Cultural Jews: reflections on the centralization of culture

Let’s face it.  If it wasn’t for Jews, fags, and gypsies, there would be no theater.

                    —Mel Brooks, in To Be or Not To Be

Who is the cultural Jew?  To my surprise, I find he is…me.

Allow me to explain.  A little while ago I was rereading parts of Paul Johnson’s celebratory History of the Jews.  The basic message I got from the section on American Jewry is this:  Jews have all the creativity and brains; Christians are just dumb, passive sacks of shit.  This is certainly not true for European culture, but thinking about it, it does roughly describe the American culture that has shaped me.  My favorite music comes from largely-Jewish Broadway:  Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Gershwin, and Bernstein.  Even when I turn to Rock and Roll, my tastes often tend toward Jewish artists like Billy Joel.  Most of the movies I’ve seen are products of largely-Jewish Hollywood.  I quote Star Trek episodes and Mel Brooks movies.  My youth was shaped by Jewish superhero comics, especially Superman.  Surprisingly, I find that I would feel much more at home in America if I were to convert to Judaism.

Christian America has no culture.  Long ago, Tocqueville noted America’s lack in this regard.  We were a new nation at the time, and probably we needed a few centuries to mature enough to develop a world-class culture of our own.  Instead, we let Jewish immigrants create one for us.  Not that we have any cause to complain.  What they gave us was better than anything we would have been able to come up with ourselves.  For the most part, the Jews of this era were an exemplary minority, with a real affection and gratitude for their adopted homeland.  They meant to give something back, and they did.

It sounds like a win-win situation.  What’s the problem, then?  There’s no problem with the existence of Jewish-American culture.  It’s a gift to the world.  There is a problem with the fact that it’s our only culture.  The Jewish-American experience isn’t the total American experience.  It’s the experience of a self-conscious minority concentrated in a few large cities.  The rest of the American experience has gone unsung, or sung only at a distance, after the manner of Oklahoma!  So, for example, watching television one would never see reflected the realities of rural life or religion.  This is never so embarrassingly clear as when, on rare occassions, a TV show tries to portray these sympathetically.  They can’t capture the idiom; the fictional priests and pastors, for example, just sound “off” to anyone who’s actually participated in a Christian community.

The Jewish/gentile split has contributed to that unique feature of American culture:  the sharp division between a small number of creators of culture and the vast mass of passive consumers of culture.  Most of us are just consumers of culture.  We buy books, movies, and music; we don’t invent stories or songs.  Not every people is like this.  I remember when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois.  I had a friend there who was a postdoc from Taiwan.  One day when we were passing time chatting together, he asked me to tell him one of the ghost stories from my hometown.  He just assumed that my home town of 6000 would have a stock of stories, but of course it doesn’t.  Its stories came to it prepackaged from Hollywood.  Are Hollywood’s stories better than what we could have produced on our own?  Perhaps, but the loss is great.  I imagine what it would be like if my town had a real local culture.  What if the park or the high school or the shoe store were the setting for some story known by all the locals?  The experience of living there would be enriched by the context.  This is how culture draws a place–a park or a forest, say–into the social world, by populating it with fictional heroes and villians.  It’s the sort of culture that can’t be imported; like a nymph, its magic is limited to a particular place.

Let me say this clearly:  it’s not the Jews’ fault that the people in my hometown don’t tell each other ghost stories.  It’s our own fault.  Storytelling is a humble art—even we dumb Christians could do it.  In fact, rudimentary storytelling still does go on in Christian America.  We do it to entertain our children, nieces, and nephews.  But there’s no organization where the town gets together to retell its stories and make up new ones.  In contrast, there is an organization to disseminate the Hollywood culture–the movie theatre.  And there’s the local Wal Mart to distribute the wider culture’s movies and music.

If Christian America is going to make a culture, localism will be the key.  We shouldn’t fantasize about capturing the national movie or music industries.  Even if we succeeded, we’d just embarrass ourselves by putting out crap (like country music) to a national audience.  We’re not ready for the big time yet.  Right now, oral short stories and nursery rhymes might be the best gentile Americans can do.  We need to build from there.

13 Responses

  1. I know a place in the Western Isles of Scotland, where corn dollies are still, occasionally, hung from trees, usually near a spring or pool. I suspect, too, that the saucers of milk they put out at night are not always for the cat.

    On a winter’s evening, one can still hear old tales told in village pubs of the fairies or “Little People”; tales of bewitchings, changelings and murrain in the flocks. And I have heard such tales interrupted, by those who consider any mention of “na Sithein” as unchancy.

    On Hallowe’en, Hallow fires are still lit and“samhnag” or lighted lanterns, often hollowed-out neeps (turnips) put in windows and over the doors of byres and granaries.

    I sense that many who admire vernacular cultures, at a distance would find them a little daunting, at close quarters.

  2. Interesting. I’ve always assumed that as an English-speaking person, my culture is English culture. Nothing produced in Hollywood can be mine, since everything is under copyright. Each story and character is someone’s private property; royalties must be paid for retelling or derivative work.

    As you say, if a local place is populated by legendary characters, “The experience of living there would be enriched by the context.” When I think of enchanted places, I think of the real places in the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, or the cities founded by heroes in Greek myths.

  3. What you are calling culture is probably better called something like low art or folk art. High art is not really an American forte. Neither Jews nor anybody else here produce it. The stuff Americans call high art is just awful. Maybe a few films are exceptions.

    But there are other dimensions of culture. America’s forte has been science and engineering. This began with the Yankees, then Midwesterners, now immigrants play a large role. Jews have not been dominant. American writers have been OK, and plenty of them are not Jews.

    On folk art, you are wrong that no such thing exists or existed in America. Bluegrass, country and western, and roots music (complete with an oral tradition extending as far back as the 11th or 12th Century, distinctive instruments and modes of dance, and recognizable regional variations) existed in the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Alabama and in much of the lowland South and in the West. What you seem to be saying, really, is that you’ve been programmed to say “ick” when presented with authentic American folk culture.

    The vehemence with which these forms are hated by our elite ought to tell you something. I should be a little careful—these forms are tolerable if fully domesticated and treated as curiosa, say on public radio by a dedicated leftist like Garrison Keillor. But even he is not allow to step out of line even a little bit: witness the furor over his Christmas music comments.

    The answer is to deprogram yourself. The claim (which you did not make explicitly, of course) that “Bess you is my woman” is better listening than “Tam Lin” or even “The Devil went down to Georgia” is risible. Don’t think American cities have their own ghost stories? Visit Savannah, GA.

    I will happily admit that this tradition is dying and that Nashville has already fallen—it has been producing garbage for 20 or 30 years now. But it isn’t helpful to pretend it doesn’t exist at all. Much of the tradition is encoded in books, regional history museums, and the like, so some of it is there to be recovered.

    The problem you are referring to is much broader. Ease of communications has exposed the production of low art to a brutal regime of increasing returns to scale. In visual arts, once upon a time, producing spectacle was expensive—you had to reproduce the spectacle physically over and over for each audience. Today you only have to produce it once, and only digitally. Since people like spectacle better than verbal stories, verbal stories lose. Consider that screenwriter is a disrespected, drudge job in Hollywood (this is incredible if you really think about what it means). Maybe, in future, when spectacle is so cheap anyone can do it in five minutes, stories will become important again. Music is a similar case.

    Everything regional is dying, including regional accents, and all for the same basic reasons: cheap communications and migration. I even expect British and American language usage to converge. Consider how common it is now for Americans to say “neither” according to British rather than American pronunciation.

  4. I think you are confusing who did the producing with who is capable of doing the producing. The entertainment industry is certainly not a pure meritocracy. Put plainly, Jews have come to dominate our cultural institutions because of their strong in-group discrimination. Non-Jews are simply locked out by this in-group favoratism. It is not because Christians are less intelligent, or less creative, they are simply locked out. Jewish entertainers “get the breaks”, they “land the parts”, they receive the backing that allows them to gain national notoriety, because they are being promoted by fellow Jews.

    In this case, blaming non-Jews for not producing enough culture, is blaming the victim.

  5. Bonald, that is an interesting anecdote about the Chinese student who couldn’t believe that your town didn’t have its own ghost stories, and it points to a real big difference between the Old and New World.

    While Bill is correct that in the Appalachians and some parts of the South there is some indigenous folk culture left, that doesn’t hold for most of the rest of the US. Of course, much of that folk culture is derived from the British Isles, and it is interesting that Mr. Patterson-Seymour should talk about Scotland. In my research into Irish music, I never cease to be amazed about how much life these little villages seem to have, even though some of them have only a couple hundred people. The inhabitants of those places really did all seem to think that each village was unique. In the US, on the other hand, a town with 500 people wouldn’t even be worth thinking about.

  6. Hi Justin,

    I expect some of what you’re talking about does go on, although I haven’t researched it to get an idea how much. Still, the fact that a 2% of the population minority could establish a monopoly on the entertainment culture, complete with barriers to entry, still suggests that we’re dealing with an exceptional minority. For example, I belong to the minority of left-handed Catholics, which is about as big as the number of Jews. Suppose we left-handed Catholics decided to exclude everybody else from the entertainment industry. Obviously, there’s no way we could do such a thing.

  7. Hi Bill,

    I’m afraid my Jewish-derived sensibilities do keep me from appreciating a lot of this indigenous music. I think of the “folk choir” I have to endure at 8:30am Mass every Sunday. I don’t like it, even if it is the music of my volk, which somehow doesn’t feel true.

    No doubt, as you point out, some of what I’ve been talking about would have happened even without religious/ethnic divisions, as the industrial revolution came to the entertainment world. I would like to know if its quite as extreme in countries that don’t have a specialized culture class (as the Jews serve for us). Would one of my European readers like to comment?

  8. A town of 500 people would have had a heritage distinct enough to be worth thinking about before the English colonists came. Many of the American Indian groups about whom huge ethnographies have been written consisted of a few thousand people in perhaps ten villages.

    It seems to me that a poverty of local culture would be an inevitable anthropological fact when an area has experienced recent ethnic replacement. We have a rich and rooted culture, which happens to be rooted far away.

  9. Hello Michael,

    No doubt. I’m sure it would take a bit of getting used to for me to learn to appreciate the humbler talents of my neighbors. It might be good for me, though.

  10. Hi Rottweiler,

    That’s an interesting point. The geography of our imaginations are often in England. Suppose Sherwood Forest were the forest right off the edge of your hometown. Imagine what that would be like.

  11. Hi Stephen,

    That’s encouraging news about life in Irish villages. I do hope that Ireland doesn’t loose this, although I doubt that much of Irish culture will long survive their apostasy from the Catholic faith. If nothing else, it shows that local culture can survive in the modern world.

  12. It is worth noting that the Western Isles that I described are gaelic-speaking. To them, all Sassanachs [Saxons], a term they apply indifferently to the English and Lowland, English-speaking Scots, are foreigners.

    Language is both an expression and a vehicle of the culture of those who speak it and, as long as it survives, it will preserve its own unique culture.

    I fancy that it is in Irish-speaking areas that Irish culture will survive.

  13. Ireland has by and large entered into modernity, which means that while many of the traditional customs (music, dancing, language, etc.) have been retained, there is definitely a more modern spirit infusing it. So, I wouldn’t be too encouraged about Ireland. But where the old spirit does survive, it is–as Mr. Paterson-Seymour correctly points out–in areas in the west where they still speak Irish.

    (In case anybody is interested about this topic, here’s some shameless self-promotion: I’ve written a little bit about Irish music here and here.)

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