve used up our allotted space and have to wind down the dialogue. So this’ll be my last e-mail, and then you get the last word.

We spent most of our time discussing the cultural issues—American paranoia about racial issues, Jewish anxiety about being discussed as a group, Jewish influence in the media, and so on—that make an unselfconscious, inquisitive approach to MacDonald’s ideas so difficult. Those are all rich issues—so rich that we focused on them without giving MacDonald the going-over I’d have liked. My bad.

I agree with you that Culture of Critique is the most accessible of MacDonald’s trilogy (I find it and A People that Shall Dwell Alone equally fascinating). It's also, though, the most problematic. MacDonald too often takes a woefully essentialist view of what motivates Jews.

Konrad Lorenz—an ethologist who MacDonald actually cites several times—said in his classic book On Aggression that each creature is “a parliament of impulses,” a jumble of often-conflicting desires and priorities that interact to produce choices and behavior.

At some points MacDonald acknowledges that motivations are complex, but at others he presents a desire to “undermine homogenous Gentile culture” as the single significant motivating factor behind Jewish involvement in the movements he describes in Critique. And that’s just silly. Jews are more complicated than that. People are more complicated than that.

An example: Did he consider that simple empathy for immigrants may in part account for many American Jews’ support for liberal immigration policy? That as the descendents of people who spilled out of steerage onto American shores, dreaming of a better life, we may have a hard time denying that opportunity to others? If he mentioned that as a factor, I don’t remember it.

Sure, MacDonald could have written more about positive aspects of Jewish influence on the West, but I’m not surprised that he didn’t. I mean, really, think about what he’s doing here. He pulls from evolutionary biology and various areas of the social sciences to present a new model for analyzing how ethnic groups structure themselves and interact with other groups. As prominent evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson points out, this is a radical but plausible way of applying the concept of group selection to ethnic minorities. The model alone would have been controversial, but then MacDonald decides, “And now I’d like to explore my model in greater detail by applying it to the Jews.”

Clearly, this man was not trying to avoid a shitstorm. He chose a group almost guaranteed to respond furiously. So the absence of some palliating “but the Jews sure put together some fine ditties!” sections doesn’t surprise me.

He seems to have learned a lesson, though. After the David Irving controversy, he said that he would no longer be studying the Jewish community, and on his website he says he was naive to think that others could be dissuaded from viewing his work as antisemitic. He wishes he had spent more of his time studying other groups. I guess he feels “smashed to pieces.”

You raise a good point about intentionality. Jews, of course, don’t use the term “group evolutionary strategy,” but I assume MacDonald would say that to the extent that we attempt to act in ways that are “good for the Jews,” or work to ensure “Jewish continuity,” and so on, we are advancing the group evolutionary strategy (GES) he posits. For Jews who do these things consciously—and that’s a great many of us, including myself—intentionality is straightforward.

As for how the strategy is perpetuated, well, MacDonald knows there is no Elders of Zion–style conclave in a basement somewhere in Brussels or Borough Park where Jews organize their group evolutionary strategy. But he certainly does see an important role for Jewish leadership in all this. Of the 15 million-or-so Jews in the world, only a very small percentage work for Jewish organizations. MacDonald argues that this small group of organizational Jews attempts to inculcate communal goals among the rest of the Jewish population.

And of course that’s all true, and blindingly obvious. Anyone who is at all familiar with major Jewish organizations knows that they work incredibly hard to disseminate among young Jews a sense of Jewish peoplehood and a commitment to communal goals. MacDonald adduces tons of evidence for some self-evident points—including (as you observed) in his analysis of historical Jewish communities. So I imagine MacDonald’s identifying these things would be entirely uncontroversial had he not adopted a negative view of the consequences for American culture.

Things are changing rapidly in the Jewish community, as you point out, including attitudes toward immigration (though if American Jews change their tune on immigration because it no longer serves their interests, then I suppose MacDonald would still see this as the GES in action.)

I would like to hear more, though, of what MacDonald makes of the massive rates of intermarriage among young American Jews—around 50 percent—and the younger generation’s increasing alienation (as documented by numerous studies) from the agenda of the major Jewish organizations. If there really has been a Jewish strategy in operation these past centuries, it seems to be unraveling fast.

So, in toto, “Is Kevin MacDonald right about Jews?” On some issues, I think he is. In other instances I think he’s misunderstood basic aspects of Jewish history, or described Jewish behavior with near monocausal explanations that seem overblown or patently silly.

Whether his theory of “group evolutionary strategies” turns out to make sense in light of future research, and whether improved understanding of Jewish population genetics will support or rubbish the theory that Jews have hardwired behavioral predispositions, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll be watching with interest.

But what seems to me undeniable is that MacDonald has presented us with a fascinating and genuinely novel examination of the history and internal workings of the Jewish world. His trilogy is a hell of a read. To any Jewcy readers tired of pious, “hooray-for-us!” Jewish historiography, or just interested in seeing traditional Jewish history through a kaleidoscope, I happily recommend it.

So that’s it for me, John. Thanks again for doing this.

Any final thoughts?

Joey

Next: The Jews have made America a better place

 

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